The roads are uncharacteristically quiet on the way past Pretty Marsh and on down to Bartlett’s Landing. We’re on the western edge of Mount Desert Island, what locals call “the quiet side.” Just days before the July 4th weekend, the area around Acadia National Park has the feel of the eye of a hurricane, a bated calm before the storm of vacationers hits. It’s early morning, besides. We’ve beaten the daily summer clog of traffic, tours, bikers, hikers, and residents that never really subsides between Memorial Day and Labor Day in Acadia country. This is one of those places where thinking through timing and location with an eye to avoiding crowds looms large in travel calculations. At the landing the tide is out. We drive down the ramp into barnacles and seaweed before pulling the tandem kayak off the rack. Bartlett Island hunkers across the narrow strait. An osprey glides over. Seagulls wander in the mudflats, probing here and there.
I’ve mostly been an inland paddler, but these days spent along the Maine coast have been an education. By now I take notice of how the sailboats moored in the small harbor are pulled in a uniform direction, handy weather vanes for tide and wind. Considering the tide and wind, we opt to paddle counterclockwise around Bartlett, a calculation that rests on the hope of rising afternoon winds that will push us around the circumnavigation.
We work into our cockpits, move foot pegs, fit skirts. I study the map on the deck, look around to adjust to the scale of things, and then we drop rudder and start off.
Even on a calm day, at ebb tide, the ocean feels restless to me, nothing like the feel of lake or river. Under the hull of the kayak, the swell heaves and pulses. We paddle through a tight passage between exposed, rounded granite. There is salt in the air, the briny smell of seaweed. Water slaps and caresses the crannies. There is distance and wind and unfathomable deeps in the energy of the ocean. More than on fresh water, I am aware of the world of complicated mystery and offhand power beneath. As we paddle, we cleave the seam between dimensions. On a still morning, in a kayak, it feels like flying. Bartlett Island is privately owned, posted against camping without permission. Much of the Maine coast is private, but there are a surprising number of islands and public access points that allow for day-use and overnight camping. A good number of islands that are largely private have managed to set aside portions for public use. It’s worth having a current edition of the Maine coastal trail guide or other guidebook for up-to-date information on access.
The winds remain calm, but the ocean on this side feels different, deeper. New views emerge as we stroke past rocky points and beaches, finding our all-day rhythm. Around Western Point we can see down Blue Hill Bay, a broad watery avenue leading to the open Atlantic. Islands float in the distance. I notice on the chart that a quarter mile to our right there are places where the channel is nearly 300 feet deep.
Since leaving the landing, we haven’t seen another paddler. A couple of distant sails have been the only distraction. I know the beaches in Acadia National Park are packed. The road going up Cadillac Mountain is bumper to bumper. The town of Bar Harbor teems with vacationers on their way to the next crab roll sandwich shop. But here, along the outer rim of an island, off the quiet western edge of Mount Desert, we have the Acadian coast to ourselves. We and the seals and bald eagles and possibly a porpoise leaping out of the deep.