Boating, biking & hiking on Isle au Haut

A tranquil and foggy August morning in Duck Harbor, Isle au Haut. The landing float for the “mail boat” to visit Acadia National Park is to the left, with the open sea further left. Photo by Tim Plouff

January/February 2022

By Tim Plouff

The summer boating season was past half-tide, but despite less than favorable conditions for June and July, the logbook showed an average number of excursions thus far. It was time to use the best days of August for some serious adventures.

With two open days – and no one else to play with – I quickly made plans for an overnighter trip on Tegoak, my 21-year-old SeaRay 215, to “High Island,” or what is otherwise known as Isle au Haut. With almost half of the island part of Acadia National Park, there were dozens of remote trails to explore and the paved and dirt road that looped around the island – a 13-mile workout for the mountain bike.

The forecast was almost perfect: warm and clear for Thursday, maybe some showers after lunch Friday, but no heavy seas or winds. Time for a quick rundown of my gear – check the trailer, load the bike, and stow the camper canvas for sleeping aboard. It had been far too long since I’d slept on the boat; hopefully, I didn’t miss any essential articles of comfort.

The serenity of this sunny day was reassuring. Early morning traffic was flowing smoothly, and there was no one ahead of me at the gas pumps (always a good sign when filling both truck and boat) plus, I was hitting every green light through Ellsworth. The stars were aligned!

I had elected to launch from Seal Cove in Tremont because there was no crew to help at closer ramps like Sedgwick; and the steep ramp here is truly all-tide. Even when there is no tide and the trailer essentially “goes deep” at the end of the concrete, my good fortune seemed endless as only two early fishermen were unloading their lobsters at the end of the dock, and no one to wait for or be in the way of at this predominantly working ramp.

Tegoak glided off the trailer. Even at low water, and my looped lines caught the dock cleats just as intended. The bike was already in the stern of the boat, nestled behind the helm seat, with only the inflatable left to extract from the truck. One big lift got the rubber boat up and out, and I carried it over to the edge of the ramp, setting it down, partly in the water. As I turned to temporarily tie the line to a forward cleat on the boat, a loud whooshing sound interrupted my well-laid plans.

Barnacles. Several barnacles on the edge of the concrete had taken a bite out of the inflatable’s seam, leaving a jagged three-inch gash. My first thoughts of horror were followed by the realization that the patch kit was in the garage, not on the boat. Duct tape from the toolbox did nothing to slow the rapid exit of air. The summer morning was suddenly heavy with angst.

This just couldn’t curtail my plans. I would certainly need an inflatable for my exploits, but this one obviously wasn’t helpful. I threw the half-deflated rubber boat back into the truck bed, pushed the powerboat around to the front of the dock out of the way of any returning lobstermen, and quickly parked and unhooked the trailer. It was off to Southwest Harbor to buy a new inflatable.

As I raced through the dirt backroads towards West Marine, I could justify in my mind buying another inflatable. The deflated one was eight years old, had been patched several times, and had worked hard over many beaches, prickly landings, and dry boat ramps. It could be fixed and re-sold, but not today. A new one was coming along – and pronto.

A mislabeled boat saved me $100 at the store, but this was a need-it-now transaction. I took the inflated display model out the door and raced back to Tremont.

Pushing southwest out of Seal Cove takes you across the sandbar south of Tinker Island in Blue Hill Bay, around the beaches of Pond Island, and into Jericho Bay. Isle au Haut now loomed large on the horizon, its rolling peaks resting just south of Merchant Row.

The seas were still calm mid-morning, with the region’s working fleet spinning in circles around their gear everywhere you scanned the horizon. Tegoak skimmed along happily at 21-knots, skirting the islands and ledges at the eastern end of the Deer Isle Thoroughfare, past Saddleback Island, and then tightly flowing along Pell and the fully-exposed Wheat Island – all great stops when not on a mission, like today.

Flake Island marks the entrance to Isle au Haut Thoroughfare, the narrow and very shallow channel that separates “High Island” from its close neighbor, Kimball Island. The working waterfront isn’t this morning. And the pleasure craft bobbing on their moorings are unattended while the working fleet is trying to make money.

Past Robbinston Point and the remodeling project on the island’s infamous lighthouse, dumps you into Isle au Haut Bay, with Vinalhaven dominating the view west. Passing Moore’s Harbor and the always comforting greetings served up by several working boats, Tegoak powers around the exposed ledges outside Duck Harbor as we push past the steep ramp and mailboat float and anchor inside the protected inner harbor.

After wrestling the bike into the shiny new inflatable – bad idea – and then half-carrying said bike over 200-yards of the uneven hiking trail to the service road, it’s time to savor some island time and explore.

The cobbled road requires strict visual attention, while the hills soon have me perspiring in the mid-day warmth. Several side trips down ocean-side trails – all to myself – make the earlier ramp travails a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the loop road offers very few water views from the east side of the island but several enticing glances of Long Pond – the islander’s swimming destination.

Near the north end of the island, the dirt becomes pavement, and the houses grow in quantity. A long downhill brings you to the village proper, where a general store and seafood diner are filled with patrons. The smell is enticing, yet I press on to the town dock and other sites.

Visitors can take the mailboat from Stonington out to Isle au Haut daily, with or without bikes. The boat stops in the village and at Duck Harbor, where campers and hikers frequently disembark for a unique National Park experience.

Upon return to Duck Harbor, the bike stays on the float – not wrestling with that again. A quick – and very cold – dip off the stern of the boat re-energizes me in time to get to work putting up the camper canvas and turning the boat into a roomy floating tent.

Earlier in the year, Ryan Jordan at Black Pearl Canvas had lengthened the front curtains to still work as designed. Unfortunately, the two side curtains needed the same treatment, as large 3-inch gaps along the side of the boat were going to be certain mosquito entrances if I turned the lights on.

The sunset was fabulously framed in the narrow opening of Duck Harbor, the orange glow indicating another wonderful summer day ahead. Barking seals on the ledges, plus the crashing waves, entertained the campers on the hill next to the harbor and ushered me to bed early.

An almost full moon flirted with the glass ports on Tegoak as we circled the hook all night. Daybreak brought pockets of fog and a brilliant light fighting to emerge. A quick breakfast preceded a row back to the mailboat dock; it was time to beat the campers down the trail to Cliff, Western Head, plus Isle au Haut’s version of Thunderhole.

By mid-morning, my planned excursions were complete – with no human encounters, the beaches all to myself. The canvas came down, the bike was picked up from the dock (far smarter), and I pointed Tegoak north, back towards Stonington. Maybe a shoreside lunch and some fresh ice cream were in order, perhaps some more islands to explore before the predicted rains come, and then a return to the relative normalcy of the mainland.

It was great to be on the hook again overnight, out to sea, out to Isle au Haut in the midst of everything good about boating.

 

Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard V-8 power Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak, “place of breaking waves,” since 2005. He writes the weekly, “On the Road Review automotive column for, “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.