Kayaking on the Hudson

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beyond the Breakwater: Bar Harbor (long post)

Authors Note: Sometimes I find the "blog" format too short and restrictive.  This is a longer post; I just felt like writing.-Don

My friend Rich explains that his crazy ideas are brought to him by a little man who runs around in his mind.  He also says that there is another man with a hammer, a big wooden hammer like in old cartoons.  This “hammer” man usually smashes the little man before the crazy idea can take root.  Occasionally, however, the guy with the hammer either misses or fails to show up.  Then, the crazy idea becomes a reality.

My own crazy little guy has been running around for a while with this idea of some epic coastal paddle in Maine.  I think the “hammer guy” has failed to show up because, right now, the idea is just a vague notion about paddling coastal Maine.  It could be a 5-day trip with a local guide or an insane attempt to paddle the length of the state.  Once the idea crystallizes, I suspect the hammer will fall.  For now, I am just working on improving my paddling in preparation for my “dream” trip.

It was this idea to improve that led me to paddle out past the breakwater in Bar Harbor.  I have paddled the harbor many times and seen all of the Porcupine Islands up close.  But this time, I wanted to get more experience in “real” sea conditions.  So I decided to paddle south, past the breakwater, to the Thrum Cap—a big rock / small island a half mile or so off the shore.  The Thrum Cap is only a few miles south of Bar Harbor, but it is beyond the harbor, beyond the breakwater, beyond the safety of the islands.  The water here is big.  The shoreline consists of rugged cliffs and there is a good deal of commercial boat traffic—lobster boats and sightseeing vessels.  All of this makes for a good practice paddle.

To make sure I get some challenging conditions, I head out against the incoming tide and into a 10 to 15 knot headwind.  Once I clear the breakwater, the waves get bigger.  The wind is blowing surface waves of a foot or less but there is also the long, rhythmic swell coming in from the open ocean.  Because the wind is from the southeast, the waves are coming at angle which cuts across the swells which come from the south.  This combination of swells and wind waves makes for confused seas.  The swells roll in a relatively ordered fashion while the surface waves whip about at random.  My 16 foot Romany is the perfect kayak for the conditions.  Hand-made in Great Britain, it is designed to cut through the waves and take any punishment the sea can dish out.  I spend the first 15 minutes just getting my strokes into a steady rhythm.  I realize that coming back, the wind will be at my back and the waves and current will pretty much push me back.  I am a little concerned that the waves are not heading north toward the harbor, but northwest toward shore.  If I surf them back, I will end up on the rocks long before I reach the harbor.  No time to think about that now, just keep paddling.

My original plan was to paddle out to the Thrum Cap and paddle around it.  Now I am second guessing the plan.  There is a lobster boat that has been pulling traps just off of the Cap and getting to it would require me to cross the commercial shipping lane.  Already I have had several boats come past me on their way to the harbor.  Kayaks are very slow and very hard to see.  Being out in the shipping lane could be very dangerous.  The passing boats already pose a real threat.  The best way for me to stay out of their way is to stay close to the cliffs where commercial boats won’t go.  Even here, I have to watch out for lobster boats as I see several buoys floating nearby.  The problem is that out here, the boats are going full out and throw off a huge wake.  The wake literally bounces off the cliffs and comes back out at me.  Now I have waves coming at me from two sides.  This can really smack a kayak around, so I stay at least 100 ft. off the cliffs.  This puts me on the edge of the shipping lane…. So I play a game of cat and mouse with the approaching boats, carefully watching their course and trying to stay out of their way and out of their wake.

The cliffs are magnificent.  They rise straight out of the water and up about 30 feet.  The boat wake crashes against the cliff bottom, sending plumes of white spray into the air.  I am keenly aware of how vulnerable I am.  I think about all of the safety and rescue training that I have done.  I wonder if I could execute an Eskimo roll if I capsized.  Probably not.  What about a self-rescue?  I think I could.  I am glad that I learned how to climb back into my kayak unassisted.  I wouldn’t want to spend any more time in this cold Maine water than necessary.

I have now passed the Thrum Cap and it is time to turn around.  I pick a random lobster buoy as my turn around spot.  My Romany is just about the easiest boat in the world to turn.  Nevertheless, the wind, current, and waves make my turnaround a bit unsettling.  Now that the wind is at my back, it feels strange.  I was getting used to pushing against the wind and waves, but now there is no wind and the waves sneak up from behind and push my kayak forward and off course.  It immediately becomes clear that the waves are pushing me into shore, into the cliffs and rocks.  I decide to surf along the waves until I am about 100 feet off shore, then paddle out across the waves and start again.  Surfing the waves is easy.  The swells are long and low so controlling the kayak is simple.  

Paddling out across the waves is a different story.  I cannot head directly into the waves as that would negate any forward progress I was making.  I cannot paddle directly across the waves because they would hit me from the side and likely knock me right over.  So I have to cross them at an angle.  My bow is pointed just to the southeast so I can cut through the waves but still paddle across them.  The waves are now hitting the kayak as quartering waves.  The bow of the kayak slices through, and then the wave hits the kayak just behind the cockpit and pushes the stern.  Each wave tries to twist the kayak back onto a course headed for shore.  It is a bit tricky, but I get the hang of it after a half mile or so.

I am now fast approaching the breakwater and the safety and calm of the inner harbor.  I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to paddle around the Thrum Cap, so I decide to paddle around Bald Porcupine Island as a consolation.  The breakwater runs off of the island so all I have to do is paddle around the island and the other side will be the calm of the inner harbor.  How hard could that be?  Besides, it is the only one of the Porcupine islands that I haven’t circumnavigated.

I turn the kayak toward the east and begin cutting across the face of the waves.  At first, the process is the same as what I have been doing to adjust course.  Soon, however, the swells steepen and the surface waves become increasingly confused.  The Romany is being tossed about like a cork.  First up, then left, right, down, up, left, left again, right, down…there is no pattern, no way to adjust.  This would be exciting if it wasn’t so scary.  I instinctively tense my whole body, but I know that I shouldn’t.  If I am too tense, the kayak could easily flip when smacked about in the waves.  I need to stay relaxed and trust the kayak; let it roll and pitch in the waves.  Thankfully, I have been paddling this kayak for over 12 years and I trust it implicitly.  I relax and let the Romany do the real work.  Occasionally, the waves lessen and I paddle straight for the island.  When they resume, I have to cut across the waves at an angle again.  Now the waves are too steep even for this.  I decide to change course to the southeast and paddle straight into the waves.  This will take me farther out, but eventually, I will make enough easterly progress to clear the island.  Then I can turn the kayak, put the waves and wind at my back and surf my way into the harbor.

I am just about half way to the farthest point of the island.  Like Moses, the island has parted the sea.  Instantly, the waves shift from a northwest course to a northeast course (the only way they could go to get around this half of the island).  I am relieved that I don’t have to cross any more waves but the waves here are very steep and I am getting tired.  I am worried about surfing them.  I rise up on top of a big swell and the kayak begins to charge down the wave.  I put my paddle into a low brace position which gives me extra balance and also slows the kayak down.  I surf around the back of the island and into the inner harbor.  
Returning from Bald Island (in background).  The beginning of the breakwater is visible just to the right of the island.

Twenty minutes later, I am back at the town pier safe and sound.  It was an exciting ride and I accomplished exactly what I had hoped.  I pushed my limits, added to my experience and came back in one piece.  That little guy is still running around in my mind.  The “hammer man” is nowhere to be seen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Captiva 16' by Perception

Captiva 16' kayak with rudder
The Captiva is the big brother to the Carolina.  Like the Carolina, the Captiva is extremely stable which is good for beginners.  This boat is designed to handle a bigger paddler and more gear, so at 5’7”, I wasn’t expecting much when I paddled it.  I figured it would be a bit of a barge, but I was pleasantly surprised.  I had a lot of extra room in the cockpit, but was still able to use the very comfortable thigh braces which are built right into the design.  The seat is simple but comfortable and although the kayak is a bit on the wide side (25.25”) it handled very nimbly for a 16’ boat.  Perception carried over the dual-channel hull design so the kayak tracks like it is on rails even without the standard rudder.  At 58 lbs., the Captiva is lighter than I expected too.  It cruises nicely and turns easily. 

The only thing I found wanting was a complete lack of deck lines (only bungees on deck), but this is an easy fix.  For about $25 you can install your own deck lines.  While I wouldn’t recommend it for an advanced paddler, I think the Captiva is a good all-around kayak.  It is a better fit for someone over 6ft.  This boat is no longer in production, but you can find them on the used market pretty cheap.  The plastic that they used to make these is the old-school, heavy-duty, bullet-proof plastic that Perception was known for until they started thinning it out a few years ago, so these boats will last a long time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hudson River Trip - Day 6

Day 6
Our original schedule had us paddling to Irvington which is only 14 miles away.  Then on day 7, we would paddle 12 more miles to the George Washington Bridge where we would take out.   
Paddling in low visibility as we approach the Tappan Zee Bridge

We are up at 3:30am.  In the dark, we launch into fog with only 1 mile of visibility.  We reach Irvington by 9am, and the GW Bridge by noon.   
Dave snapped this shot of me as we crossed into New York City.  Normally, the word "Romany" is clearly visible on the side of my kayak, but my kayak is so weighted with gear that it is sitting in the water up to the yellow tape.

We arrive feeling very satisfied.  We have completed one of New York’s great paddles.  We all paddled faster and farther (in one day) than we ever have before.  We carried a week’s worth of gear and provisions and we got to experience wonderful scenery, friendly towns and some just plain great paddling.  Next year, we start at the Canadian border!
The George Washington Bridge - Our finish line.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hudson River Trip - Day 5

Day 5
We set off into the fog at about 6am.  We could easily make Croton Point by noon, but we need to stop in Peekskill at 9am and wait for some fellow ADK paddlers who are going to join us for the rest of the day.  We arrive early in Peekskill and we wait for Shari and Ellie, as the current dies then changes.  Our long stop means we will be fighting the opposing current the rest of the way.  
The Bear Mountain Bridge is a welcomed site as we paddle toward Peekskill

Crossing Haverstraw Bay takes forever.  The opposing current is full on against us now.  Each stroke burns my arms.  This simple 16 mile paddle has turned into a long, tough slog that will end with 20 miles paddled.
Our kayaks take a break as we cross Haverstraw Bay - the widest part of the Hudson

Jean-Claude lands on the beach with Shari and Ellie.  They need to catch the train back to Peekskill so they can get their cars.  Jean-Claude will stay with their boats until they are all set.  Meanwhile, Russ, Dave and I will go ahead and find the designated campsite that we read about.  

Now the weather is turning.  The river is whipped up into choppy waves.  The wind is blowing and south of us we can see lightening and hear thunder booming down from a pitch black sky.  The wind is blowing north-right in our faces, so it is likely this weather will be on us in less than an hour.  But where is the takeout?  We find only a platform about 8 feet above the water.  Dave climbs up and disappears for what seems like an eternity.  He comes back empty handed.

Russ finds a small trail leading off of a beach.  I follow it up to a road, but find no campsites.  Just then, a park ranger drives up.  I ask him where we can go and he tells me there is a landing site around the bend.  We load up and paddle around the corner where the ranger is waiting to wave us in.  Of course, there is no place to land; nothing but downed trees.  We haul the kayaks up and hike the quarter mile to the campsites.  We all decide the beach was better and no further away, so it’s back in the kayaks to the beach, then unload all of our gear and haul it a quarter mile to the campsites.  The showers that we were looking forward to are no longer in operation.  There are no bathrooms either, just a port-a-john.  
This is the "designated kayak" landing at Croton Point - what a joke!

We haven’t seen Jean-Claude in a long time, but we are sure he will find us eventually, and the thunderstorms have held off.  Russ and Dave hike into town (a 35 minute walk) for Chinese food.  I cook dinner at the campsite and discover that the defunct women’s bathroom is still functional.  There’s no shower, but there are flush toilets.
The small beach was okay for landing, but we had to haul our kayaks up on the logs so they wouldn't float away when the tide came in.

I turn in for bed completely exhausted.  I try to read a little of the book I picked up in Saugerties, but my eyes keep falling shut.  Finally, I give up and go to sleep.  I look at my watch and the time is 7:58 pm.  What was supposed to be our shortest day was by far the toughest day yet.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hudson River Trip Day 4

Day 4
Once again, we are up early to catch the current.  But today we will tarry long enough to get a hot breakfast at the local café.  Our eventual goal for today is Arden Point, but we are planning another afternoon layover in Cold Spring.  We launch the kayaks off of the dock and I feel the soreness in my shoulders and back from the previous day’s paddle.  By now, we are confident that we can cover the mileage so long as we catch the current.  Today’s total is only 18 miles, so it should be an easy day.   

We arrive in Cold Spring at 11am.  The sun has come out for the first time since day one, so Dave and I take an hour to spread out all of our gear in the park in hopes of it drying.  At noon, we walk into town and have lunch at a local café.

Roughing it in Cold Spring
  It’s a tough trip, but as far as food goes, we are not exactly roughing it.  I spend the next 3 hours in the library getting work done on the computer.  (Did I mention I was teaching 2 online classes the whole time I was on the trip?)  We are supposed to meet up at 3pm to paddle on to Arden Point.  In the library, I checked the hourly forecast and it calls for thunder storms at 3pm.  Sure enough, at 3pm the skies open up and it rains harder than I have ever seen for over an hour.  All we can do is sit on the train platform and keep mostly dry.   

My "camp site" at Arden Point was a patch of flat ground where 2 hiking trails met.
When the rain lifts, Jean-Claude announces that we are off to Arden Point.  I am worried about the next wave of thunder storms that is supposed to arrive at 5pm, but I am outvoted by the others who assure me that we can make Arden Point before the rain hits.  They are right.  The rain never comes and we set up our most wilderness camp of the entire trip.  Tomorrow is another early day and we are picking up other paddlers on the way.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hudson River Trip Day 3

Day 3
We have to paddle 26 miles today, so we are up at 5:00am and on the water by 6:15am.  It is raining lightly, but the air temperature is a nice 70 degrees—not too hot, not too cold.  We paddle the next six hours in the rain with only two short breaks.  We are soaked and as soon as we stop, we instantly get chilled.  Paddling keeps us warm.  Visibility is terrible, maybe 2 miles.  At least the wind is not too strong and it’s at our backs.  

By noon, we’ve covered the 26 miles and reached Highland.  The landing at Highland is under construction.  There is a big pile of dirt, an old boarded up building and a small, flat patch of scrubby grass that is now under an inch of water.  No one is looking forward to camping here.  The building has a porch, so we climb up and Dave and I change into dry clothes and rain gear.  Russ and Jean-Claude elect to stay in their wet clothes.  I am badly chilled and the dry clothes are a welcome relief.  

We walk about a half-mile up the hill to the local gas station/Dunkin Donuts/Subway and spend the next few hours eating, and staying dry.  At around 3:30pm, we wander out to find the rain has all but stopped.  We take a quick walk on the Walkway Over the Hudson, then hike back down to the kayaks.  We are well rested and it takes us no time at all to make the decision to push on.  Jean-Claude has a friend who offered to let us camp on his lawn and his house is only another 9 miles downriver.  Dave and I change back into our wet clothes and we shove off.
View of the Mid-Hudson Bridge from the Walkway Over the Hudson

The next 9 miles is an easy paddle at a very relaxed pace.  By waiting out the afternoon, we’ve caught the second southerly current for the day.  Unfortunately, there is no place to take out when we arrive.  We unload all of our gear onto land and carry it, piece by piece to the backyard that will be our camp tonight.  After some negotiating, we get permission from the marina down the street to put our kayaks up on their docks. As an added bonus, we get to use their showers! (Our only one this whole trip).  It is 9pm by the time we settle into our tents and we are exhausted from paddling over 35 miles in one day.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hudson River Trip - Day 2

Day 2
After paddling against the current on our first day, we all elect to get up early and paddle with the current and at slack tide (no current either way).  The sun and hot temperatures are gone.  It is cool and overcast.  We suspect that rain is coming, but there is nothing we can do about it as we shove off into the early morning mist.

Paddling a fully loaded kayak is nothing like paddling an empty one.  You would think that a fully loaded boat would be very slow and hard to paddle, but the reverse is true.  The first few strokes are tough, but once you get up to cruising speed, the weight creates its own forward momentum.  The average paddler moves at 3mph.  We are averaging 5mph.  We are paddling hard, and making great time. 
Russ & Dave paddling toward the Rip Van Winkle Bridge

Usually, kayaks stay far out of the shipping channel and hug the shore line.  It is much safer to stay out of the way, especially on the Hudson where football field sized barges are common.  But in order to catch the current and make time, we are paddling out in the center—right in the shipping lane.  It feels strange at first, but partly because of the time of day and partly because it is before Memorial Day, there is almost no boat traffic.
To get a sense of scale, I photographed this barge just before it passed Russ.  Can you see him in the photo?  He's the tiny bump on the water just off center below the trees.

Our destination today is Saugerties, 22 miles downriver.  The farthest any of us has ever paddled in one day is 22 miles.  Today we will match that.  The next three days, we will exceed it.  At least, we will try.

During a rare break in the paddling, we watch as an immature bald eagle swoops down at a goose who is sitting calmly on the water.  Just as the eagle is about to grab the goose, the goose dives under the water.  This diving and bobbing goes on for a few minutes, then another eagle joins in and they both dive at the goose.  Eventually one of the eagles catches a fish and they both lose interest in the goose as a third eagle (all them immature) flies out from the woods and the three of them fight over the fish.  Just as we are paddling off, the pair of mature eagles flies up to complete the family.  Five bald eagles at once!
The lighthouse at Saugerties greets us when we arrive.

We arrive in Saugerties early afternoon and five minutes after we set up our tents, it starts to rain.  We walk into to town and have lunch at a local restaurant and it rains hard.  We spend the afternoon at the Saugerties library, bookstore, ale house and local restaurants.  It was a good paddle, our tents are dry and we are well fed.  But we all realize that tomorrow we will be paddling in the rain.