On the first morning on Little Chebeague I was awakened by James. "Mom. Mom. Mom. MOM. Mom!!" When I opened my eyes I was looking at six wiggling legs sticking out on either side of James's thumb and forefinger, which were about three inches from my eyeballs. "Mom. I scratched my back and I felt THIS little guy!" It was a tick. Not a deer tick, thank goodness. We opened the tent flap and threw him out into the grass.
Everyone was already awake and making coffee and oatmeal at the fire pit. Joe told us the day's plan was to leave our campground set up and row all the way around an adjacent island (Long Island) then stop at the ferry terminal so we could run to the store for s'more ingredients. This meant we would save a ton of time not packing and unpacking and also that we would be rowing empty kayaks around, which would be easier.
Continuing the theme of the military history of New England (1859-1945) we crossed over to the end of Long Island directly across from our campsite to check out a wooden ship that had been sunk intentionally in a channel to block access to the port of Portland by German U boats during World War Two. We could see it the night before, the ribs of the boat sticking up eerily at low tide as the sun set. Apparently the channel separating Little Chebeague, Long Island, and some other islands, was used by the US Navy to house an armada of ships all ready to go. Portland is not a large city, but it was a strategic one during the war because it was the closest point to Europe. It was a little hard to not get bogged down in how awful people can be to other people when you're looking at all of the creative ways to shoot at each other. The kids just thought it was awesome and loved running around pretending to shoot things.
On the ocean side of Long Island, Joe showed us how to paddle through narrow gaps in the rocks as the waves came through, which made for a fun little obstacle course he called "Rock Gardening". It went like this: he paddled his lightweight single kayak gracefully through a narrow gap, then we would follow in our giant tandems, get stuck, then laugh hysterically waiting for a wave. Eventually we got the hang of it. The kids started begging for lunch around 10 AM, so Joe took us to a sandy beach to stretch our legs and have a granola bar from the large dry bag full of them he kept in his kayak.
Mary spent much of this break carrying a dead horseshoe crab around like a teddy bear. This is not a normal experience for a suburban female child in the south, in case you were wondering.
After our break we paddled the rest of the way to the ferry landing, which was exciting for me because it featured both portapotties AND a convenience store whose sign advertised one of our favorite Maine breweries. It was big enough to see from the water and when we passed it on the first day the kids all considerately shrieked "MOM! They have SHIPYARD!!! MOM!! BEER!!"
I took lots of pictures of James and Mary because their proportions with their life jackets and hats were extra adorable.
We ate lunch at the ferry terminal dock and then went for a walk to look for some more World War Two fortifications. The trail across the island went through a marshy area next to a beaver dam, which was pretty, except that once we were too far in to turn back we were swarmed by hundreds of flies. Not like normal house flies, but these huge, meaty, buzzy biting flies. We had no choice but to trudge forward swatting them away with our hats. It was like that scene from Harry Potter with the Cornish pixies. Joe and the big kids and I emerged on the other side and stood on the road listening to Ryan trying to coax a screaming Mary to keep walking.
We found a five story tall submarine observation tower in someone's front yard and then found a school with a water fountain and a playground and JUST IN TIME because Mary was DONE. The kids were rejuvinated by the monkey bars and were able to walk back to the ferry landing. James joined some local kids jumping off the pier at high tide.
And then it was a quick paddle back across the channel to the campsite where bum bum buh bum!
We thought the kids should get a treat too because we're not total monsters.
Charley followed Joe around a little bit slash a LOT.
Wes invited James and Mary to go swimming with him (!!!).
Ryan made us a yummy dinner. Mashed potatoes with stew (Amy's vegetarian for Charley and Dinty More mystery meat for everyone else).
Mary asked me sincerely what we were going to have for dinner after this "little snack."
Joe made a fire out of wood he harvested from other islands and carried back on the kayaks and then we finally got out the s'mores stuff for the traditional making s'mores barefoot in your bathing suit activity. The chocolate bars melted in the kayak so Charley figured out to put them in a ziplock bag and submerge them in the freezing ocean water to "freeze" them again.
It looks so peaceful. And it was. As peaceful as anywhere with four kids is.
When things got restless and squirrely I attempted to get everyone to go to bed but James and Mary were WILD in our tent and I could hear a continuous string of loud nonsense from Charley and Wes's tent. Ryan and Joe hung out by the fire talking into the night and then either it was the exhaustion of paddling all day or the Benadryl but they finally all fell asleep. I could see the moon out of my tent window!
Monday morning we woke up and broke camp after breakfast (Charley made this inviting oatmeal platter for us), cramming all seven sleeping bags and pads, two tents, clothes, remaining food and water, and other associated equipment back into the boats and set off for Peaks Island for some bunker fun.
Either Joe felt sorry for me because I had been paddling Mary around without any help the whole time or he was concerned about my abilities because he let me use his single kayak and jumped in my boat with Mary for the last day of paddling. There was also no wind and no waves, so the last day was a super easy for me. The kids were flat out DONE, but good sports, and Charley and Wes at least made an attempt to keep up with us until Ryan finally tethered their kayak to his. That means for the last half of the last day Ryan was pulling three kids and two boats around with his arms. This is probably why he responded with less patience than usual when Charley and Wes had a paddle fight in the middle of the ocean.
A highlight of the first crossing (the same crossing that had been so hard for Mary and me on the first day) was a seal that swam straight toward us and several dolphins that we could see breaching in the water.
Our first stop for the day was Battery Steele, a concrete bunker the size of a large strip mall that is tucked into a hillside on Peaks Island. The tide was low and it was really choppy, but Joe said the complicated (scary) landing would be worth it. He had us come in one by one and stood in the water ready to grab each boat. We had to pick our way up a long, slippery hill to get to the road and both Mary and I ate it a couple of times. Joe handed us a headlamp and a bottle of water and pointed us in the direction of the trailhead. I had no idea what we were looking for, but was picturing the small bunkers I saw on the beach in Normandy.
Battery Steele is absolutely enormous, with a three hundred foot long dark tunnel connecting open areas where two huge cannons were once located. We picked our way down the dark tunnel and poked our heads into the side rooms. The kids were SO GROUCHY you guys, but Ryan and I were transfixed and no one wanted to turn back. Fights are more fun when it is pitch black and everyone's voice echoes.
Made them pose for a tense picture at the end of the tunnel. The tiny rectangle above Wes and Mary is the other end of the tunnel. It was insane.
After some lunch, it was time for a quick paddle back to Portland. The wind and tide were both in our favor and it was easy work to get back to the beach. We entered the harbor with a half dozen beautiful old schooners, working fishing boats, modern sailboats, and kids' sailing camps out for the day. It was beautiful and sunny with a perfect breeze.
It was a strange feeling when we approached the beach where we had started out two days prior. I remembered feeling so nervous and sort of ridiculous when we started, just hoping I could keep up and not embarrass myself. I worried that the kids would freak out or be uncooperative and I didn't know what to expect from our guide. As cheesy as it sounds, going back to that beach we were like different people. As I told Ryan, "We keep telling the kids what a great job they're doing because they're doing this big hard thing, but I think we need to give ourselves, middle aged weekend warriors with desk jobs, some credit too."
The worry and preparation were all worth it. In an interview posted on the outfitter's website, Joe says he likes to push beginners a little bit to help them grow. There were moments even during the trip when I wondered if we could really do all these hard things he was asking us to do, but we did them anyway. It was exhilarating to get back to that beach where we started and realize that we had done it ALL. The huge waves, the wind, a giant thunderstorm, two nights of primitive camping with four kids, beach landings, rough rocky cliff landings, upwind, downwind, against the tide, crossing near giant ferries and working fishing boats and speeding motorboats--I even got swamped by a breaking wave that crashed right over my kayak. I was proud of us.
And also it always cracks me up when we've been in the wilderness for three days and we roll back into civilization stinky and unkempt, while everyone is lying freshly showered on their clean beach towels and enjoying the sunshine. I waited patiently in the water, sitting in my salt-encrusted shorts and absolutely filthy shirt while a mom in a chic black one piece led an adorable and clean little toddler out of the way by the hand.
In important news, the kids were most ecstatic to have their lovies back.
Joe told us he hopes we will do this again next year and that we should definitely ask for him. Saying goodbye was awkward and effusive because we all enjoyed the trip so much and wanted to stay in touch. I stopped short of looking intensely into his eyes and telling him "You are Uncle Joe now." But I wanted to. Because Joe is awesome.
I'm not sure how we can swing another two nighter next year, but I'm already scheming. As usual my scheme involves relocating to the east coast where our lives will surely be just as exciting and fun as they are in the summer all year round when we try to layer mittens and snow shovels and work and school on top of everything else (not really). It's extra hilarious because I am typing this on the porch and had to go get my fleece because it's a chilly sixty-eight degrees with a light breeze.
I cannot wait to go again.