Monday, September 12, 2011

Portland Harbor, Maine

Basics: Launch Eastern Promenade, Portland. MITA suggests that kayak trips to Fort Gorges, Peaks and other islands of Portland harbor commence at Eastern Promenade to avoid the main shipping channels. Fee to use public launch. Launch from beach at no charge. Parking near launch: five minute loading spaces, 1 hour parking, 2 hour parking and trailer parking only (Memorial Day through Labor Day) , additional parking further up the hill. Restrooms. 2 miles to Fort Gorges and back. Launch 11AM, high 9AM, finish 3 PM. Our route 9.5 miles. Ferries go to Peaks Island regularly, but not to Fort Gorges.

When we arrived at Portland’s Eastern Promenade, our way along the waterfront was blocked by three huge dump trucks backing onto a barge at the commercial ramp; directly behind us the Downeast Duck Tour veered right, heading for the public ramp and behind that the Narrow Gauge Railroad cut off the road. Welcome to the big city!
Portland Harbor is busy, but it’s also filled with lots of interesting sights. Still, in September, conditions are great. Maine’s ocean water is about as warm as its going to get yet many of the summer visitors have gone home, so we get to enjoy paddling in some areas which we’d normally consider to be too crowded.
Caution: The MITA handbook recommends that kayak trips to the islands head out from the Eastern Promenade, rather than Bug Light Park. That way kayakers avoid the channel used by the biggest boats and tankers.
Why they recommend the Eastern Promenade Launch. Picture taken from Cape Elizabeth, Fort Williams.
Fort Gorges, left; Fort Scammell right.
As a part of planning, we were monitoring the weather, both land forecasts and marine forecasts. For Portland this was easy, as we could watch the local weather forecast online. And we’d delayed this trip for two days hoping the weather would clear. Eventually we had a good, but not a great day, with clearing skies predicted, calm winds but moderately big seas. So we were proceeding with caution. The day was supposed to clear, but we’d arrived in what we hoped was the last of the rain. Our first goal was Fort Gorges, visible from the shore on the day's quiet water.

Another quick check of the marine forecast on our marine radios assured us that no thunder was expected, so we headed out. The paddle to Fort Gorges is a quick trip, first a quarter mile along the shore then a three quarter mile crossing. No stop at Fort Gorges though, that was planned for later.
Instead we had another quick crossing, less than half a mile to Little Diamond. The south shore of Little Diamond just seemed to be the epitome of summer colonies, reasonable sized houses in tiers so they all have a water view.
Could be almost any summer shore, but it is Little Diamond
We then travelled along the shores of the two Diamond Islands.
Mark, just off Little Diamond, studies his chart, while a ferry and tourboat pass in front of Peaks Island
Our original goal had been to paddle around Peaks, but with higher wave heights in the marine forecast, we were reconsidering. Though the water was calm in the harbor, we knew it would be a different story on the far side of Peaks where no islands broke up the waves. We were also concerned about possible strong currents in Hussey Sound, which had been noted in the MITA handbook. It was mid tide and falling, so the current through the sound was likely to be outflowing. We entered behind tiny Pumpkin Nob, just off the end of Peaks, cautiously. We didn’t feel that much current in that small area, but we did see significant swells out to sea. Discretion being the better part of valor, and definitely the better part of ignorance, we changed our route, heading back along Peak’s west side, basically just on the opposite side of the channel we’d just paddled.
Our stop in Peaks center was short. Mark, “I didn’t come to shop, I came to paddle”, didn’t want to leave the boats, so I wandered through town a bit, discovering the seasonal public toilet hidden by the parking lot for the ferry. There did seem to be several places to eat, and a few stores clearing out for winter as well as a year 'round grocery.
The remains of Fort Scammell on House Island drew us next. Fort Scammell is not open to the public, but some tours are available. We saw multiple houses on privately owned House Island. There is also a beach, with a wall of big granite blocks that was just beginning to appear above the falling tide. I’m not sure if those were put there to defend the fort or the privacy of the current owners.
Mark provides a convient scale to one of Scammell's wings
Two Coast Guard vessels were working in the harbor. They’d arrived earlier in the day, side by side, but had since moved to separate areas. One was the Shackle, same class as the Tackle, doing something with what appearred to be a custom buoy. We crossed from House back to Little Diamond, which allowed me to pass by this wonderful yellow bell buoy, one of several yellow buoys around in Portland harbor.
Then back to Fort Gorges. Much like Prospect Maine’s Fort Knox, Fort Gorges was begun prior to the Civil War and obsolete before it was completed. More of the history of Fort Gorges is available on wikipedia. For us, it is just a fun place to take a break and explore. As per the sign we entered at our own risk, and clambered up and down the stairs, looking out to Portland Head Light. Fort Gorges is a good place to bring a flashlight, as some stairways are completely dark.
Patriot gulls with a "star"
Hopefully those aren't important pieces...

Fort Gorges may have been obsolete by the time it was complete, but several other Forts and Batteries were built in the area to defend Portland through various wars. After finishing our paddle, we headed out to another gathering of forts, in Fort Williams Park, in Cape Elizabeth just south of Portland. That’s also the home to perhaps the world’s most photographed lighthouse, Portland Head Light.
Look familiar? Keep an eye out, you’ll see it decorating items in coastal gift stores from Maine to Florida and everywhere in between.
In planning this trip we relied heavily on Kayaking the Maine Coast by Dorcas Miller, the MITA 2011 guide, tidbits from Paddling.Net Launches, and the Peaks Island Web site.
This link offers another report of paddling to Fort Gorges.


  1. That is one awesome paddle and trip report!

    After paddling Maine's awesome waters recently, I'm finding the local lakes around home a bit boring, especially after reading this!

    And the seafood around here is not quite the same!

  2. Ocean waters can be addicting; that's what we count on to keep bringing tourists back!

  3. Beautiful. I need to get myself up to Maine and paddle thos waters soon.

  4. A couple of summers ago we hauled our 17' Lund to Portland and spent the day cruising..we really had to keep our heads up big time as there were boats coming every which way..I would imagine you were on Extra High Alert in your kayak..Glad you made it thru the gauntlet safe and sound.

  5. We certainly spent a fair amount of time checking before each crossing. Most of the boat traffic was tour boats though, which stuck to a fairly straight route. I suppose that is the advantage to heading out midweek, post Labor Day, in moderately crappy weather.... Your observation is a good one though, most visitors to Portland should be prepared for more traffic than we saw.