I could have picked anotherriver for our trip. We’d done the Sheepscot and Damariscotta, so the nextlogical choice would have been to simply work our way west to the Kennebec, oreven head farther Downeast, for the wide open waters of Penobscot Bay. My wifeDana and I had explored the latter under the watchful eyes of a certified Maineguide years before, but my limited skills as a navigator made me reticent tolead her, my 22 year old daughter Tess and her boyfriend Trevor more than ashort distance from the mainland. I could have handled the Kennebec, eventhough names on the chart for that river like “the Chops,” and “Lower Hell’sGate” meant I would’ve steered us well clear of those particular passages. Butin the end I let the same principle that has guided most of my outdooradventures lead me back to Peters Island on the Damariscotta River for thethird time in a row.
I’ll never deny the power ofexploring new places. Setting off in foreign terrain can inspire the kind offresh perspective and unrealized resourcefulness that stimulates the mostprofound kind of personal growth. But when it comes to the outdoors, I’m reallynot looking for many new places to explore. Most of my home state of Maine isstill a wild place. Spend a night camped on its coast or along the shore of anyone of the thousands of ponds scattered through its forests and you’llunderstand what inspired Thoreau to devote two years of his life to WaldenPond; there are endless lessons to be learned in the natural world, but theyreveal themselves only in their own sweet time.
Returning to Peters meant theenergy I’d save from working out new logistics - or even from processing thethrill of the discovery of some new place - could be reserved for other things,like listening to whatever the wind and the waves and the freed spirits thatplace released in those close to me had to teach me. Given the choice betweenadding new places to my wilderness travelogue or returning to my old familiarhaunts, I’ll ignore the chance to widen my world for going deeper into it everytime.
Of course even a trip tofamiliar waters requires planning, and the night before, as I searched forgear, fretted over the forecast, and futzed with my GPS, I wondered if it wasall worth it. Five minutes after launching from the Bittersweet LandingBoatyard in South Bristol the next morning, however, I knew that it was.
A trip to Peters Island wasperfect for the weekend I had open to travel from Portland. In less than twohours we could have our boats off the cars and launched into “The Gut,” the narrow horseshoe channel that runsthrough South Bristol to sever Rutherford Island from the finger of land thatseparates the river from Johns Bay. It’s only a 3.5 mile paddle up theDamariscotta to Peters, a 1400 square foot wedge of pine-topped rock lodged inthe northern end of Long Cove. The first day’s short itinerary would reserveplenty of strength for the second’s: a 9mile circumnavigation around Rutherford that would begin with a paddle downriverto the open ocean before turning north to follow the coast along the westernedge of Johns Bay. We’d have land on either side of us for that final portionof the trip, as we threaded the channel between the coast and the “Thread ofLife” ledges: the long, thin strip of islands that parallels the shore beforewe made the final turn into the western entrance to The Gut that would lead ushome.
Starting our trip in The Gut wasless like the beginning of an outdoor adventure than an ride through a Mainetheme park. We paddled our four kayaks though a colorful maze of lobster boatsand docks piled high with ropes, traps and gear, then ducked under theold-fashioned swing bridge that turns to let larger watercraft pass between themainland and the island. A few minutes later we left the channel for the widerwaters of the river. We settled into the rhythm of our strokes, but when Tessfell behind, I dropped back to coach her a bit. Four years of college crew hadtrimmed her to the best shape of her life, but the mechanics of a solo kayakwere quite different than that of the eight-person shell she had pulled withher teammates. I directed her to shift her focus from pulling the blade in thewater to pushing the one out of it, then turning to watch the submerged bladego by to maximize the twist in her torso that would give her the most power. Ina few minutes she floated away towards Trevor, and I stayed silent while heoffered his own suggestions on her form. I knew my role as her principle guidewas over. The orbit of her life had grown wider in college, and now that shehad graduated, was about to do so again. I could only hope that the pull offamily and the pristine land of her birth would always keep her circling backhome.
Maine was certainly doing itspart to hook her that day, as we paddled flat water under sunny skies and letour minds drift with our gazes over the half mile of open water between us andthe river’s western bank. The cloud of career cares that had been shadowing mysummer evaporated too, and though I knew those problems weren’t gone, I couldsee their true scale out here under open skies, where they were revealed assmall isles of danger and opportunity that I needed to navigate within thelarger course of my life. Somehow, the river gave me the space I needed to putthe fears that had overshadowed me in perspective.
The four of us paired and partedas we traded places paddling upstream, coming together to hug the bank when weapproached Fort Island in order to avoid the strong current of the ebb tidethat rushed around it. When we reached calmer waters north of Fort, Tess andTrevor pointed to a pair of fat, tan pillows tossed upon a strip of ledge justabove the water’s edge. It was hard to believe these bleached, bloated forms werethe same dark slippery seals we saw darting around our boats so effortlesslyonce they returned to the river.
A half hour later I had pulled ahead to scoutfor the island. Peters is so close to the mainland its hard to see until you’reright on top of it, but a quick turn around the island’s north shore revealedthe small shipwreck that let me know I’d found our home for the night.
As I watched the others acrossthe water I had a few minutes to reflect on the other two trips I’d made to theisland. The first had been a half dozen years before, when Dana and I arrivedto celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Lucky for me I’m married toa woman who welcomed the view of the sterling waters that sparkled before usthat weekend as her silver anniversary gift. She presented me with a necklace she’d made of turquoise and amber,symbols of the ocean and mountains that had lured us to make Maine our home. Iretrieved another gift I’d tucked deep into the bow of my kayak: a bottle ofwine we’d saved from a trip we took to the south of France two years before. Ilove red wine, but can barely distinguish rosé from ripple. Still, that nighton the river, as soon as I tipped the first sip from my camp cup onto mytongue, I knew something extraordinary was happening in my mouth. Dana and Ijoked that that moment must have been the optimal instant for the magicalelixir we savored over the next hour to mature. Later I learned just how closeour joke was to the truth. When I googled the vintage, I found that the primetime for drinking a wine from its region was 5-6 years after bottling, and that1998 was an especially good vintage. That meant that the ’98 bottle ofChateauneuf du Pape I scooped from my hold on May 30, 2002 may very well havepeaked that very evening. In any event, whether it was the wine, the place, orthe woman I shared it with, it was by far the best bottle I’ve ever emptied. Italso put us in the perfect mood for the party next door.
We’d been hearing yelps andsplashes from the cove beside us while we drank, so after we made our lasttoast we got in our boats to investigate. It only took us a minute or two ofpaddling to find the party animals: a pod of harbor seals who might have justpolished off their own stash of cabernet. They blew, bellowed and honked at oneanother as they flipped and flopped upon the rocks and dove into the cove. WhenI paddled closer to investigate, however, I found that the party was byinvitation only. A small band of the rowdy locals suddenly disappeared from therocks, and a minute later my boat was surrounded by a ring of dark heads thatbarely bobbed in the still water. I looked at each dog-like face and found thesame pair of beady black eyes silently staring me down. I knew better than tomess with the party’s security detail, so I slowly back-paddled from my escortsand followed Dana home.
My next trip to the island was ayear later with Tess. She was a high school senior at the time, a year markedby the bump and grind of parent and child trying to learn how to let go of oneanother. A kayak trip turned out to bethe perfect remedy for those anxious days, where the shared challenge ofphysical effort in an uncertain environment allowed each of us to return to oursimpler roles of father and child. We bonded over the small tasks that growlarger in the wild: clearing a campsite, pitching a tent, and tending a fire tocook dinner on the rocks. Without the background buzz of TVs, computers, andcellphones, we listened only to the river and each other - just the kind ofconversation I’d hoped the trip would inspire. Next morning we caught the floodtide at its peak as we came abreast of Fort Island on our return trip home. Iwatched Tess anxiously as the two of us paddled for all we were worth to clearthe current. Just past the island we found a dock we could collapse on untilour strength returned. I don’t remember what issues we skirmished over beforethose two days on the river, but I do remember the feeling of their absence, asmy daughter and I lay side by side on our backs, gasping for breath, heartspounding in our ears while we stared straight into the endless blue of a Mainesummer sky.
Now Dana, Tess and I werereturning together, along with the young man who had claimed my daughter’sheart. I certainly couldn’t fault Tess for her choice. Trevor was an straight-Astudent and Eagle scout with a heart as big as his brain. Those gifts earnedhim not only a string of graduation honors and a host of close friends, butalso the Fulbright Scholarship that would take him to Vietnam for tenmonths at the end of the summer whileTess started her career in Washington D.C. Still, as easy as it was to likesomeone like Trevor, I couldn’t quite completely embrace him as one of my own.I was warm to him, but kept a certain distance. It was the space any fatherplaces between himself and his daughter’s suitors - the space reserved to storethe shield he may need to place over her broken heart.
But the summer sun drove outsuch dark thoughts that afternoon. After we’d beached our boats, Trevor and Itook our gear up the small wooded hill above the rocks to our campsite. Therewe found the perfect nest: a blanket of pine needles just large enough to stakeout two tents for the night. Then the four of us spent the afternoon stretchedout on the rocks, baking in the sun and cooling ourselves with quick dips intothe icy water. We lay back and talked of nothing and everything while wewatched the show before us. Lobster boats cruised back and forth between buoysof every color, sparkling like so much colored confetti against theDamariscotta’s deepening blue. We heard the hum of their engines carriedclearly over the water, making the quietthat much louder when they finally motored for home. Then we watched the workof others nearby, as a squadron of white terns circled the rocks we perched on.One by one they’d break formation, diving to disappear in a splash of frothbefore emerging a second later, the flash of a silver fish vanishing down abeak with the flick of each black-capped head.
The day faded, but never reallydied out there over the water. We talked and laughed and ate and drank, andtalked and laughed again. When we finally retired to our tents, there was stillpink light in the sky. I woke to thecries of the gulls the next morning and wondered if the night had ever reallycome at all.
Hours later we’d broken camp andwere making our way downriver. Trevor had traded boats with Tess after she’dstruggled in the kayak I’d borrowed for her. Its fixed skeg made turning itmore of a challenge than the rest of our boats, all of which sported rudders.It was a good trade. Trevor had grown up on the banks of the Thames River inConnecticut, and was comfortable piloting anything he could get wet. Tess got the hang of her new boat instantly,and easily outdistanced me most of the morning. I laughed out loud when I looked past her to see the orange speck ofTrevor’s boat even farther downriver, amazed at just how far a 22 year-oldengine could blast the fiberglass rocket he’d traded up to.
As we approached the end of theriver, I scanned its mouth and saw the choppier waters ahead. We stopped forone last break on a sliver of beach to rest and prepare for our paddle out intothe open sea. When we launched again, clouds were building on the horizon, andI hoped we’d complete our journey before they turned into the kind ofthunderheads that could drive us ashore. The combination of filling sky, brokenwater, and vanishing land put new purpose into my strokes. After severalminutes I had to force myself to slow down when I realized I was pulling aheadof the group as we crossed the mile-wide mouth of Christmas Cove. I took a longbreath while I waited for the others to catch up, remembering the advice of theguide who’d ushered Dana and I across our first open-water crossing of CascoBay. He’d shared his belief that women made better kayak students than men. Puta man in a rocking watercraft for the first time, Tom told us, and he’ll try tocontrol it, tensing his body to force the boat to obey his every command. But akayak is designed to work with - not against the water - a task best done bysomeone willing to loosen her hips to get a feel for the forces that surroundher, and then work in harmony with that power to make her way through the sea.The lesson of surrendering to things beyond my control was a good one for me toremember those days, as I tried to find the balance between action and patienceI needed to navigate the choppy economic waters that threatened to sink my job.As I watched sunlight wink and flash upon the waves, I marveled once again atthe hidden power of the natural world, a mystical and beneficent realm wheremessages would surface for anyone willing to still themselves long enough toreceive them.
A half mile later we saw a thinline of trees standing in the water, marking their perch along the line of theThread of Life ledges that we’d follow north for our return trip home. We’dbeen paddling for close to six miles, and were grateful for the calmer watersthat lay between the ledges and the land. Then the ocean granted us anothergift, a following sea that sent us surfing up the coast for the next hour. Wemade a final stop for a late lunch at the pocket beach tucked into the northend of Witch Island. I sat back and ate slowly, savoring the taste of mysandwich and the ache in my arms while I took in a view framed by the island’sdark foliage on either side. The scene before me was perfect in itssun-sparkled clarity, and I had the sense I was sitting nested within theperfect preserve of some frozen summer-themed snow globe. Each breath I took ofthe salt air came slower and deeper as I let my eyes travel from the pebbledcurve of the shore, to the islands, the sails, the gulls, and the clouds, allsilently suspended in that crystal-blue sphere. I wanted to capture and containit, to store it to feed on during the short, dark days of the Maine winter tocome. But all beauty passes, and the only thing I could take from Witch Islandwas a memory and the hope that I’d be back again.
We landed and unloaded, then gota final view of The Gut as we waited in a short line of cars for the swing bridgeto let another lobster boat motor through. A half hour later we were in thetown of Damariscotta, tucked into a cool, dark corner of the King Eider Pub. Wewere salty and sunbaked from our day on the water, and I took my time decidingjust which tap I’d ask the bartender to pull to revive me. There was nodebating about what we’d dine on, however, and the past 48 hours were reborn onmy tongue in the instant I slurped the chilled, raw oyster that had traveledthe short distance from the river to my plate. There in the bar we comparednotes on the trip, the start of the stories we’d burnish and share for years tocome. But for me, one of them already glows golden in my mind.
On our last evening on Peters,Trevor called me aside. I came over to stand beside him at the window in thescreen of trees that surrounded our campsite while the women got ready for bed.A crimson sky was reflected in the ribbon of river winding north through thedistant, blue trees. We faced the water while he began to tell me just how muchour family, and my daughter, meant to him. Another young man would have waitedto say what Trevor said next. Poised for a great adventure overseas, he wouldhave reserved his options, making space in his life for the endlesspossibilities that might blossom in a wild and foreign land.
Thatsame choice had lain before me years before, when Dana and I were separated bytwo hundred miles and three long years while I finished college in Rhode Islandand she began her career in New York. But when Trevor turned to me to ask forTess’s hand in marriage, the careful distance I had placed between us closedforever. In the instant he spoke, as the day’s last birdcall echoed over thewater, I knew we shared even more than the love for my daughter. Like me, he’sa man less interested in going wide, than going deep.