Rutting Season

The other day we were talking to one of the locals.  Russell mentioned that on his recent hikes he’s seen more deer activity, and has had to be careful driving in the wooded areas of Deer Isle to avoid collisions with deer charging out of the underbrush.  The local nodded sagely and said, simply:  “rutting season.”

(Whenever somebody says anything involving a “season,” my mind automatically cycles to a classic Looney Tunes where Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny are ripping hunting posters off a telephone poll, arguing “Rabbit Season!” and “Duck Season!” with increasing vehemence, only to finally expose an “Elmer Season” poster.  But, I digress.)

In this part of Maine, “rutting season” is serious business, and as much a time of year as winter, spring, or summer.  It’s the period where hormones are surging in the whitetail deer population and the cervidae are feeling the overpowering urge to mate.  During the height of “the rut,” Mainers will see antlered male deer “sparring” in fields and clearing, fighting for the right to court a choice female deer.  And when the rutting season arrives in full force, you’ve really got to watch it in the woods or on the roads, to keep an eye out for crazed, wild-eyed deer crashing out of the trees, in the grip of raw biological forces that are totally beyond their control.  Licensed hunters–especially bow hunters, apparently–think rutting season is the best season of the year.

Interestingly, nobody is quite sure when the rutting season truly begins, and some of the more scientific sorts divide the period into “pre-rut,” “rut,” and “post-rut” subperiods, characterized by different deer activity like males leaving scrapes on trees and then “seeking,” “chasing,” and “tending.”  Apparently the onset of the rut is affected by the shorter days, and colder temperatures . . . and it has gotten a lot cooler up here lately.  I’ve noticed increased deer activity even in our neighborhood, with a lot more signs of deer messing with the plants–and changes in eating patterns evidently are another sign of the onset of rutting season.  If we’re not in the “pre-rut” phase, we’re getting close.

So, brace yourself!  “Rutting season” may be near upon us.  And now that we’re going to be dealing with it, I’ll never describe myself as “being in a rut” again.

On the Glacial Erratic Trail

The glaciers descended on Deer Isle, as they did across most of the northern United States.  With their immense force and grinding power, they reshaped the landscape, scooping out harbors and inlets and coves and beveling the shoreline.  When the glaciers finally receded, after staying for millennia, they left behind the craggy Maine coastline we now know and love, as well as colossal, non-native rocks that the glaciers had brought with their initial inexorable advance.

Yesterday, on a foggy Labor Day morning, Russell and Betty and I explored some of the glaciers’ handiwork through a hike on the glacial erratic trail at the Old Settlement Quarry Island Heritage Trust site.  It’s a beautiful trail that winds through the woods and lets you see some of the glacial debris up close — like the enormous metamorphic rock pictured above that the glaciers brought with them on their visit and then left in place, deposited on top of the native Maine granite — as well as an alpine meadow, with its “snow in summer” plant life, pictured to the right. 

The Island Heritage Trust has done a fabulous job with all of the trails and hiking sites on Deer Isle, and the glacial erratic trail, and the rest of the Old Settlement Quarry site, is one of the best trails they have developed.  Thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, the people of Stonington will never have to worry about having a good place for a stimulating pre-breakfast hike on a Labor Day morning.

The glacial erratic trial ends at the old quarry itself, which also offers a lot of interesting viewing.  For decades, the granite-cutting business was a key part of the economy in this area, and the old quarry site gives you a glimpse of how the work was done — and just how tough that work was.  In the photo at left you can see the holes the granite workers drilled to place explosive charges to try to take advantage of fissures and split the rock into the desired shapes and sizes, and some of the precision work that was done, like the huge “box cut” pictured below that blasted out a massive square of granite.  It must have been an incredibly noisy and dangerous place to work.

The Old Settlement Quarry site sits atop a dome of granite that usually offers a commanding view of some of the islands and inlets of Deer Isle.  Thanks to a thick blanket of fog, we didn’t get the expected view, but we did see lots of rock — both the erratic rock dropped off by the glaciers, and the immense piles of granite “grout” left behind from the quarry operations.  If you like rock, the glacial erratic trail at the Old Settlement Quarry site is the hike for you.

Where Autumn Comes Early

Today is August 31.  It’s viewed as the traditional last day of summer.  Mentally, we place June, July and August in the “summer” category, while September, October, and November are pegged into the “autumn” category.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this traditional cultural view of the seasons.  The scientists among us would point out respectfully that the fall equinox doesn’t actually arrive until September 22.  And in most parts of the country summer is still blazing on in full, shining force.  The high today in Columbus will be in the 80s, for example, and down in Austin, Texas they’re still dealing with absurd, extreme “fry an egg on the sidewalk” heat, with the thermometer topping 100 degrees.

Not so in Stonington.  Here, autumn seems to have come early.  The last few days the morning temperature has been around 50 degrees — which is a bit bracing, candidly — and from the wood smoke smell you can tell that some people are using their fireplaces already.  Our daily highs are now in the 60s.  Add in a hefty breeze when you take your night-time walk, and you’re definitely in long pants and windbreaker territory.  The leaves haven’t started to turn — yet — but there’s definitely that whiff of fall in the air.

For many of us, autumn is a favorite season, and in many parts of the country we bemoan its brevity.  Summer heat hangs on into October, autumn passes in the blink of an eye, and then we move directly into the winter doldrums.  It seems that things will be different in Maine, where fall’s early arrival suggests that it plans on staying for a while.

In short, if you like autumn, come to Maine.  And bring your sweater.

Where East Meets West

If you’ve ever been out west — into the countryside, not the big cities like Denver or Phoenix — you know that people who live there tend to have a different sense of property, and physical space. 

Out west, things tend to get left where they are likely to be used again, rather than carefully returned to a garage or shed, stored, and locked up.  There’s plenty of space and room for everything, it never rains so what’s the big deal, and who’s going to come by and steal the stuff, anyway?  If you go out into the countryside, you’re likely to see things strewn about the property around many of the houses and trailers, whether it’s a car being worked on with parts left on a tarp, or a half-completed structure that looks like it hasn’t been worked on for a while.  Some people might think it looks junky, but others would say it is trusting, and relaxed, and practical, besides.  The owner bought all that wide-open space for a reason, so why not use it?

Maine has a bit of that devil-may-care quality that I usually associate with the west.  As you walk around, you’re likely to see things just left outside, right where they are going to be used again.  Boats, kayaks, canoes, oars, lobster traps, buoys, and boat trailers dot the landscape, and nobody seems to notice or care.  It’s a much more relaxed mindset.  Where city dwellers would have reflexive concern about potential theft, Mainers know from experience that it’s not likely that someone is going to steal a green kayak.  And they are right:  the police report section of the local paper really doesn’t report much in the theft department.

Getting used to this attitude requires Midwestern city dwellers like me to make a bit of a mental downshift, but once you get comfortable with it, it’s actually quite pleasant.

At The Burnt Cove Boil

Tonight we tried a new place for dinner. It’s called the Burnt Cove Boil, and it was great. I only wish we’d found it sooner.

In Maine, if you’re talking about a “boil,” you’re talking about shellfish. The BCB offers you a prime picnic table right next to the waters of Burnt Cove, paper towels, a succulent Stonington crab, steamed corn on the cob, a whole lobster, a wooden pick to extricate the crab and lobsters meat, and an ice cream sandwich for dessert — all for a very reasonable price. Oh, and one other thing — a baseball-sized rock to smash the assorted claws, legs, and tails as part of the participatory dining process. Beverages are BYOB.

The food was terrific and fresh from the boat, the setting was beautiful, and the shellfish smashing felt pretty darned satisfying after a long day of remote work. Burnt Cove Boil, in Stonington, is highly recommended. Be sure to ask for Jake.

At The Holbrook Island Sanctuary

Maine is, almost by definition, off the beaten track, and it has a lot of parks and natural areas that are not very well known.  One of them is the Holbrook Island Sanctuary.  Yesterday morning Kish and I went “off island” to the mainland to visit the Sanctuary and get in some hiking on a sunny, late summer day.

The Holbrook Island Sanctuary is a huge nature preserve in Brooksville that has been kept in a natural state for decades.  The property was acquired by a nature lover, Anita Harris, who donated the land to the state of Maine in 1971, and things seem to have been kept as they were then.  The area is so rustic that the roadways in and out are packed earth, rather than asphalt, and the only facilities are a picnic area and a few outhouses.  But it offers lots of interesting trails, the ruins of abandoned buildings, some old family cemeteries, and a chance to explore some of the different Maine ecosystems, from rocky coastlines to mud flats to steep hills, marshes, ponds, and deeply forested woodland mixed with intermittent meadows.  It’s a favorite destination for birders, hikers, and nature lovers.  The Maine state park website says that “alert visitors can see abundant signs of deer, fox, muskrat, beavers, otter, porcupine, bobcat and coyote.”  We apparently were not sufficiently alert — hey, it was pretty early in the morning, after all! — because we didn’t see any of those critters, but we did see a lot of birds.

The Sanctuary has nine trails, none of which seem to be super-difficult.  We took the Back Shore trail, which is well-marked and winds through forest and meadows and takes you past one of the cemeteries, where the gravestones date back to the 1830s, down to a rocky shore on the Penobscot Bay.  We got to the shore at close to low tide, which meant we got a good look at the shellfish shells and the seaweed-covered rock  beach.  From the shoreline you can watch sailboats glide by and catch a commanding view of Castine, Maine, on the opposite side of the bay. 

The Holbrook Island Sanctuary is a pretty place, and a kind of hidden gem.  With eight more trails to check out, we’ll definitely be back.

My Magical Hummingbird Encounter

It happened on Sunday morning. I was watering the plants on the hillside, using the “gentle shower” setting on the hose nozzle. I had a hot cup of coffee in my lobster mug in one hand and the hose nozzle in the other, and was still yawning and trying to wake up after a good night’s sleep.

Suddenly there was bright green flash by the side of my head that I saw from the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a moth or one of Maine’s native flying insects. I would have tried to brush it away, if my hands hadn’t already been fully occupied. But then the green flash steadied in mid-air and stopped right in front of my face, and I saw to my astonishment that it was a tiny, bright green hummingbird, wings beating furiously and hovering just inches away from my head and hands. The bird seemed totally unafraid of me, no doubt reasoning that its rapid-fire reflexes ensured that it could dart away before this slow-moving human could do anything.

The bird stayed there for a split second, then began consciously eyeing the stream of water from the hose nozzle. It soon became apparent, even to my still sleepy brain, that the bird wanted water. I eased back a bit on my grip on the handle of the nozzle to make the “gentle shower” even gentler, and sure enough the little bird dipped down into the flow of the water, getting a good spritz and taking a drink, besides, with movements that were almost too quick for me to see with the naked eye.  Its rapidly beating wings were no more than a blur.

It was a magical moment on a Sunday morning, and at first I was tempted to try to get my phone out of my pocket and take a picture, but my hands were full, I figured any movement would cause the bird to fly away, and I decided to just live in the moment instead of trying to take a picture of everything. So I stood as still as I could, kept the reduced flow of water constant, and hoped that my little bird friend could get its fill of the H2O. And a few seconds later, the bird emerged from the stream, flew up to eye level again, shook off a few water droplets, gave me a bright, bird’s eye glance, and then buzzed off at impossibly fast speeds in another flash of green.

The whole encounter happened so quickly that I almost wondered if it had actually happened — but it did, and the little details of my interaction with the tiny bird were thoroughly ingrained in my memory.  Now I have a special incentive to water the plants, because I’m hoping to see my green pal again.  And I think going out to get a hummingbird feeder might be a good idea, too. 

How Cold Is The Water Up There?

One question people frequently ask us is:  “How cold is the seawater up in Maine?  Can you swim in the ocean?”

It’s not an easy question to answer.  Some people enjoy the bracing ocean waters — but only if they are wearing wetsuits.  Others stick to the shallow water, where at least the majority of their bodies can enjoy the sun’s heat.  And, admittedly, there are others, who apparently count polar bears among their distant ancestors, who will actually splash around in the water in nothing but a bathing suit.  I tip my hat to those foolhardy and intrepid souls.

But here’s a concrete example of how cold the water is.  During a recent visit from friends, on a beautiful, sunny day, we took a favored hike through the Barred Island Preserve out to the shoreline across from Barred Island — so called because it is blocked from the mainland by a tidal channel at all but low tide, when you can walk over while the water is receded.  When we got to the crossing point it was about midway between low tide and high tide, and the water was a little over knee-high for an adult male.  The distance to the island through the water was maybe 30 yards or so, as shown in the picture above. 

I tried to walk over — but just couldn’t do it.  The water was so brutally cold it was a shock to the system, like plunging your face into ice cube-filled water — except colder, somehow.  It took my breath away, and my feet almost immediately became numb.  The thought of going knee-deep in the frigidity, even if only for a short 30-yard slog over to the island, was unimaginable.  So call me a wuss — but I declined.  I’ll save the stroll over to Barred Island for a day when I get there at low tide and can walk over without experiencing water so cold it is like a punch to the gut. 

There is one good thing about the ocean water temperature in Maine — when you step out of the water and let the sun heat your chilled feet back to normal temperatures, it really feels good.  That’s how cold the water is.

Our Lupine Seed Harvest

In Maine, we love our lupine flowers, which seem to grow everywhere — even by the side of the road, without any tending.  We have three beautiful lupines right in front of our house, and I’m interested in trying to grow lupines elsewhere on our property.  But if you want to harvest lupine seeds and grow lupines, you need to work at it.

Later in the summer, the lupine flowers are replaced by lupine seed pods, which look like hairy pea pods.  (This is not surprising, because lupines are a part of the bean family of plants.)  If you want to harvest the seeds, you need to wait until the seed pods dry out and you can hear the seeds rattling around in the pod.  Then you patiently open the pods one by one, free the seeds from the pod, drop the seeds into a storage container — in our case, a coffee cup — and then wait to plant the seeds until the end of the season.  If you plant them too early, they’ll be found and consumed by birds and the other hungry critters of Maine.  The lupine seeds then need to experience multiple weeks of cold weather before they germinate and new plants can grow.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to do the seed harvest from the plants in the front of the house.  By the time I checked them, most of the pods had already burst open and dropped their seeds — and lupine seeds are incredibly tiny and heavy, so I wasn’t going to be able to find and retrieve them from the ground.  However, I found some unopened pods, and we retrieved some additional pods from plants along the roadway.  With the help of Dr. Science and the GV Jogger, who pitched in with us and enjoyed the simple pleasures of pod opening and seed retrieval, we’ve now collected several hundred of the small black seeds, which I will try to plant this fall. 

According to the Mainers, you should try to position the lupine seeds in areas where there isn’t much competition from other plants.  In addition, lupines seem to prefer rocky soil — and we’ve got plenty of that.  I’ve got several locations in mind where I would love to see some lupine plants take root.  I’ll be hoping that some of the seeds avoid the foraging of our neighborhood birds and animals, so that next spring we’ve got a serious lupine bloom on our hands.

The Lobster Pot

Last night we broke out our trusty lobster pot for the first time this year.  With guests in for a visit, we needed to properly welcome them to Maine with a traditional lobster dinner.

Pretty much every household in Maine has a lobster pot.  They get handed down from generation to generation, or passed along to new people who are moving into the area.  We got our pot using the latter method.  We bought it at an estate sale, which is about right:  Mainers typically won’t let go of a good lobster pot until the Grim Reaper gives them no say in the matter.

The lobster pot has one essential function:  to hold huge quantities of water, and lobsters, until the water can be brought to a boil and the lobsters properly cooked.  Our pot, which has the kind of size and industrial appearance you’d expect to see in a kitchen of an army base, serves its role admirably.  I have no idea how much water it holds, but it’s enough. 

An important part of the whole lobster preparation process is turning the stovetop burners to high and then patiently but expectantly waiting for those uncounted gallons of salty water to come to a boil so the cooking can really begin. 

You don’t watch the pot during that time period, of course.

Salt Life

People up here live the “salt life.” That means they are out on the water frequently— in fact, pretty much all the time. This couple was kayaking into town, probably from one of the islands in the harbor, first thing yesterday morning, around 7 a.m. Very impressive!

There’s something about the water that pulls you to it. The people here have stopped resisting the lure of the salt life, and they seem happy about it.

Out Of An Abundance Of Caution

The Stonington airport is basically a strip of asphalt, a windsock, and some outbuildings, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t appropriately focus on safety and faithfully report on pertinent federal regulations. This particular federal regulation, though, is a curious one. You wouldn’t think that this kind of regulation is really necessary. It conjures up images of an unfortunate walker incident where a person using a walker was out on the runway trying to dodge an incoming aircraft—and not quite as nimbly as the Cary Grant character evading the crop duster in North By Northwest.

But it’s the second part of the regulation that is the real head scratcher. No wheels on the runway? Hey, doesn’t the landing gear of all planes feature wheels?

Snips About Snails

Yesterday’s constant rain and drippy, overcast conditions brought the snails out of their normal hiding places and onto our driveway and other wet surfaces.  I took the picture of the little guy below just outside our front door.

Snails are common in Maine — so commonplace that the University of Maine has a web page entitled “slugs and snails” devoted to helping gardeners deal with the little creatures, and people have written entire academic papers about the “slugs and snails of Maine.”  Snails are interesting creatures and actually kind of fascinating to watch, as they move slowly but surely ahead.  Little boys are supposed to be made out of them, in part (“snips and snails and puppy dog tails”) so it’s worth knowing a few facts about them.

Terrestrial snails are part of the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda and are closely related to slugs.  The name of the snails’ class comes from the Greek words for belly and foot, because snails move through the progressive expansion and contraction of one large, muscular foot under their shell.  The snail’s foot has a gland that secretes a coating of mucus, and the snail then glides on that coating of slime.  The fact of a single foot and the need for slimy mucus generation helps to explain why snail movements are so deliberate. 

There are dozens of different species of snails in Maine, some of which were actually brought to the state from Europe.  (Why Europeans did this is anybody’s guess.)  Because of their need for slime, snails avoid direct sunlight and wind and prefer moist, damp areas — like gardens, where they are commonly found.  If you’re trying to get rid of slugs and snails, which can cause harm to some plants, the U of Maine webpage helpfully notes that “removing boards, rocks, logs, leaves and dense growth helps” and that it “is also wise to minimize shaded areas, rock walls, rock gardens, or forested borders and leave bare ground or close-cropped grass next to vegetable or flower beds.”  No stones, or rock walls, or rock gardens, in Maine?  Good luck with that!

Interestingly, the snails of Maine all are supposed to have shells with whorls that move from the center in a clockwise direction.  Nobody really knows why.

Snails don’t bother me, and I try not to disturb them when I’m gardening.  I don’t think they are doing much harm to our flowers and plants, and I figure anything that is living in slime with only one foot deserves a break.   

The Lure Of Lobstering

The official welcome sign outside of Stonington says the town is Maine’s largest lobster port, and the visual evidence around here supports that assertion. You see the paraphernalia of the lobster business pretty much everywhere, from the lobster boats at anchor in the harbor to the brightly colored buoys, coiled ropes, and stacked rows of lobster traps seen on the properties around town. Especially traps. More traps than you can imagine!

And it appears that the younger generation is embracing Stonington’s traditional occupation. According to statements from this year’s graduates published in the local newspaper, a number of the 2020 graduates of the Deer Isle-Stonington High School — both male and female — are planning on “lobstering” as their career. It’s the kind of future plan you wouldn’t see from a student in, say, Columbus, Ohio.

My hat is off to the kids who are going into the lobster trade. It’s a tough, physically demanding job that requires you to get up before dawn and spend your days on the water, going from buoy to buoy, hauling traps up from the ocean floor, removing any catch, rebaiting the traps with yukky objects that lobsters like, and winching the traps back down again. But it makes a living, and you get to be your own boss. From the decisions of the local high school kids, that’s still an attractive option.