“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Down East Maine

Courtesy George Goff
"This is stupid!" grumps my son Val. We are treading gingerly across the rocky nesting ground of thousands of Arctic terns and the object of his derision is the three-foot wooden stick he is holding straight up like a flagpole over his head. No sooner have the words escaped his lips than a furious, dive-bombing tern slams against the stick, almost knocking it out of his hands. This aggressive tern is one of many that we will encounter today on Machias Seal Island, a barren eighteen-acre rock outcropping ten miles off of the Maine coast. Val may feel stupid but he follows the advice of the Canadian Wildlife Service officer who greeted us as we landed on the island: “The terns will attack the stick instead of your head if you keep it pointing up high.” The terns are very territorial and during the height of their nesting season they are frenetically attacking us as we walk along wooden boardwalks through the heart of a very boisterous and busy nesting area. The sticks divert the fury of their attack, so that they strafe the sticks instead of our heads, an alternative that Val quickly comes to appreciate.

Courtesy George Goff
Machias Seal Island is the culmination of an extended wilderness trip through far eastern Maine that combines a week long canoe trek along the Maine New Brunswick border with a visit to the island and a couple of days of hiking and biking in Acadia National Park. This trek takes us through a variety of habitats that make for an exciting and beautiful wilderness expedition. This area of Canada and Maine offers excellent outdoor opportunities with the chance to glimpse moose, bear, seals, and whales--and birds are everywhere.

Courtesy George Goff
For sheer numbers of birds however, Machias Seal Island would undoubtedly be the high point of this adventure. We had heard stories about thousands of birds that could be seen on the island and wanted to see for ourselves so we departed from Jonesport, Maine on the Chief, a boat captained by Barna and John Norton. The Chief sails from Jonesport for a two-hour run to the island, a picturesque outpost jutting out of the north Atlantic. The island’s shoreline is steep and rocky but gently sloping fields of lush green grass dominate the rest of the island.

Our first sight of the island confirms that we will see plenty of birds. The cliffs, the sea, and the surrounding sky are alive with wheeling, diving sea birds. Visualize a cloudless azure sky, the rolling Atlantic Ocean breaking in white spray against the island’s rocky footing, and a quaint red roofed white lighthouse perched in the middle of a deep green meadow. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque tableau.

Courtesy George Goff
Getting from the boat to the island is no piece of cake. After anchoring off of the lea side of the island, we scramble into a small skiff to ferry to the rocky shoreline. There is no pier or dock for visitor access and the rocks are exposed to the sea. The landing is treacherous and we hop out of the skiff onto slippery wet boulders, timing our leap from the skiff with the swells so that the surging waves do not wash us into the cold ocean.

Courtesy George Goff
This scary landing and the attack of the terns make us wonder what we have gotten ourselves into but as we hike through the tern nests up a gentle slope to the brow of the island, we hear the raucous squawks of birds carried on the brisk wind in our direction. A stealthy tiptoe into a series of wooden blinds constructed on the peak of the hill reveals a rocky sloping field angling down to the foaming Atlantic a quarter mile away. A group of small wooden blinds overlook the rocky cliffs and allow us to observe the primary attraction of the island up close. The snug blinds are situated within feet of thousands of Atlantic puffins calmly flying and sitting among the rocks within feet of our cameras. It’s an incredible thrill to see and photograph puffins that are less than six feet away. The gentle slope provides an unobstructed view of thousands of nesting seabirds. We spot razorbills, thin billed murres, black guillemots, common terns, common eiders, herring gulls, greater black backed gulls, and a lone sharp tailed sparrow.

Courtesy George Goff
To minimize disturbance to the birds, visitors are limited to about two hours on the island so we’re off the island way before we want to be. During our return trip to Jonesport, Captain John points out a Wilson's storm petrel shadowing the boat off to the starboard. As we near the Jonesport docks, we pass huge harbor seals sunning themselves on rocks in the harbor. Although we missed them, finback, humpback, and minke whales are often seen in the area.

Our Maine trip actually began nine days earlier when we sighted a large moose serenely feeding in a bog as we launched our canoe on Spednick Lake. A large, island dotted lake, Spednick empties into the Saint Croix River, which defines the border between Maine and Canada. Camp on the left bank of the Saint Croix and you’re in Canada, camp on the right and you’re in Maine. Spednick Lake allowed us two days of leisurely lake travel to get our "sea legs" prior to beginning the trip down the river itself. We had beautiful early June weather with a clear blue sky outlining the quaking aspen, paper birch, and sugar maple on the far lakeshores. Nosing around the bays, inlets, and small islands, we also sharpened our eyes spotting bald eagles, ospreys, black ducks, common goldeneyes, and green winged teal. It was isolated and serene and our first night in camp we went to sleep to the call of common loons.

On the third day, a portage around a dam in the tiny town of Vanceboro, Maine changed the nature of the trip from lake canoeing to fast water paddling on the Saint Croix River. The Saint Croix is exciting, but not dangerous, with practically all of the rapids being no more than Class II, easily run by all but the most inexperienced canoeists. The flat-water stretches interspersed among the rapids offer plenty of time for wildlife viewing. The Saint Croix is an isolated and undeveloped river surrounded by lush expanses of spruce and fir forests, only occasionally interrupted by the presence of a cabin or other sign of civilization. There are campsites located at well-spaced intervals along the river, each equipped with fire rings and primitive facilities. The first night we camped on a small shelf of land atop a squat bluff overlooking the river. Just before dusk, a Bald Eagle glided silently and majestically downriver, 20 feet above the water, followed in seconds by another. The next night we camped near a large bog, perfect moose habitat, but failed to spot a single moose, much to Val’s chagrin. Birds were everywhere and we continued to see ospreys and bald eagles each day. We were reluctant to leave the Saint Croix as we ended our canoe journey but we looked forward to the next leg of our trek.

We moved on to Acadia National Park. This 40,000-acre park, located on Mount Desert Island jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, is a haven for hikers and bikers. The park features converted carriage trails that provide great hiking and mountain biking opportunities. These trails are the legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who built 50 miles of carriage roads for his sightseeing enjoyment via horse drawn carriage. He eventually donated the land for the park to the federal government. We rented mountain bikes in the nearby town of Bar Harbor and toured Acadia over these carriage trails. 

With so much variety, this part of Maine guarantees exciting and varied adventures. Machias Seal Island offers spectacular birding and the always-captivating puffins. The Saint Croix River offers wilderness paddling. Acadia National Park's biking roads offer easy access to memorable scenery . And don’t worry about being disappointed, just the sight of thousands of Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal Island is worth the trip.

Visitor Information:

Acadia National Park
P.O. Box 177
Eagle Lake Road
Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0177

For information and outfitting on the Saint Croix River:

Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, Inc.

For Machias Seal Island:

Capt. John E. Norton
118 Main Street, Box 330
Jonesport, ME 04649

The number of visitors to the island is limited so make early reservations.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest.)

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