Story and pictures by Talia Isaacson (The Thacher School)
It’s 6:15 on September 22nd, and I’m lugging three yellow plastic dry-bags across the moist grass of Osprey Circle under an overcast morning sky. The straps cut into my hands as I run over the packing list in my head for yet another time: long underwear, check; extra wool socks, check; toothbrush, headlamp, fleece jacket, check, check, check. My water shoes are already wet from the dew, and I am subconsciously aware of the feeling of dampness, knowing it will become increasingly familiar over the course of the next few days.
I am about to embark on a 5-day sea-kayaking journey in the beautiful Muscongus Bay, and I couldn’t be more clueless about what to expect. Aside from our quick lessons in “wet exits”—the process of removing yourself from a kayak underwater—I’ve never been a kayak before, and I can’t help but worry about whether or not choosing sea kayaking was the right choice to make. What if I flip? What if I can’t steer? What if I can’t steer, flip over, and then get run over by a lobster boat motoring through the bay? I quickly try and push the threads of negativity to the back of my brain, wanting to make the most of this experience; and yet, at 6:15 in the morning, my mind struggles to remain positive.
Once I’m in the Wallace, I grab a muffin and some farm greens—a typical Chewonki breakfast—and head over to join my friends for one last meal before everyone must go their separate ways. We all eat, talk, and laugh, making fun of each other’s less than stylish outfits and expressing our simultaneous nervousness and excitement about the next few days. No one knows what to expect, and the comfort usually found in the reliable routine of Chewonki is suddenly nowhere to be found. Last-minute worries are voiced: “Will I be cold?” “Are there bears in Maine?” “Did I pack toothpaste?”
Before we know it, Ann Carson, the Head of School, dings a glass and asks for our attention. The time has come to leave, and as she announces the various meeting places of different groups people begin to stand up and grab their bags. A sudden hugging frenzy ensues, and I scramble to say last goodbyes as I drag my bags out the doors of the Wallace and to my group’s meeting spot. I start to feel uneasy, but the feeling is quickly replaced with excitement as I see the other members of my group. This is it—we’re here, we’re packed, and we’re about to go kayaking on the Atlantic Ocean for five days straight!
The next few hours are a blur of moving kayaks and packing supplies, and before I know it I am sitting on a bus, clutching my Nalgene, looking out the window as we drive down Chewonki Neck Road. Trees and towns fly by as we drive, and I am surprised by how quickly we arrive at our site. Is this it? Are we here? The stress of packing, preparation, and anxiety is suddenly lifted from my shoulders, and as I walk off the bus into the clear, coastal air I feel at ease for the first time in a few days. We wave by to the bus, and all of a sudden it’s just us and the kayaks—a group that, over the course of the next few days, becomes affectionately known by the term “The Yakpak.”
After packing our boats and having a quick lunch, the time comes to set off onto the sea. Our trip leaders, Emma and Aaron, give us a quick instruction on the basics of steering, and before we know it we are paddling out onto the water, ready to make the journey to the island on which we are going to spend the night. After some struggling, I begin to figure out the rhythm of paddling, and my friends and I talk and laugh as we cut into the ripples of the water. We pass islands and coasts as we make way, and I can’t help but be in awe of the beautiful landscape. The trees are just beginning to change color, and the blue sky is reflected in the sparkling surface of the water.
The following scene is one that becomes familiar throughout the week: 10 kayaks—6 yellow, 3 red, and one bright green—bob up and down in the rhythmic waves of the ocean as they cut through the glassy surface of the water. The sound of laughter and conversation is carried on the breeze, and grows as the kayaks draw closer to each other as they prepare to land on their island for the night. The afternoon sunlight hits the often-rocky coast as people emerge from the kayaks, followed by the appearance of tents, cooking stoves, and fleece jackets as the afternoon continues on. The smell of cooking food begins to waft throughout the campsite, and dinner follows soon after, as well as the sun setting over the smooth waters of the ocean.
The beauty found is the simplicity of this routine was not missed by any of us, and as the week continued on our group never ceased to be amazed by how perfect the trip seemed. Time seemed to pass by in moments; a welcome contrast to the usual rush and schedule that school entails. We would wake up smiling, despite the sogginess of our shoes and chill of the air, and appreciate the beauty of our surroundings and each other. By the time the last day rolled around, the mood was bittersweet as we pulled our kayaks out of the water for the last time.
The moments of beauty were many, and our days exploring islands and the ocean around us offered endless funny and exciting experiences. However, there was one moment that truly seemed to encompass the beauty of our trip:
It was the third day, and we were taking a day off from kayaking and were exploring an island instead. We had slept in that morning, cooked and eaten breakfast, and then set off on a small hike across the width of the island. We hiked through the woods and emerged on a rocky outcropping on the other side of the island looking out over the water. By that time, it was reaching noon and the wind had started to pick up, sweeping the ocean up into little white peaks beneath us. We had all neglected to bring jackets, and the wind bit into out skin and eyes, bringing with it the cold of the mainland. Despite this, we continued walking out onto the rocky point, soon noticing the grandeur of the cliffs beneath us. We stopped walking, wary of the steep incline beneath us, and looked around.
At this point, I looked out over the surface of the sweeping rock beneath me and raised my gaze to the expanse of ocean gently shifting around me. The sky was a deep, easy blue and reflected off the choppy surface of the water, creating a seemingly endless expanse of blue and white. The wind pushed the waves into the rocky coast of our island, where they would crash and reach up, trying to reach the tips of the pine trees. I looked at the water, and the trees, and the rocks, and my friends around me, and was overcome with a sudden flood of gratitude for these people, this experience, and this place.
I looked over at my friend, Minta, who seemed to be having a similar experience. She glanced over at me, grinning, and summed up the feeling with one word:
And at that moment, despite the cold air and our wet feet and tangled hair, we felt so, so incredibly lucky. We soon had to leave and return to our campsite, and later Chewonki itself, but we clung, and still cling, to that afternoon. Classes soon started up again and we fell back into our normal routine, complete with warm showers and dry shoes. However, I still carry that moment with me and hold it close, using it as a reminder of the absolute incredibility of this experience and this place. I think that’s where the beauty of wilderness trips is easiest to observe: in the simple, beautiful, easy perfection of reflection and gratitude.