Finding solitude on a remote island

After braving rough seas in search of the perfect island campsite, Bridges ended up at this beautiful island, owned by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, whose turquoise waters recall images of the Caribbean.
Levi Bridges
After braving rough seas in search of the perfect island campsite, Bridges ended up at this beautiful island, owned by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, whose turquoise waters recall images of the Caribbean.
Posted July 29, 2011, at 7:55 p.m.
Levi Bridges rests next to his Necky touring kayak on the Maine Island Trail.
Levi Bridges
Levi Bridges rests next to his Necky touring kayak on the Maine Island Trail.
The sun sets off of Isle Au Haut.
Levi Bridges
The sun sets off of Isle Au Haut.
Views off of Isle Au Haut.
Levi Bridges
Views off of Isle Au Haut.

In my previous job as a social worker with homeless adults in Portland, I developed many skills that I hoped to draw from later in life. By working with less-fortunate people who battled addiction, homelessness and generational poverty, I gained insights into harsh realities of the world that widened my perspective.

But I never would have imagined that any aspect of this experience would be applicable to sea kayaking.

As I slowly paddle the coast of Maine, it often brings back memories of my previous job. Sea kayakers on long, multiday trips are homeless in a sense, patching together a ramshackle existence of drifting from place to place, seeking refuge and becoming victim to the fickle nature of the weather.

This sensation struck me quite strongly last week, on my first solo paddle to Isle au Haut, a long, mountainous island about 5 miles south of Deer Isle, much of which belongs to Acadia National Park. The experience of kayaking alone this far out to sea had always been a dream.

Last winter, I had spent countless nights with the Maine Island Trail Association guidebook fantasizing about camping on one of the remote islands near Isle au Haut available to MITA members.

I broke the trip into two legs, stopping to spend a night on a small isle just off Stonington, then rising before dawn the next morning to make the long crossing to Isle au Haut. On the morning of my departure, strong winds were predicted to pick up early in the day. I made it to Isle au Haut just a they started blowing hard, ripping the cold Atlantic into crashing whitecaps.

In dire need of refuge, I paddled toward the MITA campsite nearest Isle au Haut’s central town. My heart sank when I rounded a rocky bend and spotted the tent of another kayaker who already had claimed the spot.

I must admit that I’m still trying to figure out how island camping etiquette works. For me, and I’m guessing most MITA members, the solitude of camping on islands encompasses the chief allure of sea kayak touring.

I’m sure that the lone person camping on that island gladly would have welcomed me to share the campsite given the weather conditions. But as I began paddling toward the camping area to explain my plight to this fellow kayaker, I suddenly stopped. I observed the rolling waves and bands of fog rolling in and, ignoring my instincts, I turned around. I just couldn’t bring myself to break this stranger’s solo experience.

Around the northern perimeter of Isle au Haut lay another small island with a MITA campsite. The decision to paddle there in the strong winds was not an easy one. It seemed so far away, and, for a moment, I felt truly homeless. Alone in a brutal world with no refuge from the elements.

All last winter, I daily had watched down-and-out people trudge through the snow from Portland’s night shelter to the day shelter where I worked. As I paddled back out into the howling wind, I felt incredibly connected to that helpless sense of not having a place.

I quickly found the other island’s location on my chart and set course there with my deck compass back out into the rough waters. The paddle there was not easy, surfing along big waves and maneuvering around rocky coasts in the high seas. But I made it. And the feeling of delight I experienced upon pulling up to the small island and finding it unoccupied was exhilarating.

I spent two nights camped on this small island that connected to a stunning beach of white shells and turquoise waters exposed at low tide. Miles out in the ocean, on this remote section of tree-covered rock, I experienced a glorious sense of aloneness. In a modern world of rising populations and increasing technological interconnectedness, these experiences are becoming harder to obtain.

So I enjoyed my days near Isle au Haut with great relish, indulging in that rare sense of peaceful solitude. Out here, there was no email to check. No text messages to read. The stresses of the real world, the fast-paced life of my previous job as a social worker, all seemed to drift away with the salt air and sonorous rhythm of the crashing waves.

“If you’re as lucky as I was to end up here,” I wrote in the MITA logbook before leaving, “then you must have done something right in a previous life.

“Enjoy your time here,” I ended my brief note. “Places this peaceful are hard to find.”

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