Distance: 47 miles
Duration: 9 hrs 49 min
10:30pm – 8:19 am
Gear: Hobie 14’ Elite, Quickblade paddle
The best-laid plans are often spur of the moment. After a fun day teaching SUP and sailing, I was at Pat’s Pizza in Bar Harbor, Maine enjoying some chow and a PBR. My partner in crime, Hampton, was checking the weather on her phone. I listened to the forecast, and in the back of my head an idea emerged: I should SUP around Mount Desert Island (MDI)…tonight! The tides were perfect, there was no wind in the forecast, and the moon was full. 4 hours later I waded into the water and shoved off from Bar Harbor. All I had to do was keep MDI to my left and keep paddling until I made it back to the same launch point.
Mount Desert Island (where I grew up) is the second largest island on the eastern seaboard. By my string measurement, the SUP circumnavigation route is 47 statute miles. I had wanted to SUP around the island for a while, but the weather, alternative time requirements, and laziness kept me focused on other things. Sometimes the stars align, however, and you need to jump on it! I had been doing a fair bit of paddling, needed to train for an upcoming 20-plus mile race, and was mainly curious if, and how fast, I could get around. Mount Desert is also one of the most beautiful places on earth. The scenery is stunning and inspiring. If you are going to spend hours trying to get around something, it helps when that object is appealing to observe (and when you are only going 5-miles an hour you have plenty of time to check it out!)
The water in Frenchmans Bay was glass when I launched at 10:30 pm. I quickly passed through the mooring fleet and slipped over the Bar Island Bar. A big moon was gliding overhead and there was phosphorescence in the water – tiny green lights erupted from my little nose wave and swirled around my paddle. My course took me a mile or so from the shoreline as I headed for a point across the Bay. I was in a world of my own. Small batches of fireworks shot into the sky above the small communities of Hancock Point and Lamoine. In just a few hours it would be Independence Day.
It took me a little over 2-hours to reach my first mental waypoint. The Trenton Bridge is the head of Mount Desert Island. I slipped up to the bridge in the dark and realized that the current was ripping against me. It took several minutes to claw my way through. Then I was greeted by a moderate head wind in Western Bay that would plague me for the next 5-miles. It does not take much wind in your face to make SUP progress much more challenging. I had decided months ago that a good portion of my paddle around MDI would probably have to be at night because there is often little wind. The night has several other advantages too; I find it psychologically advantageous to not be able to see exactly where I am going and judge distance. I also feel faster at night. The temperature is also cooler which is good when you are grinding.
Around 2 am I got flushed through Bartletts Narrows and pulled up to the dock in Pretty Marsh, where I grew up. Pretty Marsh is a beautiful spot that sort of feels like the edge of the world. Seals were splashing around all over the place going after herring or some other small fish. There is a little town pier. I was a little over 3-hours in. Hampton emerged out of the dark. She was following my tour of the island by vehicle. We chatted for about 15 minutes while I scarfed down some food and slugged a little coffee. That stop was the only time I got off the board and was by far my longest break. My other rest stops just consisted of my kneeling down on the board while I consumed some energy or water.
Soon I was off again. The next big waypoint was Bass Harbor several hours away. I was always headed for another dark point and there would be many before the dawn lit up the sky and brought objects into focus. All I could do was keep paddling. Overall my body felt great, but little aches would pop up; my knees, hips, or lower back mainly. I found that I could make minute adjustments to my stroke and that would help. Music also helps. I would turn it off periodically to enjoy my surroundings but I was a man on a mission and the music definitely helped keep my cadence up.
I really enjoy solo physical challenges. You get to break free from most outside distractions and your mind and body are left to work together. It is really cool when they get to play in concert together for an extended period of time. The body is the engine and it just needs to roll, but the mind is the control center. During my paddle I was always debating when I should eat/drink. What angle should I hold to my next waypoint. I was checking the current on lobster pots. When things were dialed in, my thoughts would wander off to other topics or I would just let it snooze. There is a split second after the release of a paddle stroke when you can let your body relax. I focused on breathing and savoring that split second and I would close my eyes for a few strokes. It felt like a mini nap.
The first sign that I was approaching Bass Harbor was the lights and sounds of the lobster boats heading out on their morning commute. The rumble of diesels was clearly audible. I remembered being a sternman on a lobster boat and how tough those early morning could be. That is rugged work and it put my SUP toil in perspective. Going around Mount Desert Island brought up a lot of memories. I passed by Seal Cove where I lived as a young adult and still take my boys to play on the beach. There were some sand bars that I had to hop over – I had carried sea kayaks over them before. The mountains of MDI were visible in the moonlight, and I remembered various hikes, trail runs, and adventures amongst them.
At 4:40 I rounded Bass Harbor Head. The sky was infused with red and the day was in bloom. Bob Dylan sings that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. I often find that my energy is at the lowest point around dawn. I paused off Bass Harbor Light to scarf down a banana, peanut butter, and honey wrap. Chugged coconut water and continued on. The current whisked me down The Western Way, I passed between Cranberry/Sutton Islands and in the distance I could see Otter Cove. The final Push!
From Otter Cliffs I was close. Bar Harbor was within reach and I realized that a sub 10-hour time was doable. I doubled down and picked up the pace. A southerly breeze filled in off Great Head and riding the now strong flood current, I paddled like an animal in the moderate downwind conditions. I passed the Bar Harbor Breakwater and soon I was cruising back to the same beach where I had started almost 10 hours before in the dark.
People follow different pursuits that make them tick. For me, I love the outdoors and I like physical/mental challenges. SUPing around MDI in perfect conditions was not extreme by any means. Similar to the power trooping mountaineering I used to do, it is just about plugging away. During my SUP tour of MDI, I kept up the mantra of just keep the board moving. It was a beautiful night/morning and experiencing so much of the island by SUP was a fantastic new experience.
It felt darn good to meet back with Hampton in Bar Harbor. She had a long night too with no sleep. We sat in the village green; my board safely settled in the grass and enjoyed some oranges and coffee. Town was all a buzz with Independence Day activities. The parade was gearing up and people were lining the streets. A running race was about to start and I felt a pang of jealousy for not competing. Instead I limped to the truck and headed home for a nap. I look forward to another trip around Mount Desert Island, but first there are some other Maine ocean SUP goals to knock off. Stay tuned!
Thor Emory is co-owner of Thorfinn Expeditions. He lives on Mount Desert Island and enjoys pushing himself on his SUP board. Next up is the 20-plus mile Blackburn Challenge in Massachusetts and a Matinicus Island expedition.