My night out with a buffalo: Hugh Dunkerley goes kayaking off the Maine coast, and finds more than marine wildlife

It was the crunching sound that woke me, as if a crowd was walking along the shale beach. But it was three o'clock in the morning. I unzipped the door of the tent and peered out into the half-light. Twenty yards away, where the trees ended, the massive shape of a buffalo was silhouetted against the water. My neck felt as if it had been brushed with ice.

The crunching sound started up again; the animal I could see moved off and three more appeared. Every few yards they would stop, as if listening. By now Alison was awake, too.

'What is it?' she whispered.

'Buffalo.' I tried to sound calm. After all, I reasoned, they were only big cattle. But somehow that scene of the stampeding, never-ending herds from Dances With Wolves kept playing over and over in my mind. Could they see in the dark? What does 2,000lb feel like when it stands on your chest? Adrenalin coursing through our wide-

awake bodies, we sat rigid as the animals moved away towards the other tents on the beach, which were right in their path. There was a hollow, grating sound as one of them nudged against a kayak, then a clatter as what sounded like a coffee- pot was kicked over.

Six of us, two Americans, two Canadians and ourselves, had met at Coastal Kayaking Tours in Bar Harbor two days earlier. We signed up for three days of sea kayaking among the wild, mostly uninhabited islands along this part of the Maine coastline. From May to September, Coastal Kayaking runs trips ranging from a half- day to five days around Mount Desert Island, an area rich in marine life. A registered guide accompanies every expedition and, for the longer trips, all food and gear is provided.

After being 'kitted up' at the depot, we were driven to the north end of Blue Hill Bay, an expanse of water west of Mount Desert. Our guides, Bob and Rick, began with a beach lesson on how to paddle, and soon had us standing swinging our paddles in the air, watched by amused fishermen who were repainting a trawler.

Sitting in a kayak must be one of the most intimate ways of experiencing water without getting wet. Not only do you move with every swell and fall of the waves, you also experience sound at another level of intensity as it carries, unbroken, for miles. As we paddled out into Blue Hill Bay, it suddenly seemed as if engines were bearing down on us from three directions at once. Somehow the distant fishing boats, scurrying like toys from one lobster pot to the next, seemed much too far away to make so much noise.

We were heading for Pond Island, a small, dark, tree-covered shape about two and a half miles to the south. Beyond that were more islands, like the blunt hulls of huge upturned ships sailing across the horizon; and always to the east, wherever we went, the low, rounded mountains of Mount Desert Island.

After paddling almost right round Pond Island, we came ashore on a wide, sweeping beach. Behind it was a salt marsh, grooved with stagnant channels of oozing coppery mud. Beyond that were the dark pines. Lunch was not what any of us had expected on a camping trip: small rounds of a variety of cheeses were surrounded decoratively by crackers and slices of kiwi fruit, and washed down with delicious iced tea. All meals for the trip were to be prepared from as many fresh ingredients as possible, and after lunch Bob and Rick went off to scour the rock pools for mussels to supplement our supper. Meanwhile the six of us began to feel a little redundant, even guilty, at the fact that we didn't have to do anything except eat. That first night, we even had our tents put up for us.

Supper was a gourmet extravaganza: spicy seafood jambalaya and a local organic blueberry wine. After that our guilt got the better of us and we insisted on washing up - that is, wading into the sea up to our shins and scouring the pots, plates and cutlery with gritty sand.

Next morning, as we paddled north, the sky was cloudless. Soon we saw our first seal, a grey. It was swimming in shallow water and was much bigger than the common black seals I had seen in the UK. The wind was getting up, and, since we were in open water, Bob said we shoudl do some sailing. Each kayak had a small mast, between the bow and the front passenger. By pulling a series of strings, I managed to unfurl the spinnaker, which billowed and flapped in a blur of red until I grabbed the two control ropes and it filled with wind. Soon we were moving at quite a speed. Suddenly, Bob and Rick were pointing at the water and then we saw the graceful arcs of two porpoises as they rose and dived in unison. A few minutes later two more surfaced 10 feet from our bow, their golden-brown colour glinting in the sun.

Later that day we landed on Long Island. A ridge of shale ran along the top of the steeply shelving beach and the others decided to pitch their tents there. However, sleeping on rocks didn't seem that inviting and we made for the mossy floor of the woods. After supper, Rick told us about the 15 buffalo that had been left on the island 20 years ago - whether as an experiment or just to get rid of them, no one seemed to know. Now there were rumoured to be more than 30, though they were seldom seen. It was only later, as we stumbled our way to the tent in the darkness, that I began to have second thoughts about being so far from the main group.

That 3am visit was the beginning of a sleepless night. The buffalo moved around the camp for about 20 minutes. At one point something spooked them and two or three crashed down the beach in a rattle of stones. Eventually, they slowly drifted back past us and into the night.

It was just after dawn when a second group emerged from the trees. I held my breath as a huge bull walked straight towards the tent, nosing the ground. He was followed a few minutes later by three females and a small, gangly calf. They were eating the small red berries that grew everywhere in the wood. Soon I was more fascinated than frightened, sitting not 15ft from a creature that looked as if it belonged in the last Ice Age. The male must have been 6 or 7ft at the hump. Just to my left I could hear a small clinking sound. The calf was licking out the metal mugs we had left, still sticky with lemonade.

For 15 minutes they moved around us, cropping and occasionally belching. Then they disappeared into the woods like ghosts, the loud cracks of sticks still echoing from the trees long after they were out of sight.

Coastal Kayaking Tours is at 48 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, USA (0101 207 288 9605)

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor