Interested in a guided sea kayaking trip to Fort Gorges? Click here to sign up.
TRIP LENGTH: 2.5 Nautical Miles (if you loop around the fort); add on a couple miles more with a detour into the harbor or around Little Diamond Island
DEPART FROM: East End Beach
HIGHLIGHTS: Exploring the inside an amazing old fort, looking at interesting ships along the way, watching harbor seals, panoramic views of the harbor and outer bay.
WATCH OUT FOR: Vessel traffic, strong tidal currents, trip hazards in and around the fort
Just about every island near Portland harbor contains some sort of fortification that's crumbling apart and that's fascinating to explore. There's Fort Scammel on House Island, Fort Levett on Cushing Island, and Fort Lyons on Cow Island, just to name a few. Each of these forts has its own unique intrigue and each offers a window into a distinct chapter of American history.
Fort Gorges is just one mile from the Portland waterfront, and it has a few features that make it particularly unique and fun to explore. For one thing, the fort is practically an island itself. It was built on the low, rocky land mass called Hog Island, but it takes up virtually the whole island, creating the illusion that its thick granite walls are rising out of the ocean.
And the island feels even more isolated and remote because it's completely abandoned and only accessible by small boat. What's more, it's not really maintained or kept up, which makes its dark and damp halls all the more exciting to explore (though the lack of maintenance also raises some safety issues). There's no better view of the Portland harbor than you'll get from climbing the fort and gazing out from atop its ramparts.
All this makes Fort Gorges an ideal destination for sea kayakers. And even if you're not into forts, a loop around Fort Gorges is a great route if you're looking for a fairly short paddle that gives you sweeping views of Portland harbor and the inner islands of Casco Bay.
If you're not prepared to paddle to the fort on your own (it's not a good route for novice paddlers), consider signing up for Portland Paddle's guided Fort Gorges Sea Kayak Trip. You'll get the same experience described here, but with the company of a guide prepared to safely navigate the waters of Casco Bay safely and show you the coolest features of the fort.
Making the Crossing to the Fort
From the East End Beach, the fort looks like it's practically a stone's throw away. But getting there presents some significant challenges, including a busy boat channel and exposure to winds and currents.
In the summer, there’s often a firm southwesterly wind moving along the lowland of South Portland, right through the Fore River, and it passes directly over Fort Gorges. It’s often difficult to appreciate this wind until you emerge from the protection of the Eastern Promenade. During the non-winter months, an American flag flies on the north side of Fort Gorges, clearly visible from East End Beach. This flag is a solid indicator of the intensity and direction of the wind (the flag fully extends in a wind of 10 knots).
During the ebb (outgoing) tide, tidewater from Back Cove combines with the flow of the Presumpscot River, and empties between Fort Gorges and East End Beach. The current is stronger during spring tides (spring tide = full & new moon tide) and times of heavy freshwater runoff. The flood (incoming) tide sometimes creates confused waters that can suddenly shift your boat’s course.
Timing the tide can be helpful when crossing to Fort Gorges. Departing on the ebb tide and returning on the flood tide is the most efficient for paddling, but mind the wind as well to decide the exact bearings you use.
Portland Harbor is the busiest harbor in New England (yes, even busier than Boston!). Just after you leave the mooring field off of East End Beach, you enter a thoroughfare of heavy vessel traffic. Remember, as a paddler, you need to look out for yourself and always assume other vessels don’t see you. Stay out of the way, make yourself seen and heard, and be friendly, because we want kayakers to continue to be known as friendly.
As with any crossing, keep a compass bearing while paddling from East End Beach to Fort Gorges, and take ranges to note any lateral movement of your boat. What’s a range, you ask? It’s when you line up stationary objects that are different distances apart to monitor whether or not you’re moving in a straight line.
Getting Oriented in Portland Harbor
As you make your way toward the fort, with good visibility, you’ll see Portland Headlight to the south. Built in 1791, it’s the oldest lighthouse in Maine. Wyman power station stands to the northeast on Cousins Island, a controversial structure when constructed in the 70’s because it’s huge and ugly, but gives us electricity for our toasters and video games.
The island closest to Fort Gorges is Little Diamond, a cute little place with no roads and many golf carts. The water between Little Diamond and Hog Islands was an “escape channel” during the Second World War for the navy anchorage of inner Casco Bay.
Directly south you’ll see House Island, and protruding from it are the stones of Fort Scammel, built just before the war of 1812.
Once near Fort Gorges, you can circumnavigate either way, and the wind will help you figure out which way to go. At low tide, there’s a lot more exposed ledge around Hog Island. There’s a sandbar that connects a large chunk of ledge to the northwest side of the island. This sandbar disappears pretty quickly once the tide floods.
You’re likely to encounter harbor seals on this crossing. They’ll peek above the water at you occasionally, sometimes in small groups. During seal-pup season in spring, there may be seals on the ledges near the fort. Give them plenty of space so that you don’t scare them into the water.
Fort Gorges has been disputed territory between ospreys and bald eagles over the years. Eagles live on Cushing Island to the southeast, and ospreys live throughout the inner harbor, but apparently both want real estate at Hog Island. In summer the ospreys dominate the space and maintain a nest, whereas eagles hang around in spring and fall, often eating large prey on the ledges. But sometimes their visitations overlap. The two species don’t get along, and will often fight over food. The osprey usually wins because, though smaller, it’s more agile.
Because of the fort’s dark granite presence, it’s sometimes described as Portland’s Alcatraz, though it never served as a prison. It was originally conceived as a harbor defense battery during the War of 1812, but construction was delayed until 1857. It’s owned and maintained by the City of Portland, and open to the public, with camping and open fires prohibited.
It's fun to paddle around the fort, but since the south side of Fort Gorges faces the sea you'll be entering into waters that can be more choppy and sometimes turbulent. On this south side of the fort the island drops precipitously into deep water. At high tide, the south side of the fort appears to rise straight up from the water. When padding along this wall, be mindful of reflecting waves (rather than breaking, they bounce back), in particular steep wakes from passing lobster boats and ferries.
WHere to land
At any tide level except high spring tide, the easiest place to land on Hog Island is the beach on the northwest side of the island, adjacent to the old granite block pier. That's to the right of the right of the fort's entrance, if your back is to downtown Portland.
On the opposite side of the fort's entrance there’s another great beach, but as the tide gets lower it becomes more difficult to negotiate. During a low spring tide, this beach is hazardous to walk on because of deep mud flats; if you try, you’ll lose your shoes, sanity, and, if you’re a guide, your respect (trust me).
Another popular landing is the beach to the north, which is part of the ledge beyond the sandbar. If you land here, be careful not to be separated from your boat on an incoming tide while you explore the fort.
There’s only one entrance to Fort Gorges. It’s a large archway in the north wall. From here, you can explore three stories of interesting rooms, stairwells, and views. Be very careful of fall hazards. Always watch where you’re going, and don’t trust any precarious looking areas, like rotten wooden floors in the powder magazines, or loose bricks in the ceiling. Bring a flashlight on this trip so you can explore the darker areas of the fort.
Exploring inside the fort
There's a lot to explore once you're inside the fort. The architectural features of the fort are fascinating, and it's especially striking to see how the many years of weather and wind have worn down those features. Check out the stalagmites and stalactites hanging from the brick arches! And make sure you enjoy the panoramic view from the third level.
Even though Fort Gorges never saw any military action, the place still has a rich history. That's beyond the scope of this article, but you can find lots of information in The Forts of Maine: Silent Sentinels of the Pine Tree State by Henry Gratwick. Read the section about Fort Gorges online here.
Although the fort is owned by the city, a full restoration remains needed to make it safe in its entirety for visitors and structurally sound for the long-term. A local non-profit, Friends of Fort Gorges, is raising money to fund that process. And during the summer of 2017 the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to make some improvements aimed at increasing safety for visitors.
So for now, be cautious and, no, don’t jump into the ocean from the fort. And as always, leave no trace.
back to the mainland
If the tide’s flooding, be sure your boat’s high enough on the beach! I once rescued a lone visitor’s empty boat as it rode the wind away from the fort toward Little Diamond Island. The owner sank his head in mortification, but I told him, “It happens to all of us sometimes!”
Paddling back toward Portland is always interesting, with the bustle of the city before you, eclectic vessel traffic parading around it. It makes for a great sunset view should you plan your trip in the evening, because the sun sinks right over Portland. The sinking sun can make it difficult for boaters to spot kayakers, though, so be especially wary of boat traffic in the evenings. The easiest landmark to navigate toward is the big tan apartment building on the south end of the Eastern Promenade. There are also brightly lit radio towers to the west, with the brick smokestack of the B&M Baked Bean factory in their foreground. Paddling toward any of these will help you reach East End Beach, though make sure you take into account the tidal currents and winds as you plan your crossing back to the mainland.
Friends of Fort Gorges: www.friendsoffortgorges.org
Local NOAA Chart (online viewing only): http://www.charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/13290.shtml
Marine forecast for the waters around Fort Gorges: http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lon=-70.22895&lat=43.66462
Fort Wiki: http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Gorges
A NOTE ABOUT SAFETY: Sea kayaking responsibly on Maine's coastal waters requires preparation, skills and knowledge. Casco Bay is a potentially dangerous environment due to its very cold waters, busy boat traffic and exposure to the conditions of the Atlantic Ocean (including sudden fog and strong winds). This is why we encourage people to take our lessons or join our guided trips before venturing out on their own. One fundamental skill that is essential for sea kayaking is the ability to rescue someone from a capsize. It can be extremely difficult to re-enter a kayak in cold and turbulent water. Anyone who paddles in the exposed waters of Casco Bay without this knowledge (or someone else who has that knowledge) is taking an extremely high risk. Sign up for our "Rescue Clinic" to learn these rescue skills.