A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Saco to Wood Island

July 26, 2020
Emilie Phillips

We went sea kayaking! In Maine even. With a little research, we found a new set of islands we had never visited before, and a boat launch with bathrooms.

Isaac preparing to wet exit

We set out from the Camp Ellis municipal parking lot and pier. It’s $10 to park for the day. The parking lot was only a third full when we arrived. I don’t know if it would be fuller on a different year. We launched an hour after low tide. No one else was launching. First thing on the water, we insist on a safety check. Isaac wet exited with no complaints. That’s amazing progress. Tyson and I each did a roll, and then complained about reduced flexibility and poor technique compared to our heyday.

From our research online the day before, we knew we had lots of options for destinations outside the Saco River

  • One MITA island open for day trips or camping
  • Wood Island and the Wood Island Lighthouse. It is maintained by a nonprofit. The island is open to the public. They are not running tours due to Covid-19, and they have a sign requesting you maintain social distance or wear a mask. Donations suggested if you visit.
  • Sage Island and the Sage Island Monument. I can find nothing official on whether the island is open to the public, but a lot of people seem to visit it. According to one review, bring shoes to hike to the monument itself.
  • The large tidal Biddeford Pool
  • Stratton Island, a ways to the north, is owned by the Audubon society and allows public access outside of breeding season.
  • East Point Sanctuary on the tip of the mainland is another Audubon society property open to the public.
  • Beach Island, south of East Point hosts a seal colony according to this website.

Also, see this local history of the islands.

Since it was low tide, we first had to paddle out the 1.5 mile channel between two breakwaters (NOAA Chart). Seas were supposed to be less than two feet, but even between the breakwaters we were getting chop from boats and an offshore breeze. We cut through a gap in the lower southern breakwater a half mile before it’s eastern end.

Emilie and Isaac reading the chart at the Stage Island monument

First we paddled towards Stage Island, thinking we might land there to stretch our legs. But based on time, and everyone feeling comfortable in their boats, we decided to continue on to Wood Island for lunch. We wanted to leave plenty of time for paddling home into the wind. The wind had enough fetch down the Saco River and across Saco Bay to make waves that we surfed east from Stage Island and almost onto Negro Island. Isaac’s boat was riding low after several surf rides, so we paused between Negro and Wood Island to empty it out. We think he is ready to try a loose spray skirt next trip out.

Tyson admiring the Woods Island rock coast

Tyson considered rock gardening along Wood Island, but decided he had better not given that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and Isaac isn’t skilled enough to follow. Instead we cruised a little offshore, watching the birds on the rocks. The great black-backed gulls shrieked and squawked at us. A slightly smaller brown gull silently shuffled away from us. I later decided they were juvenile black-backed gulls. The cormorants stopped fluffing their feathers to watch us go by. And the eider ducks waddled as fast as they could to the edge of the rocks then flapped madly over the water trying to take off. I felt bad for the eider ducks. The terns off shore were much more graceful. They circled overhead and then plunged into the water, reemerging a moment later. I never saw a fish in their mouth, but I saw several chew and swallow as they flew back up. (US Fish and Wildlife description of Maine seabirds if you are curious.)

Wood Island Lighthouse from shore

I had hoped to land near the Wood Island Lighthouse, but the shore was too rocky. The two foot ocean swells didn’t help either. So I fed Isaac a snack and we continued west around the island all the way back to the Coast Guard boat ramp. They have a very polite sign on the boathouse at the top of the ramp that says to pull your boats out of the way of others and please donate money. From the boat house, there is a board walk clear across the island back to the lighthouse at the east end. We followed it all the way, with a few stops to pick raspberries. We even found a picnic table at the lighthouse.

Wind picking up at Stage Island

After lunch, paddling back towards Saco River, we found the head winds we expected. Isaac complained we weren’t making any progress. I knew we were. So I showed him how to compare a nearby buoy to the mainland off to our left. He looked skeptical when I first explained it, but he brightened up when he looked back and saw how far the buoy had retreated. He’s a strong paddler for his age and his skin on frame kayak really fits him well. Nevertheless a 10 mph wind was too much for him to paddle against all the way home. I towed Isaac 3/4 of a mile from Stage Island across submerged Hills Beach. Tyson had more go in him and towed Isaac another mile back to the Camp Ellis docks. We took the short cut across the now submerged southern breakwater.

Seven miles all told. Given Tyson’s and my current fitness level and flexibility, that was just about right. The only problem during the whole trip, which I realized when we were rounding Wood Island, far from the parking lot, was that I left my carbon fiber spare paddle on the pavement next to our car. I tried not to spend the rest of the trip imagining all the ways it could have gotten run over or taken home by someone. Amazingly, we got back right as a someone was considering putting it in their car. They found the paddle on the grass where someone previously had placed it out of harm’s way. We explained we were the owners, and they returned the paddle with no issues. Phew.

Maine blueberry pie

We finished the day with a Maine seafood dinner and blueberry pie.

On a side note, while looking up how to spell “dory” for the photo captions, I found this fun article about rowing a dory in rough water. It sounds tricky. I’ll stick to my kayak thank you.

All Photos

GPS Track