It’s hard to believe, on a quiet September morning in a kayak in Friendship Harbor, that this was the same place that was raided twice during the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s, where settlers were killed and scalped as they sought refuge in a fort on Garrison Island.
Or that this picture-perfect coastal Maine community bustled in the late 1800s, with a population not much less than its current 1,200 or so people, and featured two shipbuilders, two gristmills, a shingle mill, three sawmills and assorted manufacturers of sails, carriages, boots and shoes.
It was those shipbuilders who incorporated the lines of Gloucester fishing vessels into the world-renowned Friendship Sloop. The early sloops ranged in length from 20 to 50 feet, with the average running between 30 and 40 feet. They shared the same elliptical stern, and most had a clipper bow and were gaff-rigged. The one thing they all shared was a preset formula: the beam equaled one-third the overall length, and the length of the mast equaled the overall length plus half the draft.
So did Muscongus Bay earn a special place in the eyes of fishermen and sailors for the abundance of this now-classic craft. At the turn of the last century, they were used in seining for herring, hand-lining for cod, sword fishing, mackereling and, of course, lobstering.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to haul and bait traps while managing the sail and staying off the rocks with a boat that drafted about five feet.
On a recent morn, I paddled amongst some of these classics as well as modern-day lobster and cruising boats, as I drank in the beauty of the harbor, the village and the islands. Although it was “thickafog,” in the lobstermen’s vernacular, the ghosts of Friendship’s past appeared as I paddled past, not the least of them being Gladiator, a still-beautiful sloop built in 1902, lying on her mooring.
Kayaking Friendship and Muscongus Bay is a special treat, regardless of the weather, and it’s easy to get there. From the south, it’s only about a dozen miles down Route 220 from Waldoboro, and about the same distance down Route 97 from South Warren/Thomaston if you’re coming from the north.
When you reach the center of the tiny village, take the Bradford Point Road at the Hahn Community Center for about a mile to a public launching site, where one can walk to Garrison Island at low tide. I like launching there, instead of the town landing on the harbor, as this gives you a wonderful view of the harbor as you pass either inside Garrison Island when the tide’s in, or out around it if it’s out.
Friendship Long Island provides great protection, so you’ll often find placid paddling even when the seas outside are running a little high, and exploring its entire perimeter is a half-day of some of the best coastal Maine kayaking you’ll find anywhere.
Ospreys circle and cry, seals bask and other sea birds fill the air. You’ll see lobstermen at work, pulling traps or unloading their catch and taking on bait at the Co-op.
Out around the south end of Friendship Long, you’ll pass inside Cranberry Island and back along the east side to your launch site.
If the seas are favorable, and you’re up for a little more serious ocean kayaking, you might consider paddling six miles out to the Franklin Island National Wildlife Refuge. The 12-acre island, part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, supports nesting gulls, eiders, black-crowned night herons, Leach’s storm petrels and ospreys.
But note: You can only go on the island during daylight hours between Sept. 1 and March 31, as it’s off-limits from April through August, the seabird nesting season. So plan an early spring or fall trip to this natural treasure.
After enjoying your cruise in the kayak, it’ll be time to spend a while in the village soaking up the ambiance of a quintessential small coastal Maine community.
A stop at Archie Wallace’s Groceries and Provisions in the middle of town is a must. It juxtaposes the feel of an old-time country store with a modern deli offering choice meats, cheeses and about everything else you’d expect in a market bearing the descriptive name. I don’t know how many places in Maine claim to serve “Maine’s best lobster roll” — far too many, in my book — but at Archie Wallace’s, they don’t make such a claim, they just do it.
Lying as it does on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Maine between Muscongus Bay and the Friendship River, the fact that some 55 percent of the town’s 31 square miles is water says a lot about the place.
It’s connected to the sea in a very special way, and a day in a kayak exploring its various hidden nooks and crannies should be on every kayaker’s schedule.
John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son, Josh, write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: [email protected]