The instant I shoved my kayak off from Little Black Island, a small circle of rock and woods between Mount Desert and Swan’s islands, I felt like I had made a mistake. A whipping wind carried in large sea swells off the cold Atlantic that pushed over the already choppy waters like a blitzkrieg.
Out here, powerful riptides can form as millions of gallons of water flow north into Blue Hill Bay. This effect, intensified by high winds and sea swell, makes the ocean feel truly savage.
I stole one last glance at Little Black, feeling the temptation to return. But it was high tide. Launching again several hours later would mean having to carry all of my gear down rock ledges, a process I had begun to loathe. So I continued. Alone into the elements.
When you live out of a kayak, your life revolves around the tides. If I arrive at an island campsite at low tide, it takes three trips to carry my belongings — camping gear, food and a week’s worth of drinking water — up slippery, seaweed-covered rocks before I can haul my empty kayak up to the high-tide line.
While paddling the coast, my chief objective has become minimizing the number of times I do this to one a day. If low tide falls in the morning, then I aspire to reach my next campsite around noon in order to land on the dry top of the rocky coast. If high tide comes in the morning, I leave no matter what.
This explained my situation. I turned away from Little Black, out into the raging seas, not wanting to wait another half-day for the tide to fall and rise again. Then I quickly retreated to the more sheltered waters between nearby Placentia and Great Gott islands. Here, Mount Desert Island’s famous peaks rose before me.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the beauty of Acadia National Park on a summer’s day, other than hiking in the mountains, is gazing at them from the sea. But this fleeting sense of peace ended as I rounded Placentia Island and began an hourlong battle paddling toward the nearest Maine Island Trail Association campsite against wind and a strong outgoing tide.
Maine tides fluctuate depending on the lunar cycle, but they average around an 11-foot or greater difference in water level each day. When you spend weeks living by the tides’ schedule, it can become difficult to believe that this process of the sea rising and falling never actually stops.
In the modern world, I think we increasingly believe that any natural process can be shut off. A hot summer’s day can be erased by the rumbling to life of an air conditioner. Cars easily transport us over neat highways and bridges to stunning vistas in national parks. But out on the water, nature is in control. And you can’t do anything to stop its habits.
By late afternoon, the seas calmed and the tide began flowing back into Blue Hill Bay. My kayak gracefully glided the last miles to my destination of John Island off Mount Desert’s northern coast. I arrived at low tide and made the usual three trips hauling my bags up the island. Then as darkness fell and the moon rose, I watched from my tent window as the rising tide consumed nearly half the land below.
Living with tides this summer has forced me to give serious consideration to a variety of environmental issues, particularly global warming and the possibility of rising sea levels during the next century. No matter how you view this controversial topic, camping on a Maine island makes the potential impact of rising sea levels feel alarmingly tangible.
Imagine that you have moved into a new home, complete with a prime ocean view out the front window, and are just settling in for a good night’s sleep after a long day at work. Suddenly, you hear water rising over land that, an hour ago, lay exposed under the hot sun. Now the sea is steadily creeping up the coast and you don’t know when it will stop. This is what camping on the Maine Island Trail, where many designated campsites lie just a stone’s throw from the high-tide line, can feel like.
Yet there is something calming, too, about witnessing this natural cycle. As my journey along the Maine coast reaches its halfway point, I am full of uncertainty, wondering what challenges and adventures loom on the horizon. Whatever happens, I am certain that the ocean’s rhythm will remain consistent, the pulsating of the tides’ ebb and flow occurring right on schedule.