My night out with a buffalo: Hugh Dunkerley goes kayaking off the Maine coast, and finds more than marine wildlife
Saturday 04 December 1993
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)
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