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Early Spring Downeast Camping: 5/8 - 5/12/23

Joseph Berkovitz

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In May 2022, Ricardo Caivano and I did a duo camping trip that took us around Swans Island, with stops on Marshall, West Sister and Pond Islands. We loved the weather and the Maine early-spring feel in this season, and the relative lack of human and boat traffic. So we resolved to do another trip of the same kind in 2023.

We wanted this next trip to feature more time on Marshall Island, which is a substantial destination in itself. One of the largest undeveloped islands on the East Coast, it has no improvements beyond a never-completed airstrip, a few tent platforms, a drilled well and a decaying dock. The story is that Marshall was set to be developed for a small number of luxury vacation houses, but this did not go as planned. According to Wikipedia:


Development of the island was explored in the 1980s, with wells drilled for 14 potential properties, but these plans fell through due to a weak real estate market. The island was purchased in three parcels by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2003 and 2004 for a total cost of $6.3 million.

This year, we rounded out the trip with one more person: our good friend and paddling companion Dana Sigall. With a trio and a date and a rough trip idea, it was time for us to make a bit more of a plan. Our thought was to launch from the town of Stonington at the tip of the Deer Isle peninsula, make our way to Marshall, spend 2-3 nights, and then return. Both the trip out and back would take us through the Merchant Row group of islands off Stonington, with their many sheltered and gorgeous camping spots. The island route would let us easily break up the trip with one or more protected stops as needed. We thought Saddleback would be at least one good camp-over spot.

Tides the week of the trip featured high water at around 1:30 pm on Monday, shifting to 5:30 by Friday. The substantial current in Jericho Bay (which feeds Blue Hill Bay further inland) would strongly affect our trip, with a flood-to-ebb transition on Monday becoming an ebb-to-flood transition by Friday. Finally, a last-minute check in on the weather showed a diffuse high pressure system carrying through the week — if this held, there would be no storms and no rain, possibly even some mild air temps (though with water temps around 48F). In fact, the forecast did hold and the weather was rain-free all week.

Monday, May 8: Departure

We arrived at midday in Stonington, to the tune of bright, sunny skies and a stiff northwest wind. Our first stop was at Sea Kayak Stonington to say hello to Michael and Rebecca Daugherty. Michael was not there, but we chatted with Rebecca and got directions to the nearby town boat ramp which would be our launch today. (In summer, this ramp is sometimes too busy for paddlers to use, but one can shuttle over to a nearby beach.)

The next stop was at R L Greenlaw to pay for and secure our parking spots — there is really no viable overnight parking on the street in this town. Greenlaw’s is a business in the center of town with an extensive parking area that they rent out to visitors. We ponied up our parking cash and gave it to the proprietor who was very friendly. She told us that this week was looking like “a real corker!”

Down to the ramp with us, where we packed up our boats. (My recently enlarged Cetus now had plenty of room for a deluxe assortment of camping gear, thanks to a shifted bulkhead.) This ramp is, unusually, a natural granite slope with a few added bits of grooved concrete at the bottom.


We had some shelter from the breeze but looking out from the ramp at the water and the islands (i.e. south), it was apparent that the forecast had fallen a little shy of the real conditions. We decided we would head SSE through the nearest gap in the island group, then head ENE along in the lee of Green, Sprout, Potato and Camp. Along the way we could evaluate conditions and decide whether we would go all the way to Marshall (some 10 nm from the launch) or stop at Saddleback (4 nm) or even Hell's Half Acre (2.5 nm).

Day 1: Stonington to Hell’s Half Acre / Devil Island.


Launching around 1 pm, we crossed to the nearest islands of Scott and Green in a strong tailwind. Although the following choppy waves were not very tall, turning the fully loaded boats downwind and keeping them there was an effort — I estimated the breeze at around 15 knots. I put my skeg down which immediately calmed the boat handling. The air was chilly despite the bright sun.

Following the lee of the islands, we began to enjoy the distinctive knobby-granite-and-fir-tree scenery which makes this area feel like the beginning of down east. The islands are all surrounded by a variety of pinkish-to-blond granite shelves and cliffs, with interiors of spruce and the occasional splash of birch. The rock coastlines here have a distinctive smooth, curvaceous quality that they lack in regions further west, and the trees are smaller in the harsher climate. Distinctive cream-colored beaches made of crushed shells punctuate the rocks.


It was calm in the lee of each island to our north as we paddled along, but this was deceiving. Every lane of open water that we crossed exposed us to the same steep chop and stiff winds that we’d experienced on our way over from Stonington.

Eventually we arrived at the tiny island of Hell’s Half Acre, a kind of way station in our original plan. (In one of many cases of false advertising on the Maine coast, the island actually comprises 2 acres—but who would ruin such a euphonious name by forcing it to conform with reality?) We had a quick planning discussion. Proceeding all the way to Marshall was not a great idea, with the NW wind blowing down a long fetch onto a 3 nm crossing. We already had experienced the short-fetch version of these conditions. Saddleback would be totally reachable, but once there, I knew we would have the wind coming straight off the water onto our campsite, with few trees to screen it. We reluctantly accepted that Plan C was probably the best option: pitch our camp right on Hell’s where we had wind shelter, and then head out for a little local recreation in unloaded boats. Its moniker notwithstanding (probably due only to its proximity to Devil Island), this was really a charming spot and we found a reasonable place to pitch our tents out of the wind. There was an ample sheltered beach with rocks for cooking and hanging out.


Later we toured the island looking at some of the amazing root systems lifted up by what must have been recent blowdowns. Ricardo added his visage to a convenient hole created by a rock that remained stuck in the ground.


Our post-tent-pitching paddle was short but fun, consisting of a circumnavigation of Devil Island (and, for Ricardo, a brief exploration of a campsite on a tiny speck nearby). The wind played some tricks whenever it had access to us, and rounding the west end of Devil to return to our half- (two-) acre home turned out to be quite a challenge facing a downright satanic headwind, which almost halted our forward progress. Warm dry clothing and dinner was very welcome after that outing.

Despite the short mileage of the day, we had traveled far and slept well that night. As we retired, the wind dropped to a near calm. Inside my tent, hearing the relative silence, I wondered if the next day would bring different conditions. 

Day 2: Hells Half Acre to Marshall Island


I woke up briefly during the early hours around 2 am and heard the wind start up again. The forecast had not called for a lull, but it did call for the brisk NW wind to continue again during the day to come. I thought a bit about what this might mean for our plan to take off for Marshall, then went back to sleep.

Waking again at 5 am I made coffee and walked over to our beach with my mug. The trees were lit by a brilliant orange sunrise.


In the semi-darkness I failed to notice that I was standing on a slippery algae-covered area of a rock, and I went down hard on my rear and the fleshy part of my left hand. I also banged my head in the process but thanks to a hat and two hoods that was an uneventful impact. The hand turned out to be the worst and bloodiest part as it had landed right on some kind of small sharp shell fragment. Damn—land is dangerous! I improvised a combo of bandaid and electrical tape, hoping for the best.

We had a conclave after breakfast to consider our plan to get to Marshall. The most obvious and direct route to get there was to proceed to nearby Saddleback Island, then undertake a 3+ nm crossing in a SE direction, straight to the northwestern corner of Marshall. However, there was at least one big drawback to the plan (crossing distance aside): the building NW wind pushing its waves against a strong flood current in Jericho Bay, with plenty of fetch to draw on. We had already seen what the local small-fetch version of these waves looked like even without an opposing tide, and I didn’t like the mental picture of what might be out in the channel. We might not encounter the biggest conditions until well into the crossing. Not to mention we’d be fighting the flood on top of everything else.

The revised idea went like this… Slack before ebb would occur a little after 2 pm. What if we were to use the morning heading south in protected waters, sheltered from wind and current, then make an early PM easterly crossing right around slack tide? We would still have wind waves, but they wouldn’t be steepened so much by current effects, and we wouldn’t be fighting the current. It seemed like a good concept: we could take our time to explore the southeast corner of Merchant Row (Spruce and McGlathery Islands), make a 2 nm crossing to Fog Island for lunch, and then take on the final 2.4 nm Jericho Bay crossing to Marshall heading more or less due east. A less direct route, but one that deferred taking on a long crossing and the elements until the tide cycle had tilted in our favor.

On McGlathery we found many cool erratic boulders stocking the rock shelves rimming the island.


There was a partly concealed beach where we landed (it’s fine to visit the island for day use) and we roamed around to look at the local features.


We had been told by Rebecca that a hiking trail is under construction on this island, but we didn’t find it here. We also took an interesting side jaunt to the channel between McGlathery and Round.

Next we moved on to Fog Island, a small-to-medium sized chunk of a place a bit over a mile off to the NE of Isle au Haut. On the way there, Mount Desert Island loomed in the distance to our northeast, as it did everywhere on this trip. The northern half of Marshall Island is also visible in this picture, to the right of MDI:


The east-facing beach on Fog provided a welcome shelter from the continuing NW wind, as we looked out at the long coastline of Marshall facing us with its rim of bold granite 2.5 miles away. A perfect lunch spot, convenient to a grassy graveyard of lobster buoys.

At last it was time for the final leg of the day: 2.5 nm of open water leading us to the SW corner of Marshall. The NW wind was thankfully not as fierce as on Monday, but it was still strong. We got a bearing, identified a visual target on the island, and set off. As soon as we were out in Jericho Bay, we encountered some very robust wind waves quartering from our rear on the left side, mostly in the 2 foot range but some exceeding 3 feet. Some of us deployed their skegs (at least, I did!)  The 3+ footers seemed to arrive in occasional pulses of stronger energy, each pulse lasting around 30 seconds (maybe five or six successive waves). They were not hard to handle provided you were focused on what was happening, but they did make me glad that we had waited for the current to drop before crossing. Perhaps these pulses were areas of water where the current was still moving in an opposing direction? Another mystery. It was a really fun part of the trip, and one of those times that a sea kayak feels perfectly suited to doing exactly what it’s doing, in a sea state that really puts it to the test.

Arriving at Marshall, we encountered some significant swell breaking over nearby Boxam Ledge. This was one of the bounciest points in the passage:


Rounding the point at Lower Head, we began our final mile-long run into Sand Cove, dreamily passing by cliffs and rock formations in the now-sheltered water. Huge black basalt dikes punctuated the golden granite:


We landed at high water right next to the trail access to the campgrounds; this area conveniently boasts 3 tent platforms each in its own area. No one else was there, unsurprisingly. (Dana and I used two platforms which were each situated in their own private little glade, while Ricardo found his own nook to settle into.) A peaceful afternoon and evening followed, hanging out on the now-extensive sand beach at low tide, well sheltered from the wind.


The sound of surf permeated the entire campground from every direction. As night fell, a hermit thrush sang somewhere nearby. Darker darkness brought the peeping of a saw-whet owl. I thought it a magnificent spot.

Insect note: despite the increasingly warm weather during the week, no bugs were in evidence here, as none had been anywhere on the trip. Not a tick, not a mosquito, not a black fly. Perhaps the extreme dryness of the late winter and spring was to blame? But I had seen plenty of bugs 2 weeks earlier in Casco Bay. Ask an entomologist if you find one!

Day 3: Sojourn on Marshall Island


The preceding night was bad for me. It was surprisingly cold and each time I woke up, I failed to put on enough layers. When morning arrived, I found myself suffering from some digestive discomforts and not interested in eating. My hand injury was painful and seemed to be getting infected. Whine, whine, whine! I was getting into a negative frame of mind, and it seemed hard to snap out of it. I did not really feel like doing anything.

However, today was the day we had reserved for exploring Marshall, and my traveling companions seemed to be in fine shape. The weather was still breezy and a bit chilly but otherwise excellent. I managed to convince myself that walking around the island and exploring with Ricardo and Dana would be the perfect distraction. Which, of course, it turned out to be.

We set out a bit after 9 am, our goal being to walk around the entire west side of the island covering the shoreline and a scenic lookout point. Arriving at the northwest corner, we would hike inland to the air strip and locate the island water pump. (Yes, Marshall Island has its own drilled well with a hand pump! We had heard the water quality was good although treatment was recommended.) After that, we would follow a trail directly south through the interior back to our Sand Cove home, for a total of about 5-6 miles of hiking. As it turned out, this was quite enough to have on our plate.

The initial couple of miles followed the shore with occasional turns inward. White throated sparrows provided a sonic backdrop as we walked.  We got a great view of Sand Cove from above. It was when we reached the southwest corner that we encountered the first of several substantial blowdowns, big enough to completely force us off the trail and requiring us to bushwhack around and recover the trail on the other side. Eventually we hit an area of destroyed trees so stupendously large that we decided to completely abandon a section of trail perhaps half a mile long and pick our way along game tracks, in a direction that we believed (hoped?) would intersect the trail again. Nature provided a little mood booster in the form of a deer carcass that we encountered during our travails. That’s right: even the deer give up on finding their way around.

But eventually we did punch through the wilds to recover the official trail, making our way to the “scenic overlook”. It was scenic, although with such an embarrassment of great scenery everywhere, it was maybe not that much more scenic than everything else. We gave it a couple of stars in an imaginary Yelp review that complained about understaffing and the long wait for our drinks to arrive—imaginary, highly unreasonable Yelp reviews being an ongoing theme of the trip. Lunch was delicious. We had spent 3 hours on the trail already, and covered perhaps only 2 miles, a testament to the difficulty of working around the downed trees.


The trail continued north from here, winding in and out of clearings and shoreline areas in a pretty way. Here, most of the blowdowns were old and the trail was already cleared. Eventually we made it to Long Cove with its dramatic view of barren Three Bush Island (which contained only a single tree, cause for another one-star review). From here it was a traipse up a steep incline to the airstrip-that-was-never-to-be and, we hoped, our water replenishment source. We did have enough water to eke out the trip, but we all hoped we would find an alternative.

We reached the dusty non-airstrip, which lies on a sort of brushy plateau at the top of Marshall. Pilots have seen it from the air and wondered if it is possible to land there. It is not. The “runways” are merely uneven cleared stretches of bare, rocky ground that would destroy a plane.


And where was our water? We were about to pen another scorching Yelp review. But after some searching around, it turned out that on our climb to the airstrip we had walked right past a clearing on the right with an enormous water pump in it that we never noticed (but which honestly is almost impossible to miss):


If you are as impaired as we were and you want to find it via GPS, its coordinates are: 44.122305 N, 68.508929 W. On this occasion the water was a bit cloudy and brownish but after boiling it tasted just fine. MCHT tells us they plan on testing it later this season.

From the airstrip, the interior trail back to the campsite turned out to be more like an old roadbed. Very smooth and easy walking. The last two thirds of the distance took about one third of the time. One note of mystery to the side of the path: a square stone pillar, recently constructed, with the name "ROBBINS" inscribed on two sides. Who knows what this memoralizes?

The rest of the day was passed napping and then relaxing around a picnic table in the woods. I cleaned up my hand thoroughly. I think we all passed out around 8 pm, just after sunset.

Day 4: Marshall to Saddleback


The night had been noticeably warmer and damper, and the sunrise was hazy. The bright blue skies were replaced with grayish-blue murk and the wind had lessened and shifted to the southwest. Air temperatures near 70 were forecast for the afternoon. The surf sounds at camp seemed quieter. Change was coming!

With the flood in the morning and the lower wind, we decided to launch at low water and ferry across the building flood up to Saddleback Island, crossing first to rocky, treeless Southern Mark Island. On the 3 nm crossing from Marshall, we would pass by the confusingly named Saddleback Ledge, some miles away from the island of the same name. (Our conversation was disrupted by constant confusion over which Saddleback we were talking about.) From Southern Mark we could continue to ride the flood in a more direct manner to Saddleback.

The crossing back was as different from the outgoing one as could be imagined. Low, smooth swells glided through otherwise quiet water. In the distance, a constantly morphing optical illusion caused Great and Little Spoon Ledges (some 5 miles to the southeast) to assume weird blocky shapes that changed from minute to minute. At Saddleback Ledge and at Southern Mark, seals besieged us with a pinniped police escort. Dana paddled around the ledge to see the abundant bird life. From here it was a relaxed paddle up to Enchanted Island and, just behind it, Saddleback Island with its ample, flat ledges. We fairly flew along with the flood current straight behind us.

At Saddleback we met up by chance with a group on a boat from Maine Coast Heritage Trust including the MDI regional land steward, Tatia. They were on the island to see how things were doing there, and we chatted about our stay on Marshall and the big blowdowns there, plus the state of the water source. These were the first humans we had talked to since leaving Stonington.

After our conversation with MCHT we zipped around the corner to the designated camping spot in a cove on the northwest side. This was one of the very first places in Maine that I ever camped out of a kayak (thanks to Gary York, who took me there) and it remains one of the most beautiful places to me. This was my third stay there, and my companions’ first. I think we all liked it a lot. After setting up our tents and having lunch, it was time to roam the island. This hike, although not epic, was exceptionally beautiful. The trail on Saddleback between the campsite and the MCHT cabin is a true gem. However, it does not continue around the whole island and to make our loop connect from the cabin to Eastern Cove, we had to leap around on the granite ledges that rim the island and make our way through some tight spots. It was a joyous afternoon adventure, followed by a warm and calm evening. The southwest wind had built substantially during the day, but our campsite was perfectly situated to block the wind (just as it would have been perfectly situated to catch the wind on that first day). There was some relaxing and reading time. A classic last night on the water.


Day 5: Saddleback to Stonington


The weather was supposed to be at its calmest this day of the trip, and it was. Our concept was to wander to the southwest corner of Merchants Row and take in some of the remaining islands, including Spruce Island, Wreck Island, Steve Island and Crotch Island.

But first, we would have to visit the particular Ram Island that is in this area. Why? Because Ricardo is on a mission to visit every Ram Island in Maine, and there are lots of them. His soul cannot rest until he reaches them all. If he fails, then, according to myth, his soul will be doomed to wander for eternity searching for the other Ram Islands and never finding them. This is not a fate I would wish on anyone, and certainly not on Ricardo. So we did visit the local Ram Island. It was a nice island, but very small. That’s all I have to say about it. It did not look like a place that would be easy to camp on, and it’s not allowed in any case.

At Spruce Island, we noted a feature that we could only describe as the “mother of all seal launches”, a long sloping granite runway perhaps 50 feet high that terminates right over the water in a vertical drop. I wish we had a picture of it.

Dana and Ricardo were following an enormous moon jelly for a while:


At Steve Island we hung out and took some time to take in the features that make this tiny island so popular: a walkable and open interior, varied shell beaches interspersed with big smooth rocks, an enormous tide pool… very attractive. Just before leaving, a MITA boat showed up with a man and a woman on it, and we said hello. I didn’t recognize the people at the time, but we saw them again when we landed in Stonington. This time I realized I had met one of the MITA people several times before in different locations: Maria Jenness. "Nice to see you again!"

Our last stop before returning to the sort-of mainland of Deer Isle was Crotch Island. This is the site of a huge granite quarry, which I believed incorrectly to be abandoned. (Back in the day, granite was the big industry here—not lobstering.) The whole island is littered with tailings of fractured granite blocks. There is a deep intertidal notch in the island which can be visited by boat, but it was dead low so we couldn’t really get in there. As we paddled away from Crotch, the bleak dystopian air of abandonment was shattered by the sudden roar of a diesel engine above us: there was a bulldozer moving around up there, hauling giant newly quarried granite blocks. I was wrong: Crotch Island was alive after all, as a business! People still use their granite.

Postlude: Arrival

The water was dead low when we landed in Stonington at the town ramp under gray skies. We hauled our stuff up and out of the way. As we unpacked, someone pulled up to the ramp in a bright red car, got out and came over to greet us: it was paddler, coach, guide and proprietor Michael Daugherty of Sea Kayak Stonington, who we had missed on our arrival. We chatted with Michael for some time about his new-ish business and about the Stonington area. For those of you who don’t know Michael, he is a legendary local kayaker and author. His book, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England includes an exceptional set of 50 trips that are more than just steps to follow: they are frameworks for exploration, including many options and things to watch for (and watch out for).

At the end of our trip, there was time for a hearty local lunch together at the Harbor Cafe. It had been a really great 5 days of paddling for me, and I was so grateful that Ricardo and Dana had wanted to come. Thank you, guys, for a perfect week of companionship and adventure!



Edited by Joseph Berkovitz
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Interesting trip report, really appreciate the detail, and having been to Stonington twice in the past 2 years, it was fun to see it again through your eyes. I've had my eye on Marshall as a destination for some time now, and have considered the crossing from Saddleback (too far for my enjoyment) and further south with a stop at Fog (a little better) but had ultimately decided that a trip to Stonington should remain a trip to Stonington, and Marshall would be better approached island-hopping from the north. Your trip report leans me further in that direction, and increases my wish to camp on Marshall! Yelp review of your trip report: 5 stars for detail, decision-making, and kayaking skill, but 1 star for the algae-covered rocks (one of those prior trips for me included a friend breaking her wrist on those rocks, and a tow back to the launch ramp). 

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@kate In 2022 we did approach Marshall from the north - launching from Brooklin at Naskeag Beach via Mahoney, Opechee, John and Swans. The crossings are shorter and less exposed though the overall journey length to Marshall is about the same! I would recommend this northern route as the safest in most circumstances. 

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Greatly enjoyed your report and pictures which brought back fond memories and maybe some not so fond.  Certainly true that when tide and wind oppose in that area, especially around Swan's, it focuses your attention to the here and now.   Much to enjoy by wandering about Marshall and Swan's.

Besides getting there from Stonington and Brooklin, I have thought about starting at Seal cove or Bass Harbor on MDI to explore the islands between MDI and Swan's which are worth a visit.

A suggestion for those heading to Marshall is to consider visiting Frenchboro on Long Island. An enchanting, quintessential fishing village.

Ed Lawson

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