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Chasing - Or Being Chased by - The Polar Vortex: Muscongus Bay November 14-16, 2014


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Chasing or Being Chased by the Polar Vortex: Muscongus Bay November 14-16, 2014

Wind and fire. Hands and feet. Flexibility. Preparation. These were the bywords of a recent trip that four of us - Warren, Rob, Cathy and I - took to Muscongus Bay to test out our winter camping gear and enjoy the beauty of one of our favorite places when everyone but a few hardy lobstermen is spending his or her weekend sitting in a comfy chair next to a steaming radiator or over a blowing hot air vent or tucked into a soft bed under layers of blankets. The weather gods finally flung the dreaded polar vortex our way after it had lingered over the Midwest and South earlier in the week, and we drove up in conditions that felt more like late December than mid November.


It was still snowing lightly when I met up with Warren at Muscongus Harbor.


It was in the 30's. The parking area was largely taken up by docks that had been hauled out of the water for the winter. By the time Rob and Cathy arrived a half hour later, the snow had stopped. Will, the man who oversees his family's little harbor, came down to greet us with the following words, "My, but you are motivated." Our friends had used different words to describe us when we told them how we would be spending our weekend.

I found that planning and then packing for this cold weekend was a real challenge. My new one-person four-season tent was bulkier. The 15-degree bag took up more room. Extra clothes and food for both camp and boat. Thermoses, extra water for all the cocoa and tea and soup and dinners that would need to be cooked. By the time I had finished loading the boat, I was sweating in my dry suit, but cooled down uncomfortably as we all attended to last minute chores that required less activity.


It was overcast when we launched, and the sea was that gunmetal gray that is the definition of cold.

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The wind was from the northwest, so we chose to head over to the east side of Hog Island to paddle in the lee of the wind. This was successful, and we comfortably made it to Crow Island, returning to a camping spot that has been the site of many successful trips in the past. We had chosen it specifically because of its accessibility, its all tide landing capacity, and because it offered sheltered campsites in its woodsy interior.

We landed, unpacked


and set up camp.


After which Warren checked out his new GoPro,


which would be a source of endless amusement the rest of the weekend.

We were mindful that the day would be short with sunset at 4:30 in the afternoon. We wanted to be squared away when we returned from our planned afternoon paddle. Under skies that had mostly cleared leaving us with sun, large puffy clouds and great expanses of blue, we set out.


While there was at that moment little wind, Cathy still found her hands painfully cold, and we gathered around while Rob tended to her with hand warmers and a storm cag wrap.

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Her neoprene gloves were totally failing to keep her hands warm. I had just bought two pairs of neoprene paddling mittens before the trip, and dug out what I thought was one of the pairs for Cathy to wear. As it turned out, my carefully stashed mittens were a pair for someone with two right hands


We soon learned that we couldn't rely on blue sky and friendly looking clouds, as a gray mass to the northwest headed in our direction.


Looking ahead, there was bright sky and warm sun. But coming rapidly from behind was a snow squall blowing cold icy bits horizontally across the water. And then the strange phenomenon of feeling warmth on our left cheeks while our right sides were pelted with snow. Greenland Cove in the distance started to disappear.


The sea kicked up and we paddled toward the shelter of the harbor. The squall passed by as quickly as it had arrived,


and we watched it heading south and east beyond Hog Island.

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Rob and Cathy warmed up at the harbor.


We returned to camp.


The first order of business was organizing supper and getting a fire started as day was turning into puffy pink sunset


and night was rapidly approaching, even though it was barely four in the afternoon. There is a lot less time to do everything when you camp in the wintertime, and our awareness of this informed the plans that we made for any day's activity. The best laid plans, however, do not always work out, and I ended up sitting on a rock with Rob, attempting to find all the ingredients for a pasta supper in the dark with the wan light of a Luci lantern


and my own headlamp. Unfortunately, we'd set up the kitchen too far away from the fire, so could only cast longing looks at it as we cooked dinner.

We all ate around the fire, however. We agreed that without the fire, we would by now (5 pm) all be snuggled up in our tents. The temperature fell below freezing. Cold bright stars emerged on the moonless night. But the fire made it possible to stay up enjoying it all. Sometime close to 8 pm, we called it a night and went off to bed.

Another lesson learned: Just three feet away from the fire it's cold. By the time I had brushed my teeth and organized myself to get into the tent, my hands and feet were both cold. It took time to warm up in my sleeping bag, but eventually I did, and spent a fairly comfortable night. A 15 degree bag, fleece throw blanket, wool long underwear top and bottom, socks and down booties, plus a hat that kept falling off whenever I turned, proved sufficient.

First lobster boat at 4:02 am, and first call of a loon moments thereafter.

Saturday morning dawned bright, clear and cold. A bit of a struggle to talk myself out of my warm cocoon, but the minute I did so and moved out onto the east facing rocks where Warren was already up and drinking a hot beverage, the temperature seemed to go up about a million degrees. Absence of wind plus presence of sun equals a perfect place to enjoy the beginning of the day, even when temperatures are still low.

A loon with his winter plumage swam slowly back and forth across the path of the rising sun on the water. He turned his head and the sun caught the glow of water on his beak, a temporary jewel that appeared then disappeared as he moved along.

We watched a lobster boat working below us.


It'll do.


Once we were all up, we ate some of Cathy's excellent banana bread,


then convened over a chart to plan the day's paddle. Weather forecast was for NW to W winds 5-10 knots. This sounded, from our warm perch on the rocks, like eminently reasonable conditions, and we planned a route down the lee side of Hog to Loud Island, which we hoped to circumnavigate, hugging the lee shore again south and then returning hugging the coast to the village of Round Pond. It appeared to be about nine miles, which would allow us plenty of time to get back to camp before afternoon darkness descended. Cathy did some exercises to prepare for the day.

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Our gear was dry and warm from where we had laid it out in the sun.


We prepared and launched around 10:30 am.


The minute we started crossing from Crow to Hog, we realized that our casual confidence in our plans might be misguided. The wind was icy cold as we paddled into it to get to the shelter of the island. It was better on the east side of Hog, but as soon as we reached the crossing to the beach at the north end of Louds, we found that the wind had shifted and was now coming from the southwest, directly into our faces. It was a cold paddle over to the beach, where we stopped briefly,

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These pictures don't do justice to how cold and windy it was!

We huddled together at the edge of a field of dry grasses bordering the beach to reconsider our plan. A wind of speed and direction that would have been nothing to think about in the summer was, on this wintry November Saturday, a significant challenge. We bagged the plan to go around Louds and into Round Pond, and decided just to wander down the east coast of Louds a bit and then turn around.

The houses on the island were boarded up for winter.


The little cove was deserted


and Cathy and Rob paddled under the high dock.


We turned around and headed back north,


stopping at a sandy beach out of the wind for lunch.


We contemplated an NSPN fundraiser calendar. Miss December in November?


Or perhaps you prefer Mr. December in November?


We brightly huddled together (there was a lot of huddling on this trip!) for warmth


and then set out again.


Rob wanted to try towing me (yes please!) to see whether there was any difference in the function of his tow belt with and without the bungee. Happy to help out!


It was easy to take pictures,


and I enjoyed bouncing along with Rob doing all the work!


My ride ended prematurely, however, when Cathy's hands once again froze up, this time from putting on the cold mittens after lunch. We switched off the tow, and Cathy worked to warm her hands while Rob continued his experiment.


We were relieved to once again be in the lee of the wind along Hog Island, with a wind shift again from the south to the west. For the first time all day, paddling was an easy pleasure. Cathy had warmed up, the sea was calm, and looking up at the bare trees amidst the moss-draped firs was peaceful.


Rob went to investigate a little cave formed by rocks leaning against each other.



And then back to Crow. Our planned nine-mile paddle had been less than half of that, but that was what the day had allowed us.

I managed to fall in the water trying to carry the stern of my boat across the seaweed covered rocks, and cursed when my carefully guarded gloves were flooded with water. It took a half hour to warm my hands as I changed clothes in my tent. What would this mean about a capsize in these conditions? Nothing good!

Rob got a fire going immediately.


So by mid-afternoon, we were happy to be huddling around it, frying our shins and feet.


Rob prepared a group dinner as it got dark.


Warren who until the night before had never had a s'more (what?!), when he consumed three of them was happy to have more flaming marshmallows to add to his graham crackers and chocolate.


The fire was wonderful.

Just wonderful.


Without fire, the trip would have been impossible or possible but just plain unpleasant.

We stayed up until seven. Learning from the previous night's experience, some of us did our evening ablutions in a timely fashion, allowing us to return to the fire with clean teeth and empty bladders to warm up again before bed.

Another cold night. Another sunrise. Another winter loon.


But sun gave way to overcast,



and we didn't have the benefit of being toasted by the sun. We didn't dawdle over breakfast as we had the day before. We hustled to deconstruct our campsites, to get into drysuits, and to launch toward home.

We worried about this


But still enjoyed the brief paddle, buddies heading home,


pillows of clouds hovering over the islands in the distance.


We were still smiling when we arrived and the prospect of a car heater had never been more enticing!


This was a successful trip in that - by and large - we had all prepared well, and learned lessons about what we might need to do differently the next time out. As I said at the outset, on the water it was all about keeping hands and feet warm. Having extra pairs of dry gloves or mittens is key. Don't put wet gloves on already cold hands. Try a pair of liner socks. We also learned in a new way that wind speed and direction in the winter are very different than the same conditions in the summer. Even a five to seven knot wind right in your face can be stinging, and planning a route that offers maximal protection from the wind will increase comfort. But the best laid plans should not be adhered to if conditions change, as they did for us. Even an easy nine mile paddle may be too much if you can't find that protection. And finally, we all agreed that a winter camping trip won't happen if conditions or location don't allow a campfire. The fire made being outside not only tolerable but positively pleasant. Certainly being able to toast marshmallows was most excellent, but even more so was the capacity to warm cold body parts and keep them toasty.

We have attempted to set rules for wind and precipitation that will inform our go/no-go decisions. Our interaction with the polar vortex was a very useful experience!


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Excellent trip report and great pictures! Do we know how to have a good time or what?!

Each time we venture out in the off season I wonder why more paddlers are not out on the water enjoying the paddling opportunities. As Rob reminded me, “Warren it is 22 degrees and a wind chill to boot. Most paddlers might not see the joy in these conditions.”

Sure the conditions were not optimum, however we saw joy everywhere we looked. Even the lobstermen gave us big friendly waves as they motored by our campsite. I guess joy will always be in the eye of the beholder.

To our gentle readers, find your joy, enjoy the moment and share your joy with others.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A very enjoyable read, here in my warm slippers and dry clothes. I give you big credit for heading out in the cold. Just one suggestion: pogies for Cathy. I am always astonished by how warm they are. No right or left hand issue, either :)

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A very enjoyable read, here in my warm slippers and dry clothes. I give you big credit for heading out in the cold. Just one suggestion: pogies for Cathy. I am always astonished by how warm they are. No right or left hand issue, either :)

Hmm, I have two pairs of pogies. Guess I should dust them off and try again. I always felt restricted by them, but if im just paddling, and not messing around, I think I can work with them.


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Another great TR. You guys are definitely more ambitious than I in this weather. About this time of year I give up on my cag and instead use an oversize puffy coat. XXL fits over my PFD and dry suit and keeps me toasty on beach.



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This was a great and truly educational trip report; I felt like it gave the reader a good feel for the nature of winter paddling and camping and the things you needed to sort out in order to have a safe and enjoyable trip at this time of year.

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The critical question is this: Did you use dark chocolate and ginger graham crackers for the s'mores? Liz

No! I go for the classics: marshmallows, Hershey's milk chocolate and Nabisco Graham crackers...just like 1957! Actually, the only thing missing was the classic Campfire brand marshmallow that no longer exists as far as I know. They came in boxes in two layers, maybe eight firm little sugar dusted white pillows in each layer - separated by a sheet of wax paper... Yumm!


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Thank you for your kind words regarding the teaching aspect of Pru’s carefully crafted trip reports. I love how the poetic nature of her writing pulls you into the story while between the lines you gain an appreciation for the carefully crafted execution of the trip.

For me, interest in winter kayak camping began three years ago during a brief conversation with Rene Braun (brambor) who had been winter camping and highlighted the importance of a campfire. Shortly after that I read an NSPN thread by Spider who spoke of the joy in “Camping Out” during the winter. Around the same time Suz taught me the need to focus on safety and set guidelines regarding temperature, wind speed and direction. Along the way in this journey, Jason was helping maximize my understanding of the Personal Messenger tool within the NSPN website. It did not take long to realize the power of the NSPN community and our website.

We all know the value of shared intelligence and the importance of planning and careful execution. When the process is done well, you achieve solid group safety and the journey has the feel of incorporating fun and learning.

I encourage our gentle readers to tap into the power of our NSPN community. Assemble your tribe, focus on group safety as you plan your projects and learn from your mistakes as you execute on the plan. Keep a sense of humor and teach others what you have learned.

As an aside, the good work we do in our NSPN community is being noticed by paddlers in Alaska. Both our tribes see an opportunity to learn from each other. For me, that is wicked exciting!


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Another great TR. You guys are definitely more ambitious than I in this weather. About this time of year I give up on my cag and instead use an oversize puffy coat. XXL fits over my PFD and dry suit and keeps me toasty on beach.



I haven't found a coat to fit over my pfd, thoughts?

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Bubble wrap under a poncho??

"Campfire brand marshmallow that no longer exists as far as I know. They came in boxes in two layers, maybe eight firm little sugar dusted white pillows in each layer - separated by a sheet of wax paper... Yumm!" They were the best. Now that Ding Dongs and Twinkies are back, there is hope.

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Bubble wrap under a poncho??

"Campfire brand marshmallow that no longer exists as far as I know. They came in boxes in two layers, maybe eight firm little sugar dusted white pillows in each layer - separated by a sheet of wax paper... Yumm!" They were the best. Now that Ding Dongs and Twinkies are back, there is hope.

Vegan one: http://www.sweetandsara.com/

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Hello Paddlers,

You may have noted, from Pru’s trip report above, I was practicing with my GoPro video camera during the camping trip. I purchased it three weeks ago and the video below is my first attempt at producing a GoPro video.

For those with inquiring minds, I am using a GoPro Hero 4 Black mounted on the visor of my Gath helmet. The video was edited in the GoPro Studio software and exported in Vimeo format. The 167MB file was uploaded into Vimeo as my method for streaming the video to you.

The scene was the waterways from Crow Island to Muscongus Harbor, Maine. It was the morning of our last day of the three day camping trip. The paddling buddies are all known to you as Cathy, Pru and Rob. Although the skies were overcast, it was truly a beautiful day and I felt great joy in a trip well done.

Please look past the rough nature of my first GoPro video attempt and see the potential to share the joy we feel in the sport we love. Catch the smile on Rob’s face toward the beginning of the tape. Does that speak joy or what? Also, and most importantly, see the potential of the GoPro as a teaching tool with infinite possibilities.

I hope there are other NSPN paddlers who have a greater degree of expertise than me in the use of this technology and I hope they might consider helping me advance my skills.

The link below will bring you to the video which was filmed in HD. You should consider clicking on the symbol in the lower right hand corner to go to full screen. HD seems to do a fine job capturing the sunlight on the water as well as the drops of water falling off my paddle. My goal in attaching the camera to my visor was to help the viewer feel they were on the water paddling with the buddies

Now, turn up your audio speakers, sit back and hopefully enjoy the video.

Watch “Paddling Buddies 11162014” by Warren Parlee: http://vimeo.com/112583168


Edited by Warren
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Hello Paddlers,

Please find attached below the second video taken during our most recent kayak camping trip to Muscongus Bay on November 14, 15 and 16, 2014.

For those with inquiring minds, this time I used an extension pole to hold the camera so we could all be in each scene. Since this video utilized a voice file captured via the GoPro microphone, I did not alter the number of frames per second to give a slow motion effect as you may have noticed in the previous video. Also, I utilized Chrome as the browser to upload the compressed file to Vimeo. Clearly a better choice than Internet Explorer in this situation.

My goal with this video is to show how kayak camping can be fun even in the off season. I also hope this technology will be helpful in teaching other paddlers how to enjoy kayak camping.

Stay tuned for more videos in the series as presented by yours truly,

The Happy Kayak Camper,


Please note, the video was recorded in HD and is best viewed in the full screen mode. Also, based on the PC you are using, you may need to to allow the buffer to load to avoid a choppy effect during playback. You will see the buffer loading as indicated by the gray bar filling the playback indicator. Some PCs do not experience this effect and some smartphones are also unaffected. Don't you just love technology! Please contact me if questions arise.

Edited by Warren
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