Hiking Isle Au Haut

Yesterday we took the mailboat out to Isle au Haut for some hiking. We disembarked at Duck Harbor at the southwest corner of the island, which is largely unspoiled forest and hiking trails, with a handful of camping sites available. Although I have been on the mailboat multiple times, this was the first time I had actually set foot on the island, and I was eager to see what it was like.

It turns out that Isle au Haut is like most of coastal Maine—only more so. There was lots of rugged and dramatic scenery, sheer cliffs, pine trees and ferns, and plenty of granite. There are lots of different hiking options, too, from simple trails with only small elevation changes to much more difficult hiking that requires you to clamber up rock faces. I enjoyed the view, in the photo above, looking south from a promontory a few hundred feet above the ocean, and the inky black pool of water, shown below, that was perfectly reflective and framed by rock outcroppings.

By the time we reached Squeaker Cove, shown below, we realized that our visit to Isle au Haut would not only feature memorable vistas, but also an unprecedented swarm of biting black flies. According to the park rangers, the flies had just appeared the day before, and no doubt the swarm would be gone a day or two later. But the flies were there yesterday, in force and ready to chomp, descending on everything that moved and giving vicious bites if you didn’t swat them away in time. There were so many flies that the legs and backs of fellow hikers would be virtually carpeted in flies. The little bloodthirsty bastards were easy to kill, in their singleminded zeal for a meal, but for every one that got swatted another ten were circling and ready to land.

Eventually the pesky flies became so annoying and unpleasant that they drove even the most ardent hikers back to the mailboat dock, where the breeze off the ocean kept the fly swarms to a minimum. As we waited for the mailboat to arrive we swapped fly tales with other hikers and sympathized with the dogs that had suffered mightily from fly bites. And as we waited even the boat dock offered some pretty views, like the one below.

I’d like to go back to Isle au Haut to do more hiking and exploring—but before I do I’m going to call the Duck Harbor ranger station for a fly report.

Island Return

I took a fine, direct flight from Columbus to Portland yesterday, hopped into my car, exited the long-term lot, then took a three-hour drive through the Maine countryside to head back to Stonington. I arrived just as the sun was setting, and as I drove past Sand Beach I couldn’t resist stopping the car and checking out the sunset over the bay.

Someone had left a beach chair on the sand—there are a lot of people on the island right now—and the combination of the chair in silhouette against the golden water and the blazing sunset behind drove home the message that I was, indeed, back on the island.

Direct Versus Indirect (Cont.)

My experiment in driving down to Portland to catch a direct flight to Columbus yesterday worked like a charm. The weather was clear, I enjoyed a fine, mask-free drive through the pretty Maine countryside with a soundtrack provided by the Maine classical music network of stations, I arrived at the Portland airport in plenty of time, and my direct flight on United left on time and got in early. Portland has a very nice, newer airport, with high ceilings and lots of room and charging stations for electronic devices, and the long-term parking lot is literally right next to the terminal building. It’s ridiculously convenient. The only mishap occurred when I missed an exit and had to loop around, but I had given myself plenty of time so it was no big deal.

I think direct flights from Portland are definitely a viable option, although I recognize that yesterday’s experiment involved practically perfect conditions— no rain, no traffic-snarling accidents, and no slow-moving trucks to hold me up on the two-lane roads that make up most of the drive. In the future those conditions obviously could change and make the trip less effortless. But boy, it sure was nice to reduce the hours of annoying and uncomfortable mask time, and all told my travel day was a bit less than taking a one-stop trip from Bangor.

The big issue is that the direct flights from Portland are not an everyday occurrence. I therefore was encouraged to see that the flight, on a regional jet, was totally full. Maybe if United sees the demand, it will add some additional flights. So let me encourage my central Ohio friends: fly to Portland and visit Maine! I’d be much obliged.

Maine Stamps

In our family, Kish is the designated “postal person.” She goes to the Stonington post office and drops off and picks up our mail, she addresses and licks all envelopes, and she applies the stamps. (In case you are wondering, this division of labor was established long before Seinfeld exposed the dangers of licking cheap envelope glue.)

That means Kish selects the stamps, too—including our current set of Maine stamps, which are part of the “USA forever” series. The Maine stamp is a nice rendering of a rugged, rocky Maine coastline that easily could have been painted somewhere on Deer Isle. As stamps go, it’s a keeper.

Since I haven’t looked carefully at stamps for years, when I checked out the Maine stamps I was surprised that no money value is indicated on the individual stamps. When did that happen?

Sunset Lobster At The Burnt Cove Boil

Tonight we paid our first visit of the summer to the Burnt Cove Boil. This classic outdoor venue operated by owner Jake McCarty became a favorite of ours last year, and I’m happy to report that it’s still terrific.

Why is the Burnt Cove Boil great? For one, you get a great view looking straight west at the sun setting over the islands in Penobscot Bay. For another, you eat sitting outside at picnic tables, and there’s just something fun and kind of magical about eating outside on a cool evening. And for still another, the natural remains of your meal get tossed back into the water, to return to the marine ecosystem. If you don’t think it’s fun to fling an oyster shell or crab claw or lobster tail into the seawater after you’ve finished with it, you’ve got another think coming.

But here’s the best thing about BCB: the food is excellent, and Jake is a great host. Tonight we started with local oysters, followed by stone crab caught about a mile away, then corn on the cob and lobsters caught just offshore. Everything was absolutely fresh, and that’s a big part of the reason why it was delicious. We used some rocks —also local—to crack open shells and made a merry mess of our picnic table.

While we waited for our next course to cool we enjoyed the quiet of the cove and the setting sun reflected on the water next to our table. The sky had cleared a bit and it was pleasantly warm in the sunshine. It wasn’t a bad view, either.

By the time our lobster arrived our paper trays were pretty well drenched, but we carried on anyway, ripping the steaming lobsters to shreds in search of every last morsel of succulent lobster meat. And after the lobster came the piece de resistance—individually wrapped ice cream sandwiches for dessert.

By the time we polished off our ice cream sandwiches and took our last swigs of Allagash White, the sun was a blaze of golden glory sinking low to the west and the seagulls were bobbing on the surface of the water. it was a beautiful scene to top off a great meal.

“Yes,” we thought, “we’ll come here again.”

Memorial Day, 2021

This morning, to commemorate Memorial Day, I hiked up to the Stonington town cemetery to pay my respects and walk among the headstones of veterans and the small American flags and metal service medallions that had been placed at those gravestones by the groups that recognize how important it is to always acknowledge our veterans and their families.

The cemetery is located inland–given the literalist approach of Stonington street namers, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s found on Cemetery Road–and it is neatly kept, regularly mowed and maintained, and surrounded by towering trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a quiet, peaceful place. A misty, rain-shrouded morning, as this one was, was a good time to visit and reflect on the veterans who served and to say a silent “thank you” for the sacrifices they and their families have made on behalf of all of us.

Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, has a long tradition of military service. It was mentioned several times in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and the Stonington cemetery reflects that tradition of service. There were gravestones for Civil War veterans–the headstone in the foreground of the photograph above is of John M. Gookin, who served in Company B of the 7th Maine Infantry, a volunteer regiment that fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and most of the other major Civil War battles in the east theater, as part of the Army of the Potomac–and there are markers that indicate that some of those who are laid to rest in the burial ground served in just about every war since. The many small American flags and medallions that were visible in the mist demonstrate that Deer Isle has held up its end of the bargain involved in living in a free society. Sometimes, unfortunately, our soldiers and sailors and pilots must fight for our freedoms.

Thank you to those who serve, those who have served, and the families that have supported them in their service. America really can’t thank you enough.

Low Tide On Indian Point Road

Kish says I am a creature of habit. She’s absolutely right, of course: I’m about as wedded to routine as any non-OCD human could be. But every once in a while I like to mix things up a bit.

Today, I decided to vary my walking route. It’s a cold, damp day in Stonington with lots of rain in the forecast, and I wanted to get a decent amount of exercise before the raindrops start falling. So when I reached the top of the Granite Road hill I turned right, rather than my customary left, and rambled down Indian Point Road, heading away from downtown. It’s a winding street the hugs the shoreline then jogs inland.

It was low tide, which means the scenery looks a lot different than it does at high tide. I liked this vista of a homeowner’s dock left high and dry by the retreating seawater, pointing out at the boats at anchor and the many small islands in the harbor.

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Muddy Work

As a native Midwesterner who grew up about as far from oceans as you can get, I’ve still got a lot to learn about life along the coastline. So I was fascinated to watch these two people taking advantage of the low tide to dig for clams, mussels, quahogs, periwinkles, whelks, or some of the other abundant shellfish that can be found in the seaside mudflats of Maine when the tide rolls out. They were toiling away in the basin between the dock and the rocks just below the Greenhead peninsula.

It looked like very hard work. They were wearing rubber boots that came up to their knees and sank into the mud above their ankles as they dug and searched. You could only imagine the sucking sound the mud must have made on their boots as they moved steadily along, and the smells they experienced, being nose down and only a foot or two from the thick, briny mud. And the tide put a definite deadline on their efforts, because it was only a matter of time before the seawater rushed back in to cover the mud again. It’s not work that permits dawdling.

I can only hope that the mudflats rewarded their efforts, which were interesting to watch.

One Last Lobster Roll

Our time in Stonington is rapidly drawing to a close. After more than four months of working remotely from the salty shores of the Penobscot Bay, we’ll soon be heading back to the Midwest.

When a very pleasant sojourn is ending, it’s important to lock in those memories about things that make a place special. That means large gulps of salty air on morning walks, and feeling foggy mist on your arms and face, and touching rough granite rocks, and hearing a few more locals talk with those unique Maine accents. And of course it means a lobster roll, too, because lobster is one of the flavors of Maine.

Fortunately, the Harbor Cafe in Stonington makes an exceptional lobster roll: a split-top bun, toasted and lightly buttered, loaded with fresh lobster in a light sauce. You get heaping amounts of lobster with every crunchy bite. We headed there for one last lobster roll yesterday, and got something to savor.

Ferns Go First

Up above, the leaves are just starting to change. But on the forest floor, the ferns are giving us a blazing preview of the upcoming fall foliage show. Their colors are so bright you can see the ferns deeper in the forest, like glowing campfires dotting the ground and lighting up the fallen trees and logs nearby.

The fall foliage season is a big deal around here, and this week will be the start of prime autumn color viewing. But the rule in the forest is inviolate: when it comes to changing their colors, ferns go first.

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.

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.