Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Down East Coast

The Down East coast is the true tourist’s true heaven: the dramatic setting of Eastport in the middle of Passamaquoddy Bay, islands Canadian and American all around; the lovely houses, clean waterfront, and culture of Lubec; the aching beauty of Quoddy Head State Park; the nether-world of the blueberry barrens; the peace of the Schoodic Peninsula. In Quoddy especially I feel re-born and washed clean of city life, for the cliffs are high, the surf roars, trees grow out of the granite, and little streams cross under the Coastal Trail and fall like lace to the shore. A side trail leads to a peat bog. Where everything on the wild shore seems oversized, the bog is quiet, petite, attenuated. The little trees are stunted, matching me both in height and in years. I go from being a dwarf to the firs and cliffs to being a giant to the pitcher plants. I fit in each case.

But I don’t have to make a living here. For people without outside money, the way of life is hard and full of contradictions. Like many port cities in Maine, Eastport is beautiful and gritty, unpretentious and decaying, slowly sinking since the failure of the Passamaquoddy Tidal Project in the 1930s. It tries to make up for the decline of shipbuilding and fishing by touting tourism and a bit of shipping. Lubec exists almost entirely on people and money from away, a set piece almost. The rugged, unpopulated Cutler coast is marred by a huge radar installation, a weird symbol of war on a pacific shore. Much of it is also conserved, not to mention off the tax rolls. Now that fishing is so unpredictable, Maine folks often scramble to make money, and some are reduced to gathering "wrinkles" (periwinkles or snails to you and me) for sale to Asian markets. But even this humble activity is threatened; seaweed farmers tend to rip up the rockweed indiscriminately, without regard to the wrinkles hiding underneath. The sea is a fact of life, not a movie back drop. An elegant B&B in Prospect Harbor looks out at the shuttered Stinson Seafood Plant, which was the last sardine cannery in the U.S. Tranquil Route 1 in Cherryfield turns into frantic Route 1 in Ellsworth just a few miles away. Tiny houses in Corea sit on million-dollar views of harbors and islands.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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