This column was first published October 29, 2005
Two years ago, four of us friends got together to celebrate one of our gang’s 42nd birthday (it wasn’t mine, but I wish) on an island in Penobscot Bay. The busy summer season had ended, school had begun, and it was time to paddle off into the bay in search of adventure. October usually provides some gems of fine weather, and that weekend, early in the month, delivered.
The ocean was oily smooth, the air temperature was balmy and the weather divine. It turned out to be a great weekend of paddling, and the cool ocean environment made for great camping overnight.
By October 2005 it was time to replicate that great adventure.
Plans were formulated and trumped by the weather the first two weekends this month. The drenching rains put a damper on our plans.
But last weekend looked like it would provide the perfect window and all systems were go. This time we’d do a great circle route that would take us from Bottle Lake (near Springfield) south through a couple of lakes and back up to the northern tip of Sysladobsis Lake to a boat landing about a mile and a half from where we would start. From there we’d walk back and get the car – piece of cake!
We gathered at Karen Francoeur’s home in Orono at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, transferred gear and kayaks to her vehicle and trailer, and headed north. Paddling companions Robert Causey of Bangor and Andrea Iverson of Washington rounded out our foursome.
At Lincoln we took Route 6 east to Springfield. Just a tad or two past the Route 169/170 intersection is Bottle Lake Road (formerly South Springfield Road depending on which DeLorme you have). That took us directly to the boat launch at a sandy beach on Bottle Lake’s northern tip. What a joy is was to have an open sandy area to outfit and pack our kayaks. By midmorning it was sunny and warm, the air crisp and clean, and the smooth lake beckoned. We launched and headed south, full of enthusiasm and energy, like fillies out of the gate. Our tiny armada left four rippling wakes behind, echoing the white wispy contrails of jets high over head.
Bottle Lake connects to Junior Lake via a shallow thoroughfare. The excessive rain we’ve had this month provided an easy passage, even through the rocky places. After making Junior Lake we stopped for a stretch on Bottle Island where there is a well-used campsite. It’s hardly pristine.
After a bite or two of granola bars and some water we set course for Junior Stream on the southeast end of the lake. It connects with Junior Bay, and where the stream meets the open water, there’s a Passamaquoddy Tribal campground on the western side and a wilderness campsite on a point of land to the east. We stopped on the point to have lunch and enjoy the beauty of the day.
Hardwoods in their blaze of oranges and yellows were framed by the deep greens of the evergreens and the brilliant blues of the sky and water of Junior Bay. I’d have been content to sit right there and fritter away the rest of the afternoon, but we had miles to go before we slept.
Bear Island was our first landmark after we relaunched. We made our way southeast down the island to The Narrows which afforded us a glimpse of the vast West Grand Lake to our east. Continuing south we headed to the narrow opening to Pocumcus Lake, stopping briefly on a sandy beach to stretch.
We skirted the shore to our east and headed through Pocumcus Narrows to Dobsis Dam that separates the narrows and Sysladobsis Lake. One of my maps calls this area Dennison Portage. Water was flowing full bore over the dam and through a fishway.
Since this was a mandatory portage and we had fully loaded kayaks, we were a little less than enthusiastic about the chore ahead, so we spent a few minutes exploring the area around the dam. It appeared as if there used to be a camp or some sort of building there at one time, and the map showed us it was a campground. We had the choice of camping there or to portage and put back in on the other side and paddle another mile to the campsite on the southern end of Big Island in Sysladobsis. We opted for the latter.
It was a struggle, especially with my overloaded boat, but we managed to get across the 200 or so feet of land and put our boats back in the water. Daylight was fading fast as we crossed the final leg to finish 15 miles for the day.
As darkness settled in we scurried to set up tents and bedding and start supper. I was charged with supplying our evening repast. We’d have tortellini, stir-fried broccoli and mushrooms, a beverage of choice, and brownies baked in a reflector oven. I’d taken pains to pack the oven in a waterproof bag and fastened it to the rear deck of my kayak (it wouldn’t fit in the hatches). I got a large pan of water going on one of the stoves. Francoeur got a fire going. Life would be good.
Where was that headlamp I packed? I knew I had at least one. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go camping without at least one headlamp. Could I find one? No way! I looked in every dry bag and hatch. Nothing! To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.
I wrestled with a flashlight in one hand as I did the kitchen chores, and Causey even let me borrow his headlamp (until the batteries went dead in 10 minutes…).
Iverson and Francoeur lent hands with monitoring the stoves as I obsessively searched again for my headlamp(s). (Eventually I found them – the next morning as I was breaking camp. They were in a dry bag in the tent obscured by my sleeping pad.)
We stuffed ourselves with pasta and veggies, saving just enough room for freshly baked brownies. Yum! The thought of them got my taste buds going. Now, where the heck did I put that box of brownie mix? Gaahhh!!! They were nowhere to be found! (Actually I did find them — at home, on the counter, the next day.)
Graham crackers, Marshmallows, and chocolate combined to make s’mores — not brownies but suitable in a pinch. I was so mad at myself I opted not to have dessert.
The campfire worked its magic warding off the chilly breezes. Stories, jokes, and conversation took us to bedtime.
The breezes turned to winds.
Sometime after midnight I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the tent fly above my head — winds howled, trees swayed wildly. I had a tiny window above my head to watch and wonder, What if those trees blew over? The wind had to be more than 40 mph and I’ll bet gusts approached 50 mph.
By daylight nothing had changed – southeast winds howled, rain pelted our campsite. We huddled in one of the small tents to drink warm coffee and snack on bread and cheese. Our planned breakfast of pancakes was out of the question.
Wet gear was stowed, paddling jackets and pants donned. The hooded MTI paddling jacket I bought at L.L. Bean a couple of months ago at a terrific price would get a workout and later a big thank-you from me.
We opted to paddle northward on the western side of Big Island in the lee of the winds. Then, we figured, we’d get a free ride at the northern tip, pushed along by the wind.
Not! By the time we reached the northern end of the island the wind backed around to the northeast to blow in our faces. And to add insult to injury, Mother Nature mixed in a dose of snow! I had to ditch my glasses; I couldn’t see a thing.
The rest of our trip was pretty much a 10-mile push against the wind. Everyone got wet to varying degrees. It’s hard not to when you find yourself sitting in a puddle. Rain that hard just seeps in everywhere.
We found the boat launch and pulled our kayaks up on the lawn, covering the cockpits to keep out the rain, and struck off on foot to retrieve the car 1.4 miles away. In retrospect, that walk was great for generating body heat. By the time I reached the car, I was almost comfortable.
It was an adventure, to say the least, and a first for each of us, so I asked Francoeur for her thoughts on the trip.
“I think what was most enriching for me was the unexpected, the unknown, around every corner envisioning what existed there before us, what glaciers formed the diversity and similarity of the islands and the shorelines.”
As we paddled, she said she “pondered why sand deposits lined some shores while rugged rocks and glacial eratics lined others … what lives came before us. Loggers that ran lumber through these waters, people who designed and ran this ancient steam engine now lying on its side, no longer needed. Who were the people that sat around the now decrepit fireplace that was once the center of a long-gone camp and thrived on apples from the same tree that we now enjoyed?”
Causey passed along a big thank you for another great celebration of his birth with friends. “The good weather on Saturday, and even better company on both days, more than made up for the wind and rain on Sunday. If I had to get soaked through, I couldn’t think of three people I would rather get soaked through with! Looking forward to our next adventure together.”
Me, too, Robert.
Jeff Strout’s column on outdoor recreation is published on Saturdays.