Thursday, July 28, 2011

Porcupine Islands Again

Basics: Launch Bar at the end of Bridge Street in Bar Harbor. No parking: parking is available on West Street and side streets. No facilities: the information booth on Thompson Island has toilets, as does the town dock.  High 8.22AM Launch 9:00AM Finish 1:30 PM, 12 miles.

The Porcupines again?  Why not, not only are the Porcupines only an hour away, but I think the Porcupine Islands are one of the best sea kayak trips Maine has to offer.  They have dramatic cliffs, water which feels like open ocean instead of a pond, salt air smell and most important, a backdrop of mountains, lobster boats and sailboats.  And, as is probably no coincidence, Bar Harbor offers many guided kayak tours out to the Porcupines.  Most of the group trips won’t make it out as far as Long Porcupine, much less Ironbound, but there are plenty of great sites on the inner islands as well.

We arrived at 8:30AM, just after high tide.  We headed down Bridge Street, which leads to the bar which gives Bar Harbor its name, a sand and gravel bar between Mount Desert Island and Bar Island.  A new lime green sign cautioned us that parking is not allowed on the bar.  Any temptation to park on the bar was negligible at that hour, as Bridge Street dead ended right into Frenchman’s Bay, with barely room to turn a car around.  We offloaded our kayaks and lined them up tightly against a stone wall.  Then Mark headed off to find one of the few street parking spaces left.  (Morning whale watches leave at 8:30 so the streets fill quickly.) 
Backing down, as Mark drove up, was a trailer full of tandems headed out on tour.
The bar at high, this couple awaits their tour, Mark's boat peaks out by their feet.
Much of the area between Bar Island and Mount Desert Island (MDI- the island with Bar Harbor and other towns on it) drains out by low tide, we took advantage of the high tide to cross over that land, passing by a different set of tandems, this nicely grouped set one which had probably launched from the Town Docks. 
Guillemots were in abundance near the cliffs, the spring weather must have been favorable for them; good for those who enjoy watching dangling red feet taking flight, and bad news for their prey.
Guillemots on rocks

Wind and swells were slight.  The Porcupines are lovely on still days, since we can explore the inlets and keys.  They are impressive in swell, since we can watch waves crash against the high cliffs.
Interesting fracturing on one of the Porcupines
We stopped at the Hop to free what must have been a suicidal attack periwinkle from Mark’s skeg box.  The tombolo between Long Porcupine and the Hop was completely underwater, and the beach pretty small. 
Clear paddling between Long Porcupine and the Hop

We wandered the beach, gathering some drifted trash and taking a few close-ups.  
Water moves over the tombolo
Then it was off to Ironbound.  A few of the inlets seemed tame enough to peek into.  A few cautions to consider should you consider doing the same:  think ahead of time about rescue options should anything go wrong; having a throw rope ready might be a good idea.  Watch the opening through the duration of a few swells to see the pattern inside.  Keep someone outside to watch for passing boats (and their wake) or a change in the wave pattern.  I’ve heard that you should back into caves, since it allows you to keep a good watch on incoming swells, keeps you cautious and makes it easier to get out. 

I never know which, if any, caves will be accessible, some are better at higher tides, others at lower, and they all depend on the direction and amount of sea swell, as well as what other boats are in the area.   A fishing boat filled with a family casting lines puttering surprisingly near the ledge meant one stretch was unavailable.
At the base of a cliff on Long Porcupine
On the way back we stopped at Rum Key for a snack (having promised ourselves Geddy’s Pizza for lunch.)  No surprise, before we left another kayak tour landed for their break. You can see them there in the top photo.  And what a beautiful place for a snack!  
At the channel between Burnt and Sheep Porcupine several harbor porpoise were feeding.  A few surfaced right beside Mark, but were gone by the time a camera was out.
It's easier to get photos of seagulls than porpoises
Coming back to the Bar, especially now that it was fully exposed, was an exercise in contrasts.  We’d been by ourselves at the Hop, seen no other kayaks beyond Rum Key, but on shore we were in the midst of explorers speaking a polyglot of languages.   I think it’s wonderful to see so many people outside enjoying nature, looking at the sea shells, observing the sea gulls, strolling Bar Islands beaches and trails.  Another kayak tour was launching, this one, filled with young children, bounced along like ping pongs, with one tandem continually grounding near the bar.  Strangers passing by took pity on the wanderer, wading into the chilly waters push it to deeper water. 
Cars were parked three rows deep at the end of Bridge Street, parked in what they apparently defined as “not the bar”, though it would be underwater at high.  Threading our SUV down Bridge Street, through the cars, walkers, dogs, motorcycles and bikes was a challenge, and making our way downtown along the narrow streets through the construction area was equally entertaining. (And this on a day without a large cruise ship in the harbor.)  But Geddy's pizza was worth it.
Bar Harbor is justly famous for its amazing vistas and access to nature. Though we spotted several groups, that was over a couple hours and several miles, each group was visually by itself.  These paddlers were lucky to see those incredible islands up close, to watch the guillemots fly from sea to high on the cliffs, to note the eagles soaring above, to spot seals and porpoises, to smell the salt air and paddle through seas of lobster buoys.


  1. Great trip report! Piqued my interest in visiting the Porcupines. I was just ready to start digging through my maps when I realized you already provided an enlargeable one.

  2. Great post..I can see why you return..lots of places to explore!

  3. Could you do this in a Walden Expedition (12.5') or should you really have a sea kayak?

    1. The Porcupines have variable conditions. It is ocean water, it is cold, it is important that you can self rescue. Circumnavigating Bar Island is pretty easy, there are lots of places to bail out. There's not a lot lot of traffic between Bar Island and Sheep Porcupine. The crossing from Sheep to Burnt is a busy shipping channel, where you need to yield, and is quite unsafe in fog. On the outer islands the cliffs grow steeper and there are some tricky bars. Wave direction and wind can determine how safe the trip is. Kayakers have died on Frenchman Bay because they underestimated it.