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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 6

Maynards in Maine, in Rockwood, lived completely up to the advertising: a hunting/fishing camp run by the same family since 1919; funky cabins, not updated for many a decade, but comfortable; a main lodge with camp furniture, bare light bulbs, and animal trophies on the walls; three meals including an old-fashioned packed lunch in an Igloo. Ham and cheese on white bread hasn't tasted that good since childhood. Of course we were eating the sandwiches on top of Mt. Kineo.

Not quite on the top. The summit is wooded and getting a view required climbing the fire tower, which one of us did - only partway. Well, the wind was blowing pretty hard, and legs have been known to turn to jelly, and the tower could have collapsed. Right?

Mt. Kineo rises more than 700 feet directly out of Moosehead Lake. The man piloting the golf-course shuttle over to the island said there's also a deep hole in the lake right below it. So about a thousand feet of pure vertical rock, made of a rare flint called hornstone, making a rare sight that has drawn tourists for centuries. Native Americans used the rock for arrow heads, rusticators used the mountain for recreation (one of the country's biggest hotels used to be at the foot), Thoreau thought it one of the most beautiful places he had visited, and modern rusticators play golf and sit on their big porches in its shadow.

Just below the summit there's a ledge made for lunching, with an open view of the lake. No wonder Thoreau was so entranced.

We ended the afternoon with a walk around Greenville, and a stop in a lively bar where we had decaf coffee, not quite depressed enough (at leaving the next day) to start drinking at 4:00, even on a Friday. Others had no such inhibitions.
Dinner made up for that brief denial of pleasure. Four courses at Maynards satisfies the hungriest of abstainers. My prime rib was 2 inches thick and covered all of a large plate that the garlic mashed potatoes (with gravy!) didn't. Visions of salads danced in our future.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 5

After another heart-stopping breakfast (Eggs Benedict) from Fred Young, we set out on the Golden Road, the logging road that runs from Millinocket all the way across the state to Quebec. It was reported to be passable by a Baxter ranger, and he was mostly right. The road deteriorated somewhat from paved to rough-paved to decent gravel before we turned off on the Greenville Road.

Before the Greenville Road there was a lovely stretch of the West Branch called Nesowadnehunk Falls, where the Nesowadnehunk River (the same one we had hiked along yesterday in Baxter) joins the Penobscot. The mountain is Katahdin.

A famous section of the West Branch is Ripogenus Gorge, which we hiked along for a short way. I can't imagine how the lumbermen did it, but they used to drive logs down this canyon from the big lakes of Chesuncook and Chamberlain to the north. The water is very fast, and this is low-water time in the autumn.

The Baxter ranger was mostly wrong about the Greenville Road. It was not in good shape and our little Civic found itself once again put to the test. Trucks stacked with logs roared by, not worried about their suspensions, I guess, and on at least one occasion a truck came at us around a corner, tilted enough, I swear, to spill a quarter million pounds of wood on top of us with just a degree more of lean. Another time a truck blasted out of a side road just in front of us without stopping. Perhaps he saw us, correctly judged the angles, and wanted to give us a thrill.
There weren't a lot of log piles along the road, but enough to make it clear that logging is a messy business, not to mention dangerous. The Pelletier family runs most of the trucks in this area (and also opened a restaurant in Millinocket on the basis of their fame in the TV series American Loggers, where we ate manly food amidst logging paraphrenalia the night before); I now want to see the series not only for the information on logging but also for what might be the last of a breed. What does a real logger think of bacon-wrapped scallops called Retreds, or Blown Tires (onion rings)?

In any case the ten miles of the Greenville Road consumed nearly an hour, presented no moose (are you sensing a theme yet?), and certainly was a slice of the North Woods without pretense or comfort.
In the late afternoon we arrived in Maynard's in Maine in Rockwood, ready for the monstrous meals any logger would be proud of.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 4

It was the best of mornings, it was the worst of mornings. The best was breakfast at Young's House B&B in Millinocket, where Fred Young made luscious blueberry pancakes, three of them each the size of a dinner plate, for Cindy, and bananas Foster French toast for me, without a doubt the best French toast I've ever had.

The worst was the continued rain. But we drove up into Baxter anyway, this time on the Park Tote Road on the west side of the park, hoping for the best to return.

And it did. At first, we sat in the car for a while, looking at Kidney Pond. It was tranquil, and beautiful in its cloudy, foggy, primal state.

The rain left up for a bit and we decided to go for it, sneakers and all, into the woods and the short, wet trail to Rocky Pond. By the time we got back, our faith in light jackets and no hiking boots was justified. The sun started to break through for minutes at a time, and Kidney Pond was transformed.

The day continued like that, alternating deep, dark clouds that fortunately held their rain, and brilliant patches of blue sky that provoked extravagant forecasts of perfect weather to come. Mt. Katahdin, however, remained unseen, and we drove to Daicey Pond to collect the prize.
The Appalachian Trail passes near Daicey Pond and others on its way to the last exhausting climb up Katahdin. For those nearing the end of a months-long trek, these gorgeous bits of water must be an inspiration and a blessing, a calm place to camp and refresh. We took a bit of the Trail along the Nesowadnehunk River to see Big and Little Niagara Falls, and some wildlife of the stationary variety.

I hope with all my heart that not the slightest atom of what happened to the "real" Niagara Falls happens in Baxter, and it won't. Percival Baxter, the former Governor of Maine who personally bought and protected almost all of the 200,000+ acres of the park in an innovative trust, saw to that.

Then, at last, the Greatest Mountain.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 3

Another lovely breakfast from Clif this morning, and a conversation with his other (longer-term) guest, Peter Goth, celebrating that day's promotion to head of the ER at Gould Memorial in Presque Isle. Peter's other jobs? helping his wife Wendy Pieh raise the cashmere goats at Springtide Farm in Bremen; training physicians and vets; judging cashmeres around the country; past Outward Bound leader, etc. I have no idea how he does it (Bremen is five hours away!). Typical Mainer....

The drive to Millinocket was relatively short, just a couple of hours, and more than relatively rainy. We could see nothing of the great mountains to the west. We went to Baxter anyway, and also there saw nothing of great Mt. Katahdin. The rain reduced to some spit and drizzle for a while and allowed us the short hike from Roaring Brook Campground to Sandy Stream Pond. A steadier downpour would have stopped us, for in our blithe poor planning, we had neglected to take hiking boots and rain gear.

The pond was nicely set up for "wildlife viewing" (which means, basically, moose) with boardwalks ending on flat rocks. Alas, the only wildlife seen were three duck/goose-like birds (crested heads, orangish beaks, gray and white bodies, relatively long orange legs and feet) that have so far escaped identification (Stokes, Sibley, Google). Who needs moose when something obviously and incalculably rare preened for the binoculars! Birders, we're available for exclusive interviews.

Did I mention that we hadn't seen Katahdin yet?

Reluctantly and damply, we drove the 8 dirt miles (at 15 mph) back to the Togue Pond Gate and hoped for better luck (moose, Katahdin) the next day. Reluctantly and heroically, I resisted the Penobscot fries at dinner, saving myself for breakfast.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 2

A full day in Aroostook County, a marvellous place of hugely different terrain. It started with Clif Boudman's delicious breakfast at the inn, and good conversation with this innkeeper/bon vivant/film professor at UMPI. (His son also is involved in movies, recently as Senior Flame/Inferno Artist at Sony Pictures, a title like no other I've ever heard.) Thus fortified against the rain, we drove the loop - out route 163 to Ashland, up Route 11 to Fort Kent, down Route 1 back to Presque Isle.

Just a couple of miles south of Fort Kent our daily hike found us Fish River Falls, and some autumn fields of surpassing beauty but unknown crops. The County is like that: town, farm, unspoiled wilderness all crowded next to each other wherever you go. Well, mostly wilderness.

During the growing season potatoes are the attraction. (The other 6-7 months of the year, winter is properly and happily celebrated.) We had arrived just before harvest, during the time after the plants and stems have been cut (or otherwise defoliated) and before picking. That period of several weeks allows the potato skins to set or harden, important for storage. It also allows incredible scenes of the fields in various stages of preparation, some still mostly green, some brown/green with decay, some completely brown, the "hills" clean and ready for the pickers. These fields sweep the horizon majestically; we weren't prepared for their beauty.

There were lots of potato stands along the roads. This one was high-end; most of them sold 10 pounds for only $2.00. Honor system, of course.

Fort Kent is the center of Maine's Acadian culture, where French language and custom are still strong. Those French who settled in Nova Scotia (their "Acadia") in the 16th and 17th centuries were chased out of Canada by loyalists to the British Crown, some ending up in Louisiana and some settling in the St. John River valley in the late 18th century, living in houses like this one (now reconstructed in Acadia Village, Route 1, Van Buren).

There remains a strong Catholic influence.

The towns along Route 1 all feature a large Catholic church, almost cathedral size, and then a straggle of houses and businesses in both directions along the road. No one seems to live off Main Street, as if the surrounding forests shouldn’t be encroached upon. Development is gentle, not vicious. I doubt that zoning boards have much to do. The pace of life will not be speeded up. Poverty and pride and the small population won’t allow it.
I loved the County, its wide-open spaces, its friendly people. And we didn't even get to Allagash, the setting for Cathie Pelletier's wonderful and comic novels about the French and the Scots in Maine. Nor did we have a chance to try the ployes, the buckwheat pancakes apparently similar to the galettes of Brittany; nor, although one of us was sorely tempted, the famous poutine (french fries, cheese curds, brown beef gravy), also seen on a menu as Penobscot fries. Very good sushi in a Chinese restaurant in Presque Isle had to suffice.
Ah, the consequences of lavish B&B breakfasts. Ah, the several reasons to return to the County.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 1

Our week travelling the great expanses of the north started with the familiar trip from Owls Head to Bangor. Bangor is only 20 miles from the ocean but north of it seems like a different country. It was new to us, certainly, and I can now see why people who live there would just as soon cede the southern part of the state to Massachusetts.

Our route eschewed I-95 and followed Thoreau's trip by stagecoach along the Penobscot River. We travelled in slightly more comfort. At Lincoln we parted ways with the sage and drove east to catch Route 1. I'm pleased to report that those 50 miles of Route 1 between Topsfield and Houlton are bucolic: rolling land, thick woods, small farms and so little traffic that in the whole stretch we neither overtook, nor were passed by, a single car. It was an extra hour well spent.

Quite frankly Houlton isn't much to look at, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The downtown was deserted, except for a few teens hanging out. The bridge over the Meduxnekeag River, however, was quite handsome and, although we didn't realize it at the time, deserves the name Gateway Crossing, for the land to the north becomes truly different.

I also like the fact that the wood comprising the bridge has been left rough and unfinished, a tribute to the great forests that have meant so much to this area.

I-95 stops in Houlton so no justification of time-wasting is necessary. (It was planned to go as far as Caribou, a source of indignation still for the long-suffering people of the north, but personally, I can't imagine a town named Caribou on an interstate.) There was more traffic on Route 1, for here the gorgeous farmlands of the St. John River valley begin. I had thought that perhaps these lands would be like the Midwest farmbelt, but absolutely not: The land is not flat but rolling into hills and in the distance, into mountains like Katahdin, visible from the highway. The fields are not monotonous, but stark and beautiful. The houses are not protected by little copses of trees but sit openly and proudly on the rises of hills. The woods are not afterthoughts, or woodlots, but real forests merging into the great woods to the west, coming right up to the edge of the fields as if the work of humans is clearly seen to have its limits. In the Midwest one has to look at the sky for illimitable views. Or interstates.
One major sign of human presence sits on Mars Hill, which rises like a butte out of the river valley. Don't count me among those that find the view of the wind farm beautiful. America's obsession with machines, rather than with values, continues.
A less obtrusive human work is the Maine Solar System model, constructed along Route 1 between Houlton and Presque Isle. The planets are made to scale (Jupiter being about 5 feet in diameter) and the distances between them are also to scale. We managed to see Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter, but missed the smaller planets closer to the sun amidst the development of Presque Isle. Earth's model is only 5 inches in diameter, easily lost in the clutter of stores and cars. Pluto is only an inch and is kept inside Houlton's Information Center, as if the planners knew it would be declared a non-planet anyway.
Mars Hill also offered us a first look at Maine's famous potato farms - much more to come!

We stayed the night in the lovely Rum Rapids Inn on the Aroostook River just north of Presque Isle. Our walk for the day was a trek along a snowmobile/ATV track, complete with several ATVs belching noise and exhaust. Well, at least, the operators are getting outside. The track also crossed the river via an ATV bridge, recently re-constructed using, as our innkeeper said, Obama money. If any place in the country needed stimulus, it's the County, although I'm not sure how a trail trumped a road. Of course it's really Bush money, which seems more appropriate for this land of hunters and farmers. We tried to describe our perceptions of Aroostook thus far - the farms large and small, the hills and mountains, the friendly people - to our innkeeper, who said, "Yes, this is actually Canada."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

North again

Off for a week of travel in Aroostook and the Great North Woods. Can't wait!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Why does that crow hop up the spruce branch by branch? Why does it preen, stop, move up a notch, preen some more? Why does it and its fellows choose this particular tree all the time?

I find as I get older that the "why" questions have become a different kind. The big ones, like the meaning of life and existence of God, don't pester as much as they did when I was 15, and 33. They still buzz around a bit, but since they're unanswerable, any time put into them seems wasted. The "why" questions for which there might be answers are much more interesting. Not the kind you can look up on Google, or even those that some specialist scientist probably can answer, but the kind that might require a bit of mystery along with the facts. I know why the crow preens, and I expect that its multivarious calls are known, but I don't know what makes it move, at what point it moves, why it moves, when no food or danger is in view. Things that move, like weather and wildlife and the human heart, have mystery, and are forever fascinating to the post-religious.

Things that don't move, like rocks and trees, provoke the deeper questions. They just are, and what does that mean? I might understand the crow, given enough study. I might never understand the spruce, unless given eternity.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Short pines

Back in Maine after a week in Massachusetts. It was a beastly hot and enervating week that cleared only after Earl glanced at the coast and decided to stay away, leaving us free to go to the Cape for a couple of days. Amazing what dry and pellucid air will do for the spirits, and it wasn't even Maine air.

The Cape is of course ruled by the ocean and a more malign Earl would have wreaked havoc like an Anglo-Saxon lord. As it was, the beaches on the bay side were thick with seaweed, quite a few large dead bluefish, some happy gulls and vultures getting fatter, and, according to our hosts, obviously more erosion of the dunes underneath the houses on the edge; and the ocean side was loud with huge surf and the timelessness of real dunes, i.e., no houses built on sand.

Except for the National Seashore the coast of the Cape is almost completely privately owned and developed, like the coast of Maine. There, however, the similarities stop.

Cape woods are thin and stunted. Cape houses quietly nestle into their sites. The way of life is palpably attractive. The interior Truro dunes, where our friends' house lies, roll gently with a covering of gorse and bush and grasses and short pines. Roads twist and wind, always with a house in view. Provincetown on a Sunday afternoon seems to contain more people than live in all of Maine. The wind is constant. The Cape's beauty is a quiet one (except P-town!) and it invites a calm, contemplative way of life, halfway between the rush and energy of the city and the rocks and exhilaration of the country. Well, at least the outer Cape does.

We hadn't been to the Cape for some years, inevitably going north instead of south. But on a perfect September weekend, it was a wonderful substitute for the place of tall pines.