Kayaking to Historic Damariscove Island

More than four centuries ago, Damariscove Island was a busy place. Before Jamestown and Plymouth Colonies were founded, the island was settled in 1604 as a commercial fishing enterprise. Abenaki Indians were even earlier intermittent residents, sporadically visiting what they called Aquahega in primitive canoes during the summer months.

Located off the coast of Boothbay, Damariscove has a rich history. Captain John Smith charted the island in 1614 and by 1622 there were more than a dozen year round fishermen living there. They sent cod to the Pilgrims in Plymouth during the spring of that year to prevent starvation. By 1671, it was a thriving community operated by Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In the summer of 1676, Native Americans attacked every English settlement east of the Kennebec River during the King Philip’s War. Three hundred survivors fled to Damariscove for protection. Indian attacks continued for several decades and British ships raided the island during the Revolutionary War. Damariscove prospered as a farming community into the 20th Century. The site of numerous shipwrecks on southern ledges, a lifesaving station that was subsequently operated by the U.S. Coast Guard was built in 1897.

The island is now uninhabited with the exception of visitors to the former Coast Guard Station that is privately owned. Boothbay Region Land Trust controls the remainder and preserves it in a “forever wild” status. A few local fishermen use the harbor and the trust retains a couple of moorings and a pier.

I consider Damariscove to be one of the premiere sea kayak destinations along the Maine coast. My first voyage to the island was with a friend about a dozen years ago. A cold windy November day, had I known the history of shipwrecks, I would have chosen a peaceful hike on the mainland instead. After completing the five mile approach, we encountered large breaking waves and gusty winds when turning the southeastern tip of the island. Finding temporary shelter in the harbor, our exodus on the western end was another “white knuckle” escapade navigating between exposed ledges in turbulent seas.

One advantage of old age is the accumulation of educational life experiences. An argument can be made for calling that wisdom however my friends would strenuously object to that characterization. My initial Damariscove misadventure taught me to scrupulously avoid sea kayaking in hazardous waters. Before scheduling a trip, I obtain the most reliable weather forecast possible, winds normally the most important factor. Mystifyingly, several excursions to Damariscove have established that an excellent forecast does not necessarily mean a gentle reception at the island terminus. Tides, ledges and several thousand miles of ocean beyond seem to create unstable conditions on the best of days. Despite the uncertainty, the beauty, history and adventure of Damasriscove lure me back almost every summer.

Watching the weather for a Goldilocks opportunity, I recently identified what appeared to be the perfect Damariscove day; hot, sunny, two to three foot seas and southwest winds between five and ten knots. Posting a weekday trip with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, four fellow retirees and a vacationer enthusiastically signed on.

We met at Ocean Point boat landing on the southern end of Linekin Neck early in the morning. While the weather was fine, southwest winds were clearly stronger than predicted. Considering them manageable, the six of us departed in solo kayaks.

Crossing Fisherman Island Passage, we proceeded along the west side of distinctive Ram Island Lighthouse and barren elongated Fisherman Island. As we traversed open water south to the northern extreme of Damariscove the headwinds increased to about twelve knots, a relief from the humid weather.

Our pivot around the southwestern ear of the island was about what I expected, negotiating menacing ledges in moderately bumpy seas. I couldn’t help but speculate how many unfortunate vessels had met a catastrophic fate on the same jagged rocks.

A couple of recreational boats cluttered the harbor when we arrived. Probably the thickest seaweed I’ve ever encountered slowed our landing. Protected from the wind, the heat was oppressive.

The trust maintains a system of trails on the island and we hiked to the cliffs on the east side for lunch where a dubious shark sighting monopolized conversation. After, we trekked to a tower overlooking the harbor and discussed our exit strategy. Since large swells tend to dominate a harbor escape east, we tentatively decided on that approach retaining the option to retreat west if greeted by treacherous waves.

Moderate swells permitted an uneventful departure and we left the historic island behind. Running north in the lee of Damariscove and Fisherman Islands with a robust tailwind, we had an expeditious return to the 21st Century.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.