‘Another crazy scheme’

By Herbert Smith
For Points East

I’d come upon this 1936 canoe for sale on the river road, driving to Boothbay, where I was running a charter business with the schooner Eastwind. I admired the high, varnished mahogany foredeck, designed to cross great lakes, and the graceful sweeping sheer that ran to a tumblehome mahogany transom that would accept a small outboard motor. I thought to myself, Wouldn’t it be nice to stop paying the bank large boat mortgages, high insurance rates, payroll, dock and haul-out expenses – and cruise the Maine coast inexpensively, camping out on islands in this 16-foot blue canoe. At the end of the season, at age 75 and after 43 years operating a highly regulated, expensive, risky business, I sold it and bought the canoe. I named the canoe Christy after Christina in “Phantom of the Opera.”

On a calm July morning, I walked down a path behind our log-cabin home in Sheepscot, Maine, to the banks of the Dyer River, where I’d anchored the canoe high and dry on the marsh grass. I purchased a 3.5-horsepower Mercury outboard motor. The canoe didn’t leak, and would make 10 knots with just me in it. It was 5 a.m., and I was there at that hour so I could get over the reversing falls in Sheepscot Village at slack high tide to get into the Sheepscot River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

I pushed the stern into the river and climbed in over the bow. The outboard started fine in the cool, calm air, and the eastern sky was glowing red. I saw a deer bouncing over the marsh grass, where it had probably been feeding during the night. Two eagles were swooping down on one another, high above in the blue sky – a courting ritual.

I felt great, and grateful to my wife, Doris, who helped me revarnish the canoe all winter, and had agreed to let me go by myself today and meet me along the way at camping locations with tent and sleeping bags. She doesn’t like small boats and has some PTSD from other off-the-wall adventures I talked her into.

The morning forecast was excellent, so I told her to stop in Camden, a distance of 56 miles, at mid-afternoon, and if I wasn’t there by 4 p.m. to meet me in Jonesport, another 40 miles east, that evening. I started down the winding Dyer River toward Sheepscot Village, about one mile, making seven knots.

Even though I had an antique boat, my navigation was much more advanced than it was on the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind, on which I’d served 55 years earlier. Then we had just sextant and radar – no satellite telephones, no global positioning, no computers. The internet didn’t exist. No satellite weather forecasting. This cruise, I had a handheld GPS.

About 6 a.m., I was near Wiscasset, where, atop a rusty old railroad bridge was the largest group of nesting blue herons I’d ever seen. I reached the new Route 1 bridge, from which I had 51 miles to go to Camden harbor. I felt joyful, and, as Doris would say, was “off on another crazy scheme.” From Wiscasset, I had to make an odd 90-degree left turn, then right around buoys to start back down the Sheepscot River. Two ospreys flew off the last green buoy as I went around it.

The current here can run out at four knots or more during ebb tide, so my speed increased dramatically. The river is well marked with Coast Guard buoys, and I wondered how costly they must be to maintain, yet I was thankful they were there. What would Capt. John Smith have done in the 1600s? I thought. I supposed he would have put a man aloft who could tell him when he was about to hit a ledge, of which there are plenty.

Halfway down the river I could have stopped at Ram Island or Little Ram Island, but it was only 7 a.m., and I was looking forward to what was around the next bend in the river, and to meeting Doris in Camden. I filled the gas tank again, which only holds one-third of a gallon; at eight knots I was getting about 25 miles per gallon.

The whole round-trip to Camden would take less than five gallons with this canoe. As I have wondered in the past, perhaps motorboats are less expensive than thousands of dollars of petroleum-based Dacron sails, rigging lines and ballast. I won’t be crossing any oceans in this canoe, as I did with my sailing vessels. But today, if I was doing it again, I would consider a motorsailor with plenty of fuel. Twenty percent of the world’s oceans are too calm to sail, and you have to wait for wind or motor. Eighty-six days is the longest a sailing ship waited in the past.

When I came to Isle of Springs, after clearing floating seaweed from my propeller I went inside of it to the east, past a pipe daymark on a ledge, and briefly stopped at Indiantown Island. It’s 60 acres and well-named because, in the 1990s, an archaeological dig found artifacts of Indians who lived there long before Capt. John Smith arrived in these waters. Indiantown Island has nice walking trails, but I stopped there because the Boothbay Region Land Trust – when building a short bridge to the island and developing it had been proposed – built in a small dock and saved the island for all of us.

At 7:30 a.m., I was heading for Townsend Gut, between Southport Island and the mainland. One hundred years ago, you could only get to Southport by ferryboats or pulled across on a raft tied to a line. Today, there’s a “new” bridge, built in 1934, which could only be opened with a hand-crank until 1939, when they installed an electric motor that’s still in use today.

Elwin Page was on his bridge shift, and I waved to him but didn’t need the span to open. Sometimes it breaks down, not because of the electric motor, but because of breakdowns with the newer hydraulics for locking it closed or open. At such times, the Coast Guard has to pull it shut with their 40-footer, or no one could get off or on the island for days. Today the gut was calm, like glass, and with an ebbing tide I flew through it easily.

Then I was into Boothbay outer harbor. I passed Mouse Island, with an eagle’s nest on the southern end. Mouse once had a huge hotel, with tennis courts, until it burned down in the 1950s. It was then bought by the late Rev. Harry Emerson Forsdick, a New York City preacher. He liked to bowl, and installed two candlepin bowling alleys in a long building on the north end. He had high school kids set up the pins.

I had now covered 18 miles of the 56 miles to Camden – or the 103 to Jonesport. The only problem was, every 10 minutes floating seaweed would get tangled in the outboard propeller – but it was easy to clear. I was now heading for Burnt Island, which has a lighthouse. The state owns the island, but the Coast Guard maintains the light and foghorn. I was told that it’s called Burnt because fishermen put their nets on the rocks to dry, and they caught on fire, thus Burnt Island.

Next, I headed for Ram Island light to the south. Maine has many islands named after animals: In this harbor alone are Mouse, Pig, Squirrel, Heron and Ram. Ram Island had a small, wooden bridge from the keeper’s house to the granite lighthouse, used for refueling the kerosene fresnel lens. The bridge was destroyed by a misguided fishing schooner that hit it in a fog. I almost did this with schooner Appledore in the 1970s, before GPS and radar.

In the distance, I could see the lighthouse at The Cuckolds, which is now a bed-and-breakfast, and Damariscove Island. The latter was the first settlement in what is now the United States, fishermen from England and France preceding the Pilgrims. Rachel Carson lived on Southport and went to Damariscove often while she wrote “Silent Spring.”

Just north of Ram Island, at dusk, we could see the flash of six other lighthouses. There are a lot of lighthouses in Maine, but don’t be fooled like I was once: There are actually more in Michigan. In 1965, the Ram Island fresnel lens was stolen, but recovered by the Coast Guard. It’s now at the Boothbay Historical Society.

From Ram, I headed almost due east across Johns Bay to Pemaquid light, passing both outer and inner Heron Islands, where I was told great blue herons nest. Maybe they do, but a better place to see them up close I found out is at the railroad bridge in Wiscasset.

The open ocean was calm today. If it hadn’t have been, I would not have attempted this passage. “You don’t have a offshore boat,” Doris kept reminding me.

Our plan was for her to wait by the telephone until I got to my destination to call her, either Camden or Jonesport. She asked “what if I don’t get your call, when should I call the Coast Guard?” I reassured her that I wouldn’t go if it was unsafe.

I could see Monhegan Island and Pemaquid clearly. No fog, no wind, no swell: It was a beautiful day to attempt this in a canoe. In the past, I have seen 15-foot waves crashing on the rocks at Pemaquid Point. I quickly got to the bell buoy just off Pemaquid lighthouse. In 1917, a coal ship wrecked on the rocks. The crew was saved, but a hurricane came up and the coal was strewn all over the point, and the town folks picked it up to heat their homes for the winter.

It was only 9:30 a.m., and I set a course for Davis Strait, between Davis Island and Thompson Island, and started across Muscongus Bay, which, in Native American Abenaki, means “Fishing Place.” From the proliferation of lobster buoys I saw, I would say it’s still a fishing place. Many of the islands in Muscongus Bay were settled during the Revolutionary War.

As I was heading across the bay east, steering by a canoe compass, I was having difficulty picking up my next buoy off Eastern Egg Rock, when a large motor yacht overtook me. I thought he was going to Penobscot Bay, so I decided I will just follow him. He pulled away from me, but not in the direction of Eastern Egg Rock. How foolish of me! He was heading up the St. George River to Thomaston. What’s the matter with me? My brain was in a fog!

I was disappointed with myself. Why am I becoming so disoriented, I asked myself? Fortunately, with my GPS I found the red buoy off Egg Rock and headed right over to it. I now have more compassion for people who get lost in the fog. On Egg Rock, I saw all the Audubon Society huts that protect the Maine puffins from the black-backed gulls, which eat the newborn chicks.

I now headed for Davis Island, once again thankful it was clearly marked with Coast Guard buoys. I had been under way for six hours, and my legs were cramping, so I moved to another seat and took out a peanut butter sandwich. Suddenly, a large wolflike head came up right in front of the canoe. It was a harp seal, about 500 pounds of fish-eating mammal, and I wondered if, like leopard seals in the Antarctic, they would follow a man across the ice, hoping for a change in diet.

I picked up the red buoy off Davis Island, marking Griffin Ledge to port, and continued toward Port Clyde. Many shoal areas are in the approaches to Port Clyde, once a fishing village with a sardine factory that burned down in 1970.

The entrance to the harbor is marked by Marshall Point light, which I passed closely, then headed towards Mosquito Island. The sun was directly overhead, with a slight south wind, and my outboard was running fine. I had to fill the small gas tank about every 15 minutes or less. Large tankers travel up this bay often, but I saw only a few lobster boats.

I was heading for Muscle Ridge Channel and Two Bush light, which I could see eight miles in the distance. I wished I could stop and stretch my legs, but, instead, I limbered them up in the canoe. I took a drink of water and opened a melted chocolate bar, and being out here alone in the middle of the bay, with a crescent moon above and no passenger responsibility, I was pretty content. It wasn’t rough, and no fog or threat of storms, so I decided to stay in the middle of the bay rather than navigate the Muscle Ridge Channel. I would head directly up the bay to Camden to call Doris.

It took a long time to get up to Monroe Island, off Owls Head Light, but once through Owls Head Bay I could see the Rockland Breakwater light, and about here I made a stupid, nearly fatal mistake.

The canoe was moving along nicely in a calm sea; my legs, after nine hours in the boat, were very stiff; so I stood up for awhile. After looking around, I decided to sit down on the starboard gunwale, instead of a seat, so I could watch the wake behind me as we made about seven knots. Big mistake!

The canoe suddenly heeled over, and I fell backward into the water. Spray started coming over my jacket and into the canoe. I was holding onto the gunwale with both hands and lay out flat on my back. I didn’t lose my grasp, but the thought occurred to me. Then an intense adrenaline force caused me to perform a extraordinary sit-up that threw me back into the canoe dripping wet.

Slumped in the bottom of the canoe I heard myself impulsively say out loud, “Thank you, God! Thank you so much! I’m still alive!” Imagining what almost happened, on a perfectly calm day out here in a canoe, I wondered again what was the matter with me. I am grateful that God has put into us the instinct for survival. One can never underestimate it.

I arrived at Curtis Island Light, at the entrance to Camden Harbor, at 3 p.m. It was built in 1835 by order of President Andrew Jackson. Then it was called Negro Island, because Capt. John Smith, in the 1600s, had given it to his black cook. The name was changed to Curtis in 1934 after a longtime benefactor of Camden. Deep in the harbor, I tied up to the dinghy dock.

To my amazement, Doris and her dog Scamp were waiting for me, with our tent and sleeping bags in the trunk. “Why are you so wet?” she asked.

When I told her I nearly fell overboard, she cried, “WHAT! Are you serious?”

I could see that she was distraught, and, because of my close call, I was not into continuing in this way, especially at my age. I wasn’t 30 anymore, and, sobered by the experience, I said “Let’s go home, get the trailer, drive to Jonesport with the canoe, and go to Roque Island from there.” This is what we’d originally planned to do the previous winter. “Thank God, you’ve finally come to your senses,” she said. In 45 minutes, we were back in Sheepscot.

I was delighted to wake up the next morning with a urinary infection: I wasn’t dead on the bottom of Penobscot Bay. I went into the Togus Veterans Administration Urology Service, where I was given a bottle of antibiotics.

In Camden, there’s a nice, free public boat ramp, which makes it possible to have a little boat and big adventures on a limited income: Put it in, take it out, no docking or mooring fees or boatyard expenses. No boat insurance either: They are covered for liability on your homeowner’s policy if under 20 feet.

In Camden, we put Christy on our trailer and headed for Jonesport, less than 70 miles. En route, we traversed the impressive, new Bucksport bridge that spans the Penobscot River, which goes all the way to Bangor and beyond.

Part two will appear in the Midwinter issue. Herb Smith, wife/shipmate Doris and mini-poodle Scamp live in a log house in Sheepscot, Maine, near the mouth of the Dyer River. The couple has written five books, including “Sailing Three Oceans: Building and Sailing Schooner Appledore,” about their world-girdling voyage in the 1980s. “The whole point of this story,” Herb says, “is to keep your dreams going. Dreams never run out at any age. I hope readers get that from this story.”

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