Reveling in an Island's Mysteries
Kayak Touring 07
We had just finished a breakfast of camp stove pancakes and were lingering over our second cups of coffee as we stretched out on the large flat boulder that served as our island dining room. The rock sat perched on the edge of a small cliff overlooking a sea studded with white lobster boats that motored among trap buoys as numerous as the flashes of early morning sunlight that sparkled between them. From our stony roost we watched as our neighbor, a fast flying tern, soared past our tents and out over the water where he would repeatedly collapse and plunge into the ocean to breakfast on the small silver fish that would appear in his beak when he emerged from the water to begin his return flight to the sky.
Between sips from my mug and glances at this seascape I studied the chart of the Downeast Maine islands we had spent the last two days exploring. Most of our passages had been short hops of a mile or less between them, and I was trying to locate a more remote isle that a friend had recommended as worth a visit during our chance meeting at sea the day before. I expected to be interrupted any minute by my older brother Sandy, with a call of, “Aren’t you done yet, Buck?” I was new to kayak navigation and was sure that he, who was both sailor and pilot, would tire of waiting the half hour I took to perform a task that he could have completed within a few minutes. To my surprise, however, he remained silent until I announced that I had our course plotted. Both in our early forties, we had each arrived at a place in our lives where we had begun to know ourselves well enough to begin the long process of trying to alter the obsolete patterns of sibling behavior that we had both outgrown. As the younger brother, I had always relied on Sandy to serve as trip leader on our kayaking excursions along Maine’s coast and backpacking expeditions into its northern forests. With him serving as guide I simply never bothered to learn the navigational skills any outdoorsman should posses. He, in contrast, seemed to be comfortable only when he was in control. He’d plan everything from our daily excursions to our evening meals, which he alone would cook, impressing me and anyone else in our party with his ability to prepare dinners served on mess kit plates that tasted like ones arranged on fine restaurant china. After years stuck locked into playing these roles, I was now trying to take more responsibility during our outdoor adventures at the same time that he was attempting to relinquish control of them. I took this synchronous reversal in styles as yet another affirmation of the depth and sensitivity that are hallmarks of those friendships that are forged in time spent under open skies far away from the world of clocks and walls.
The third member of our party, though not born as our brother, could not have been closer to us if he had. Hutch was a Maine native who had introduced me to the wonders of his home state after our graduation from art school in Rhode Island. The world he opened to me was one I happily abandoned my life in New York City for when the contrast between standing on the top of Mt. Katahdin on a Sunday afternoon and pulling into the New Jersey Port Authority bus terminal later that night became too much to bear. He had the perfect temperament to make him an ideal wilderness companion. He was as comfortable with entertaining us with his quick wit and bawdy tales while we laughed around a campfire as he was with sitting in silence to watch the early morning fog lift from the ocean.
After clearing our site and packing the boats we launched for the three-mile crossing to our final island destination before our return to our families and onshore lives. The calm summer weather that had been with us for the past two days held, and we enjoyed the chance to really stretch ourselves in a longer ocean crossing. After paddling for a while we fell into our familiar rhythms as we cut three parallel wakes through the flat midmorning sea.
I have always been amazed at the sense of transparency that sea kayaking can create for a paddler, and this morning proved to be no exception. From my horizon line vantage point the first thing to disappear while we made way was the sense of sitting in a boat on top of the water. I felt more within than in the ocean, less aware of my craft than of the rock and sway of the waves it moved through. The next thing to vanish was my awareness of my paddling. Though still new enough to the sport to have to begin each trip by focusing on my hand position and the cadence of my strokes, within a few minutes’ time I found that point of swing where the combination of the dip of my arms, twist of my torso and extension of my legs oscillated evenly between the right and left halves of my body and the feeling of powering the boat through the water became transformed into one of being swept along with it. The minimal amount of effort needed to maintain my speed left me with an ever-deepening appreciation of the elegance of kayak design and the silent efficiency that has been achieved as the culmination of its evolution. After awhile I lost regard for both the boat and my effort entirely. The sky and the sea I gazed over, the breeze that brushed my skin, the sound of the lapping waves and the primordially familiar salt smell in the air all began to go through, not around me. Finally, I too disappeared, and only the joy of the play of sun and air on a warm summer sea were left in my place.
An hour later I was pleased to see my course had brought us to the shore of the small isle we were looking for. Like many Maine islands, it was capped with a forest of firs that had made the first interruption to the distant horizon. As we drew closer, I saw what appeared to be a man standing on the branch of a large pine by the shore. Paddling nearer still I watched the shape shift and widen, and almost as soon as I recognized its silhouette the bald eagle I had been observing fanned his wings and took to the sky, an appropriate harbinger for the timeless world we were about to enter.
I immediately felt drawn to the island, not only because of the drama of the eagle’s flight, but for simpler, subtle reasons. Ones that had as much to do with the dance of the reflected light of waves against dark coastal boulders as it did with the burst of wild power that the eagle had displayed. After beaching my boat I turned and began to walk the shoreline. I left without a word to either Sandy or Hutch. I’d expected to be gone for only a minute or two, but the farther I walked the more deeply I became lost to the place. The tide was going out, and the line of kelp it had cast upon the beach left behind a strand line that, for a few hours, sketched the border between life on land and sea. The uneven ground I walked upon soon captured my attention. It sported a host of pastel colored maritime debris, tossed into a salad of wave washed stones, tangled seaweed, shells and sand. As I picked up each periwinkle, lobster claw or sun bleached sea urchin test and breathed in the briny, slightly decayed scent that perfumed the beach, I was struck by the pale beauty created by this collection of stranded stones and abandoned shells. With its shores exposed, the island revealed its past to me. One comprised of a myriad of delicate shells and exoskeletons that circled a denser foundation of basalt and granite that supported the life that teemed onshore.
After more coastal exploration, the dark interior of the island beckoned me away from the open water. It looked deeply wooded, and I marveled how this tall dark forest stood in such sharp contrast to the wide chalky shore that skirted it. It was comprised mainly of pines, but generous thatches of paper white birches were strewn among them, nearly glowing against the deep greens of their needled neighbors. I meandered along the edge of the forest for awhile and came upon a small field framed between it and the shore. A few steps across it brought me to a startling natural tableau set flat in the long springy grass. An almost perfect circle of feathers lay arranged in the field. Their integration with the ground was puzzling. They did not lie upon the windswept lawn, but were imbedded within it. It looked as if some great ornithological crater had been formed by some blind flightless bird’s collision with the earth. The center of the circle, however, was completely barren except for the matt of grass inside of it that lay smashed completely flat. I wondered at the implied violence of the scene. The missing bird spoke more loudly than the ring of feathers it left behind. Perhaps they were the last remnants of a life that had ended in a flash of eagle beak and talons.
I ventured further into the forest’s interior, until all sense of being on an island disappeared and I felt as if I could have been backpacking again in the depths of the Maine north woods. The trees I walked among ended abruptly and I found myself standing at the edge of a sunny meadow, set deeply within the wooded walls that surrounded it. It was ablaze with tiny flames of red and yellow: the brilliant flowers of the Indian paintbrushes that grew everywhere that sunlight fell. I let my eyes fill with the fiery display and, once sated, I turned to explore the deepest part of the shadowed forest that lay at the heart of the island. A trace aroma of some indiscernible compost drifted to me and I followed the odor to its source. From among a bed of grass and pine needles, the vacant eye of a bleached white sheep’s skull stared up at me. Almost all of its teeth were intact, and nearby I found most of the rest of its skeletal remains, with a few tufts of wool scattered among the bones. Looking around I soon discovered the remnants of other animals. Here, in the island’s verdant interior was another spectral enigma, but unlike the remains of the solitary bird, this graveyard grove contained the bones of a small herd of animals. I knew that sheep had been and were still raised on many of Maine’s islands, so the presence of the animals’ remains didn’t surprise me. The story behind what appeared to be their simultaneous deaths was the riddle I couldn’t solve. The island seemed much too small to support any predatory mammal large enough to prey on sheep. I thought of the eagle. Was this pile of bones his dining room? Could he have picked the sheep off one by one, always bringing them to this spot to devour? Were the animals stranded here in winter, left to starve or freeze to death by some cruel or negligent shepherd? I picked up a skull and some of the bones and added them to the collection of sandy treasures I had harvested from shore. As I mused about the sheep’s fate I reflected on the concentric nature of my day’s journey. From a sea full of life I had made my way onto a shore composed of the remnants of that life and then passed into a forest so rich and alive that I had been shocked to find the stark remains of living creatures scattered across its lush interior. Each shell and stone, each feather and bone, was a letter or word that were part of the story of the cycle of life and death that the island told and together they made up a collection of pieces that fit into a puzzle much larger than the insular world they had come to rest upon.
I wandered shoreward again and smiled as I found Sandy and Hutch walking towards me. They had just completed the other half of the circuit I had been meandering towards. We spotted a deep crescent-shaped cove and hiked back to our boats to paddle them to this more protected covert. As we made for shore the eagle revealed himself in flight once more, this time shadowed by a mate almost as large as he. They echoed each others’ movements as they wheeled over the treetops and left us in reverent appreciation of their grandeur and grace. We made our way to an open hillside that overlooked the little harbor and wolfed down our sandwiches with the kind of voracious appetites that are born of the work and thrill of wilderness explorations. We talked a bit, but mostly enjoyed long silences, each of us trying to absorb the experience of an afternoon spent on an untamed rock in an ocean with clear horizons.
After naps on boulders and more beachcombing, we straddled our boats, pushed away from the beach and headed toward the mainland. With our sheep’s skulls bungied to our fore decks, we felt more like some Inuit hunting party than three suburban family men who sought the peace and risk of the wild to remind them that they were not defined by their heights of their corporate ascendancy or the depths of their personal bank accounts. The sea delivered one final gift in the middle of our crossing. As we focused on a lumpy rock we passed abreast of, it transformed itself into a pod of sunbathing harbor seals. We thought we had maintained a respectful distance from the animals, but were dismayed to see them slip one by one into the sea as we passed by. We paddled for a minute more, then giggled like schoolchildren when first one and then another of the shiny black heads surfaced around our boats. They fixed us with glassy stares from dog-like faces as we greeted each breaching animal with our gibberish of human language. Gliding soundlessly across the open sea, we were a minority of three in a world full of wild things. The seals’ fascination with us had caught us completely off guard and reminded us of a truth given to those who take the time to walk over pine needles in a silent wood or listen to the song of wind on waves. Curiosity, and the ability to wonder and revel in the mysteries that lay resting on forest floor or salt-sprayed shore are not gifts that are given solely to man.