A Whale in Lowell’s Cove: You can’t get there from here.

Portland, Maine waterfront

When I was 35 and came down with a bad case of boat fever, I treated it by buying a 16-foot skiff with a 60 HP 2-stroke Suzuki outboard. Never mind that the prop was slightly bent, creating a vibration in the lower unit, or that it had a bit of structural damage from a barely adequate fiberglass repair on the stern, the price was right at $3,500 and it came with a serviceable trailer. In preparation, I signed up for a Coast Guard small boat safety course, but life being what it is, I made exactly two sessions. It is safe to say that although I passed the multiple-choice test, there were significant gaps in my knowledge.

I had planned on using the boat on Casco Bay in southern Maine where I live, and in anticipation of summer fun, my friend David Quinby guided me in the purchase of a mooring ball, chain, shackles, and a concrete block with an I-bolt. Then he methodically put the pieces together on his 45-foot metal workboat, Imelda, before setting the mooring fifty yards off the beach. To say that I “helped set the mooring” is an exaggeration; I was present on-board and tied my first bowline knot and attached the mooring pendant, but was acutely aware a misstep might end up with one of us overboard with a missing finger or crushed foot. When we were done, David declared the mooring adequate. “It’s heavy, but you can’t have a block too heavy. Everything is bigger than you need, but that’s what you want. The Queen Mary could tie up on this mooring.”

After purchasing a chart and my first hand-held marine radio, a fire extinguisher, flares, life preservers, and a whistle, my wife Sandi grudgingly set foot on the skiff. She liked the high gunnels, making it more difficult for our children, 3-year-old Molly and 5-year-old Kate to tip overboard, and noted that I seemed to be “more careful than I’ve ever seen you.” And in fact, our early forays on the Bay were flawless as we nestled our flat-bottomed skiff on nearby islands on an incoming tide. With more than a hundred uninhabited islands yet to be visited in Casco Bay, the future looked bright for our gunkholing family.

     Then one weekend I heard that a young humpback whale had been sighted in Lowell’s Cove off Orr’s Island about 15 miles up the coast. Local lobstermen had laid a 500-foot barrier net over the entrance to the cove, trapping a large school of pogies (Menhaden) inside. This was perfectly legal, a traditional method of corralling bait for lobster fishing. The problem—particularly for the lobstermen—a 25-foot juvenile humpback whale was feasting inside the cove on the fishermen’s bait. Greg Early, a member of the New England marine mammal stranding team, noted that the whale appeared healthy. “It’s sitting in a bowl of food and has been seen on both sides of the net.”  The real problem, he noted, was the possibility of a collision with an ever-growing fleet of recreational boaters gawking at the whale.

Oh, how I yearned to be one of those gawkers.

The next morning, I was off for Lowell’s Cove from Peaks Island with my daughter Kate, my good friend Geoff, and his son, Bryan. After helping the first graders adjust their life-preservers and informing them that, no, they could not sit on the bow, I consulted my chart for the quickest route to Lowell’s Cove. and decided we’d cut between Little Chebeague and Great Chebeague Islands. From there it would be a straight shot to Harpswell and Lowell’s Cove.

Abruptly, not twenty minutes into our trip, we hit a sand bar, or more accurately, I hit a sandbar. The kids fell off their seats and after a moment of silence, laughed like drunken sailors. Scrambling back on my own seat, I consulted the chart and located where we were. Hmm..mid-tide, this area is kind of shallow. How did I miss that? There were no tell-tale *** on the chart denoting rocks or shallow ledges, which was extraordinarily lucky. Geoff suggested that we check the prop, so I shut off the engine. Except for a small ding, the prop looked serviceable. What a relief.

With Geoff paddling on one side and the children sort of paddling on the other we were soon making our way to deeper water. That was close. I was about to lower the engine and turn the ignition key when we ground to a halt, again. This time I knew we had to hurry. Even a novice like me knew that Casco Bay is the land of eleven-foot tides, and it was dropping rapidly. I slipped over the side and grabbing the bow, muscled the boat off the sandbar, and headed for open water. But the waterscape was rapidly changing.  Around us, tufts of sand poked through the surface, followed by miniature mountain ranges forming a semi-circle around our hapless boat. I went this way and that, encouraged by Geoff that if we could get the boat through the last open channel we’d be back on track towards Lowell’s Cove. Geoff climbed over the side to help, but moments later, we went aground in a rapidly shrinking body of water as large as our living room.

I knew the next few hours would be challenging, but what the heck, the boat seemed to be undamaged, it was a spectacular finest-kind late summer morning in Maine, and we’d packed enough water and sandwiches to feed our young charges. Sure, we’d have to wait nearly an entire tidal cycle to get underway, but we had the novelty of Little Chebeague Island to explore. Grandpa, was this before cell phones were invented? Yes, it was, child.

Geoff helpfully reminded me that a nickname for Little Chebeague was tick island and before I could say, “You can have a nature pee by that clump of bushes,” I quietly picked off 3 ticks from Kate’s shorts. Okay, we’ll stick to the shoreline and concentrate on periwinkles, mussels, sea glass, and flotsam and jetsam. I glanced over to our boat. As the tide had receded connecting the two islands, a sand desert now dominated the landscape. Our boat looked as if it had been dropped by a helicopter into the middle of the Sahara.

For the first four hours, the children were in island heaven as we explored the perimeter of Little Chebeague Island. Lobster buoys were discovered at the high tide mark and dragged by their lines to fashion a fort. A stick figure with a mooring ball head and a razor clam mouth took shape. For a time, the children simply ran as fast as they could back and forth down the deserted beach. When the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were gone, we carefully rationed our Goldfish cheddar cheese crackers. I shared a Snicker’s bar with Geoff. Thank goodness we brought enough water.

By the six-hour mark, we still had two children left. They were mostly going with the flow but were beginning to miss their mothers. I reminded Geoff of another adventure we’d shared with the children only two months before when we boated over to Cow Island and introduced Kate and Bryan to overnight camping. We set up the tent, ate dinner (and smores!) and all was well until 7 pm when a group of young men pulled their skiff ashore and set up camp nearby. Alcohol was consumed. As darkness fell, the one who was dancing in his underwear shouted, “I have some gasoline for the fire,” while the group assembled a massive wooden funeral pyre, igniting it with a homemade torch.

Amid this insanity, we looked over to our children…and they were asleep, and remained so, while Geoff and I worried our way through the rest of the night. At dawn, the pirate boat was gone, and we wearily headed home, grateful to be alive.

The children were now growing restless. I gazed out at my boat and, thankfully, the desert was clearly shrinking. It was time to pack up and go home. To hell with the whale. The tide rose more quickly than I would have imagined; by the time we reached the boat, the water was above my knees and rising fast. We placed the children onboard and pulled the anchor. Water filled our sand prison, and we silently glided over the sand bar before I started the engine and headed for home. After dropping off my friend Geoff and his son Bryon at the town dock in Falmouth, I was acutely aware of how worried Sandi would be but was more concerned about saving my own skin. It was time to rehearse our story. No fabrications, only omissions. “Kate,” I began, “You’re okay, right?”

“Yes Daddy! That was fun! Can Bryan and I go back to the tic beach tomorrow?”

“Definitely. But your mom, you know mom is going to be worried about us being so late. You want to come out on the boat again, don’t you? I’m not telling you what to say, but maybe you can tell her how much fun this was. It was fun, wasn’t it?” Then I handed Kate the last of the cheddar cheese crackers and patted her on the head.

As we came in sight of Peaks Island, I spied Sandi on the beach looking our way. She was not amused. There was a heavy silence as I cut the engine and the boat settled onto the beach. Kate scrambled out of the boat and ran to Sandi and buried her head in her arms, sobbing, “Mommy, it was the worst day of my life. I hit my head when I fell out of my seat when dad hit a sand something. We were stuck forever on an island. Bryan and I made a fort. Tics found my shorts. I drank water.”

Sandi exhaled and half-closed her eyes. Without a word, she reached down and picked up Kate and placed her on her hip, and Molly in hand, walked back towards the house. I tied up the boat on our mooring and then, sensing this was inadequate, retied the knot. I was being super careful, but it was too little, too late. By then, Sandi had reached the back door and I watched as she led Molly inside and Kate wiggled off her hip. Then, just before the door closed, she looked back and waved one finger in my direction. Relief. I am a knucklehead, but I am Sandi’s knucklehead. We’ll keep the boat.

19 thoughts on “A Whale in Lowell’s Cove: You can’t get there from here.

  1. My husband and I have a house on Great Diamond and I look forward to, and enjoy reading all your stories!

    • Thanks Barbara. My vignette on my camping trip on Cow Island must have rung true for you. In the early 1990’s it was the ultimate party island with many late-night alcohol-fueled parties.

    • My trail of failures continued after this story. Not 4 months later that boat sank on its mooring.
      Good pickle ball game! Chuck

    • Thanks Joanne.
      We’re doing well out here on Peaks Island. Our oldest daughter Kate moved back here a year ago and her daughter started 2nd grade today and her 4-year-old starts pre-school tomorrow. Very exciting. Is your son still in Oregon?

  2. Reading your stories always brings me back to the days close to 50 years ago when my dad and I visited dozens of those islands. We even paid a visit to halfway light when it was still manned by Coastguard. How lucky for me to have spent all of my summers on Peaks.

    • Hi Paul,
      Did your mom, Anne, work with me at the Health Center? I have such wonderful memories of her do-it-all work ethic and she was wonderful with patients.
      By the time I visited half-way rock 4-5 years ago, it had been purchased by Floyd Reiche and he was renovated the inside of the lighthouse. An amazing place! Thanks for writing. Chuck

  3. Dear Chuck, thank you for this … I can see it now. What is life without an adventure or two? (And isn’t it interesting how those Bates College survival skills re-surface at just the right time?!!). 😊 Fred

  4. Great read, Dr. Radis! Now, which one finger did Sandi wave to you? 😂.
    I’m forwarding all your writing to my neighbor, an old sailor and veteran of the Coast Guard, who is eager for distraction as he copes with multiple myeloma.
    Take care and I hope all is well on your end!
    Joan Hager

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.