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Posts Tagged ‘Maine’

One way radio

IMG_7091In July, Christophe and the boys and I spent an overnight at the Cutler Preserved Lands in Way Downeast Maine. It was a bit more than a four mile hike in on the inland trail, through spruce and spongy peak, across nearly continuous bog bridges until we came out onto Fairy Head where three campsites edge on the rock slabs and cliffs down to the ocean. We chose the farthest south of the three, it being closest to the tannin-steeped pool that would be our water source. We made camp, and spent the evening climbing, reading, or, in the boys’ case, standing at the edge of the surf in their underwear yelling at the waves to come hit them, a prospect that grew ever less likely as the tide was going out, and the tides in that part of the world are notoriously extreme. Eating our supper out of cups on the rock verge, we could look across to the tidy, red-roofed Little River lighthouse and all the corrugated coast jutting out and then receding. South of the light, there was Western Head, Great Head, and then around Dennison Point into Little Machias Bay. Protruding up above the land all that way off were three or four visible upthrust structures, thin, but vastly higher than anything else around them. They looked almost like the masts of a tall ship at anchor in the Bay, but sizing them up against the cliffs nearby, themselves a hundred feet above the water, these slender spikes had to be at least five times that. We finished our supper, washed up, and as the sun faded, retreated to the tents.

IMG_7113By the water, the mosquitos hadn’t been too bothersome. At our campsite, just in from the woods’ edge, they abruptly descended. They seethed, they teemed, they swarmed in a plague, settling on the least flash of exposed skin. Even the memory of skin attracted them; I set down a mug and came back to it a moment later to find it studded with mosquitos prodding its impervious surface. Diving into the tent, we zipped shut the door and listened to the high whine as they arrayed themselves in phalanxes on all the outer tent walls. For twenty minutes or so, we slapped at the ones that had followed us in, and then read, and then readied for sleep. Until I admitted to myself that I needed to pee. The usual mental dance had gone on, “it’s just my position. I’m imagining it. It’s psychological. If I can just go to sleep and stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine.” At least, I was forced to exit the tent, drop my pants, and crouch in the bushes. The mosquitos were so thick upon my rump that, slapping at them, I looked at my hand to see it fully blanketed in dead insects. Where those dead had been taken away, endless reinforcements took their places. I hauled up my pants and tried to dart back through the tent door. Even a momentary opening of the flap inhaled great gusts of them and for the next several hours, I heard intermittent silence and then slapping as Christophe nodded off between bites. I watched the stars and lightning bugs, doubly obscured by the tent mesh and the scrim of insects wing to wing and tail to tail. Eventually, I did sleep, and in the morning, the mosquitos, though not gone altogether, had dissipated some.

IMG_7117We packed up and walked the five miles back out, seeing almost no one until we were fairly close to the trailhead. Few people, it seems, venture all the way down to Fairy Head. We stopped on cobble beaches tucked between gray cliffs, and then climbed back out again and along trails that came within a foot of the sheer cliff edge. Spruce skeletons stood where they’d died, among their still living brethren. A moth so still and unperturbed by our presence we thought it was dead at first, livened up and hauled its furred legs over our hands. Simon whined, and Malcolm was sullen. We finished our snacks. Far down on the water, it was hard to tell what was eiders or cormorants in the water, and what just nodding lobster buoys in the waves. Simon had to be carried. Our pace quickened once we turned from the sea onto the trail back into the woods and out. Sweat-sodden, stinking and hungry, we drove south toward Machias. As soon as Christophe could get a signal, he looked up the tall metal masts we’d seen from Fairy Head. They were, he read to me, part of a vast array of radio antennae broadcasting very low frequencies for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet all over the Atlantic. The tallest of the towers are nearly one thousand feet high. The setup encompasses an entire peninsula in Cutler, the ground beneath the towers flat and bare.

I thought about the submarines out there, plying the dark waters. I know those things are not small, not a single man, or maybe two, crouching inside a metal bubble the way I imagined them I was a kid. I grew up near enough the Portsmouth Naval shipyard to see their arched backs above the waterline. Once, standing at Odiorne Point, I watched as one sailed out to sea, though “sailed” never seemed so inapt. A friend and I stared out at it, watching the malign beast slip slowly under. Only as the tip of the conning tower disappeared did we seem to shake ourselves awake. My friend said, “I wish I’d gotten a video of that.”  I hadn’t thought of it either, and we both stared at where the big metal dorsal fin had disappeared. The sailboats coursed into the harbor, and the flare-bowed lobster boats trailed their kites of gulls behind. No one who hadn’t been looking would know what was under there. These big nuclear subs hold more than a hundred men, some of them, so it’s not want of human company that would trouble the submariner. Quite the opposite, being sealed up in a drum with the same few dozen people like that. It’s not so much claustrophobia either, but almost the opposite–the knowledge of the mass, and volume, and extent of the oceans piled above, behind, and to all sides.

The radio antennae in Cutler are only capable of sending one-way, encrypted text messages, Christophe read to me from Wikipedia as we rode along the coast. I know the subs must have other ways to communicate, at least these days, but I could not shake the thought of that, of one way radio messages cast out over the North Atlantic to hold the fleet together with the slimmest strands. Messages received, but none sent back. A thousand foot high flinger of messages in bottles.

My mood improved a bit after a roadside lunch to raise my blood sugar, and we drove on down to the crowds at Acadia to spend one night there before the final leg home. Minor irritations, and some more substantial ones left me breathless with screeching at times, but Christophe was unflappable as ever, though he winced and turned down the volume on a Dylan song on the radio when a long, held harmonica note whined, it seemed to me, in the same key the mosquitos had during his long night of the soul in Cutler. I drove, and he occasionally read me a few lines from some article or other. I pointed out roadside oddities. We made it home and I unpacked and put our things away. A few days later, I picked up the book I’d been reading up there, and saw what I had not been able to in my headlamp’s light. Between several pages, I found the smeared bodies of mosquitos, and blotches of my blood, and his.

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There is a layer of grime on my skin so thick I can scrape it off in long curls. On my pants, which I have been wearing for three days now, there are coffee and syrup stains, and the long gray and white streaks of gull feces. A few flecks of blood have dried to brown. The pants are a catalog of our two activities on this island: banding gulls, and eating. We do sleep, but not well and not long, given the heat and the cacophony of the gulls.

We are here on Appledore Island in Maine for one week to band gull chicks and to take blood and other unmentionable samples for a study at M.I.T. As of this morning, we had captured, banded and sampled over 400 birds.

This island is home to breeding colonies of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and to a full field research station called the Shoals Marine Lab. Birds and undergraduates, PhD students, and high schoolers all manage to coexist here, though not entirely peacefully. Out in the colonies at the cliff verges on the Atlantic, you can get clocked in the head with concussive force for approaching a gull’s chicks too closely. We are always approaching too closely.

A07. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

A07 patrols the porch. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

Nearer to campus, the gulls are more accustomed to human comings and goings, and are less wary and defensive. Some grow so habituated to humans that they acquire names. At least, human-given names. There is an old bird who stands on the porch of the dining commons most of every day. He has lost most of the feathers around his eyes, giving him a crazed aspect. The colors of his bill are faded and washed out, and the webs of his feet are shot through with holes. He was banded several years ago, and wears a green anklet reading A07. For his habit of stealing the food of unsuspecting porch diners, he has been called “Peanut Butter Cookie.”

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning before my departure for the mainland, I sat under the baleful glare of A07 and wondered if this might be the last time I ever see him. He has a mate again this year, and young, but he may not make it through another winter.

Yesterday, I was out tidepooling, picking up crabs and shrimp when I saw a green band rolling in the waves. It read H01, a bird banded a few years ago, and now, evidently, dead, its body decomposed and worried apart enough for the band to have fallen off the bone. For an unbanded bird, indistinguishable (by us) from any other bird, death is perfect oblivion, one more bird in millions who have lived, fledged, foraged, mated and died, unmarked and unremarked upon by humans. We knew a bit about H01, and slightly more about A07. Most birds have no name for us. Some few have a name in science, and fewer still a colloquial name. They all have a secret name, of course, or what passes for a name in their country and lets one bird know its mate and its enemies, its chicks or a stranger’s, at a far distance and among hundreds by its shape or its cry, its posture or its flight pattern. What they use for names, or rather, instead of names, is a pure and unsolvable mystery, species to species. Every year, we watch a short span and a thin sliver of their lives, another generation, until the young fledge and the adults move on, with no further apparent connection to their offspring. They each move off to their wintering grounds and their daily habits, one essentially identical to the next, at least to our eyes.

How little we know of the world.

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The modest haul from Fairfield Antiques Mall.

The per capita density of thrift stores in the greater Waterville area must be tops in the universe. While my mom and I have been hitting the clothes stores in downtown Waterville for a few years now, we only just discovered the riches of antiques alley in Fairfield and Hinckley, Maine (site of the unnerving and wondrous LC Bates Museum of my last post). As we left that museum and were headed home, we could not resist the allure of the massive Fairfield Antiques Mall, a sprawling and dilapidated barn/house? filled to the rafters with stuff. We got pulled down this rabbit hole, becoming completely disoriented between its multiple floors, half floors and basements. And we never even made it to the “annex” or the outdoor merchandise. What makes this place so surreal is its location at the edge of a field in a place where even the owners admit there is no there there. It is: “on the way to many of Maine’s tourists destinations.  Visit us on your trip to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park or Downeast Maine.  We are on the way to Baxter State Park, and Exit 133 from I-95 is used by vacationers headed to the Northwoods on rafting and fishing expeditions.  We’re on the way to major Snowmobile and Skiing areas.  Route 201 is also a Major access route to the Province of Quebec Canada.” 

This place is on everyone’s route, but at no one’s destination. And it is massive. We had the boys with us, so we couldn’t linger as we might have. While Malcolm is a dedicated picker, yard saler and thrift store frequenter, Simon does a lot of rolling around in the aisles and licking things. He did find one captivating creature who caught his eye though:


I showed great restraint and bought only a couple toys to buy my sons’ cooperation, a few old timer glass linament bottles and a 1960 edition of Niko Tinbergen’s classic work “The Herring Gull’s World.” My mother had her eye on a plastic lady’s torso that is illuminated from within via a plug. She inexplicably passed on it, much to my surprise, and we left the strange shop on the road wondering if it had all been a dream. How unnerving then, to find that my printed receipt read “There are No Returns.”
It turns out, however, that there are. My mother couldn’t stop thinking of the lighted lady torso, and the next morning, before she embarked on the drive back down to Massachusetts, she drove 40 minutes back up to Fairfield to retrieve her prize. And she reports that the shop was indeed there, and was no shimmering mirage.

We visited several thrift stores during our two weeks in Maine, all of which had their particular wonders. But I would be deeply remiss if I did not single out Madlyn’sin Waterville. This is a consignment shop with an exceedingly well edited collection, plenty of inventory, and excellent prices. The shop moved to a new, larger location last year, and now houses men’s, children’s, and a hilarious vintage collection on the lower level, in addition to the entire upper floor of things for the ladies. I got a sack of great stuff for thirty bucks, but the find of the day was a handmade, three piece tweed collection consisting of sleeveless dress, flared skirt, and jacket. They fit as if they were made for me, and since I am practically child size, this was a welcome, but inexplicable surprise.

Sixteen dollars for the lot.

In the vintage corner, I found a bright yellow pair of pumps in a wide width for my frog paddle feet! (The portrait I am painting of myself here is growing progressively less flattering, I realize.) There’s even a $1 rack where I got a blazer for, well, a dollar. If you’re ever in the area, stop in. The owner is absolutely delightful, and her shop is a thrifter’s dream.

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New Englanders may be known for their taciturn, Yankee ways, but this reserve apparently does not extend to the printed medium of signs. Beyond the usual incomprehensible tangle of route signs (see below), there is an element of high specificity and verbosity that I find common to Maine.
I’ve been doing a lot of running while vacationing here in the Belgrade Lakes region of the state, and there’s no better way to encounter a slice of real life in a place than to travel on foot. Yesterday, on a 12 mile jog around the lake, I saw a handwritten sign leaning against someone’s mailbox post reading, “I will purchase all your unwanted metal.” There’s something intimately contractual about such a sign.

Road signs in Gray, Maine. Uh, what?

As I ran along a dirt road the other day, I came upon another hand painted sign, this one, rather unexpectedly, in French. My French being rudimentary on a good day, I was able to get only a rough sense of its meaning. Not responsible beyond this…point? Bridge? There was no bridge in sight, just a dirt road winding off through the woods. Uncertain who this not-responsible party was, or what the consequences of passing beyond this bridge/point might be, I decided it was safer to plunge off the road onto a trace of a trail through the woods, and into a warren of intersecting fire roads, creepy driveways to ramshackle cabins, and deer trails.

But  my favorite sign here in central Maine so far was this professionally made one hanging between two trees by the side of the road: Dripping with bitterness and bile, this sign touched me with its irony. After all, we live in this great country where you can put up any sign you like, whether it’s weird, offensive, or creepy, and no secret government agency will hunt you down and disappear you. It’s our great good fortune not to have any real experience with tyranny, so that we imagine it in every action of the local town government. Even granting a measure of hyperbole, “tyranny?” But, nonetheless, I’m a civil libertarian, so I support every sign maker and sign poster’s right to speech. And it’s true, tyranny lives. I just don’t think it owns lakefront property on McGrath Pond.

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