Fish Out of Water
Canoeing (yes, canoeing) Port Clyde's Working Waterfront
Port Clyde is a mirage. At least it feels that way. Port Clyde so perfectly embodies quintessential Maine that I sometimes suspect it is wholly fabricated. No matter how many times I drive into the little seaside village, I always feel as though I've made a wrong turn onto a movie lot. I half expect a director to emerge from behind a faA§ade and bark, "Cut! Who let this guy onto my set?"
But Port Clyde is real. It's an honest-to-God fishing village in an area where working waterfronts are increasingly rare. For that reason, the village might be a little too quaint for its own good: its idyllic combination of weather-beaten shacks, barnacled pylons, and salty old boats might someday prove irresistible to a brazen developer and the town's bygone essence will go bye-bye.
In the meantime, though, Port Clyde's authenticity is fully intact, and whenever I visit I get a palpable feeling that I'm out of place. I'm not suggesting Port Clyde is unwelcoming; far from it. In my experience, the people of Port Clyde are disarmingly friendly. Nevertheless, I always get a vague feeling that I'm impeding the natural flow of things. While everyone around me zips to the speed of business and industry, I feel like a bumbling tourist in a foreign city: I gawk at buildings, I struggle with vocabulary, I seek signage and direction where there are none.
I park the car on Port Clyde's abbreviated main drag and try to shake off the feeling that I've just done something wrong; that I've parked in someone's regular spot; that I'm a monkey wrench in the gears of someone's working day.
Jennifer and I carry the canoe a few yards to the boat ramp, slide it into the water, and paddle apologetically between the working skiffs that putter around the docks. Within a few minutes, we're away from the shore, away from the moored boats, and away from the sense that we're somehow doing wrong.
But then a new feeling emerges. As we paddle across the channel toward Hooper Island, we approach a pod of sea kayakers. One of the paddlers - perhaps forgetting how easily sound travels over water - says, "Jeez, I hope these two have positive ID." His buddies chuckle. I smile sardonically as we pass the kayakers, but I acknowledge to myself that, yes, we are pushing the bounds of good judgment here. Canoes aren't built for this sort of thing. We'd been paddling Maine's harbors all summer long, and we'd never experienced a problem, but, let's face it, canoes are tippy. It's one thing to tip over in a summertime pond or river, but capsizing in 60-degree water is something else entirely. As we paddle around the southern tip of Hooper Island, we catch glimpses of open ocean between the outlying islands and we feel the swell of the vast, cold sea. The chop steepens and rattles my confidence. I feel out of place again; like a stray dog on a six-lane highway. Jennifer is worried, too. We paddle intently through the waves, and we sway our hips like dashboard hula dancers whenever the canoe teeters atop a crest.
When we reach the western shore of Hooper Island, we turn into a calm cove and haul out. We're both a little shaken from the passage, but a picnic basket and bottle of wine ease our nerves.
After we finish eating, Jennifer says, "Do you think it's OK to be here?"
I look around. We're on a lonely spit of rocky land. The only signs of human development are the cottages on distant islands and a few storm-battered lobster traps strewn in our midst. Surely this land belongs to someone. Do they mind sharing it?
We decide to stay put. We watch the sun trace its arc through the afternoon sky, drink our wine, and talk mostly about what's right in front of us: the sparkling sunlit sea, the painterly white light, and our good fortune. But still there's a vague sense that we don't belong on this land; a sense that we're trespassing.
As the sun nears the horizon, the wind dies and the sea calms. We slide the canoe into the mirror-like water, and continue circumnavigating the island.
We trace the shore slowly. The tide is out and the low sun casts a warm orange light onto the drying rocks. Exposed rockweed hangs from short cliffs; water droplets fall from their wet tendrils and patter percussively against the surface below. Periwinkles lose their grip in the warming sun; their shells click against the rock as they roll down the cliff face, and they plunk into the water with a muffled splash. Gentle ocean swells rise against the cliffs, trap air into craggy pockets, then squeeze the air out like breaths.
When we reach the north side of the island, the sun is setting. It disappears behind the islands and the sky turns orange, then pink. The water reflects this soft color and lights our path across the empty channel toward Port Clyde. In the mooring field, the working vessels swing unattended. Their hulls glow in the reflected light. Their nets and traps are stowed. Their engines are still.
As we draw our paddles silently through this quiet setting, we are harmonious.
Ben McCanna lives in Rockland.
- By: Ben McCanna