Tuesday, September 30, 2014

From Boats to Bikes As the Summer Ends

We've now been in New England 11 weeks, 8 of those in week­long cabin stays in Maine.  To­day we'll take you through our transition as we refocus from mostly staying put and canoeing to a classic bike tour, moving forward roughly 5 days out of each 7 as we bike down to Washington DC.  It was a fairly gentle transition, however, as we managed to fit 6 more days of canoeing into the first 9 days on the road.

Our 9th and final week­long stay was in a duplex a block from the beach near Ogunquit, Maine. We stayed there in June two summers ago, in the last week before summer rates kicked in.  This time we snagged the first week after they fell, the week that included Labor Day weekend.  The beach was indeed jammed on Sunday with folks getting a last megadose of summer, though with a beach as large as Ogunquit's, there's no such thing as overcrowded.

It was a quiet week, a time for reading, beach walks and a relaxed bike ride to nearby York.  The driving cause for the latter was a need for haircuts, but we also parked the bike for a while to check out a nice footpath along the York River, where sailing ships landed cargo from Eng­land 300 years ago when York was the principal settlement in Maine.

Our place was on the second story of the duplex, and looked west across the salt marshes of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.  With a view like that plus a nice kitchen at our disposal and a great supermarket a flat 3 ­mile ride away, we indulged deeply in our last chance for a while to do lots of home cooking.

The unit comes with 2 kayaks, and we got out in them twice.  Because of the 9 ­foot tides, it's best to launch shortly before high tide and to explore upstream, with lots of water under your boat.  Unfortunately, however, you can only go about two miles before the channels become too narrow to go further.  So we chose to go downstream for our second trip.  This meant launching mid­way between high and low tides, before the river gets too shallow.  We caught that window, barely.  We took the next photo a few days earlier, showing the river flowing parallel to the beach for three miles before it empties to the Atlantic.

When we got down to the mouth of the river, we then had to hang out for a few hours for the tide to change.  And so we did, having a picnic lunch and reading with our Kindle and our mini­-iPad that we brought along in a waterproof dry bag.  But this time we were a bit too eager to return, and had to pull in half­way back to let the river rise some more.  With a 9 ­foot difference be­tween low and high tide, the water rises roughly 1 inch every 2 minutes in the third and fourth hours after slack tide, so it wasn't long before the rising tide lifted both our boats, and home we went.

On the Saturday after Labor Day, we started our serious biking with a serious distance of 46 miles.  Outside Portsmouth we encountered JJ and Lydie on a tandem headed north.  We had an animated roadside tandem conference for maybe 45 minutes, including photos  by each team of the other and an exchange of email addresses and blog sites.  They're currently training for a six­ month tandem tour of SE Asia!

Fifteen minutes after we got going again, we heard approaching thunder.  Luckily we were close to Wentworth­-By­-The-­Sea, a $500/night resort famous as the place Teddy Roosevelt chose to mediate an end to the Russo­-Japanese War, resulting in the Treaty of Portsmouth for the bel­ligerents and a Nobel Peace Prize for the prez.  For us it was a wonderful refuge as we pulled in 4 minutes before the heavens opened up, us and the bike staying high and dry on the wide ve­randah.  The postcard appears to be from the late 1940s, but the hotel looks much the same to­day as then.

Our next day brought us through Newbury (above) and back to Ipswich, where we again stayed with Art,one of several wonderful airbnb hosts we've met this summer.  Airbnb started as a sort of couch­surfing site where some hosts put you up on an air mattress, hence the name.  All our airbnb stays have been in comfortable queen beds, usually an extra bedroom in someone's house.  We dropped by mid­morning at Art's and left our panniers, then headed to Crane Beach with a brief pause en route to pick up sandwiches at a Subway.  Crane Beach is the former es­tate of the Crane family, famous for plumbing fixtures.  The mansion is still there looking down to the beach, but we focused on hiking some of the many trails through the sand dunes to the beach.  Along the way we stopped for twenty minutes to talk with a charming 20­-something woman from Luoyang, China, a city we've actually visited.  She just finished graduate school at an American university and is now hoping to make her mark in the world of real estate financing.


Next day, we headed up the valley of the Merrimack past enormous 19th century factory build­ings in Lawrence and Dracut to Lowell, the most famous factory town in New England.  We spent a whole day here 2 years ago, at Lowell National Historic Park, and didn't see it all.  (You can see our blog comments from then at http://redtandem.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html).  This time we headed to the boarding house exhibit, where the Park Service has recreated a typical dining room and dorm room (2 or 3 women to a bed) as they might have looked in the early 1800s, when Lowell attracted young women from rural New England to work the mills.

It was a great exhibit and we had the added enjoyment of seeing it with Seattle friends Steve and Janet.  Their daughter and son-­in-­law live in Cambridge, next to Boston, but have busy lives on weekdays.  So we got to enjoy Steve and Janet's company from Monday afternoon, when they took a train to Lowell, to Friday, when they biked back to Cambridge.  Though they are tandemers, they brought their folding Bike Friday single bikes to make things easier.

We had set up three 2-­night motel stays, each one close to canoeing.  Our first destination was Concord, Mass.  With a ride of less than 20 miles, half of it on the bike trail pictured above, we were able to do the ride, have a leisurely lunch, and still get in a 2­ hour canoe trip up the Sud­bury River past great blue herons and turtles galore. Though we're not sure how great that second heron is -- looks like he's been nibbling on pickled herring, not the fresh stuff.

Next day Janet and Steve switched to a double kayak and we paddled a bit longer down­stream into the Concord River, where we stopped at the Old North Bridge.  On April 19, 1775, colonial militia (alerted by Paul Revere and others) and British soldiers faced off here.  This, however, was the first time the colonials committed the treasonous act of firing their guns at the Redcoats, an event that would later be called "the shot heard 'round the world" -- ­­ the first battle of the American Revolution.  A grave next to the bridge marks where the first British soldiers died.

Concord is historic on many levels, not just for what happened in 1775 within sight of "the Old Manse," the first house below.  Ralph Waldo Emerson lived there for a while (it was built in 1770 for his grandfather).  He then rented it out for a time to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride.  As a wedding present, Concord resident Henry David Thoreau came by and planted a vegetable garden for the newlyweds, which has recently been re-created and used today to grow fresh veggies for a local food bank.

A mile from town are several more historic homes, including Orchard House, above, where Louise May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868.  The house was already 150 years old at that time!  Then, in the heart of town, is a cemetery also dating back 300 years, with many stones in classic New England style.

That green-thumbed friend of the Hawthornes was another Concord resident.  As many of you know, he spent a year and a half on the edge of town, at Walden Pond.  We stopped by to see it with Janet and Steve.  In summer it is a very busy town beach, but a week after Labor Day there were only a few hardy swimmers, all of whom appeared to be Social-Security-eligible. They're the ripples a dozen yards or so offshore.

Not yet as famous, our next stop was nonetheless quite important to us -- the house in Weston MA where Louise grew up, starting at age 11.  That was in 1956, and her first home a few miles away had just been taken by eminent domain to make space for toll booths on the Mass Turnpike, which was then a-building.  As for the new house, her folks lived there 40 years until they moved to Seattle for us to help care for them.  It's been 18 years since, but Louise couldn't see any difference in the house, and only minor changes in the landscaping.

As we rode into the center of Weston, past the ancient Unitarian Church, we were struck silent by a memorial on the Town Green to the victims of 9-11, thirteen years ago that very day.  There was one flag for each person who died, by nationality, but with orange flags for each firefighter and black and white flags for each police officer.  What a dignified and moving response to such an inhumane act.  Down the street we paid our respects to Louise's parents and a few generations of earlier ancestors, including two who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War.

Our next 2-night stay was at the Walker Center for Ecumenical Exchange.  The building went up in 1869 as a home fort the children of missionaries serving overseas.  Over the years it slowly transformed into a home for retired missionaries themselves.  For the past few decades it has been converted yet again into a retreat and conference center, but it also accepts any traveler looking for a place to spend one or more nights in a quiet, friendly environment.

The Walker Center is also close to a place on the Charles River that rents canoes and kayaks, and our ride that day was again short, despite all the excitement of Walden Pond and Louise's childhood home.  Steve and Janet again opted for a double kayak.  The bridge behind them is very close to Louise's first childhood home, and she remembers walking across it as a child, when it had already been abandoned as a railroad crossing.  We wonder how much larger the trees growing on it will grow before they bring the whole thing down.

All too soon it was Friday, and we finished our visit with Janet and Steve with a walk through neighborhoods near the Walker Center.  Off they went on their Bike Fridays to resume their family visit, and we headed back to the Charles River for our fourth consecutive day of canoeing, this time down the Charles to see the massive Waltham Watch Company factory, recently restored and repurposed partly as an office park, partly as loft apartments.  For fans of PBS's new series "How We Got to Now," by the way, this is the place mentioned in the second episode, the place where the world's first watches made from identical interchangeable parts were created, a technological breakthrough as exciting for the mid-19th century as the iPad has been for some of us.

For our grand finale to canoeing this canoe-filled summer (440 miles of it, by the time we wrapped it up this weekend), we biked less than ten miles further up the Charles to yet another canoe livery.  Saturday was overcast and windy, so we just did a 2-hour paddle to see a 19th-century silk mill from the water.  Sunday had perfect weather so we opted for the 10-mile excursion, where we and our canoe (plus 8-9 kayaks and kayakers) were transported by van upstream, then set loose to paddle back down.  There was very little current, but somehow it feels easier when you know you're paddling downstream, doesn't it?  As you can see, it's an area that has been popular for canoeing for over a century.

Well, all this exploring has gotten us to the edge of greater Boston.  We have quite a few miles to cover to make it all the way to DC.  In our next blog we'll take you a healthy portion of that way as we bike down to and right into the Big Apple, New York City!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Two Lakes in Southern Maine

For eight weeks we have been doing tidewater canoeing in the Mid-Coast area of Maine.  That was about to change but first, due to a large rainstorm rolling in from the west, we had to scoot two days early to Portland, getting there just hours ahead of the storm, which was a doozy.  It rained for 36 hours, some of those with a light drizzle, some with a good imitation of a tropical downpour.  We caught up on sleep and a few novels. 

When the sun re-emerged, we headed down to the waterfront for one last saltwater trip, this time by kayak.  We paddled past downtown and two miles beyond, then stopped for lunch at a marina, where we pulled our kayak right up on the dock.  Portland is Maine's largest city, but that's not saying much -- it's pretty small by most people's standards.  That's a large chunk of downtown behind the osprey nest in the second photo.

The other highlight of Portland was a return visit to the Portland Art Museum, to see the Richard Estes retrospective.  We were blown away by one of his works that we ran into 2 years ago, and this was a chance to see 70+ of his oil paintings, his largest show ever.  Estes is considered the father of Photorealism in painting -- works that are as precise as photographs, but carefully constructed to show more than any one photograph might capture.  He is the master of glass windows, weaving together images of the surface of a window, what is visible through the window, and what is reflected in the window.

He also is terrific at catching the complexity of city life with images that are sharply focused, as no eye or camera lens could be, at wide angles or at widely different distances.  The show was so terrific, we are planning to see it again when it moves on Oct. 10 into the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.  If we can get there on Opening Night, we might even catch a presentation which will include a live interview with the artist.  Stay tuned to see if we pull it off.

Next up were the two lakes we promised to tell you about.  They were quite different.  The first was Lake Arrowhead, about 30 miles WSW from Portland.  It's actually a drowned (i.e. dammed-up) river, and it is very narrow and twisty, with many little coves and bays to explore, and landings/pocket parks every half mile or so,complete with picnic tables and port-a-potties.  This map of part of the lake gives you the idea. 

Our cabin was a mile from the dam which created it, and we could go three miles the other way up one branch, plus five to six miles up two more branches.  By the end of the week we had indeed covered every mile of lakefront.

For three days and four nights, however, we ramped down the canoeing to focus on visiting with Louise's daughter Lisa, our son-in-law Ray, and grandkids Elise and Issei.  Water sports were a part of the fun, for sure.  The cabin came with a paddle boat and two kayaks, as well as the canoe, and we used them all. 

9-year old Elise started with the kayak tethered behind the canoe, but quickly realized that she could handle it on her own and off she went, solo.  Indeed, the whole family loved kayaking so much that they went kayaking a week later, when they got back home to Ithaca!

There was also an unusual hot tub.  Each week the owners drain it, scrub it out and refill it with plain water.  To heat it, you start a wood fire in a stove-like firebox that sits in the hot tub, surrounded by the water.  Feed it a log every 30-45 minutes and it will heat up the hot tub about 10 degrees per hour.  We got it up to a respectable 105 three evenings in a row.  It was a big hit.

Lisa is renowned for her overstuffed fridge at home, and she managed to fill almost every cranny of this one as well.  Granted, we assisted in the abundance when we all went to a nearby farm and were seduced by the ease of picking into harvesting a good many raspberries, blueberries and plums.  But with some memorable meals and activity-stoked appetites, it actually disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived.

It was an active three days, though Grandpa did get to read one whole book with the kids, Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  All too soon, we were waving goodbye to the family and readjusting to the quiet of just the two of us.  That night, our cabin on the lake seemed like it was almost alone.

On Saturday it was off to the second of our two lake houses, 35 miles south along the ME/NH border.  The houses were as different as the lakes.  For our visit with the family we had selected, of course, a rather large place that was also fairly new and modern.  Our next house was about as old (and un-modern) as we are, a cute little place that would almost fit inside the living room of the prior cottage. 

The queen bed seemed a bit firm and those twin beds in the front room were softer, and closer still to the lake.  We each took one and were rewarded several nights with the far-off plaint of loons calling to each other over the water.  If you've never had the experience, here's a Cornell ornithologist's introduction to the cry of the loon:

We were now on Milton Pond, often called Milton Three Ponds since a dam built ages ago merged three adjacent ponds into one long, curved body of water that is 8 miles long, bulging out to 1 - 1 1/2 miles wide in three places.  With that much open water, people started stocking their cabins with 250 hp boats to pull water skiers, then with those abominations known as jet skis.  It's a wonder the loons haven't left in disgust.  Luckily, these noise machines were only a nuisance Saturday and Sunday. 

At Arrowhead Lake, houses were largely separated by trees, and spaced a ways apart.  Here they were sometimes plunked down one after another after another. This is a well-used lake -- the question is, is it too well-used?

By canoeing to the far north end of the lake, however, just beyond the lighthouse with Ken and Barbie, we were able to reach an area that has been left undeveloped.  Better yet, we were also able to paddle over a mile up the major inlet, Branch River, all but the first 200 yards in deep woods with no houses in sight.  It's a twisty river with a little current in places -- a fun break from lake canoeing where you tend to go in fairly straight lines at a fairly constant speed.

Our next and final week-long cottage stay will be in Wells Beach, after which we get serious about biking down to Washington DC.  We'll tell you all about that in our next blog post.