By Vladimir Brezina
For kayakers, islands exert a special allure. There is the attraction of a circumnavigation, returning to the very same place from which you started from the opposite direction and completing the magic circle. But even more romantic is the idea of paddling out to that remote, preferably deserted, island that you can see on the horizon—or just on the chart!—which can be reached only by boat…
In New York Harbor, we have plenty of islands—even apart from the world-famous ones. But there’s no denying that they all offer a decidedly urban paddling experience. No matter what remote corner of the harbor you are in, the city is always there when you look up. And the city is exciting. But sometimes the country calls.
So in mid-May, we drove up to Westport, MA, on the south coast of Massachusetts just past the Rhode Island border. While Johna was enjoying a couple of days of surfing and rock-gardening (which I hope she will write up, as she did last year), I set out to paddle to my favorite deserted islands.
(click on map to expand)
Bright and early in the morning, Johna drove me to Gooseberry Neck, a rocky and sandy promontory that extends out into Buzzards Bay, and dropped me off at the old, dilapidated boat ramp. I had last launched from here more than ten years ago, and was relieved to see that nothing had changed. On the south side of Gooseberry Neck, surf was pounding the shoreline. But on the protected north side, where the boat ramp was, gentle ripples beckoned me to launch into the crystal-clear water. It promised to be a warm, sunny day with a light breeze…
A couple of hours later, the Red Herring was assembled and the camping equipment, food, and water packed. With the sun now high in the sky, it was high time to launch!
I set out across Buzzards Bay, toward the chain of islands—the Elizabeth Islands—that I could see on the other side, low on the horizon, six miles across open water.
The wind was from the north, and as I left the shelter of Gooseberry Neck wind waves built up that helped push me on my way. But soon I also began to feel longer swells arriving from the open ocean to the south that raised the overall wave height to two or three feet, although the waves remained nonthreatening. That’s one of the things I enjoy most in paddling in this part of the world—that big-water feeling is always there, even on a calm day such as this.
In an hour and a half I reached the closest of the Elizabeth Islands, Penikese. I paddled along the boulder-strewn shoreline that fringed its low green hills, passing rocks on which numerous cormorants perched, drying their wings.
The Elizabeth Islands are a chain of six main islands, and a number of smaller ones, that stretch like stepping stones from Cape Cod to the southwest, dividing Buzzards Bay from Vineyard Sound. The Elizabeth Islands were named for Queen Elizabeth I, and the last island in the chain, Cuttyhunk, has the distinction of having been the site of one of the earliest English settlements in North America—in 1602, predating even Jamestown and Plymouth, and second only to Roanoke—although it was abandoned after only a few weeks. Since the 19th century, all of the Elizabeth Islands, except for Cuttyhunk and Penikese, have been privately owned by the Forbes family, which has, remarkably, kept them almost completely free of development. There are very few buildings, and even landing is forbidden except at three specified places. Furthermore, the islands are largely devoid of trees, and altogether present a thrillingly wild, desolate appearance—a bit of Scotland (the origin of the Forbes family) in Massachusetts.
The passages between the islands are known as Holes. Since the tide in Buzzards Bay is out of sync with the tide in Vineyard Sound, strong currents flow through the Holes in parts of the tidal cycle, up to 6 knots in Woods Hole, the hole closest to the mainland of Cape Cod. Furthermore, the currents up and down Vineyard Sound are strong—plenty strong enough to make, or break, a long paddle. From my several previous paddles in the area (such as this one), I knew how important these currents were, and before today’s trip I had looked up their timing on this day. Bottom line: it was now high time to pass through one of the holes and continue the trip along the southern, rather than the northern, shoreline of the Elizabeth Islands, through Vineyard Sound.
I turned the corner of Nashawena Island into the next hole, Quicks Hole, between Nashawena and Pasque Islands.
I was paddling very close to shore, and as I turned the corner I got a shock. I came face to face with a huge shaggy, horned beast, lounging on the beach and looking at me with uncomfortable interest.
Fortunately, almost immediately I remembered reading about the Scottish Highland cattle that had been introduced onto Nashawena Island after the previous population of sheep had succumbed to coyotes.
With a strong flood current, I continued up Vineyard Sound, as new cliffs, capes, and bays of the Elizabeth Islands came successively into view.
It was time for lunch. I ducked into Tarpaulin Cove, one of the places where landing is permitted on the islands. A couple of curious seals poked their heads up between the outlying rocks to watch me arrive.
I climbed partway up the slope to the lighthouse that stands high above Tarpaulin Cove. As I ate lunch—salami, cheese, and dried fruit—I enjoyed a magnificent view of Vineyard Sound, a broad expanse of blue, still empty of boat traffic at this time of the year.
After lunch, it was time to cross Vineyard Sound to Martha’s Vineyard itself.
The shoals are long narrow underwater ridges, often running more or less parallel to the main direction of the waterway for a couple of miles or more, where depths of just a few feet separate much deeper water on either side. When the tide runs strongly over the shoals—as it was running just then—they are marked by agitated white water and tide rips on even the calmest day.
I crossed over the deeper tail end of Middle Ground Shoal, where the water was not much disturbed. But as I then paddled farther into the passage between the shoal and Martha’s Vineyard, where the shoal becomes progressively shallower and simultaneously converges with the shoreline so that the flood current becomes channeled into a progressively narrower passage, I began to see a distinct line of agitated white water, parallel to my course off to the left. Along it trawled a couple of small fishing boats (almost the first boats I had seen all day). And this was a calm day. I could well imagine how such a shoal would act up in bad weather.
I rounded West Chop, the northernmost point of Martha’s Vineyard, and then, passing across the entrance to Vineyard Haven after giving way to several entering and exiting ferries, also its twin, East Chop.
Although sunset was still almost three hours away, I began to think of finding a campsite for the night. I was now paddling along a densely settled shoreline, part of the town of Oak Bluffs. And this was Martha’s Vineyard, a fiercely private and exclusive island. The camping possibilities did not look promising.
Furthermore, I was not making much progress—both current and wind were now against me.
But I remembered that on the mainland of Cape Cod, due north across Vineyard Sound, there was Waquoit State Park. Johna and I had researched it in preparation for our trip to Cape Cod in 2011 (but in the end did not go there). I could not remember the details, but I remembered that it was a wilderness area in which there were even some official camping spots (which required a permit, of course, which I did not have).
So I turned the boat around and crossed Vineyard Sound again, about five miles to Cape Cod. Now at least partly aided by the wind and the current, I made good time. Over some of the shoals I encountered four-foot waves, but, with the spray glittering in the low evening sun, they were more exhilarating than challenging.
When I made landfall on Cape Cod, the current and the wind had carried me somewhat to the west of Waquoit Bay. I paddled east along the shoreline, into the setting sun.
But I was also paddling directly into the wind, and the entrance to Waquoit Bay was still some way off. I began to think that, by the time I finally entered the Bay, it would be too dark to find the official campground.
So, just at sunset, I ducked into Eel Pond (0ne of a thousand with that name in New England!), which I could see from the chart was the pond one short of Waquoit. Paddling through the narrow entrance, the scene was instantly transformed. In place of choppy windy waters, there was a calm, shallow pond over which I glided to a perfect campsite which I spotted almost immediately in front of me, in a fragrant pine grove painted golden by the setting sun.
(Subsequently, looking at Google Maps, I found that I had actually landed on Washburn Island, the same island on which the Waquoit Bay campsites are located, just on the side facing Eel Pond rather than Waquoit Bay. And my campsite looked very similar to the official ones, judging from other campers’ photos, just without any amenities.)
I pulled the boat up into the pines, made camp, and ate dinner—salami, cheese, and fruit, once more–while I watched the last colors of the day fade over Eel Pond.
But I discovered the real reward for getting up early on the other side of my campground. A short walk through the pine grove brought me to a small landlocked pond, over which I watched the golden sun rise through the morning mist.
The sun was up, and it was time to paddle!
I paddled back west along the shoreline of Cape Cod. I passed under Nobska Point Lighthouse that guards the entrance to Woods Hole, where I tangled a bit with the Woods Hole ferries. Then I continued down the chain of Elizabeth Islands.
On the other side of Vineyard Sound, I could see Gay Head, which I had visited on a previous memorable occasion, gradually emerge over the horizon.
On this side, the desolate landscape of the Elizabeth Islands, the sea around, and the clouds above all showed off to advantage on this sparkling blue day.
By the time I reached Nashawena, the current had started to turn against me. I therefore gave up on rounding Cuttyhunk, and instead ducked north through Quicks Hole once more.
And then it was time to cross Buzzards Bay. I was now paddling into the wind, and into the four-foot waves which it kicked up. The mist had closed in, and the other side of Buzzards Bay was not visible.
But my navigation was good. Gradually, Gooseberry Neck emerged from the mist. I landed there in the late afternoon.
Looking at the chart, I see that I did not circumnavigate any islands on this trip. But of remote islands, deserted islands, islands low on the horizon, I saw plenty!
More photos from the trip are here.