The Delorme Maine Atlas calls them the Mussel Ridge Islands. Various other sources including my Maptech Chartbook refer to the archipelago as the Muscle Ridge Islands. I’ve always assumed that some misguided mapmaker from away misspelled the name “mussel” as the islands must be named for the bivalve mollusk endemic to the area. It seems I’m not so clever after all as my research indicates the source of the conflicting moniker is an unsolved mystery. The best explanation I found was provided by Charles and Carol Evarts McLane in their book Penobscot Bay. They wrote that the Old English spelling for “mussel” was “muscelle” which was “muscle” in Middle English. Wouldn’t you know, the McLane’s are from away.
Regardless of the name, the Mussel Ridge Archipelago is one of the finest sea kayak destinations on the Maine coast and perhaps its best kept secret. A large collection of small and medium-sized islands located east of Spruce Head in western Penobscot Bay, they convincingly compete with more popular areas such as Bold Coast, Muscongus Bay, Deer Isle Archipelago, and Mount Desert Island.
A paddling friend introduced me to the Mussel Ridge Islands more than a decade ago. I’ve returned almost every year since. Recently, I recruited two retired friends to join me on an excursion. One had just completed his career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A sea kayaking weather worrywart, having an expert along was reassuring for this sometimes apprehensive geriatric boater.
We met at Birch Point State Park near South Thomaston on a beautiful sunny day. The small peaceful beach at the park is another well-kept secret. To reach the islands, one must paddle about two miles across Mussel (or is it Muscle) Ridge Channel to the closest atoll, Otter Island. The channel has a Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. Sometimes a gentle friendly traverse it can unexpectedly evolve into a gusty crossing with large swells and choppy waves. We had calm conditions for our departure. However, history cautioned wariness as an earlier trip resulted in extremely forceful headwinds during a return that one participant called, “The worst day of my life.” I didn’t hand out any suggestion cards following that outing.
Once past Otter, the paddling choices are many as an array of islands await exploration. Seal sightings are a near certainty as this region has perhaps the largest population along the Maine coast. With the historic High Island granite quarries to our east, we elected to travel south to Dix Island halting for a respite on a gravel beach where there is a hiking trail open to the public.
Navigating farther south among a multitude of seal inundated ledges and diminutive islets; we stopped for lunch on sandy Bar Island with a large growth of colorful wild roses overlooking the picturesque beach. Contemplating our remaining itinerary resulted in a decision to paddle around substantial Pleasant Island possibly continuing to distant Two Bush Island and its distinctive lighthouse. Rounding outer Pleasant, a high tide revealed landing on Two Bush would be problematic so the barren isolated atoll was bypassed.
Proceeding north to rugged irregular Hewitt Island, I convinced a skeptic in the group that passage through the narrow gut was possible. Ducking under a low hanging footbridge, we negotiated the attenuated corridor and continued north along the west side of Dix Island with scores of seals frolicking in our midst.
Approaching Otter Island, the correct direction for our return to Birch Point was indistinct. I had taken a compass bearing between the park and Otter when we departed. Confident that reversing my direction would result in a precise return that was my choice. Exercising vigilance to avoid heavy motorized boat traffic in the channel, we proceeded west while enduring southwest winds approximating ten knots. At about the halfway point, one of my companions more familiar with the area deviated slightly northeast while I stubbornly held to my predetermined course. I missed Birch Point by about a half mile. A strong tidal current was probably the culprit as it couldn’t have been operator error. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
The moral of the story, people from away may know their Middle English lexicon but the locals are otherwise more knowledgeable about the Mussel Ridge Islands. Or, is it Muscle Ridge Islands?
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.