Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Fourteen thousand years ago the mile thick ice over the Canadian Maritimes began to withdraw toward the North Pole exposing vast new and raw lands. Within a few hundred years, forests returned, rivers cleared their course and the richness and grandeur of this amazing coastal area began to blossom. Multitudes of birds, fish and land animals thrived in this rich new coastal system. This bountiful environment enabled early Native Americans to begin flowing into the magic of the Gulf of Maine where they were able to prosper for over 9000 years. 

In the later part of the last millennium, Europeans invaded the forests, waters and islands of the Gulf of Maine and the harvest and plunder of this area’s wealth of timber, fish and fauna began. The majestic hundred-foot canopy of the climax forest was cut down, the massive schools of herring were encircled in large nets and the birds and animals harvested for people living far away. All of this resulted in the decimation and displacement of the Native Peoples from their coast to allow room for the Europeans and their fishing and timber industries.

So picture if you may a group of five paddlers linked by past trips and a love of living on the ocean’s edge, who quietly with determination and apprehension, prepare for a two-week trip Down East along the Western edge of the Gulf of Maine. Each paddler has developed her own private relationship with that narrow strip of earth just landside of high tide through years of journeying by sea kayak. Although our ancestors’ explorations challenged the native people, flora and fauna, we hoped to be gentle on the landscape.

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Certainly traveling by kayak is not a common mode of transportation in these parts. But the most unique feature of this group was Aunt Kathy, who with curiosity and determination, has been exploring and studying unusual environments all her life - gardening in England, hiking the Alps, climbing mountainous rock walls, and the last years exploring the wonders of the Gulf of Maine. Aunt Kathy was heading out along the Bold Coast of Maine and Canada. She wants to experience first hand the wonders and majesty of that portion of the coast and islands between Machias and Saint John, New Brunswick in her sea kayak. Her two-week supply of gear and supplies out-weighs her thin but strong, fifty-something 110-pound body. This is her story. 

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Aunt Kathy wonders whether her group can safely transit the Northeast’s Bold Coast. It is an exposed, cliffy no-landing zone for most of its long reach. She knows that for those skilled enough to power amongst the tidal currents, pilot around the booming headlands and surf across the noisy ledges, it is possible to occasionally find inner quiet waters. She knows that hundreds of years ago a few small communities scratched a toehold on the edge of that huge volume of tidal water stretching out to Grand Manan and the Wolf Islands.

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

One such community, Bailey’s Mistake, is usually immersed in dense fog, as it was that fateful day when a sailing ship with a load of lumber bound for the Lubec narrows crashed into the harbor. The name reminds us of that captain’s legacy. As we skirt the harbor’s mouth, the loud growls of Grey seals reverberate in the fog. Three times the size of the resident Harbor seals, the influx of Greys is challenging the Harbor seals, only now returning from a near extinction 80 years ago. Are the Grey’s prospering and seeking new grounds, or is their northern food supply so challenged that they are forced down into the warmer lower latitude waters? Are the cold currents increasing along the Maritimes and thus allowing these former residents of a challenged ecosystem to survive here? We marvel at the mosaic of variables that allow these groaning horse-sized seals to thrive - we hope for years to come.

Aunt Kathy pauses, drifting by these great beasts looking with original eyes and childlike wonderment at the nature before her. Our group began to understand her frequent exclamation of, “Oh my!” This is Aunt Kathy’s way of vocalizing her many different emotions throughout the trip. Only the inflection in her voice indicated fear of a large breaking wave - or a mother dolphin and child surfacing next to her kayak. 

It’s Neap tides now, but still the water flows with impressive force. Our group runs 7 miles after lunch in a bit over an hour! The slightest breeze steepens the break; our kayak sterns yaw back and forth in the following seas. Good strokes, a solid seat and polished seamanship are a must along this entire shore. Aunt Kathy wonders whether the flood will allow us to make the turn into the Lubec narrows, or will the churning waters tear us off seaward toward the head of the Bay of Fundy? She remains undaunted, balanced on the edge of her adventure amongst the powerful and fast changing forces of the sea. It is clear to each of us that Aunt Kathy is willing to go with the flow wherever it may lead. The group precisely fixes its position in the currents, sets its ferry angle, readies its power strokes… and easily makes the turn. 

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Resting in Lubec at the low tide footings of an old fish plant, we make a quick calculation and realize an opportunity - if we can make a near instantaneous decision. It’s been a long day already, but if we push our tired bodies on the building flood we might make it through Reversing Falls around its slack. The landforms and varying depths of the bathymetry delay today’s slack before the flood for 3 hours. But it’s another 8 miles to the Falls, and we don’t know how much push we’ll have. If we arrive too late, if the tidal flow over the ledges creating the Reversing Falls has built toward maximum it’ll be far too strong for us, leaving us with a reasonably a serious problem. With scant minutes to decide, trusting in our past experience…we go for it. 

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Our group searches the slightly moving waters of Cobscook Bay for any little tidal stream speed gain. We often must go out around an eddy, ride wide over the depths, riding any little thread of the flood. It’s been many miles today of tired backs and shoulders. Aunt Kathy grinds along, never resting, steadily progressing, always grinning…catch, pull, release, catch, pull, release… 

A mile from the Reversing Falls we hear the roar. It certainly grabs our attention. Is that really the Falls? From this distance? In this strangely serene environment, the only indication of any actual current was the occasional channel marker lying strongly on its side. Closer still the whirlpools begin pulling on our edges, trying to spin us around, increasing our anticipation…or fear. The main current is almost too strong to paddle against. Can we slide through? One of us tries to see around the corner to the falls but the current is already as strong as his full sprint speed. Are we too late? It’s not acceptable if only some of Aunt Kathy’s group makes it through. This is one of those moments where we each must rely on our personal skill sets and judgment based on past experiences…and faith in the magic of our adventure.

Our strained muscles benefit from the last hours severe work. We are just able to slide by the developing boat size holes. We align our long hulls in the grabby current, power against the strong eddies and the noise of the Falls fades behind us. An hour later we pull into the total quiet and serene Cobscook Bay State Park. It was a 24-mile day! The song that is created from today’s elements, the play that we were allowed to engage in, this adventuring in Downeast Maine makes our efforts ring out.

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

The next day finds us ebbing down to Eastport and on toward the infamous Old Sow, described by some as one of the larger whirlpools on the Eastern seaboard. Each of us paddles in our silent inner world with only the gentle sound of current pushing through gaps in the geography, in the landforms, as our morning’s music. The many unique little islands spin up the massive volumes of water racing around their points, filling and draining the large bays of Cobscook in moon driven increments. Excited birds pick fish forced to the surface at the tide lines. Seals too use the waters movements to corral their prey. Others warily eye us as intruders knowing they’ve often been the targets of hunting for sport or food. Aunt Kathy’s singsong chatting seems to relieve some seals fears as they float beside her kayak, accepting our momentary trespass.

Eastport is rich in history. The early part of the 1700’s saw whole towns spring out of the European industries of shipbuilding, natural resource trading, and great ironworks coupled with the massive tonnage of fish from the sea. Salted cod transported back to the Motherlands was the first major export. With the invention of preservation by canning at the turn of the last century the enormous schools of North Atlantic sardines and herring were added to the flood. Now many of these early fish processing factories lie in sad ruins along near empty waters. Will the fish ever return?

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Our personal silence continues on past Eastport out through Friar Roads and Western Passage. We were now entering one of the larger current flows on the East Coast and the home of the “Old Sow”. The many folk stories swirling in our minds of this whirlpool now quieted our group. Fears are often louder in the quiet and doubts can cloud the clear of day. Our minds are reacting to the folk stories. After all we were heading toward what is generally reported as one of the larger whirlpools on the Eastern Seaboard, some say the second largest in the world. With visions of our sea kayaks being sucked hundreds of yards away into deep, 30-yard wide vortices, we hoped our bows would remain swirling in the air enough to breath, that our braces were quick and solid enough to hold us upright. We cautiously pushed onward. Aunt Kathy is near the front on our group, a tense grin illuminating her sharp features. 

The Old Sow has plenty of reasons to be respected. Billions of cubic feet of water flood into Passamaquoddy Bay on the tide and meet the ebbing currents of the St. Croix River. Billions! A 300-400 foot deep trench angles off the western end of New Brunswick's Deer Island Point. The tidal currents’ massive volume and speed in the deep trench runs smack into a 280-foot undersea mountain, which begins the water spinning and swirling, sucking the surface waters downward. Add to this huge witches caldron a sharp right-angle turn around Deer Island Point and the combined tidal and landform forces can drive sea sprays 20 feet in the air. But the real action is going on deep below the surface in the intense forces driving down into the deep trench, racing upward along the mountain, spinning hard around its corners. Should high winds combine with opposing tides, it becomes a spectacular event to witness … as long as you aren’t in the middle of it. 

Aunt Kathy’s group sits in an eddy to evaluate the current and watch the progress of a ferry coming across from Campobello Island NB. The experienced pilot lands a few hundred yards north of Old Sow. Our fears subside before this boatman’s knowledge and the ferry’s engine. The ease of the ferries dance with the power mocks the life or death scenario we had nervously joked about. But it was Neaps. The tides were only 18 feet. The wind was silent. The Old Sow was behaving on this tide. 

We awoke the next day to find ourselves shrouded in dense, thick fog, a good day for the re-supply in Eastport. Since the Old Sow was out there in the fog, between town and us, since there were no rigid rules on our trip, and since the ferry was close at hand, …we powered over Western Passage. After days of paddling hard, Aunt Kathy’s group looked forward to a little downtime. But R and R was only for the rest of us. After spending a few days on the water with Aunt Kathy, it became apparent that rest as we know it, does not exist for her. Always first to the chores at hand, she never relaxed until the boats were unpacked, the food stored, kitchen set up, boats stored above the high tide line and bivies in order. Her energy and undaunted determination seemed to fuel the trip.

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Now in Eastport Aunt Kathy again had a mission of supplies and gifts. On one of her many laps around Eastport, it appeared Aunt Kathy had wandered into a local hardware store, and to her dismay had found sitting on the counter a pile of “Maine Terrorist Hunting Permit” bumper stickers. She promptly asked the clerk standing behind the counter how many they had … and proceeded to buy them all. We wondered what the clerk must have thought of the request from this slight, bright-eyed woman. We knew Aunt Kathy hoped to save a few souls from the moral degradation that such a joker purchase would bring to us all. 

It’s a gorgeous, crisp, sunny Fall day. Lets go adventuring. We’re off further Downeast through the Fundy Isles with their 8 meter tides. Several times these islands received the full onslaught of mile deep ice against their NW shores. Their eastern sides were more resistant and so they slant upward and Eastward into low cliffs overlooking the marine mammals feeding in the upwelling of the tides. The dolphins and harbor porpoise use the shores and ledges and the eddy walls to tighten the schooling fish for easier feeding. For the next several days we see dozens of these smart, curious fish eaters working the tides and building up for the coming winter. Certainly the porpoise’s numbers indicate the presence of their favorite small schooling fishes. We wonder what the marine mammal density was when the massive numbers of small schooling fish would still swim by a wharf for half a day.

The Gulf of Maine and the Grand Banks was a unique fishery for the millions of tons of schooling fish able to breed and thrive in the plankton thick, oxygen rich cold waters. The large fresh water rivers not only reduced salinity and hence egg survival, but carried the land’s rich nutrients far out over the denser salt waters. Our number of species may be small compared to the exotic variations of warmer coral reefs. But our fisheries were once infamous for the once massive amounts, the tons and tons, miles and miles of particular beneficial schooling fish such as cod, sardines, kippers et al. 

With the immigration of Europeans, these once huge fish stocks of cod were torn out of the sea, salted and shipped home. With the advent of commercial processing, the sardines were next on the list of easily available food. Now the many sardine factories have long since closed but the large, once grand buildings still line the shores where fleets of sailing ships once unloaded their tons of small silvery juvenile fish. Even though the fish are mostly gone, local watermen still tend their herring weirs- the way Native Americans did centuries ago. Long narrow poles pounded into soft bottoms along the sides of small tidal basins hold up hundreds of feet of netting. The travel patterns of these schooling fish, tied into the phases of the moon, were studied for so many eons that protein hungry humans are able to gather entire schools of fish – entire DNA imprints - in one great haul. When powered fishing fleets developed offshore purse seiners, the once miles-long schools of herring quickly vanished. Sadly much of this haul was used for fertilizer, oil or more recently processed in the newer factories into pellets for the salmon pens. 

The drooping nets catch up most anything that enters these chambers. We spot a baby dolphin seemingly confused by the mesh walls. It is probably scared by the mistake of unknowingly wandering into this passive hunting machine. Aunt Kathy and Michael try unsuccessfully to herd this young creature toward the narrow entrance to the trap. Finally they attempt to lead it out making squeaks with their hands along their kayak hulls. Sadly, the kid dolphin continues its pattern of three quick surface breaths and a longer, deeper search along its prison’s walls. Is it scared? Is it rationale enough to figure a way out? How long will it live in the weir? We paddle off realizing the little kid dolphin will likely die in the next weeks.

The herring industry was once enormous here. Entire towns built up around the canneries where kids and women were paid by the piece for filling each can with the recent catch for shipment off to another culture eager for the tasty, healthy fish protein. Large wooden buildings were built along the shores so the sardine and herring fleets could quickly pull up, unload and return to the amazingly rich waters. These industries made towns, and now these towns very existence is threatened. There is no more herring and there are few substitutes. 

One extremely large and sophisticated set of herring weirs lies off the Bliss Islands – just East of Lords Harbor. Their pristine appearance and low bush blueberries seem like heaven to those of us living in the developed suburbia of the mainland. Sadly the operators here have netted only 35 carboys of herring in the last 4 years. At $100 a carboy it seems hardly worth the effort. Yet the sculpture of nets and poles continue to be maintained along with a diminishing hope that maybe, perhaps the fish will return…they once were so thick.

Thankfully we have our amazing one course meal, our Expedition Bread. It continues to keep well into its second week of being forced in and out of small hatches. Aunt Kathy truly appreciates the rugged, healthy, one item meal it offers us on quick rest stops between the tides. Some of us hope it will eventually spoil. Historically these type breads were staples. Now we search far and high to find an ancient amazing, food like our Expedition Bread. 

As we paddle deeper into New Brunswich the deeply convoluted shorelines hide increasing numbers of salmon farms. These are Downeast’s newest form of aquaculture. For many these represent the new hope for intact communities and decent employment. 

The Fundy Isles strong tides and 42 degree water combine to bring in critical supplies of fresh oxygen while carrying away the fecal deposits and wasted food that falls earthward through the nets. Without the twice-daily flushes of the tides, the survival rates and death by disease would skyrocket. Without the cold waters, the oxygen supply would be reduced. 

Aunt Kathy Goes Downeast

Aunt Kathy’s group continues up the 3-mile entrance to the harbor once billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. We think the “Wonder” is about what the heck happened here? Miles and miles, lines after line of salmon pens chock the waterway. Clustered in groups of 12 to 60, each pen holds approximately 12,000 sad substitutes of their once proud, fierce ancestors. The fish farmers place these pens along the edges of the forceful tides hoping to clear away the tons of wasted food and fecal matter, supply the needed oxygen to pierce these fish’s red gills - and allow their local communities to remain intact. Aunt Kathy wonders at the true costs of this massive commercial aquaculture activity. What is the effect of tons of uneaten foods, some thick in antibiotics, entering the ocean streams? At what point does a sick fish overwhelm the rest living in such close quarters with no natural predation allowed? Can the thick putrid water really hold enough oxygen for the genetic memory of powerful salmon? Are we making a big mistake here? None of us want to even put our feet in the water. It feels slimy, brown, dead. What will the public jury say 30-50 years from now about this newest form of use of our common, natural resources. 

In the upper reaches of a deep New Brunswick bay, we meet the Periwinkle Man. He’s excited about the upcoming Spring tide and its 28-foot height. The bigger periwinkles will be right up top, easy pickin’. Walking about in his rubber boots, Periwinkle Man is removing the few remaining black and gray Periwinkles considered a delicacy in Japan and Europe. He’ll get about a dollar a pound for his efforts and with three days work he figures to gross maybe 50 bucks. Are the remaining periwinkles dense enough to reproduce? Is this one of the last few harvests of a once proud gathering culture?

Maybe it’s the resilience of these people that keep these seemingly depressed communities alive. Aunt Kathy wonders if weaker folks would have up and moved long ago leaving the fish to themselves and perhaps the whole ecosystem less impinged. Certainly the open skies and quiet woods mean a lot to these gentle, kind folks, because scratching a living out of the few remaining and challenged resources has got to be sad. 


Crossing on the building forces of the spring ebb currents, the group dances in the fingers of current to avoid being dragged off to Grand Manan. Aunt Kathy, aware of the exposure, knowing that every stroke missed in one closer to the open sea, still can’t resist stopping to sing and chirp to the curious seals popping up around her. They respond to her personal attention and caring song with sad, warm eyes as if to ask," Are you friendly? Can you help us?"

Spring tides are really starting to flow. As teammate Michael probes the powerful 300 foot deep ebb flow of Head Passage out to East Quoddy Head light, we see Aunt Kathy calculating the power, wondering of the forces and effect of the whirlpools and water folds that would grab her sharp chines, spin her about, suck down a boat end. She wants to experiment, to feel the full force of life, to see if she can go it. But can she dare? Michael crosses over in about 7 minutes. It takes him over an hour to return! Aunt Kathy at less than half Michael’s size still wants to go, to feel our world’s powers. We all remember that Darwin was right. Where are we on the continuum of survival? 

A few days later we turn the corner near Blacks Harbor and head down the Canadian bold coast. Now in stronger currents we need to hug close to the cliffs, in places a couple hundred feet high. Miles off to our East the Wolf Islands rise up in remote splendor... ah, more lands to explore. We wonder what small human and animal cultures reside out there in the midst of that strong flow. 

Suddenly we hear the tremendous blow of a Finback releasing its old air. At this distance we see the tail wave at the heavens, then hear the heartwarming booming release delayed by the miles. It’s a gloriously quiet, calm day. The very presence of these giants gives each of us hope and appreciation as we pause in a peaceful wonder. These huge, majestic animals must still be able to eke out a meal - the Fundy tides funneling schools of fish down toward their cavernous mouths. Finbacks are the second largest creature left on our planet – and one of the fastest of the whales. Meanwhile, sheets of birds slice the morning air just feet above the flat sea. Grasses and seaweeds swirl lazily in the changing eddies. The morning’s bright dry sun cuts through the thin wisps of night’s fog. It’s a good day on the water. Heaven seems to us to be right here on earth. Our spirits seem to burst outward.

So that’s a piece of the Downeast area that Aunt Kathy and her crew experienced. It’s still raw, strong and powerful. Our several hundred years of human impact has been enormously changing on a currently stable landscape. Is enough of Downeast’s powerful essence left to allow Nature to replenish and thrive if given the chance? What is right? What will happen? Will the whales always return, the eagles continue to soar? Can human communities live amongst the plenty? Or will we always plunder our way toward a more empty landscape? It is each of our’s question in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Aunt Kathy wishes that each of us live with honor and respect for the magic and life cycles of all living things. Are we up to the challenge? We all hope that each of you visit your own version of Downeast and refresh your lives by engaging in your own natural ways. 

Aunt Kathy Clark’s Team Members
  • Rudi Staroscik
  • Michael Sabin
  • Robert Dvorchik
  • Tom Bergh
Posted in Adventure, Expeditions.