pnms-greatoutdoors-123108 Exploring the hidden delights of Casco Bay by kayak

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Usually our columns are destination specific, but for this early winter edition we are focusing on an activity – sea kayaking.
With proper paddling skills, sound judgment and the right equipment, early winter kayaking in the sheltered coves and estuaries of Casco Bay provides the opportunity to experience a spectacular array of wildlife and scenery. With a southerly-oriented bluff protecting you from westerly breezes, and radiating back on you the surprising warmth of the low angle winter sun you will be able to explore comfortably for hours.
Pile-lined poogies or insulated paddling gloves will keep your hands warm. Chota or similar-style paddling boots will keep your feet dry and comfortable. When you combine your wet suit or drysuit with a hooded paddling jacket your biggest problem may be overheating. The coldest part of winter kayaking is usually the late-afternoon car-topping of your kayak before heading home. Maybe a thermos of hot tea left waiting in your vehicle will help expedite the process of regaining your warmth until the heater gets cranking. We often paddle in temperatures in the mid 20s and always marvel at how comfortable we can stay.
Recently we spent a couple of hours poking about Brickyard Cove and Little Flying Point in Maquoit Bay in Freeport. What we experienced can be enjoyed in countless other Casco Bay coves, from Back Cove in Portland to Quahog Bay near Cundy’s Harbor. The key is utilizing the landscape to help shelter you from that day’s prevailing winds and chill.
The time to get out there is now. By mid-January many of these coves will be icing over until March. Some years, like last winter, the ice never forms. Other years the ice covers much of the bay reaching out in the Freeport area to Bustins Island and the Gooses, while staying a little more open in the Portland Harbor area.
Sloped banks with a southerly orientation provide shelter and respite from the cold for birds and mammals alike. The species that winter over are highly adaptive and resourceful, and are able to maximize heat retention and minimize heat loss. If they can add solar heat from perching in the protection of ocean-side trees and bushes all the better. Paddling along the shoreline this time of year is akin to paddling through an aviary.
Scores of mourning doves appeared out of the sun-splashed brush, moving in pairs from bush to bush as we silently glided along the shoreline. The distinctive high-pitched whistle of their wings momentarily punctuated the silence and solitude of our little world. In the low morning light their tan coloration radiated a regal richness.
Blue jays flitted to and fro, their blue incredibly brilliant against the mottled array of browns along the shoreline. At each pocket in the cove a group of about 20 black ducks suddenly erupted into the air with a crescendo of powerful wing beats. Each group circled out over open water, only to return minutes later and settle in teasingly ahead of us.
A number of Canada geese worked the shallows along the shore, warily eyeing our approach. The geese you are seeing now in the bay are the hardy ones that will be spending the winter with us. A few nights ago, standing on the shoreline of Flying Point, we listened to what seemed like hundreds of geese continually honking in the darkness over the bay. It sounded like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Birds.”
As we neared the northern edge of Brickyard Cove, near where the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School conducts its kayak lessons in the summer, a large bird flashed up from an oak branch leaning out over the cove. As it circled out over the water the unmistakable chestnut-colored tail feathers of the red-tailed hawk caught our attention. Usually you do not get the angle we experienced to be able to see the full fan of the tail feathers. The sun was low enough, and the bird was flying upward at the perfect angle to highlight the broad swath of tail feathers and their vibrant chestnut color. We were breathless with awe that a creature could be so beautiful in both markings and coloring.
Off of Little Flying Point a solitary harbor seal poked its head out of the water and watched us with great curiosity before slowly sinking back down into the depths. Although you will not see as many seals in early winter as in the spring and summer, they still are out there. Many surf scoters also congregate in the bay in the winter. The large, crooked, multi-colored beaks of these ducks are a dead giveaway, as is the squeaking of their wings when they take off.
You might also encounter on the bay, hunkered down on low windswept ledges, duck hunters and their trusty Labrador retrievers. The occasional sounds of shotgun shots echo over the bay. Few sportsmen are tougher or heartier than a sea duck hunter.
With the recent ice storm followed by heavy snowfall then thaw, winter is showing its vast variety of possibilities. Before the winter cold really sets in for good, consider getting an early start to your 2009 paddling season with a winter exploration of a cove you have had on your Casco Bay “Got to Explore Someday” list. You’ll be giving yourself a great holiday gift.
Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools, and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses and schools. He can be reached at