Sunday, August 11, 2013

Varnum Pond Vacation

Heeling to a moderate breeze on the Sunfish.

I'm on a Sunfish in the middle of Varnum Pond. There's just the slightest pressure on sheet and tiller in my hands in the light air. As the breeze builds on my cheek, the slap-slap-slap of wavelets on the hull changes to the sound of water flowing.

I haul the sheet in. The daggerboard begins a deep thrumming that resonates though the entire hull.

I pull the tiller in to get dead across the wind and sheet in hard. This is my favorite point of sail for a Sunfish in a good breeze, close-hauled on a beam reach. As the gust builds, the boat heels and buries the coaming. I set my feet against the far wall of the cockpit.

The mast heels past 45 degrees and I arch back to counterbalance it, the mast and my body forming a giant V. I work the tiller and sheet continuously to pump it up to the fastest point. It's a live thing, like riding a wild horse.

Five, ten, twelve, fifteen seconds, then the gust passes. The boat drops back to a light heel and I let the sheet out to a normal beam reach. Fifty yards from the boat a loon calls. The response comes back from the far end of the pond, a mile away.

I wait for the next gust. This is the best vacation ever.

This past week my wife, Cat, and I stayed at a cabin on the gorgeous Harmony Farm on Varnum Pond, in Temple, ME. The main house and original outbuildings were built by Boston restaurateur Jacob Wirth. The property was originally known as Camp Wirth (in Maine, all vacation homes are "camp", whether they're simple shacks in the woods or mini-mansions with 3-car garages and manicured lawns).

It's now owned by Catherine and John Erdman. If you'd like to rent the cabin for a few nights, contact Catherine at Their rates are very reasonable.

It's a very peaceful, picturesque spot. An artist could fill an entire portfolio vacationing here. The pond is J-shaped, about three quarters of a mile by one mile, and a quarter across. There are a few power boats, but all we ever saw out was kayaks, canoes, and a Hobie cat.

It's been an odd summer. I haven't gotten a lot of woodworking done. But there's a woodworking connection here. John is a Windsor chairmaker, a graduate of several of Mike Dunbar's classes at the The Windsor Institute in Hampton, NH. He knows Fred Chellis of Little River Windsors, a fellow member of the Guild of NH Woodworkers.

John and I spent several hours over the week rocking on the porch talking tools and projects. It just can't get any better!

Teeka, our cabin.

The main house.

As soon we had unloaded the car on arrival, I asked about the Sunfish. The afternoon breeze had really picked up, continuously rustling all the trees. John and I took the mast and sail down to the pond; a longtime sailor, he was happy to have someone take the boat out.

Catherine and Cat arrived as we were ready to turn the hull over and put it in the water. I told John it would be criminal to waste this breeze, and he smiled and said, "Now I'm really happy!"

I got the boat rigged and paddled it out from the dock like a surfboard to raise the sail. Everyone settled into chairs to watch. As I said, my favorite point of sail with these is close-hauled beam reach. That makes them the jet-skis of the sailing world. I hauled in tight and came up on a high heel. Yeah baby! Then I capsized.

Well, it's been four years since I was on one of these. I tried to catch the daggerboard before it completely turned turtle, but the wind blew it over hull up. I scrambled up and caught the daggerboard in my hands, my feet on the hull, and leaned back. The boat came up sideways, then the mast came out of the water.

The sheet caught on the tiller and the wind caught in the sail and the boat went completely over the other way. I got around the other side, climbed up on the daggerboard and righted it again, and this time it stayed upright. I lunged up on deck and scrambled aboard.

After a little practice, I got back into the handling. I find a Sunfish benefits from an active tiller, constantly questing, seeking back and forth for the best point.

I had also forgotten how fluky pond winds can be. The surrounding hills and trees, the sun heating the land and water, all result in constantly shifting strength and direction. The interesting thing was that I could hear the breeze coming at it rustled the trees.

But with a proper beam reach, not over-hauled, a Sunfish can ghost along in the gentlest breeze. It will even come up on plane as the wind builds when beam reaching or running.

After a while I came back to the dock and picked up Cat. We complement each other so well. After about 15 minutes, she asked, "So you find this fun?" Her thing is fishing. After about 15 minutes of watching her fish, I'll ask, "So you find this fun?"

We each have our way of enjoying the water. She can fish from the dock for hours; I can sail around in circles for hours.

Cat's first really big one.

The large, comfortable covered main porch.

View from the porch.

Down by the pond.

Boats, boats, boats!

Here I'll offer a mini-review of the Pelican Pursuit 80 kayak, the one there in the foreground. I had previously taken out their Perception Acadia 12.5 sea kayak (not shown), paddling out to the blueberry bushes lining the far side of the pond. It's similar to my Perception Eclipse Sea Lion 18, just a bit beamier. The rudder is nice in the wind, keeping the boat tracking in the desired direction when the wind tries to push the long bow around.

I hadn't tried the smaller kayaks in the photo because I was being a kayak snob. Only the long graceful sea kayaks for me! But I hoisted the Pursuite up to take a look and was amazed. It hardly weighed anything! At 26 lbs. I could lift it off the rack and into the water with one arm.

I got in and paddled around and was surprised at its excellent handling. We have a pair of Perception Keowees that feel similar, stable and easy-to-handle flat-water boats. But the longer Keowees have the windage problem; the short Pursuit didn't have any problem in the wind.

I was very impressed with the Pursuit, a light, agile boat easy for beginners. It's short enough to fit in the back of our van, and light enough to load on top easily.

View from the dock.

View back up to the house, left, and cabin, right.

The big tree with swing.

Some of the many beautiful flowers in front of the shed.

This is truly the way to go on vacation. The biggest decision of the day is what kind of boat to take out. Wind's up, take the sailboat. Wind's down, take the kayak. Between morning, afternoon, and evening, I  got 4 or 5 hours of boating in each day while Cat fished or sat enjoying the view.

We had spectacular weather. Not only good breeze, but comfortable temperatures and bright sun with fluffy clouds. The stars at night were equally spectacular. There was not the slightest hint of moon. The stars were so numerous and bright you could see by them, with the trees silhouetted black against the sky.

We saw several shooting stars and satellites. We saw one particularly bright one that we first thought must be a plane. But there was no strobe, and it moved with that arrow-straight smoothness of a satellite. I noted Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper and picked out north, and saw that it went over the treetops in the northeast.

I figured it must be the International Space Station. We checked the sighting website later, and sure enough, it had passed almost directly overhead Lewiston, ME, at the time we were watching, disappearing to the northeast. We couldn't have been luckier.

How about waking up to this view out over the foot of the bed?

Ahhh, breakfast on the deck.

One of our little Maine treats is the jar you see there on the table, Tropical Maine syrup and marinade. We found this at a craft fair in Boothbay several years ago, where the fellow was offering tastes. We bought a half-dozen jars it was so good. It's like a syrupy jelly for toast or pancakes.

Goldfinches at the feeder.

This elusive fellow was right at my feet off the edge of the porch. I finally figured out how to override the autofocus on the camera, but he didn't come back.

The shed and flower garden.

The cabin is well-equipped for up to four people. The front room has two beds and a sitting area. The main room has the main bed and kitchen area, with bathroom in the corner. It's strictly seasonal, with simple electric heaters. The pond is the main water supply, but drinking water is carried in from a local spring.

The beds in the front room of the cabin.

The front room sitting area.

The main sleeping area.

The kitchen area.

We had cool nights in the 50's. The weather continued beautiful through Wednesday. The breeze continued surprisingly steady throughout. I spent 3 hours sailing Wednesday morning, the best yet. As thanks for all the fun I'd had, I picked up some fenders and line and rigged a slip between their dock and a fallen tree so they could keep the boat in for other guests.

Cat fishing at sunset.

Another big one!

Sunset on the pond.

Thursday was another glorious day of sailing. You should always be cautious when a sailor says the weather is glorious, because all he really means is the wind is good and nothing will interfere with sailing. The temperature, sun and clouds, precipitation are irrelevant. Now it might also be a pretty day, sunny and warm, which of course makes it truly glorious.

This was glorious but not pretty, heavily overcast, with cloud just above the tree tops hiding the surrounding hills. I finished up the day with an hour-long paddle in the Pursuit in a light rain.

The hills buried in cloud.

As I mentioned, the drinking water came from a public tap in the ground. This is what the seasonal houses without a well use.

Turn on Orchard Hill Rd., stop at the first faucet coming out of the woods on the left. If you come to the maple syrup farm, you've gone too far.

Maine lawn care equipment.

Finally, I'm very happy to report that Wannawaf has opened a new location in Portland. This is another of our favorite Maine treats. We always go to the original location in Boothbay Harbor when we're in the area.

We had read a couple years ago that the owner, Anya Arsenault, was interested in expanding, so we were thrilled to find out it's now open on Monument Square in Portland.

What is Wannawaf? They make Belgian waffles, then serve them as sundaes with scoops of ice cream and various toppings. They have a number of combinations on the menu, or you can build your own with 3 toppings. Delicious! There are also savory waffles to have before dessert (and hot dogs at the Boothbay location). Don't miss it!

Cat enjoys her Wannawaf in the front window seating.

Bevin with good ol' Smeg.

Our favorite, the Must Bee Nuts, wasn't on the menu, but Bevin, a printmaking graduate from MECA, was happy to make them up for us, with peanut butter, honey, and granola, all topped with whipped cream. A great way to top off a great vacation!


  1. Ah! Steve you were in my neck of the woods and didn't tell me! I would have loved to grab lunch with you. If you have time next visit up here, drop me a line. I wanna buy you lunch!

  2. Thanks so much, Steve, for posting your wonderful photos and comments! My grandfather, Jacob Wirth, built "Camp Wirth" (aka Harmony Farm) and I spent every summer there when I was growing up. I was delighted to learn that the current owners rent out one of the cabins and will plan a vacation there with my husband and daughter. It will be so special to be able to show Emmy in person the special place she's only seen in family photos.

    1. Hi Gaby, that's so cool! We spent another beautiful vacation there this summer. Your family will love it just as much as you did.


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