Letting go the shore, then to the lighthouses

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2008

Jana Weeks did a head count, made sure everyone's life vest was properly cinched, and asked, "How many first-timers?" Four hands shot up in the group of nine. "You're going to have a great time," she said.

It couldn't have been a more auspicious day for North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center's first excursion of the season from Rockport Harbor to Thacher Island, a four-mile paddle, half of it in sheltered waters. The sun was blazing, and inland temperatures had reached the mid-90s. But the ocean was a cool 50 degrees, the breeze was light, and the seas showed very little chop. With a hat and a dollop of sunscreen, conditions were ideal for paddling. And the Thacher Island run, one of four tours that North Shore Kayak offers daily in the summer, might have been the perfect way to start the season.

Weeks and fellow guide Ben Ryan assembled us all on the rocky beach next to Tuna Wharf on Bearskin Neck for some basic instruction. "Hold your paddle over your head with your arms bent at a right angle," Ryan said. "Now keep your grip in the same place and lower the paddle in front of you. That's your paddling box. You're going to twist your torso instead of swinging your arms. That way you can paddle a lot longer and have more fun."

The novices nodded hesitantly, then dutifully demonstrated what Ryan had just shown. After a drill on rescue techniques and some basic paddling courtesy and safety tips, we began sliding into our kayaks.

"I just know we're going to tip over," said Marie Gengler, 14. "We're going to be so wet," her twin sister, Alice, echoed as they took their seats in an ultra-stable tandem kayak that Weeks slid into the water.

Their trepidation was unwarranted. Within minutes, we had assembled a small flotilla of nine kayaks (two tandems) and 11 of us were ready to set out. "We're so slow," lamented one of the twins as they tried to coordinate their paddling, "that everyone's going to be waiting for us," the other said, finishing her sister's thought.

Not so. Once we had reached the outer edge of the harbor and paddled across in a pack like schoolchildren on a crosswalk, we followed the coast along Old Garden Beach, making toward the gap between the Rockport mainland and the lighthouse on Straitsmouth Island. The twins had found their stroke and were making a speedy beeline near the front of the pack as their aunt Lisa Bingen, an experienced kayaker, periodically doubled back to check on them.

Bingen's husband, Mike Mather, was in a tandem with the twins' mother, Mary Gengler of Brookings, S.D., where she's a microbiologist at South Dakota State. Not only was it her first time kayaking, she admitted, it was her first time on the ocean.

The route that North Shore Kayak uses on these excursions makes a good introduction to sea kayaking. The first half hour of the journey hugs the rocky coast of Sandy Bay, where the seas are sheltered by underwater ledges. By the time we passed through the Straitsmouth Island gap, even the greenest paddlers in our group had relaxed and were paddling with ease, ready for the light rollers once we left the lobster buoys along the coast and entered open seas.

I felt a bit like a sheep in a flock, as Weeks acted the role of bellwether and led the way while Ryan came up behind, bunching us together like a good collie. I find a certain serenity in this kind of group kayaking. The guides were watching out for obstacles or oncoming boats. The pack was moving slowly but steadily, leaving me time to snap some photos, watch the ocean for fish-diving cormorants, and sink into the rhythm of my body working with the boat. My relaxed attitude was aided by the knowledge that should anything go awry, fellow paddler Jarryth M. Skeen of Rockport was a professional EMT.

The 52-acre Thacher Island, named for survivors of a 1635 shipwreck, made an easy target. The island's pair of 160-foot-high lighthouses, erected in 1771 and now the only operating twin lighthouses in the country, are unmistakable on the horizon. The south light is operated by the Coast Guard as a navigational aid; the north light, operated by Rockport, has an amber fluorescent bulb that approximates the light it would have given off back when the light burned kerosene. The towers are aligned on a north-south axis based on true (rather than magnetic) north, allowing mariners to use them to adjust their compass declinations.

We hauled out on the wooden boat ramp at a building marked "Cape Ann Light Station," the service building for both lights on Thacher. It's the only sanctioned landing spot, as nearly half of the island is a National Wildlife Refuge. Although the Thacher Island Association operates a campground, most of Thacher has literally gone to the birds. From late May into August, it's a rookery for giant black-backed and smaller herring gulls, which lay their eggs in the grass safely above the tide line of the rocky shore. They're a protective lot, casting a baleful eye on human intruders passing their nests along the trail system. (It's best to stick to the trails on Thacher, as there's a lot of poison ivy amid the Virginia creeper, multiflora roses, honeysuckle, chokecherries, and staghorn sumac.)

We spent about 45 minutes on the island, exploring the trails and marveling over the speckled eggs and equally speckled gull chicks. We might have stayed longer, but the north tower light had not yet opened for the season. (I'm told there are 156 steps to its observation deck, which should give some pretty spectacular views.)

The boat ramp made it a breeze to get back in the water for the return trip. While we waited for everyone to assemble, Ryan cooled off by demonstrating the kayaker's self-rescue technique known as an Eskimo roll: flipping upside down in the water, then raising his arms and paddle on one side to roll back upright.

"That's for another lesson," he said, laughing.

We retraced our route back to Bearskin Neck, as several members of the group speculated how soundly they would sleep and how sore they would be the next morning. If they remembered to keep their "paddling box" locked, they probably woke up without an ache.

As we got to shore, the twins exulted that they had neither fallen in nor fallen behind. What did they think of the trip?

"Cool!" they chimed in unison.

David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center

9 Tuna Wharf (Bearskin Neck)



The 3 1/2-hour Thacher Island excursions leave daily at 1:30 p.m. late June-August, weekends only early June and September-October, weather permitting. Per person $50; other tours available for $40. Half-day kayak rentals to experienced paddlers $25-$45.

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