Portland Circumnavigation on Stand Up Paddle Board

The city of Portland, Maine is on a peninsula that juts to the east into Casco Bay like an old man’s chin. To the north is the Presumpscot River and to the south and southwest is an amalgam of Portland Harbor, the Fore River and the Stroudwater River. This abundance of water makes a circumnavigation of Portland on watercraft achievable without too much portaging. It’s a long day, about 25 miles, but it’s a wonderful way to see the city from a unique perspective.

With this in mind, our group of six (3 SUPs, 2 kayaks and one canoe; I was on an NRS Earl 4 SUP) set out at 6 am from a dock on the Presumpscot. We had an outgoing tide to help for the first couple hours. We made quick progress to the East End of Portland.

Stand Up Paddle Board Portland, Maine

Paddling the lower Presumpscot

A quick turn to the west and we were in Portland Harbor proper. It was a bit strange paddling amidst all the typical boat traffic found on a weekday. Luckily, it was still early and there wasn’t too much traffic besides a few lobster boats and a Casco Bay Lines ferry or two.

Paddling through a glassy Portland Harbor

Paddling through a glassy Portland Harbor

Now the tide was working against us as we paddled beneath the highway 295 bridge. It was a surreal site of the airport on one side and a sort of industrial wasteland on the other. I’ll admit it wasn’t the most scenic part of Portland but it was an angle that few people get to see. Slowly we made are our way up the Fore River to the outlet of the Stroudwater. Here we needed to make a choice: haul our boats and gear over a small dam or portage around it on nearby Congress St. The decision was based on type of craft. The paddle boarders went over the dam while the kayakers and canoeist used boat carts on the road.

The first portage at Stroudwater River.

The first portage at Stroudwater River.

Showing the superior brain power of paddle boarders, we were able to enjoy a mid-morning beer while we waited for the boaters to schlep it up the road. The next few miles were smooth and easy; the river doesn’t have much current, all you had to do was watch out for the submerged stumps that could pitch you off your board. Slowly, the river narrowed and blown-down trees made it more difficult to navigate.

Stand up paddle boarding on the Stroudwater River.

Paddling through a tunnel of trees

Stand up paddle boarding on the Stroudwater River.

The first of many obstacles on the Stroudwater

We began to come across giant tangles of trees that were almost impenetrable. We were getting an excellent workout hauling boards and boats over trees and branches. Here’s one particularly humorous episode that gives you a good taste of the action:

We even had an unexpected spectator.

Stroudwater River cow.

Stroudwater River cow.

Finally, we arrived at the site of our second—and longest—portage, a 2 mile slog into downtown Westbrook. To get to the road we had to slither our way up a 200 yard stretch of algae-covered rocks with deceptively deep water pools mixed in. This was the most dangerous part of the trip as these rocks were slippery as ice; a fall here would have resulted in almost certain injury.

Westbrook portage.

Slip slidin’ away.

With two boat carts we were able to stack everything up and wheel it down the road. There were lots of strange looks as motorists took a moment from texting and driving to stare at us like we were from another planet. I don’t think it’s common in Westbrook for people to actually use their muscles to propel themselves, so we were a bit of a bizarre sight.

Weird creatures portaging through downtown Westbrook.

Look! A stack of paddle boards.

After a quick lunch of pizza and beer and we were ready to jump into the Presumpscot. The finish of the long portage was through the Sappi paper mill. As a dam owner, they are required to maintain a portage trail to the river. They obviously don’t take their responsibilities too seriously:

Sappi portage in Westbrook, Maine.

The Sappi portage. Yes that’s my head sticking out of the jungle.

After a struggle we burst through the jungle and slid down a muddy slope and into the river like otters. From here it was a simple 6 mile paddle downstream with one portage around Presumpscot Falls. 25 miles and 11 hours later and we were back at the cars, tired but happy.

Family Hikes in Downeast Maine #2: Great Wass Island Preserve

We should all thank The Nature Conservancy for acquiring Great Wass Island in 1978. It ensured this beautiful island will be preserved in perpetuity. To say its 1,576 acres are spectacular would be a gross understatement. The shoreline consists of pink granite that’s great for walking, even for little kids. Its forests include some of the largest stands of coastal jack pine in the state, which can grow in the thin soil found here. Rare shore plants like the beach head iris, marsh felwort and bird’s-eye primrose thrive in the the harsh coastal conditions. Finally, you’ll find rare maritime slope bogs that formed on top of the coastal bedrock and support rare plants like the baked apple berry.

Typical Great Wass scenery

Typical Great Wass scenery

Great Wass juts into the Gulf of Maine about 30 miles dues east of Acadia National Park. This distance from Maine’s most popular tourist destination—the drive from Bar Harbor is about 2 hours—ensures you will have very little company on the island. During my last visit in August, we ran into maybe 6 other people the entire day.

There is a small parking lot for about 10 to 12 cars in the northwest corner of the preserve. If the lot is full, you’re out of luck as parking is not allowed on the road. In keeping with its mission to keep the island in a wild state, the Nature Conservancy built only about 4.5 miles of trails on Great Wass, but you can add mileage by walking the perimeter of the island along the rocky shoreline. Dogs are not allowed. My favorite loop is the Mud Hole Trail around Little Cape Point to the junction of the Little Cape Point Trail. Much of the Mud Hole and Little Cape Point trails are on the pink granite that hugs the water. It’s a lot less rugged than much of the rocky Maine coast I’ve hiked or fished on. It’s relatively smooth although there are enough ups, downs and areas of uneven footing that you still have to be careful. I’ve done the hike with kids as young as 7 so it’s pretty accessible to most ages.

Great Wass Island

Smooth pink granite shore near Little Cape Point

Great Wass Island

Shore grass on Great Wass

Great Wass Island

Beachcombing a bouldery beach

Great Wass Island Preserve Trail Map

You can choose to take the Little Cape Point Trail back across the island to the parking lot or, if you’re adventurous and want to do a longer hike, you can continue on down the shoreline toward Red Head. This adds several miles to the hike but it’s worth it. Around the corner from Red Head is The Pond, a large tidal inlet that’s open to the full brunt of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s as wild and untamed as the coast of Maine can get. And you’ll usually have it to yourself.

Find Great Wass on Google Maps

Great Wass Island

Looking toward Red Head

Great Wass Island

Looking back from Red Head

Great Wass Island

Swimming! The water is frigid!

No trip to Great Wass is complete without a stop at Bayview Takeout in Beals, located just before you head over the bridge to Jonesport. Their fried clams are famous and some of the best I’ve ever had. They also will give you the largest portion of ice cream you’ve ever seen. Not exactly a healthy meal but after a big hike on Great Wass there’s no better way to recharge your batteries. Throw a cold beer on top of that and you’ve pretty much had the perfect day!


Fishing Triathlon—Maine Surf Casting for Striped Bass

The text came in, “Fish are here!” “Where?”, I replied. The response was accompanied by a picture of what looked like a 40-inch striped bass, “Where else can you get fish like this?” I knew immediately it was The Spot. I’ll let you know right now, good reader, that you will not be told where The Spot is. I was let in on The Spot a year ago by the same fishing buddy who texted me, who previously had been told by another friend. Fishing etiquette dictates you never reveal a spot you did not find yourself. If someone else has been so generous to turn you on to some hot fishing, then it would be incredibly bad form to tell the world where it is. Let’s just say it’s in Maine.

The problem with The Spot is that it requires some work to get to. That’s why we call it a Fishing Triathlon. After a lengthy drive, a two mile—and somewhat illegal—bike ride on a trail is required to get to the beach. From there it’s a 15 minute walk in waders on soft sand. I suppose we could run to make it more triathlon-like but I think that would be taking it a bit too far. The water part of the triathlon comes into play next. This beach faces the full brunt of the Atlantic Ocean, so the surf is usually rocking and rolling pretty hard. Reaching the fish requires standing as far into the surf as you dare in order to cast your offering as far into the strike zone as possible. Getting wet is inevitable. The goal is to not get knocked over by a big wave and rolled in the wash. Paying attention is essential. Oh, did I mention this all takes place at night?


Typical fish from The Spot

Surf fishing at night is one of the purest types of angling. It’s you against the magnificent power of the ocean. There’s no boat, usually no other people except your buddies and very few visual references. You fish by feel. With experience, you can discern an offshore sand bar from current, detect when your bait has slipped into a deeper hole, and just make out subtle changes in the water’s surface that indicate changes in depth.

On this particular night the surf was very large. So large I left my fly rod at home and just brought one spinning rod. I am a fly fishing snob, so I prefer to catch all my fish with this ancient technique. But fly casting into big waves at night is about the most difficult type of fishing I can imagine. I may be a snob, but I also like to catch fish. A seven-foot medium/heavy spinning rod loaded with 17-pound test monofilament was the ticket for these conditions. I also prefer artificial lures to bait, but on this night we used bait in the form of the American eel. There is no more deadly bait for striped bass than the eel. Problem is they are slimy, nasty and just downright ugly. But I was able to put my snobbery aside because I knew what kind of fish tend to inhabit The Spot in late August and early September.

Soon after arriving we started to hook up. The action wasn’t as hot and heavy as a year ago but the fish were nice, all in the 35 to 40 inch range, and at one point all three of us were onto fish. The surf was pounding and care had to be taken to stay attentive. More than once I was watching my buddy land a fish when a big wave rolled in and nailed me. Luckily, I didn’t go down but I came close.


Nice Maine striped bass

After an hour or so things quieted down and we went a long stretch without a hit. The tide was coming in and with it a building surf that was getting more and more threatening. It was after midnight and I was starting to get drowsy, but no one wants to be the guy who says “maybe we should call it a night.” I know we were all thinking it, especially since we all had to go to work the next day. I was working a little trough I had noticed earlier while wading into the beach, the perfect kind of place for striped bass to ambush prey on an incoming tide. Sure enough, a solid strike confirmed my feeling that a fish had to be hanging in there. After a bruising battle, a solid 40-inch bass was beached.

The big one that didn't get away

The big one that didn’t get away

This was enough for everyone to agree to end it on a high note and call it a night. Now it was time to reverse the triathlon and start the journey back to the car. We had each  stashed a cold beer in our packs for the first leg of our return journey. Even though it was now warm, the setting and the shared adventure with my two friends made that beer one of the best I’ve had all summer.

Welcome to Backyard to Backcountry Adventures

The goal of this blog is quite simple: to share stories of outdoor adventures that most people are capable of doing themselves. They usually take place in Maine, but occasionally we’ll travel out of state or even out of the country. I hope to pass along the fun, freedom and camaraderie that are part of every good adventure. Along the way, I’ll share advice and tips to help you get the most of your time outside. I don’t consider myself an expert about everything but I have spent a lot of time outside getting after it with a lot of awesome people.

From time to time, I will publish reviews of the gear I use. But this isn’t a gear site. If you’re looking for a review of the latest waterproof iPhone case you’re advised to look elsewhere. But I will intermittently let you know what I think about the tents, stand-up paddleboards, fly rods, running shoes and other gear I use.

I will also talk about the gear used for each trip and the skill level required. This will let you use this blog as a resource for fun adventures in Maine. I try to keep on the economical side of things. It drives me crazy when a gear site puts together a gear list for a simple activity like trail running and it costs about $500. You don’t need to go broke to have fun outdoors.