On a Kayak

Discover a Vineyard that many have never seen, by choosing from these eight recommendations for where to launch your kayak.

Something remarkable happens when you kayak on Martha’s Vineyard. Moments after the first strokes, you change. The random chatter inside your head – the cares, preoccupations, calculations, and mental projections of the day – fades away, replaced by stillness. The naked moment reveals itself.

The Island is still a tranquil place, yet it is not immune to the pressures and challenges of modern life. A dozen years ago, I discovered in kayaking the perfect respite. At the tail end of the summer, I stumbled on a year-end sale at Wind’s Up! in Vineyard Haven. The water-sports outlet sells kayaks throughout the season, and for rentals it purchases new kayaks in the spring and sells them in the fall.

That autumn I installed a roof rack on my Toyota Corolla and began exploring the Island’s waterways. I stuck to saltwater ponds, since my forays into the open sea had taught me that sharp currents streak through the Island waters, increasing the risk of capsizing or being pulled out to sea. I quickly adopted the Golden Rule of kayaking: Always wear your life vest. It seems the kayaking fatalities around the Vineyard in the last decade have had one common denominator, which is the individuals neglected to wear vests.

Kayaking introduced me to a Martha’s Vineyard I’d never encountered, a world of salt marshes, shorebirds, coves, miniature islands, streams, and hidden beaches. With an underwater berth of inches, kayaks can glide into shallows off-limits to rowboats and canoes. The Island has a patchwork of public landings that allow access to an array of locales to explore.

Katama Landing, Edgartown

At the salt flats of Katama, on the southern edge of Edgartown harbor, you paddle along the border that separates Edgartown from Chappaquiddick. After decades living on the Vineyard, I’ve yet to pinpoint the ineffable quality that sets Chappaquiddick apart from the rest of the Island, yet it is very real. At this borderline you move parallel to the spit of beach that once connected the two islands. Two years ago the ocean ripped through the barrier beach, turning Chappaquiddick into its own island and severing the sand-dune road frequented by Jeep-driving fishermen. Currents now course through this channel, requiring extra vigilance for kayakers. Of course if you have an adventurous streak, you can dart through the channel in your kayak; this may not be for novices, but a seasoned kayaker (with a life vest) who isn’t afraid of getting splashed can have a blast. Beaching further down at Chappaquiddick, you walk the shore and feel the vastness of the sky and Atlantic Ocean. The whispers of bygone centuries of whalers and sailing ships linger in the air.

Edgartown Great Pond

Down a bumpy dirt road off Meetinghouse Way is the boat launch, from which you can head to the beach on the south shore or explore the many coves of Edgartown Great Pond. Swans are beautiful creatures to behold from a distance, but up close can be severe, intimidating creatures during swan-breeding season in spring. When you enter their territory, they let you know in swift order that you are unwelcome. Along the reeds at the edge of the broad pond, mother swans stand vigil over their nests. You don’t know you’ve trespassed until a mother emerges, wings spread to their full span, hissing and bobbing her neck like an angry serpent. You dip the paddles and slowly reverse your course. The mother swan pushes forward, hissing. Even after you’ve turned around and paddled away, she follows you, relenting only when you’ve retreated to a safe distance. She returns to the nest, shakes off her feathers, and resumes her vigil.

Chilmark Pond Preserve

At this Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission property, as you launch into the brackish pond by Abel’s Hill, two options unfold before you: Head left and you’ll paddle through an expanse of open pond – the rustle of the sea breeze through the reeds and cattails whispers across the pond. Take a right and you’ll wend your way down a narrow creek until you emerge at the pond behind Lucy Vincent Beach, the exclusive town beach off-limits to non–Chilmark residents. While it’d be wrong to recommend trespassing, the reality is that kayakers have access to a wide swath of ultra-private beaches, and as long as they don’t blare radios or toss empty beer cans around the shore, they’re rarely noticed by private residents. Besides, the effort of lugging a kayak to the pond and paddling across to a secluded beach is self-selecting enough to render the issue a moot point.

Squibnocket Pond, Quitsa Pond, and Menemsha Pond, Chilmark and Aquinnah

From the Squibnocket Beach parking lot, you weave out through several inlets and coves into the open expanse of the pond. To the left lie giant sand dunes at the edge of the Onassis estate; any attempt to beach and explore the dunes will be met with stiff resistance by the caretakers who patrol the property. On the opposite side of the pond lies a small inlet that leads to a three-foot-diameter pipe running under State Road near the Chilmark/Aquinnah border. Steer your kayak into it, and lean back to clear the top. From above, you’ll hear the humming echo of cars driving over the road and will emerge from the darkness into a network of shallow streams running downhill. Wade in the stream and drag your kayak through the waterway into Quitsa Pond. From here you can exit from the cove into Menemsha Pond. Sailboats glide by you as you paddle across. You beach at the edge of the channel between the pond and the open ocean, in front of the Home Port Restaurant and stretch your legs on a walk around the small harbor town.

Tiah’s Cove at Tisbury Great Pond, West Tisbury

When you pull off from the landing at Tiah’s Cove, the saltwater pond spreads out before you like a small sea. Oysters line the bottom of the pond, fading away as the water deepens. Vacation homes and farms line the shore. As you head across the pond, an optical illusion sets in: After minutes of paddling, the distant, oceanside dunes seem no closer. As muscle fatigue sets in and the dunes remain perched in the distance, thoughts of giving up set in. It’s a simple test of faith and persistence. As you keep paddling through the weariness, a magical moment occurs in which the dunes suddenly emerge in front of you. As you drag the kayak ashore, the vast expanse of the south shore spreads out before you. During the summer, families splash around in the surf and spread blankets on the sand. It’s a select group, as most of these people belong to beach associations charging six-figure dues. Some years a channel runs from the pond into the sea. If you lie down in the channel, the current will draw you like a river raft into the surf.

More places to explore

Lagoon Pond in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs

Paddle under the drawbridge and move along the edge of the harbor, watching the steamships plow through the water to and from the Island. Whatever route you take, your cares and worries will remain behind – gone unless you elect to pick them up again upon returning to shore.

Sengekontacket Pond in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs

Reach down and pull cherrystone clams off the sandy bottom (throw them back if you don’t have a shellfish license – the shellfish constables are vigilant) and beach your kayak at the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the 250-acre MassAudubon preserve.

Lake Tashmoo in Tisbury

Float by Chip Chop, the former estate of Katharine Cornell and current summer home of film director Mike Nichols and his wife, television journalist Diane Sawyer.

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