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Sunday in the Rock Gardens, Bar Harbor Sept.10th


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On Sunday morning, twelve helmeted souls launched from the sand bar in downtown Bar Harbor for an all-day “Rock Gardens” class. Our instructors were Steve Maynard and John Carmody, and this was part of the 4 day BCU symposium in Bar Harbor from Sept 8th to 11th.

This was a solid group of paddlers, including some familiar faces : representing NSPN were myself, Dana, Galen, and Dan Roy, (from Montreal).

At the beach briefing, Steve Maynard explained that the anticipated weather system from the south (4-7 foot swells) had not materialized, and instead the wind was from the north, so we would be ranging farther to the south where the longer fetch could create bigger conditions. So we quickly paddled though the boats & cruise ships anchored in the harbor, out through the breakwater at the south end of town , and southward along the eastern shore of Mt. Desert Island. It was a fine sunny day, and boat traffic was very sparse, no lobster boats and just a few whale watch tours out and about. There was a steady wind of @ 15 knots throughout the day.

After some warm- up and introductory rock play along MDI, we made a ferried 1.75 mile crossing to Egg Rock, which sits alone in the middle of Frenchman Bay. At the southern end of Egg Rock a long bar, maybe 300 yards long, extends to the southwest, and here the wind from the north and the tidal current from the south collided, and waves were breaking from both directions and at different angles all along the submerged bar, the kind of area the Coast Pilot says stuff like ” to be treated with utmost caution” The north side was real “jobbly”, the south side a bit less so , but all in all some of the trickiest conditions I had ever experienced, . This was all, of course, child’s play for our instructors, who effortlessly buzzed around the bar in their boats, giving advice, instructions. We took turns passing across the bar, which turned out to be easier than it looked; it was much easier than holding a position in current and wind, waiting to take ones turn.

The group passed through and across the bar several times, with some hoops and hollers, but without incident, and we then migrated to the south end of Egg Rock, for more traditional rock play.

Along the way, Mr, Carmody emphasized staying relaxed in the boat, don’t tense or brace the thighs tightly to the boat, let them drop, keep the hips loose, don’t over-paddle, and let the water and the boat take care of you. Galen, overjoyed, said that he never expected to find himself calmly sitting in his boat, water mightily surging up and down, paddle across his lap, casually conversing one foot from a boat-eating rock face. Loose hips rule!

One paddler capsized and wet exited in a semi enclosed rock garden, was churned about for a while, and his boat appeared to be lodged amidst the rocks. His was no spot for a rescue, so John coaxed him to swim out of the enclosure, Steve Maynard popped out of his boat , intending to swim to the rocks and extract the boat from the land side, but before he got far the boat was freed up by a new swell, and eventually was extracted. During this rescue it was unclear how long it would take to retrieve the boat, so three paddlers rafted up and our swimmer lay across their three decks to get out of the water until the boat might be retrieved. When the boat floated free, it was passed along, bucket -brigade style, back to its owner and soon enough he was back in his boat and underway, with smiles all around.

We landed for a lunch break at a small , fairly steep cobble beach on the island’s northwest corner. There were twelve paddlers to get in to this small beach, so the whole operation took a good while, during which time I learned that, while I’d spent much time learning to move my boat this way and that, I knew little of holding one position in wind and current, and I struggled but I kept getting swept to the right towards the rocky danger area. During our lunch break, Mr, Maynard explained that it is far better to hold a position than to work to regain a lost one. True enough; I had spent a lot of precious energy fighting back to the position I had lost. Always something new to learn!

We launched and made a 1.2 nm crossing into the wind, north to Ironbound Island, where more rocks awaited. The south end of Ironbound is a face of steep rock cliffs, perhaps 80 feet high. Here there were more big swells rushing up and down the rocks. As we played our way along to the east, a variety of opportunities for practice, fun and mayhem presented themselves. There was another capsize and rescue, this time Steve put a tow on the rafted boats to keep them from drifting into the rocks while the rescue was sorted out.

A few hundred yards along the cliffs, three of us found an intriguing little area: three narrow entrances, one of them a narrow arch, leading into one small enclosure with steep sides, a water filled canyon. I thought of the line from “Yojimbo”, when an upstart peasant says ”Who wants a long life eating mush? I want a short, exciting life!” and paddled through the narrow, low archway into the enclosure, which was maybe 20 or 25 feet square. Seconds later, a larger swell rolled in, and water crashed in though all three openings, turning the enclosure into a cauldron of churning water, and my boat was violently buffeted all about, banging into one side, then the another. BUT, in the words of Mr. Maynard, “No worries”: I knew that soon enough the surge would play itself out, and things would return to “normal”, so it was just a question of relaxing and weathering the onslaught. I almost made it through the washing machine cycle, but was finally carried up sideways onto a rock wall, the water disappeared from under me., and I capsized, so I hung out upside down for a three or four-count, waiting for bubbles to disperse, ,and won praise from Mr Carmody and other onlookers for executing a nice, patient roll. Again upright, I found myself pointed straight toward the opening I had first come in, so I said, “boat, let’s get the hell out of here!” and slithered out into the sunlight again, paddle scratching against the barnacles on the narrow, low rock arch. Was that exhilarating or what?

We began our journey back, and paddled up the east shore of Ironbound Island, We were soon heading home and paddling against both wind and tide, and the 1 mile crossing from Ironbound to Long Porcupine Island was, for me, quite grueling. I was recovering from a recent illness, not at 100% strength, and had spent much energy on the holding patterns and previous crossings. I was in awe of the mastery of John and Steve, their ability to husband their energy and move their boats so efficiently through the water.

By Long Porcupine Island we had the wind at our back for about 3/4 mile , and John demonstrated some surfing skills, getting nifty free bursts of speed from small waves, that carried him maybe thirty feet at a time (make the ocean work for you.) We made another crossing from Burnt Porcupine to Porcupine Island, and, by the time we rounded Bar Island and at last had some wind at our backs for the final quarter mile, I was quite spent.

It was a grand day with a fine group of paddlers and two master instructors, that certainly pushed my limits and inspired confidence, and all in a beautiful setting. This was by no means a salient moment of the recent symposium, just one paddler's report of one of many experiences the symposium participants enjoyed during those four days in Bar Harbor.

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Great fun was had by all. I plan to go back and play on the ledge south of the Egg Rock light, that was a nice little spot. The rocks behind Ironbound are worth another couple of visits as well...



Once more upon the waters! yet once more!

And the waves bound beneath me as a steed

That knows his rider.

Lord Byron

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