Saddleback Island

Low tide at Clammers Cove, located on the eastern side of the island. Saddleback is MCHT’s largest island. Photo by Tim Plouff

By Tim Plouff

For most Mainers, the name Saddleback has long been associated with the western Maine mountain near Rangeley that was a popular ski resort for decades before successive owners fell on hard times. While the ski trails remain closed, an effort to re-start operations is ongoing.

For many mariners however, Saddleback Island denotes a whole different recreational focal point – and I don’t mean the Saddleback Islands in the Bahamas, in Queensland, Australia, or up in Alaska.

At the eastern end of Merchant Row, parallel to the Deer Island Thoroughfare, right up against the edge of Jericho Bay on Maine’s mid-coast, lies Saddleback Island, the largest island (78-acres) in the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) necklace of granite pearls that populate the cold waters south of Stonington, Maine.

It’s late August and joining us for the day are our regular boating partners, Diane and Nat Smith, and their sister and brother-in-law Allison and Andy Moorwood, who will soon be closing up their “camp” in Trenton, Maine, and returning to Southern California. It is a lifestyle contrast that other Maine summer visitors know all too well; quiet, scenic sunsets on the coast of Maine compared to the constant thrum of millions in the country’s most populated state.

We elect to launch our two powerboats from Tremont’s Seal Cove on the west side (the quiet side) of Mount Desert Island. This is an easy, but sometimes busy, all-tide, paved ramp with ample dock space and good protection from strong winds except for heavy blows from the west. Most of the boats bobbing on their moorings are pleasure craft today, as the parking spots have been consumed by the working fleet – the lobster fishermen who were out to sea way ahead of our 9:00 a.m. arrival.

Andy has beaten us to Tremont, so we help him launch his Glacier Bay 2270 Isle Runner first. A double-hulled power catamaran with a raised helm station, large v-berth, and twin-outboard engines, Moorfun is slightly longer than our SeaRay 215 Express Cruiser, but towers over us in height with its rocket launchers – fishing-rod holders – affixed to the framed soft-top vs. our collapsible bimini top.

We will use just one inflatable boat today, since we can affix ours directly to the stern cleats where it doesn’t foul the inboard-outboard engine’s prop or get caught in the plethora of lobster buoys that populate Maine’s waters. Andy’s towing setup, with his twin outboards, isn’t as simple.

It’s clear, but cool, with a forecast for 5-10 knots from the northwest that will eventually move around to the northeast, with mid-day clouds along the coast. As we exit the harbor at Seal Cove, and head into west Blue Hill Bay, we’re greeted by breaking two-foot waves and a breeze that belies the day’s forecast.

With Moorfun in tight formation behind our wake, we head for the bar crossing, aptly enough, south of Bar Island in the center of Blue Hill Bay, and cross north of Pond Island. Pond Island is a favorite stop of ours for exploring and relaxing when weather conditions deteriorate, dictating that we put in somewhere.

I am taking a fair amount of spray over the starboard windshield, while my navigator, Kathy, has tucked in behind me on the helm seat, where she remains perfectly dry. Invigorating yes, yet my right side is fast becoming very salty and my glasses are spotted with salt water after repeated wiping. Still, we’re able to maintain a speed of about 20 knots, and work deliberately to cross the bay into Brooklin’s Naskeag Point harbor where I can clean my glasses in calmer waters.

The wave action has slowed Andy’s pace a bit, the double-hulled cat weaving and wallowing in the quartering seas, but he quickly catches up and laughs at my second shower of the day. Both of us have caught toggles attached to lobster buoys – which ones are and which ones aren’t is a constant visual search – but both us have managed to get free without stopping. His boat’s curtained pilot space is dry.

A quick spin around Harbor and Hog Islands at the end of Eggemoggin Reach puts the wind behind us as we push south past Deer Isle’s Greenlaw Neck, hugging White Island, Potato Island, and Hen Island, threading through the numerous granite ledges that fill this region. Usually more cautious than I am, Andy nonetheless (blindly?) trusts me as we weave through prop-seeking granite outcroppings as if we know exactly what we are doing and where we are going – just like the fishermen. For the most part, we do.

Passing by Little Lazy Gut Island, we slow to contemplate the lone cabin resting in the center of this rocky private island. Renting the cabin and enjoying your own private island for a secluded visit is possible for only $1,600 a week via Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, an item my navigator adds to her mental bucket list for kayaking.

From Lazy Gut, it’s a straight shot across the Deer Isle Thoroughfare to Saddleback Island. Well, a straight shot if you remain mindful of the navigational aids, as well as some notable – but unmarked – rocks, east-west boating traffic, and the local fishing fleet.

Part of the allure of Saddleback is that it offers incredible views east to Marshall Island (the largest uninhabited island on the whole East Coast) and Swans Island, northeast to MDI and its mountains, northwest and west to Stonington and myriad other islands in Merchant Row, plus a great vista south to Isle au Haut.

The northerly winds today suggest that a southerly anchorage will be more secure, so we wander down the east side of Saddleback between Phoebe Island and around the southern gap between Saddleback and Enchanted Island. The paper chart indicates that there’s 18 feet of depth at low water, which we are approaching, yet the chart plotter states “shoaling, five feet of depth.” I watch the bottom and tilt the stern drive a few degrees just ahead of a rapid rise in the bottom to just under five feet. Having already polished the prop’s paint several times this summer crossing sand bars I’m especially cautious, and the prudence pays off.

The southeast-facing cove has a lobster boat on the mooring and obvious evidence of visitors to the lone structure on the island, a cabin that can be reserved for two-night intervals by contacting MCHT. We elect to drop our hook further inside and stay more to the west side of the island, in order to avoid interrupting existing visitors. There’s plenty of space at Saddleback. Andy rafts up with us, and Diane rows us all to shore, including Loki, Allison and Andy’s labradoodle.

Once ashore, we meet the cabin’s visitors as we hike the sloping granite shore, a lobster fisherman and his family from Deer Isle making a return visit to the island for a weekend. After the dogs all meet and mingle, we continue west on the expansive low-tide shore, heading to the beach on the north side – the typical landing zone for visitors, especially kayakers.

While Diane, Kathy and Nat (successfully) scour the sands for sea-glass, the rest of us inspect the camping site and seek the trail that bisects the island and leads to Clammers Cove. An easy walking trail leads to more beaches and small pools of water only accessible at low tide. Loki basks in all of the different smells, rolling in each different aroma that soon cloaks his fur, while the relaxing atmosphere envelopes us.

Back on the trail headed south, an intersection lets us avoid the privacy of the cabin, and returns us to the mooring cove along a shaded shore path. The remnants of a former pier are framed in a granite-stone pyramid that fronts the remains of a railway sloping over the stony shore. Somebody once lived here, or at least visited often enough to erect structures making access less forbidding. All that remains now are small reminders, and a discreet, tiny cabin.

After a late lunch aboard, the skies have clouded up and the temp has dropped into the high 60’s. We leave around the west side of Saddleback, eyeing the large erratics – rocks that differ from the size and type of rock native to the area in which they rest – prominently displayed on clean, granite ledges, highlights of what powerful storms leave behind in this region, and all along the coast.

Easing past the Shingle Island ledges, the compass states that a 60-degree heading takes us directly to the northern edge of Pond Island, where a turn east will take us right back to Tremont and the end of another great day on the water. The winds are lighter, and now on our nose, making the return trip slightly smoother, and certainly dryer.

Andy’s season is over, but our little SeaRay is going to get many more hours this summer – and so, too, will its new trailer – as there are more Maine treasures to visit.

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.