Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lessons Learned at Owls Head State Park

Basics:  Launch Owls Head State Park, free entry, sufficient parking, outhouse, long walk to launch.  Launch 9:30, finish noon, low 11:30.

We planned to launch from the ramp on Mechanic Street in Rockland and paddle over to Owls Head Lighthouse, then return back through the harbor. We planned to do this on Thursday, the one day in this two week period that we were both commitment free. However as the date grew closer, predicted weather grew worse. It went from being the warmest day of the week to expecting severe thunderstorms and hail. So Thursday morning when the weather report shifted again, delaying severe weather until afternoon, we decided to head out. But we changed our plans from one long paddle to two short ones, a short paddle out from Owls Head State Park, where there is a cobble beach allowing hand carried launches and a second short paddle through Rockland Harbor. We’d see the highlights, plus launching from the state park would allow us to test Mark’s kayak carts.
We arrived in Owl’s Head just after 9AM, when the park opened. The fog which had muted our drive was lifting and a clear blue sky peeking through. We hopped out of our car and discovered that the beach that we’d imagined we’d launch from was not accessible. Instead we’d be launching off the backside.

We headed down the trail to check out the beach, over 900 feet from the lot. The beach was a cobble beach, and with the outgoing tide it was apparent we’d need to wander through large seaweed and barnacle covered rocks to launch. Also, we picked up several hundred mosquitoes lingering in the calm of the beach who followed us back to the car and helped themselves as we loaded our boats and prepared for the drag down the hill.
Launching at the beach mid tide, seaweed and barnacles alreay exposed, I'm looking to see how many bugs I'll seal in with the skirt, and I'll take the net off shortly.
So you might not think we would be too fond of this launch, but it is an incredible site. Once on the water, the wind took care of our newly found buddies. In short order we were cruising by a lighthouse, and heading out to Monroe, a private island sprinkled with “Keep Off” signs. There we rode gentle ocean swells unimpeded since they’d passed Matinicus, while being cooled by a southeast breeze arriving over 50 degree water. Due south the islands of Muscle Ridge beckoned. Twice we’ve paddled to Muscle Ridge, both times the weather rapidly deteriorated and we struggled to get back against rising winds.

I love swell, but I have a great deal of trouble taking pictures in it. I have not mastered the one handed paddle brace that Mark uses and when if I’m focusing on the camera I don’t have feedback to help me balance my boat.

We were tempted to travel further south, but the chart we’d brought with us ended at Monroe, and perhaps because of our previous Muscle Ridge experiences we decided to stick with our initial plan. We headed to the shore and cruised through the calm waters of a private harbor used by several lobster boats.
And there in the middle of the harbor a guillemot (normally known as “a blurry black dots”) rested on a mooring.

Actually, there were quite a few birds about; laughing, herring and black backed gulls, eider, cormorants as well as osprey.

We headed back in to the beach, now filled with dozens of school children. They delightedly raced around the beach seeking treasures. My first thought was to remember how much fun I’d had when my fifth grade class walked to the beach for a memorable science lesson, and I could see these kids were having a similar experience. My second, and less honorable, was that we now had more targets for the mosquitoes.

The tide was lower, and there was no way to get to the beach without going through the barnacle and seaweed gauntlet. We got out of our boats in fairly deep water, attempting to save the hulls.

“Try not to flip,” Mark whispered to me. It’s no easy task to exit neatly into knee deep water, even using a paddle brace. I didn’t flip the boat, but on my first step I stumbled and wound up sliding my hand down a rock face. That pretty much sums up the process of carrying the kayaks to shore. My water shoes had a terrible time gripping, but though I had several missteps, I never actually fell on my face, which I count as a bonus. Though after crossing the beach, I looked down to see the bow of my boat splattered in red. That first slip had made several small cuts on my index finger, and the wet surface had kept the blood flowing.

There were no mosquitoes at the beach, I guess the army that had been there in the morning had retreated to shade as the sun grew stronger and the humidity dropped.
Another shot of the lighthouse
As we drove to Rockland for the second phase of the trip, the sky darkened, anvil headed clouds grew out of nothing and coalesced above us. Again our plans changed, rather than paddle in from the Mechanic Street launch we’d use the launch site in downtown Rockland.

It turns out Thursdays in downtown Rockland is a farmer’s market, with some amazing local soaps, and a portable brick bread oven as well as flowers and local produce. However, the sellers were filling much of the launch area parking. And it was far hotter than it had been out at Owl’s Head, mid 80's versus mid 60's. Worst of all, I couldn’t see the yellow buoy I’d admired so in the winter.

The fabled yellow buoy of Rockland as seen in December
We checked our chart, checked the water, and checked with some folkd wandering about the harbor. On our third try, we had success. A local sailor confirmed that there was a yellow buoy generally in the harbor, but it had just been recently removed.
Our arms exhausted from lugging the boats to and from the beach, looking at the crowded, hot still harbor, and with rain beginning to fall from those dark clouds overhead, we decided to call it a day.
Some boats near the launch
Those clouds cleared up on the way home, there was no thunder until much later.

We learned a lot that day. It really is a long haul to the beach at Owls Head, even with a kayak cart. Mark’s carts worked pretty well, though their small size did mean more weight on our hands. The beach at Owls Head State Park is not ideal for launching, especially on a falling tide, but very quickly it places you in some amazing scenery and water. When we launch there again, I’ll bring my sturdiest water shoes, and a more extensive chart. And, sadly, yellow buoy’s are rarer than ever on the Maine coast.


  1. Nice narrative and photos! Curious on how your new kayak cart performed? My experience (at least with commercially available ones) is that even with the straps snugged and pulled tight,kayaks find a way to "get free" and you are fighting a constant battle with having to readjust and tightened down your transported kayak.

  2. Mark's boat did well on his cart down and back. Mine, (fiberglass boat) and slightly bigger tubes on the cart, did well down. Heading up it needed to be reset a few times at the start, but then did OK. Mark's put smaller tubes on it since, but we haven't really tested it. The key seems to be to strap ahead of a lump (like a hatch cover) or under bungies or deck lines.