Neither an ornithologist nor a bird watcher, I might qualify as a lowly tenderfoot birdie peeper. Observing large colorful birds like pileated woodpeckers or beautiful toucans that were prevalent during my visit to Costa Rica is very entertaining. Eagles and ospreys always get my attention. Conversely, my favorite bird is the small, vibrant puffin.
Over the past few years, I’ve led several Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) sea kayak trips to visit with the puffins on Eastern Egg Rock in outer Muscongus Bay. About a fourteen mile roundtrip, significant effort is required to sojourn with the energetic, diminutive auks. Usually found nesting and feeding their young on that rugged, rocky atoll in July, it is an absolute delight to bob in swells while they float nearby or zoom to and from nests fishing for their chicks. It’s difficult to imagine that the fresh heart of these wonderful little birds is considered an Icelandic delicacy. A fussy eater, I’ll stick with chicken, cooked well done.
My friends Gary & Suzanne Cole are enthusiastic bird watchers. Quick to assert that they’re not ornithologists as the real ones would take offense, they are very knowledgeable of our feathered friends and their habitats. Recommending Merrymeeting Bay as an excellent place for viewing a variety of species, I recently scheduled a PPCS sea kayak trip there.
My choice for the outing was a traverse from Bay Bridge in Brunswick to the boat landing in Bowdoinham. This would provide an opportunity to explore much of the western half of the bay. Whenever possible, I prefer a traverse to an out and back trip as it covers more territory and can usually take better advantage of winds and tides. For our planned expedition, the forecast was gentle tailwinds with an outgoing tide leaving Bay Bridge and an incoming tide when entering the Cathance River en route to Bowdoinham. The downside of a traverse, a shuttle is necessary.
Twelve PPCS chowderheads met at the Bowdoinham Town Landing for our planned kayak excursion. Commingling boats on four vehicles, we left enough cars behind to complete a shuttle at the end of the day. Sunny skies, warm temperatures, gentle winds and beautiful fall colors welcomed us when we launched at Bay Bridge. Crossing outer Androscoggin River past Mustard Island to the north shore, it was clear that we could not have chosen a finer autumn day for our tour.
After traveling northeast for about four miles past the Freyee Islands and Pleasant Point, we stopped at Brick Island near the mouth of the Cathance River for a leisurely lunch. Landing at a small beach on the north side, we hiked across the island to a scenic location with a picnic table and fire ring on the eastern end. From the campsite, we could just identify where the Kennebec River reforms at the outlet of the bay in an area called The Chops.
Six years ago, a large contingent of chowderheads kayaked and canoed through The Chops on a remarkable journey for one of our most exceptional and loved members, Alice Douglas. Dying of cancer, her final wish was to finish an odyssey she and my wife Nancy had begun in the early nineties, paddling the entire Kennebec River. Over a two year period, they had a host of unique experiences navigating upper reaches of the river. Alice moved and they stopped in Richmond about 30 miles short of their objective. Chowderheads organized to fulfill her dream. Despite some difficult days, Alice bravely realized her remaining goal.
Contemplating our afternoon options during lunch, we decided to extend our day by exploring Muddy River. Merrymeeting Bay derives its name from the fact that six rivers meet there, the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Cathance, Eastern, Abagadasset and Muddy. A unique freshwater tidal basin, it is more an estuary than a bay.
Kayaking west from Brick Island to the north end of Pleasant Point, we were challenged with a maze of tall swamp grass with no apparent Muddy River channel. Dividing into three groups; explorers, doubters and the uninterested, some of us persisted into a succession of tangled cul-de-sacs. After about an hour of failed attempts, we found the main channel exactly as indicated on our maps. Who knew? Regrouping, our intrepid band progressed up the Cathance River to Bowdoinham.
Did I mention birds? We experienced a plethora of sightings, including eagles, buffleheads, Canada Geese, greater yellow legs, a great blue heron, a pileated woodpecker and a Hudsonian Godwit. By the time we arrived at the landing in Bowdoinham, we had paddled almost ten miles and met this birding neophyte’s definition of an ornithological success story. No puffins, that’s next summer!