Monday, July 16, 2012

Coastin' Through Maine

Last blog entry, we took you from Boston to Ogunquit, Maine, midway between Portsmouth NH and Portland ME, where we spent a peaceful week overlooking a salt marsh.  In this entry we'll take you up to Mid-Coast Maine, through Portland and on to Cushing, where we spent a week looking out at a tidal inlet.  On the map, it's the white dot by itself SW of Rockland.  As you can see, we are headed to Bar Harbor ("B" on the map), then a little beyond to see the Schoodic Peninsula, then inland to Fryeburg ME on the border with NH.  The bottom right is a map of the rest of this year's route down to New York City.

We rode two segments of the Eastern Trail near Biddeford, one of the few bike trails we will see until we are in Massachusetts.  It's a "stone dust" trail similar to ones we rode last summer in Wisconsin, but a few patches on the first 6-mile segment were soft and sandy, a recipe for disaster on a heavily-laden bike, so we rode slowly and cautiously.  The second 2-mile section, near Old Orchard Beach, was a terrific path across a salt marsh that kept us far from the traffic of Highway 1.

On the way to Portland we checked out two beaches, Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach, and decided that either was a potential future destination.  The beach at OOB, as it's called locally, is skinny in the photo because we caught it at high tide.  A beach goer pointed to someone swimming well off shore, and told us that people would be standing on a dry beach in that spot in a few hours.  There's an Amtrak station just two blocks from the beach -- probably the closest Amtrak gets to a beach anywhere in the country -- so we may even return sometime if we ever take a trip around the country by train, without the tandem.

Closer to Portland we started seeing lighthouses, two up close and a third on a ledge out in the harbor.  We also took a 3-mile detour out to Prout's Neck, a peninsula jutting into the sea that Winslow Homer made his home for the last twenty-five years of his life.  Take a look at these rugged rocks just below his studio, then compare them to his painting reproduced below.

We spent three nights in Portland, giving us two sightseeing days.  Most of the first day was spent at the Portland Museum of Art.  Their collection has a strong Maine flavor, starting with this "sculpture" called "Mussel Dress," done in 2001 by Brian White.  Maine artist N. C. Wyeth painted "Dark Harbor Fishermen" in tempera in 1943, while Winslow Homer did "Weatherbeaten" in 1894.  The museum's commentary about the latter is worth passing along: "With the American West declared closed by historian Frederick Jackson Turner the previous year, Homer's "Weatherbeaten" is an existential manifesto about the challenges of nature in the modern world.  The wilderness, long a Westerly ideal in the collective memory of the United States, is relocated to a timeless place where the waves of the Atlantic strike the Eastern shore."   In a much lighter mood from  1874 is Homer's wood engraving, "Low Tide." Can you imagine wearing such clothes to the beach today!

Going back earlier still is Fitz Henry Lane's view of Castine Harbor, done in 1852.  We will spend two nights in Castine soon, shortly before we reach Bar Harbor.  We will not get to Vinalhaven Island, but we have already been to places that look similar to it as depicted in Connie Hayes's 2002 painting, "It Still Has Good Bones, Vinalhaven."

The museum has a decent collection of 19th century European art.  A piece that intrigued us was this unnamed oil done about 1897 by Frits Thaulow.  We had never heard of this Norwegian, but he was friends with Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin and was brother-in-law to Paul Gaugin!

The museum had two special exhibitions going when we were there.  The first was a look at Mildred Burrage, born in Portland in 1890.  She was taken at the age of 19 by her art teacher to that hotbed of Impressionism, Giverny France, and introduced to Claude Monet and Gertrude Stein, among others.  We saw dozens of beautiful Impressionist works by her, and share with you one of them, "Le Jardin," to show just how good she was.

The other special exhibit was of an artist we needed no introduction to, Frederick Church.  One of the highlights of our trip through the Hudson Valley two years ago was our bike ride up to his stunning hilltop home, Olana.  Church made several trips to Bar Harbor, Maine, including one in 1854 when he painted it at sunset.  In 1876 he did this forest sketch in graphite and gouache on paper while tramping near Mt. Katahdin, and ended up that trip by buying a summer home on Lake Millinocket that faced out to the mountain.  The museum in fact owns his very last painting, "Mt. Katahdin from Millinocket Camp," which he gave to his wife as a birthday present in 1895.

After all this artistic exploration of Maine, it was time to do some on our bike.  We were staying in a comfy basement apartment we found through, and only had to ride a few blocks to reach a bike trail around Back Bay, where we got views of downtown Portland and of a snowy egret.  That trail hooked up to another that ran along the eastern waterfront next to a trolley museum that takes folks on 2-mile trips out and back.

We then boarded a Casco Bay Cruise Line boat for a twenty-minute ride to Peaks Island.  Peaks is a mile wide and a mile and a half long, mostly populated by folks who commute to Portand on that boat.  It is also popular with walkers and cyclists wanting a taste of the sea coast, and it took little time to find a bench overlooking the rocky shore where we could enjoy the lunches we bought at Trader Joes in town and watch the other cyclists ride by.

In one spot along the shore there was an over abundance of rock broken by winter storms and frost, now transformed into a collection of natural building blocks for kids, or more likely kids at heart, to construct whimsical sculptures.  On the way back to town on the boat we passed another sculpture of sorts, a fort that sounded like a good idea to the army at one time, only to be built and soon after abandoned.  But it certainly was interesting to observe our great grandparents' tax dollars at work, or more precisely at rest.

We had a stopover in Brunswick ME, planning to see the Bowdoin College art museum, but after our trip was planned they announced a closing in early July to do some minor construction.  We settled for a slow ride around the attractive campus and a stop to photograph the home of Joshua Chamberlain.  Having watched the PBS documentary on the Civil War some years back and then read Michael Shaara's novel, "Killer Angels" at the time we visited Gettysburg two years ago, we just had to see this remarkable fellow's home.  After his pivotal role at Gettysburg, Chamberlain rose to become a Union general, then was elected Governor of Maine for a few terms, then became President of Bowdoin, where he had been a professor of modern languages before the war.

We planned a short, 20-mile day next to spend time visiting the Maine Maritime Museum, and it was well worth it.  It is built on the site of three shipyards that constructed enormous wooden ships at the very end of the era of wooden ships, from 1890 to about 1920.  They were slow but efficient carriers of bulk goods, mainly coal, and some lasted long enough to have been torpedoed by German submarines in both World Wars!  A guide gave us an overview and showed us a sculpture that represents the bow of the Wyoming, the largest wooden vessel ever built in America at 3,730 tons, launched right here.  By comparison, the Holland-America Volendam cruise ship that took us to New Zealand in 2008 is 63,000 tons.  But the Wyoming was no small boat, and required over 50 miles of cotton caulking and over 100 miles of oakum (tar-soaked hemp rope) to make her watertight!  The painting is of a smaller schooner, the five-masted Martha P. Small that was launched here in 1901 and ended her days in 1923 in Uraguay.  The Wyoming was a six-masted schooner launched in 1909, and it unfortunately got caught in a nor'easter and sank with all 14 hands lost in 1924.

The museum had a lot of exhibits and displays about small wooden boats as well.  The one that most interested us was an actual retired lobster boat built about 1930.  It started life with an engine taken from a Ford automobile, later replaced with one from a Chevy.  The lobsterman lifts the buoy marking his trap across the rollers on the port side and winds the rope once around that bell-shaped item near the wheel.  Hit the motor and it spuns, winching up the lobster trap.  Most lobster boats we have observed seem to favor plastic-coated wire traps these days, but you do see some of the traditional wooden ones on display all along the coast, looking just like the one here.  The opening is wide enough for some crabs and small lobsters to get back out while keeping in the ones that end up in on the dinner table.

Speaking of which, our next overnight was in Wiscasset where we were informed it was necessary to stop at Red's Eats if we wanted the best lobster roll in Maine.  We did wait twenty minutes to order (a very short wait in the summer months, we're told) and another twenty to pick them up, but they were quite good!  More than one lobster's worth of lobster meat, they claim, and so it appeared -- and with no cracking of shells or slathering of hands to deal with.  On our way back to our beautiful B&B, the Snow Squall Inn, we passed a trio of lobster boats at rest in the harbor, surrounded by the confetti colors of lobster buoys that one sees all along the coast of Maine and up its tidal rivers.

We had a two-night stay in Wiscasset so we could spend our "rest day" biking sans panniers down the hilly Boothbay peninsula to Boothbay Harbor.  Excellent plan made better by suggestions from multiple sources to visit the Mid-Coast Botanical Garden.  They had interesting vertical flower boxes, colorful irises and "nodding onions," and even some rocks well-suited to nodding off.  In a pine forest they had an area where kids were encouraged to construct "fairy houses" out of natural materials from the woods, and several were quite cute.

From the gardens it was a nice ride along the coast into Boothbay Harbor, a place that looks like you would expect a small town to look like -- in the 1950s.  For the first time this summer we stopped for ice cream cones.  It's that sort of town.

Now bicycles are a lot slower than cars, and you see and hear a lot on a bike that you miss when trapped by all that glass and steel and noise.  But it's easy to miss things even on a bike when you just hammer out the miles.  70 to 100 mile days were common when Jeff crossed the US twice in his twenties and when Louise did it in her forties, and you can miss almost as much winding through a town by bike at 15 mph as you do by whizzing through in a car at 50.  Since our first post-retirement trip on the tandem 5 years ago, we've rarely gone over 50 miles in a day, not because we're now old farts, (which we are, like it or not), but because we've wanted to see more by biking less.

This year we decided to ramp it down even more with three one-week stays at very different places on the Maine coast.  We described the beach walks and salt marshes of Ogunquit last time, and this time it was our Week on a Tidal Bay off the Rockbound Coast of Maine.  It was better than we expected!

We found our seaside house through Craigslist by searching Maine vacation homes for the keyword "canoe." Besides coming with a 17' aluminum canoe and being on salt water, this one was also at just the right distance from the first and third places we had identified for week-long stays, and looked nice in the photos.  It was "in person" as well. 

And owners Betsy and Chris went the extra mile -- actually 14 miles -- by offering to pick up groceries for us when they realized the challenge we faced spending a week in a place where the nearest supermarket was 14 miles away and even a small general store was 11 hilly miles distant.  So we arrived with a gallon of milk, a variety of vegetables, a dozen eggs and much more we had asked for filling up the fridge!  We don't know how much it weighed, but at $65 for all the things on the shopping list we emailed them, it felt to us like a ton that we did not have to haul there on the tandem.

Let's take you on a tour, starting with the day lilies by the front door.  There's lots of room to cook, a big second floor bedroom, a large living room where Jeff spent pleasant hours doing two jigsaw puzzles from their collection, and a porch with screened walls and a view out to our unnamed bay where Louise chuckled her way through a Richard Russo novel she found on a bookshelf.  Where is this little paradise, you ask?  On the map to the right we're where the "N" in "Meduncook River" is, across from the upper end of indelicately-named Crotch Island.

Approaching by canoe past the countless lobster buoys, our place is partially hidden in the trees above Louise's paddle.  Up on the dock you get a better view.  Walk past the boathouse where the paddles and life jackets get stowed and you can see that there are a few steps to climb, but then remember that, up on that bluff, we are sure to get a cool breeze on that treehouse-like screened porch.

Let's go back to the dock for a look at the effect of tides on a place like this.  Southern Maine averages 9' between low and high tide, more near new moon and full moon, and the average goes up as you proceed toward Canada, as we have.  Here's the dock at low and high tides!  Having lost the joy of walking in mud that our grandkids still have, we learned that there is a window 2 hours either side of low tide when one neither departs nor lands at that dock.

We canoed 5 of our 6 days there, and loved every moment of it.  The tide table and wind dictated our itineraries.  Our first day, high tide was at 4 pm so we launched at 2:30 to take the incoming tide upstream to a bridge 2 miles to the north.  Although that meant returning before the tide fully turned, we had a north wind and wind trumped tide in pushing our shallow-drafted boat around.  There were relatively few houses, and the woods looked as we imagine they have looked for centuries past.  At the end of Crotch Island we watched an osprey take off and land in a tree far above us.

The rest of the week had south winds and low tides midday, so we headed south each day to let the tides assist us going and coming, and have tail winds at the end of each trip.  On one day the wind was wispy early on, and only picked up later on, just in time to join the tide in pushing us home.  Pretty nice!

As we headed south two hours before low tide, the rocks were already exposing their underwater mantle of seaweed.  As we admired a distant island that floated on the horizon like a lengthy ship, Louise suddenly jumped -- look to the left!!!  It was a fox walking along the seashore with a substantial meal he had just caught!

On our first jaunt toward the open ocean we stopped at a rock that sits just off the southern tip of Gay Island.  What a wonder-world!  It was only the size of two or three house lots, but had lots to see, starting with the beach which looked like sand where we landed, but is actually ground up sea shells, some areas less ground up than others.

At the high point, maybe ten feet above the high water line, someone had built a driftwood tripod.  Once we found a path past the slippery seaweed above our "beach" we admired the rocks and studied the shells dropped by birds who were done feasting on the former inhabitants of those shells.

There were numerous tide pools to examine, places where sea water splashes up twice a day at high tide, leaving depressions ranging in size from small bowls to large bathtubs to nurture a variety of flora and fauna in sun-warmed sea water.

Because it was a calm day, we were able to venture to the edge of the open ocean.  There was some chop and some swell, but never enough to worry us.  Although there are a number of small islands out there, it's just possible that you could draw a line from our little rock straight to Antarctica at just the right angle to make the imaginary journey without ever touching land along the way.  At least we'd like to think it was possible, as all that open ocean made us feel like we were at the edge of our continent.

Twice we paddled to Friendship Harbor, the second time by going from our place near the top of Crotch Island three miles against the wind down Lobster Gut to the bottom of Friendship Long Island, then up the west side of Friendship Long Island with a tail wind.  Along the way we passed some quaint lobster shacks, and in fact Friendship Harbor is as close to a one-industry town as it gets -- and that industry of course is lobstering.

Wherever we looked, there were lobster boats, lobster buoys, lobster traps, even a lobsterman getting ready to head out.

At last it was time to park our own boat and remount the tandem, in search of some lobster dinners down the coast.  We hope to write next from somewhere near Bar Harbor.