Rock Garden Play in Casco Bay
Splashing out with local sea kayakers, including ocean educator and adventurer Tom Bergh, founder of Maine Island Kayak Company
On the Gulf of Maine-facing side of Cushing Island, the water is lumpy. That’s what Tom Bergh says, once we’re in the rise and fall of it. “Going to sea in a small boat” is how he describes such adventures in his decades-long pursuit of saltwater whitewater. His handlebar mustache twitches. His eyes sparkle. He’s loving this.
We’re in kayaks, looking up at the towering, vertical Cushing Island cliffs in one direction the ocean-surrounded Ram Island Light in the other. I trail a hand in the brine, and the early-September water feels warm. Several hundred miles southward, a hurricane is nearing the Carolinas, where I grew up, and the entire East Coast has been watching forecasts. Bergh earlier pointed out that one of the cruise ships in Portland Harbor arrived last night on an unscheduled stop, diverted from a southern port by the storm. On Casco Bay there doesn’t seem to be much of an impact, except for the swells. We’ve got a mostly clear sky on a late summer day and the thrill of rolling lumps of ocean water to paddle around in.
I’m a first-timer to all of this—not to kayaking, but to purposely heading out into big, bold water conditions. Bergh is the founder of Maine Island Kayak Company, a Master Maine Sea-Kayaking Guide, and a world-level kayaker, and he agrees that there’s a time and place for calm-water paddling, but he’d rather seek out more challenging ocean action. He enjoys expanding people’s thinking about kayaking. “It doesn’t have to be a float-past-a-lighthouse, no-jacket-on, mirror-surface kind of day.”
To get here, we caught a morning ferry ride to Peaks Island, where Bergh has lived since the 1970s and where he launched his sea-kayak guide service in the 1980s. While still on the sand beach beside the gear shacks at the Peaks Island ferry landing, we meet for an intro- duction to the water conditions and to the gear we’ll use from his guide service, which specializes in seamanship skills and longer trips to explore the waters around nearby islands. “The shore of Maine is rocky inside the surf break. A novice maneuvers around the rocks,” Bergh says. “But it can be a great place to play.”
“Rock gardens” is what sea kayakers call this zone. To get us ready to paddle into the spray, Bergh stresses safety and the importance of the “three B’s”: blade, his term for the paddle; boat, each person’s single kayak; and body, how we position ourselves in the boat and feel stable in our seat. Bergh, an adventurer and former backcountry skier who practiced law in Colorado before returning East, also shows us Gulf of Maine nautical maps and the day’s details about tides and currents.
Quickly, we are in a sea of numbers. Another guide joining us, Liz Johnson, reports that she observed swells just off Peaks Island this morning of 5 to 6 feet and lasting about ten seconds each. That’s good, Bergh says. “Anything over eight seconds has some real power.” The water temperature is 60.3 degrees, and the air temperature is 62 degrees. The peak of high tide, at 10.8 feet, will be later in the afternoon. (Along the coast around Portland, the tidal water levels range from about 7 feet to 14 feet.) If we get in our boats soon, Bergh explains, we’ll be paddling mid-tide, when the currents are biggest in Casco Bay.
Let’s do this.
Cliff and Ram
We pull on life jackets from the gear shacks, and I’m handed a cushioned hard helmet to wear. “We’re headed to the rock gardens,” Bergh reminds the group, and directs me to a 16-foot-long sea kayak, a classic model built by Sea Kayaking UK, which he says is known to be “easy to roll” and allows fast exits into the water, if needed.
“I was scared of all of this,” Johnson tells me as we get into boats and push off from the beach. “I didn’t paddle in the wavy stuff.” A petite blonde woman with a gentle demeanor, she’s one of the four experienced kayakers joining the outing. After Johnson went on an excursion with Maine Island Kayak a few years ago, she discovered her own ocean interests and natural abilities. Her size wasn’t an issue in the island environs. Water is an equalizer that way, and Johnson tells me her skills and experience grew. She eventually began guiding trips, including one for women this spring in Baja, Mexico.
Our September paddling foray begins easily with some exploring along the shore of Peaks Island. The lawns and trees are still summer green, and flower pots and boxes have bright blooms. The shingled cottages look inviting, but we’re on the water now.
Sometimes river paddlers switch to the whitewater of sea kayaking, and that’s the story for Bergh and for Nick DelPrete, who’s also in the day’s group and has worked as a guide elsewhere in New England and in Alaska, and for an outfitter in Castine. He and Johnson paddle into some incoming swells to ride them in, sometimes threading rocks that rise above the water’s surface. Meanwhile, I get the feel for my boat and paddle; I like the maneuverability. The feel is more like being in the water than bobbing on top of it, as in other kayaks. We’re moving with the swells and currents in a crossing of Whitehead Passage between Peaks and Cushing Islands. As we get closer to the nearly 60-foot-tall cliffs of Cushing Island, we see a young black guillemot on the ledge standing about a dozen feet above the waterline on the wet ledge. Besides eyeing us, it seems as if the seabird with bright orange feet is observing the water’s energy swelling and receding below it.
The other kayakers show me that the swells cease if you paddle in a zone closer to the buffering cliff walls. And when we round to the ocean side of Cushing Island, I notice that DelPrete has found his whitewater. More exposed, the swells are more unabashed here. He watches the wave sets and waits for the right timing to paddle backward into a canyon-like slot along the shoreline where the rocks rise a couple dozen feet on each side. Amazingly, he rides the wave right back out. Liz Johnson’s husband, Humphrey Johnson, is next. He rolls his kayak, recovering quickly with his face and shoulders dripping and his paddle still in his hands.
We’re exhilarated, and next we set the Ram Island Light in our sights. Perched on a shallow ledge about a mile north of Portland Head Light, it’s surrounded by water at high tide. Waves crash in a frenzied froth along the adjoining ledge, and from my vantage point at the ocean’s surface, the footing of the old lighthouse looks precarious.
Built in the early 1900s, the lighthouse is a 90-foot tower of gray granite block, juxtaposed by the waves curling in a line over the Ram Island Ledge. As we paddle closer and watch, we’re often surrounded by rafts of bubbling sea-foam. “It’s like we’re in snow,” Liz Johnson says.
Maybe it’s the hurricane steaming toward the southern U.S. that’s beginning to create higher surf here, but I begin to have a clearer sense of being in “a little boat in the sea,” as Bergh describes it. I can taste the saltwater on my lips and sometimes need to wipe my eyes. Just minutes from Portland by boat, it’s a wild Casco Bay seascape out here beyond Cushing Island. I feel an adrenaline bump, and a self-propelled buoyancy that’s as close to open-water swimming as I’ve ever gotten while in a boat.
“People are often afraid of the water,” Bergh says. “And we should be. One of my friends says (of my kayaking), ‘You sure picked a way to get dead quick.’”
Knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment are what’s kept him safe. He’s been kayaking for decades, and he and his wife raised their three children on the island. Bergh lives not far up the hill from the ferry landing in a rambling house with a yard and plenty of room for boats and for his collection of books on the sea, Maine, and naval history. Bergh has always had an adventure-seeking bent. Before moving to Maine, where he has generations of family history dating back to the 1700s, he traveled and explored the Rockies extensively and trekked across the Great Basin Desert that spans Nevada. On sea-kayaking expeditions, he’s explored the waters around the creeks and sea islands of coastal Georgia, northern Wales, and Antarctica, where he and two others circumnavigated Nelson Island in the South Shetland Islands by kayak—the first unsupported expedition of its kind.
These days Bergh teaches and leads longer excursions in Maine and beyond, including a recent training with a group of Green Berets and annual island excursions with students from Bates College. Everyone gains confidence, helped by their experiences on good equipment. “These boats are so damn seaworthy,” he says of his fleet of kayaks, and mentions how an 18-foot model from the same maker was recently reported lost in the surf in Georgia, and then found after it had floated across the Atlantic all the way to Spain, still intact.
During a lunch stop we’d made earlier, as we sat on a beach on tiny Catnip Island to share pasta salad and cheddar cheese, DelPrete had leaned forward for a plate, and a gush of saltwater poured from his nose. “That happens,” he said, and shook it off as a matter of course during a day of Casco Bay rock-garden hopping.
And when we break for the day, DelPrete, obviously at home in the ocean, says his next stop once ashore is to get his surfboard and head to Higgins Beach to take advantage of the wave action with some night surfing.
During our return paddle to Peaks Island, a light rain starts. Two fishermen are casting from a boat that looks to be moored as close as possible to the cliffs at Whitehead. They probably assume we’ll head out to the open water to cross toward Peaks Island, but instead we make another pass of paddling in a line near the granite walls. Humphrey and Liz Johnson appear to be so close to the granite of Cushing Island that they could reach out and touch the saltwater-drenched rocks. I glance back at the fishermen who are taking it all in, slack-jawed.
We soon return to Peaks Island. Back on Kayak Beach and stashing our boats, Liz Johnson tells me that she grew up sailing with her family, cruising in New England on a 22-foot Catalina sailboat, but even that manageably sized boat couldn’t get her where she has been since—to the tiers of islands and pocket beaches and rock gardens along the Maine coast. She and Humphrey recently journeyed out on a cross-country trip in search of other kayaking spots.
“But,” she says, looking out from Peaks Island toward a waterscape of sailboats and islands and the yellow-striped ferry chugging toward the landing, they simply haven’t found a better place for kayaking. “There’s no place like home.”
PEAKS + BEYOND
Peaks Island is the base for Tom Bergh’s Maine Island Kayak Company and a starting point for guided tours exploring Casco Bay waters and islands. But with 3,478 miles of coastline, Maine has no shortage of bays and coves to discover inkayaks. These are some of Bergh’s other favorite paddling destinations up the coast.
Stonington // Wheat Island // Isle au Haut // Islesboro // Warren Island State Park Vinalhaven // Jonesport // Lubec + Cobscook Bay