Category Archives: Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park Otter Creek

Looking for the lookout

Food, language, gardening, people, wildlife, history—the world is so full of wonder. My life skitters between them all, lacking focus perhaps, but never dull. Heading home to weed, a quick stop to chat with a neighbor set me off instead in pursuit of a watchtower.

Lookout TowerOtter Creek once had a state-of-the art World War I communication station. There is a commemorative plaque, and Acadia National Park has built a picnic area there. Near this is a hard-to-find road that starts wide and lined with regularly spaced trees but which then disappears into brush and becomes impassable. A rough wooden sign, slowly being absorbed by the tree it is mounted on, points the way to this road and reads To Otter Cliffs.

I knew all this, and had read about Alessandro Fabbri who was the determined and driving force behind the establishment of what is called The Fabulous Radio NBD. I had followed that road, thinking it led to the site of the radio station, but when it dead-ended in a small overgrown clearing, I guessed all signs of the station were long gone.

Otter Creekers love their history, and my neighbor Paul Richardson has devoted much of his life to recording it. I’d been making a map of our village, and wanted him to see if it was accurate. I spotted him at his greenhouse on the way home from work and stopped to have him look at it.  “Oh, yes,” he said, in his unhurried voice with its soft suggestion of Maine accent, “Very good, except this road which you say ends at the radio station. That was the road to the watchtower.”

security fence from WWI Otter Creek

security fence from WWI Otter Creek

Watchtower? I may have heard of it, but sloppily let it slide from my memory. Paul’s finger traced the road I have walked, snow-shoed, and shared with friends, just to show them the row of trees in the middle of nowhere and the ancient wooden sign.

“Was there anything left of the tower?” I asked. Paul said it had been years since he was there, but that there had been an old foundation. I explained how the road became impossible to follow, hoping for clues to find the watchtower site. “Oh, you don’t need to follow the road. You can get to the lookout just off the parking lot the Park put in.” Was it possible the remains of an old tower were so close by and I had never known? I was ready to explore, so dashed home, changed into explore clothes and got husband Dennis to join the search. He has lived here all his life, had never heard of the tower, and does not remember his dad mentioning it. I said Paul told me exactly where to go, and we would find it.

Eyebolt 188 feet above sea level on Otter Cliff

Eyebolt 188 feet above sea level on Otter Cliff

I was ramped up and positive, Dennis a bit more skeptical. We parked in the lot we have used many times, the parking lot for the path along the cliffs. This time we went in the opposite direction, and found the ground rose steeply. The rocks were covered in fern and moss, and the late day sun filtered through. We looked up the high, rocky outcrop and started our scrambled ascent. The light made the greens vivid, and the tree trunks seemed black, still wet with the morning’s rain. It was new terrain, and even without finding where the tower had been we already felt satisfied with discovery. We pulled ourselves up to the top of the ledge. The trees surrounding the parking lot have grown tall, but it was still obvious this was a high point. This point is 188 feet above sea level. There were views over Otter Cove, of Champlain Mountain, and out towards open ocean.  Once we tore our eyes away from the view and looked down it took barely a minute to spot an iron eyebolt and then the concrete blocks that were once part of the tower’s foundation.

We tried to find this end of the wide, tree-lined road we were familiar from the Miller Garden Road, but that will have to wait for another day.  We did find broken glass and bits of burnt coal, presumably from the coal stoves the watchers at the tower used to keep warm. There was no doubt, we were there, and we had found the remains of the tower.

Foundation of lookout tower built in 1917 on Otter Cliff

Foundation of lookout tower built in 1917 on Otter Cliff

Back home I pulled out my history of the radio station and found the dimly remembered photos of the tower. It was built in 1918 with funding from Alessandro Fabbri’s brother Egisto. Fabbri was awarded the Navy Cross for developing the radio receiving station, which was the sole receiving station for European communications.

Brandon Wentworth, radio-communications enthusiast and historian, wrote The Fabulous Radio NBD in 1984. Well-researched and the source of many of the historic photos shared here, it tells the history of Alessandro Fabbri, the Otter Cliff radio station, and the local men who worked there. My husband’s grandfather was one of them. He had enlisted, expecting to be sent overseas, and instead was stationed right here at the radio station which at one point employed over 200 men. And yet no one in the family remembers hearing of the tower. After the war was over the tower was used as a radio compass station, and is credited with saving more than one ship from going aground. It was razed in 1935 for the construction of the Park Loop Road, although the foundations are quite distant from the roadbed.

When the Park Loop Road was constructed, a memorial to Alessandro Fabbri was placed in 1939, and is there today. In the eighties the Park planned on expanding the area for parking and picnicking. Diane Lee Rhodes was hired to assess the site. She wrote Archeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial in 1983.

This in-depth study has photos of the station and the tower, and concludes with the recommendation that the site should be preserved.

The steel pier at the Otter Cliff radio station

The steel pier at the Otter Cliff radio station

Diane wrote, “We have many areas in the NPS system that illustrate and commemorate the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but very few representative examples of World War I activities, especially communication technology. Acadia’s Fabbri area is a unique and eloquent tribute to the technology and military defenses of the period, and to the dedicated men who served here,” and “The Fabbri Memorial site can add an entirely new dimension to interpretation at Acadia.”

Excerpt from Diane Rhodes report

Excerpt from Diane Rhodes report

In spite of the report’s recommendations, stone steps, barrack walls, foundations, and water tower footings were all eradicated in the 1980’s for picnic tables and comfort stations. It is a delightful place for lunch, and I, and many bikers and hikers, are grateful for the toilets, and yet I wish history could have been honored. It would have made the picnic spot a richer place, and my husband’s grandchildren would be able to say, “The lookout tower? Oh yes, I know where it was, my great -great grandfather was stationed there.”

Acadia National Park community Otter Creek

Ans and others, my silent friends

SharonnSpringsfamily_BLOG

A family group peers at the camera, dressed in their Sunday best. This photo is a souvenir from Sharon Springs, New York, a town that has seen better days. Sharon Springs is a bit rough, just like the unfinished lathes that frame the picture. There are seven people in this photo, seven unknown faces, each with an entire unknown life outside this printed image. These brief moments captured from a life tantalize me, and I buy stacks of black and white pictures of strangers at junk sales, old photo albums of other people’s worlds, and, like this photo, a single image of someone else’s relatives.

This family photo sits on a shelf in my laundry room, and I have gazed at these folks many times. The well-dressed men take the center of the stage, and at first glance the women are not even noticed. They are there, though. Two are leaning in from the top, trying to get in the picture, but so unimportant they have part of their heads out of the frame. This is not because the photo is missing a piece. They simply were not included when the photographer opened the shutter. Another woman seems to be on tiptoe, trying to look over the shoulders of the men. The men are front and center and proudly posed, straw boater hats in hand. A family resemblance is pretty clear, but they are all so eager to pose for the photographer it seems they are disconnected from each other. The spidery writing on back reads, “The Family Group, Dan’s Rock, September, 1899.”

Mounted on dark greenish cardboard, the faces in this photo landed in the antique shop where I found them, and now they are in Maine. We have become friends. I have never heard their voices, but I enjoy their company when I am cleaning the lint catcher, or folding napkins.

Collier_OCFishHouse_SMALL

I have just been given another black and white photo, this one from the 1950’s, and taken here in my village, Otter Creek. At a chance grocery store encounter I was told about the photo. The owner was waiting for me outside when I left the store. He just happened to have it in his car; he wanted to make a sale. I wanted it, and now it is propped in front of me. Unlike the photo from Sharon Springs, I have plenty of resources for learning about this image.

Measuring 14×12 inches the photo is of the fishing shacks in the cove behind my house, which have been gone for decades. It was taken by photographer Sargent Collier in the 1950’s, and feels posed. Ansel Davis, Ans, pronounced sounding something like Ants, stands outside a shingled shack and pulls on a line, possibly pulling in his boat. A young girl leans against a ladder amidst a stack of lobster pots. The lobster traps are carefully draped in rags, and also lie in artful disarray. People who knew Ans say his would have been piled more neatly, and easier to use. The girl is a mystery. A relative of Ans’ says she looks familiar, and another person thinks she may be Ans’ son’s girlfriend. Whoever she is, she is not dressed for a day mending traps at the fish house. A soft clean white blouse, cotton skirt and ankle-wrap espadrilles seem specially donned for the occasion.

Ansel Davis in red cap and checked shirt

Ansel Davis in red cap and checked shirt

This photo was not in my copy of Collier’s book, Downeast, Maine, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Gaspe. I went to the library and took out his 1952 book, Mount Desert, the Most Beautiful Island in the World, and found it on page 55. Instead of identifying the girl, the caption reads Lobstering is one of Maine’s chief industries, and here is a typical headquarters for the several million dollar annual endeavor. It is an odd, satiric or condescending comment. Flipping through the pages of the book I saw a picture of a couple toasting each other, one holding a cup of clam broth, the other hoisting a lobster. It is rather hokey, and definitely staged. I study Ans pulling on his rope in the photo, and am not convinced he has a boat on the other end. But it still seemed likely that the girl, even if she had dressed up for the picture, had a connection to Ans, and to Otter Creek.

I continued to show the photo to neighbors and family, hoping to find out about the girl, but learned more about Ans with each encounter. He was friendly with kids, and shared his knowledge of lobster fishing and making traps. His wooden traps were hand-made, and fitted with intricate knot work. He passed on this skill. He called my brother-in-law Peewee, and my husband ice fished near him at Eagle Lake. I learned about the road to his house, Corkscrew Hill, which connected the east and west sides of the village before a causeway was built. There are still a few granite blocks where the bridge was, and a faint trail where the road ran. But no one knew who the girl was.

There were plenty of people who remember Ans, though. The wharf on the far side of the cove was Ans’ wharf. He lobstered and gardened and raised children and had a fish house on the cove. Although not a big talker, he took the time to pose for a photographer from away. His family was one of the first to settle Otter Creek.

I learn nothing about the girl, but am getting to know Ans. He worked long, hard days. Physical labor was just part of life. Now I have seen his face. He was kind to children, and shared. I learned that when he “was done,” meaning too old, worn and tired to work, he went home and put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself. He simply couldn’t do what he wanted to do any longer.

This photo, acquired by chance, brought new people in my life. They smile, silent. Their lips never move, but stories were told. I may never know who the girl was, but because of her, I have gotten to know Ans.

Fish houses  in Otter Creek

Fish houses in Otter Creek

Acadia National Park community Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Seeking sunlight, we went looking for caves.

Pitch Pine grove in Otter Creek, Maine

It is the time of year when days are short. During the week it is barely light when I head to work, and usually dark when I head home. Weekends are the chance to get some sun and soak in those warm vitamin D filled rays. There are plenty of reasons to be outside—hunting down and cutting the Christmas tree, stringing lights, gathering mussels, bringing in wood for the stove—but these only give a few hours, if that, of outdoor time.

There are only sixteen short hours of daylight each weekend, weekends that include commitments like family gatherings, indoor construction projects, laundry and other household tasks. This weekend we celebrated Christmas with cousins, aunts, siblings, and in-laws. Otter Creek, where we live, and many at the gathering grew up, was of course a topic. The Tarn, a small pond where people used to skate, fish and iceboat, is filling in. Coyotes, unheard of thirty years ago, boldly sit by the road munching on their kill. Someone mentioned playing in caves were they were little, and wondered if anyone had been there lately. Caves? As we drove home I begged for more information.

 

I knew these would not be caves as most people think of caves—deep, extensive, a place to get lost in or explore. But I have lived in Otter Creek close to half my life, and had not heard about these caves. Sunday, I had already begged, we would get outside for some sun. Now we had a purpose, we were going to find caves.

The modest mountains of Acadia National Park have several caves. Day Mountain is a two-mile walk from our house, and the caves there are deep enough to reach a point where no daylight enters. I would crawl in, and squeeze into the little corner where light did not reach, and crouch with my eyes wide open. I played with touching my nose, and moving my hands towards each other, index fingers pointing, and seeing if I could get them to meet. This is a place I love to share with visitors.

One friend, huddled next to me, said turn on the flashlight. We gazed horrified at the dozens of large black spiders on the roof of our cranny, inches above our hair.

I was ready for some new caves. “How big?” I asked. My husband said he couldn’t really remember, but that they were big enough to fit inside. He said when he was young his grandfather told him he used to go up there with the girls. His grandfather was not specific about what they did, but the implication was they were big enough to get in out of the rain.

Sunday, chores were done or shrugged off. There was sun, glorious sun. It was twenty-one degrees. We got directions from neighbor Clyde, who has spent all his life in the Creek and knows every inch of it.

We headed up the steep hill behind the Otter Creek Hall (formerly the Congregational Church). I had walked back there a few times, and we tap trees in that area for maple syrup. We went beyond that. We followed deer trails to an old  property road, which marked a boundary of David Bracy’s land. David was one of the village settlers. The day was crisp and fine, and I was so happy to have the sun on my face that the search became secondary, as we knew it would.

After a short climb we reached an open ledge, a rocky stretch with twisted pitch pines and Dorr Mountain in the distance. There is a pitch pine grove behind my house, and these small growths are suggestive of Chinese watercolors. There is little underbrush, and the short stunted pines seem to rise out of the granite ledges. Silver grey deer moss covers the rocks. Frost edged a the opening of chipmunk hole, and we saw three more entrances to this little chipmunk community.  A large aspen had extensive beaver teeth marks along the bottom. It was a big tree, and I am not surprised he gave up.

Chipmunk hole surrounded by bits of pine cone

We continued to follow the old road, and there, plunk in the middle of the woods, was a fish shack. “That belonged to Mike Bracy,” my husband said. Around 1970 Acadia National Park employees were instructed to go to Otter Creek and destroy all the villager’s fish shacks. Later, they rebuilt Mike’s shack, and he moved it up into the woods. He was getting old, and no one really understands the logic behind the move, but there it is, a sturdy little building with newspaper insulation. Someone has sprayed a peace symbol on it, and some plastic toys lie abandoned inside the door.

Mike Bracy’s fish shack, moved from the shore to the woods.

Under a hemlock tree we saw the scrapings a buck had made with his hoof, and I was told they almost always marked their territory under an evergreen. I asked why, but did not get an answer.

After an open trail and sloping woodland floor we came upon a tumble of boulders  and ledges. There were overhangs, and some dark crevices, but nothing I would call a cave unless I was ten inches tall. Someone had been up there cutting brush, about two years ago judging by the ages of the cut marks. Several tall spruce were splattered with sap. Something, wasps, parasites, I do not know but welcome a scientist to explain, had wounded the trees and they were producing sap and making spruce gum. Otter Creek spruce gum was once sold in New York markets as chewing gum.

Spruce sap spatters on spruce tree.

The sun was already heading for the mountain that would soon hide it. We passed another hoof pattern in the earth, and sure enough it was under another hemlock. Could it be buck’s mark elsewhere, but it is only in the clear, needle covered space that we notice it?

I have had some sun, and while I did not get to crawl into a spider infested cave, I have learned a little more about the people who came before me in this village of mine, and explored a few hills and ledges I had never seen before.

 

Granite rocks in Otter Creek

A young cave

 

 

Acadia National Park community Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Just squidding around

Sydney’s dad shows the soft skin and colors of a squid.

Pale and luminous, the squid drift in a group towards our lures, and then scatter. Their movement is smooth, so different from fish that swim with tail flicks and fins. They slide. Propelled by sucking water and then forcing it out of their body cavity their path is straight and direct, not curving and swaying like a fish. Standing on the pier watching them in the bright lights that shine on the water their silence seems deeper, larger, and more palpable than that of the mackerel that swim nearby.

Catching squid is supposedly easy, but we are not getting any. The lures we bought are heavy, and when we shine our flashlights on them they cast a soft luminous green glow, not unlike the squid itself. The squid come near them, check them out, but are not fooled. We are just so fascinated to see these tentacled creatures stealthily pulsing through the water, always in a pack, that we do not care. We have a picnic: bread and olive oil, sliced cucumbers, molten goat cheese and warm sweet tomatoes from the garden sprinkled with our own sea salt. It is a family outing, and the kids are squid fishing, eating, and chasing each other, while we squid fish and eat. And plot the next squid expedition.

Setting up the picnic to squid by.

A week later we try again, this time going to Northeast Harbor, two inlets over from Otter Creek. We are surprised to see the dock filled with people, and then astounded at the number of milky squid sliding back and forth in the water below. One young boy is pulling a spinning squid through the air, and his dad gently strokes it and unhooks it, then adds it to their bucket.

We have just encountered Sidney, perhaps thirteen years old, a squid whisperer for sure. One family is just leaving, and say they have caught two squid, but that they watched Sydney, who they call Squidney, pull them in as quickly as he can throw his lure back into the water.

We toss out our heavy lures, and again the squid scatter. Sydney casts his small blue lure and draws it across the surface. He snags a squid, the tentacles spin, spraying water, and he pulls it through the air. Again his dad unhooks, and this time shows us the speckled pattern on the squid’s skin. He remarks that some have a deep red color, while others are pale. As he holds it the color changes. The squid is dying, but he is held with reverence, and it does not seem a cruel passage.

Sydney pulls in another squid

Sydney is happy to share his skills, and shows us his lure, much lighter than ours. I toss mine in, and Sydney gives advice on jigging and how to create movement that will attract the squid. He then he tosses his line back in and thirty seconds later pulls up a squid. Young Sydney is unknowingly modest. He believes I, too, could catch buckets of squid if I had that lure. I am skeptical. I will order some, but I think it is more than the lure, it is Sydney’s skill and dexterity.

His dad agrees. He generously tells us where to get that lure, and then says, “We were both fishing, but Sydney kept catching them, not me, so I just help him.“ It is a lovely father-son partnership. They share a respect and love for squid. Sydney sees a baby squid, and begs his dad to let him catch it and keep it in an aquarium so he can study it. But they do not have an aquarium, and so the baby squid is left alone. They both tell us squid habits, and that squid are smart. “After a while in one spot, the squid tell each other to stay away from our lure, it is taking their brothers away.” I believe. Sydney tells me how they swim in one way when content, and another when looking for food. He has observed them and paid attention.

The father cups Sydney’s most recent catch in his hand and shows us how to clean a squid. The entire time he speaks to us he is stroking the squid, and I reach out and run my fingers along the firm smooth flesh. Yes, I feel love.

Squid have ornate patterns on their flesh.

We talk recipes. I am making paella the next night, which is one of the reasons we came to catch squid, and Sydney asks us to please take some of his. We do, and he and his dad know they will be respected. But we are not done. The night is fine, the air calm, and we continue to optimistically toss our clunky lures among the cruising squid, as we watch Sydney pull one after another high through the air.

Then–fast, large, and dark–a wide, fat, seal races into the group of squid. We yank our lures out of the water and a hundred squid explode, shooting two feet above the surface of the water and sending water spray in all directions as they make desperate leaps away from their predator. The light on the erupting water droplets, the shimmer of the colorful skin of the squid–it is finer than Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July fireworks. The seal circles two more times before heading out of the narrow area between the dock and the floats. And the squid return to their calm silent cruising.

We also leave. Sydney’s dad has been suggesting they go home for about half an hour. But the squid are still thick, and as we walk up the ramp to the car we hear Sydney say, “Just one more, please dad?”

Squid tentacles

A squid’s tentacles with a golden glow.

Acadia National Park Dramatis Personae

Samovars, Nijinsky, and Russian tea in Otter Creek

Steaming cups of strong black tea, silk-gowned ladies on a wide wrap-around porch, and yeast rolls that never fail–the Russian Tea Rooms were an exotic destination in the rural landscape of Otter Creek. Here secrets were whispered on the piazza, business deals made in front of the fire, and dull to titillating conversations exchanged between royalty and rusticators.

Beautiful stonework remains from the Russian Tea House.

The Tea Rooms, called the Tea House on some maps, or simply Romanoff according to the Bar Harbor Record, opened in 1899 on the Otter Cliff Road, then part of Ocean Drive.

It was a meeting place for the many summer visitors to Mount Desert Island. Carriages would bring the merry groups out, or the more ambitious would follow the old native American trail from Bar Harbor. A writer of the time describes the scene: “Coaching parties (to Otter Creek and Jordon Pond) have been quite in vogue this season, and the crack of the whip, the rumble of wheels, and the clear notes of the bugle are familiar sounds…” (The New York Times, September 13, 1903)

Social columns of local and city newspapers reported the parties given at the Tea House, and listed the names of the illustrious guests. On August 15, 1902 “A dinner was given at the Russian Tea House tonight by Mr. and Mrs. Louis von Gaertner. Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Pendleton, Prince Del Drago, Mrs. Roberts, Miss Godwin, Mr. and Mrs. Wetzeler, and Mr. Bass.” The town must have buzzed when a few years later the prince, 27 years old, married the wealthy widow, Mrs. Schmid, 50.

The Tea House overlooked Otter Cove. Where there is now a forest, lawn would have stretched down to the water. The view from the piazza would have been wide and quite likely offered vistas of the mouth of the cove to the ocean.

The grounds of the Tea House were a gathering place as well as the restaurant itself. The summer residents of Mount Desert Island, called rusticators because they felt life here was simple compared to their worlds in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, would picnic on the grassy field between the Tea House and the water. Henry Van Dyke, in his short story “A Holiday In A Vacation,” says “There were plenty of places considered proper for picnics, like Jordan’s Pond, and Great Cranberry Island, and the Russian Tea-house, and the Log Cabin Tea-house, where you would be sure to meet other people who also were bent on picnicking… There were dinner parties, and tea parties, and garden parties, and sea parties, and luncheon parties, masculine and feminine, and a horse-show at Bar Harbor, and a gymkhana at North East, and dances at all the Harbors.”

Granite that has been through a fire is not stable enough to build a house on.

But it was the Tea House, an imposing grey Victorian with a vine-covered porch and cozy dining rooms that was the real draw–that, and being taken care of. Log fires kept any evening chill away, and small nooks and corners provided comfortable spots for catching up with friends. Private parties were treated like the royalty some of them were, and Mrs. Robertoff, the proprietor, made sure everything went smoothly. She was such a conscientious owner that the Bar Harbor Record described her as ”looking after everyone’s comfort in her own pleasant way.” (1911)

A few short years later Mrs. Robertoff is gone. The local
newspaper ran an ad in 1915:
The Russian Tea House
Ocean Drive
Open to the public June 12, 1915
Under New management
Arrangements made for week-end parties.
Chicken suppers and lobster dinners a specialty.
Telephone 66

Advertisement for the seasonal opening of the Russian Tea House, Otter Creek, Maine.

The following summer Vaslav Nijinsky summered here on Mount Desert Island. His wife says that he spent countless hours practicing at the Building of Arts, just a few miles from the Tea House. Did he and Ramona have tea in Otter Creek? It is here that the record gets dim, and the next mention of the Tea House is when it had new owners, George and Hilda Renwick, and it was their home, not a business.

George was from Scotland, a Latin teacher and a gardener. The Tea House property was over a hundred acres, and he planted over eight varieties of apple trees. George had a large greenhouse across the street from the house. Lilies and other cultivated flowers still bloom in the field where it stood. A Harvard graduate, he was described as crusty by Dennis Smith who worked in the greenhouses as a child. “He drove an old black Ford like a wildman, smoking a pipe, and careening corners.”

George married Hilda Emory, and their niece Charlotte Harlan used to visit them in Otter Creek. She recalls summers on the wide porch, and gatherings inside around a piano, where family and friends spent evenings singing and making music. George had tenor voice, and years later sang at her wedding.

The Tea House was destroyed in the Fire of 1947, which burned much of the island. Charlotte remembers the phone call and hearing about Hilda fleeing in her nightdress. Their house was the last one to burn before the fire was stopped, sparing the rest of Otter Creek. George and Hilda’s moved down the street to house still called the Renwick House but their lives never fully recovered.

The property was sold after their deaths to the current owners, Gail and Henry Grandgent. They planned to build a house on the Tea House’s foundation but were advised that granite that has been under extreme heat was not stable. Instead, they built a charming home just past the ruins, with a view to the cove and old quarry, and plan to create gardens among the old granite walls of the Tea House. Gail, who has boxes of exotic teas lining the shelf of her kitchen, may bring her cup into that garden room and once again tea will be sipped on the site of the Russian Teahouse.

Bricks from the fireplace Prince Del Drago once warmed himself in front of.

Acadia National Park Dramatis Personae Maine Otter Creek

Snake on a plain

A fifty-foot boa constrictor skeleton lies mouldering on the south face of Cadillac Mountain, Otter Creek, Maine, in what is now Acadia National Park. I have never seen it, but Everett Walls told the tale.

“Fifty foot long she was, the vertebrae three foot high, Yup, we’d pick blueberries around them bones.” Everett said a circus boat had sought shelter in the nearby village of Seal Harbor during a storm. This was in the 1950’s, and the big snake had escaped.

“But,” I protested, “Snakes don’t grow that big.”

“Maybe thirty feet then, does it make any difference?” Everett asked. He is right, and we will leave that boa, which Everett also said might have been a python, but no difference there, either, at fifty feet.

“Quite a ruckus it caused, people ‘fraid to walk on the ridge. And he did come out now and again. Fifty feet is pretty big, people remember running into that.“ I am sure they would, but I have not been able to find anyone who saw the snake. Not even Everett. ”No, I never saw it alive, jus’ the bones. Fine with me.” Everett says.

This snake escaped captivity for a summer among blueberries, foraging on rabbits and voles, basking on slabs of flat pink granite. What a summer! The cramped cage was left behind, along with the smell of the ship’s hold, and the unnatural rocking on waves was exchanged for sun and a whole mountain to cavort on.

According to Everett, the circus crew hunted for their snake, and so too did local police. But he kept hidden, and the circus boat left without him.

The snake spent lazy days sinuously winding up to Eagle’s Crag, darting out a tongue to sense the moist salt air. The boa did not see and did not care when the ship disappeared from view over the edge of the sea.

“Yep, quite a scare around here, but we knew it t’wouldn’t be a problem long.”
The boa dozed and ate, lazily opening an eye against the warm August sun.

Then Everett started to talk about his aunt, that she had painted a picture of Otter Creek that was in the World’s Fair in 1939. “She painted nothin’ fancy, just simple pictures, but she entered a contest, and this picture went down to the world’s fair. Imagine that!”

An old painting of the Creek, by a creeker! I was excited. “Where is it now?”

“Oh, behind the ‘frigerator last time I saw it.” I pleaded for a peek. “Heck, I’d give it to you, but Elsie still likes knowin’ it is tucked back there.”

Elsie is gone now, and so too is Everett. But what about that snake?

“He weren’t designed for a Maine winter. We knew we didn’t have to worry ‘bout him.” Everett liked to come by, making the slow journey on crutches from his house to mine. He always had something to share, a story, some old photos, a flounder spear (this is still hanging in my shed) or just a few minutes of time.

“Really, Everett, really? A giant snake in Otter Creek?”

“Oh, yes. It was in the papers.” We smile at each other. Guess then it has to be true. I want it to be. I want that snake to have had such a fine summer here on our hillside. And every time I walk the South Ridge of Cadillac I can’t help but look for a long moss covered shape that just might be a fifty-foot boa skeleton.

Acadia National Park Day to day Dramatis Personae Maine Vanities Uncategorized

TRUSTY David Trust

Is the ice safe? A reasonable question, since every winter, somewhere, someone goes through. But not David Trust, and not his daughters. David has been an ice fisherman for most of his life, as were his dad and his grandfather. When David’s girls came along, he taught them how to fish, too. Along with being safe, he passed on other rules of ice fishing and of life: keeping your line untangled, being neat, knowing when you can trust the ice.

“We’d be out on the ice, get a flag, and off one of my daughters would go,” David says. “I’d dig one of my buddies in the ribs and say, ‘watch this.’ And we would all look. She concentrated so hard she didn’t know we were following her every move. And sure enough, just like I showed her, she would see if the reel was spinning. If it was, she’d set the hook and bring her fish in, coiling the line into the neatest pile.”

David speaks lovingly of his girls, and the special family times they had out on the ice. “I raised ‘em like boys, but they still turned out like girls,” he says, blue eyes gleaming. “They’re grown now, and they still love to fish.”

But times have changed, and so has the lake. David says that only ten years ago there were kingfishers, redfin shiners, crayfish, polliwogs. The water was brimming with life and vitality, diverse and healthy. Today he says the lake is barren, no forage fish, just bass, some lake trout, some pickerel. “Some asshole brought bass in, they killed everything, they killed the lake,” David says.

And indeed the fish are not there in the numbers they used to be. But this lake is where he learned to fish and where he taught his kids, and so he tries to fish here every winter, making it a family affair. “We have bonfires, hot dogs, hot cocoa,” he says. “It’s all kids, dogs, food and fish. Last time there were six inches of slush, but it didn’t stop anything. The kids were soaked to the bone and still tearing around, racing out to check a flag.”

But for serious fishing, he heads to inland Maine. Out on the ice, on the frozen surface of Green Lake, is his winter home, his winter castle. David’s icehouse, where he spends every minute he can, is 56 square feet of pure luxury. Copper counter tops, Alpine stereo, gimballed stove, weather instrumentation mounted on the roof for wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity. The comfortable dining benches fold out into an equally comfortable bed, and there is a solar panel and 12-volt brass lamps. “Last one I’ll ever build,” he says. And indeed it would be hard to top this one. Fishermen for towns around speak of his icehouse with a mixture of awe and incredulity.

David squints out over the brilliant white surface of the lake. “This is what it’s all about, nothing but fishing, and eating. Then fishing some more and eating some more.” He gets up an hour before sunrise and fishes until dusk. Then he stops. “End of the day, you’re done,” his says with finality.
A pair of eagles flies by, flying close, then parting. David pauses in mid-sentence to follow their flight. Yes, it is the fish that bring him here. But it is not quite as simplistic as fish then eat, fish then eat.

Teaching kids to keep their lines untangled, meticulously crafting a 56-square-foot model of luxury, and the casual acceptance that stopping what you’re doing to watch the eagles play is the proper use of time—this is life on the ice for David Trust. And great life lessons to pass on to his daughters, even though they are girls.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

Acadia National Park Bar Harbor Destinations Nature Log

A Walk with Mrs. Peel


Baittrap_Lakewood

Bait trap, Lakewood, Maine

It is a clear January morning, and the temperature outside is three degrees. The ground is white with snow that has crusted over and looks as hard and cold as ice. I feel chill off the windowpane when my hand is still inches from touching it, and the lack of wind and motion makes the world seem frozen into stillness. It is a Sunday, and the winter world beckons me outside to play. It is a day for Mrs. Peel.

Fans of the 1960s television series The Avengers will remember Mrs. Peel, played by Diana Rigg, who was fit and formidable, quick-witted, and always stylish. She was a role model, and a few years ago when I acquired a one-piece Descente snowsuit to take me comfortably into subzero weather I named the suit Mrs. Peel. Metallic gray with silver slashes on the sleeves and back, a red satin lining and space age padded shoulders, it, too, is very sixties. Add a fur hat and fur boots, sure-footed ice creepers, silk underclothing and I become invincible, as ready-for-anything and gutsy as Mrs. Peel herself.

catpawprints_Lakewood

Snow patterns on Lakewood

This was to be just a short adventure, as there were tasks and chores to do before the day was done. A small, sheltered lake a few miles from home has frequently offered tracks and animal sign and I felt like tracking, so I headed to Lakewood, easily reached down an unplowed stretch of road.

Mrs. Peel and I headed out onto the ice. It groaned and snapped, booming as it expanded, making ice as some call it. Most liquids contract as they freeze, but water, forming intricate crystals with space between the branches and spikes of each exquisite structure, expands. When it has nowhere to go it cracks and booms. There is one loud explosive bellow, then, a gentle reply. The sound bounces off the surrounding hills repeating itself more and more softly until silence returns. Lakewood is a small lake, and the booms were modest, not heart-stopping as they can be on bigger waters.

icefrond_Lakewood

Leaf-like ice crystal, Lakewood

The surface of the lake, so perfectly flat and level, was puckered with the imprints of what seemed to be a thousand small cat paws. Kneeling and tracing the outline of one imprint, I could imagine the party of prancing, leaping cats that might have left such patterns in the ice. Standing and looking across the lake I saw the focused unwavering trail of a coyote. I had passed human and dog track on the road in, and the erratic roam and sniff and run back to master trail of the domestic dog is strikingly different from an animal in the wild, for whom conserving energy is a matter of survival.

A frozen tadpole lay on the surface of the ice, apparently tossed out of a bait trap and left as an offering for some fortunate diner. Over an inch wide, the snakelike head would have become a bullfrog’s head in the spring. Life is full of hazards out on the ice.

An even smaller pond is connected to Lakewood, called Fawn Pond. Here a skim of black ice lay over a stream feeding the larger pond below. Black ice. The name is fearsome, implacable, but the underwater scene it reveals is beautiful in its otherworldliness. I lie on my belly and peer through the ice. I can see thin grasses waft slowly in the current. The sunlight pierces through to the bottom, illuminating a few gray and gold speckled rocks, but they are as far away as the moon. I cannot touch them; they are on the other side of that invisible ice wall. The untouchableness makes this world even more compelling. I am on the outside, looking in, and I want to dive down and explore. I run my gloved hand over the ice and it feels astonishing that it has no effect, that a barrier prevents my hand from simply sliding below the surface. Ice crystals form intricate leaf-like shapes and lie on the surface of the ice. A large twig shifts and dips. A caddisfly larva had changed its center of balance and clung, bouncing gently, to the branch. It wore a case it had made of bits of rock and twig and weed, and until it moved seemed part of debris on the stream’s bottom. Confined behind a wall of glass this larva, creeping, barely moving as it goes about its business, seems to have no relation to the swarms of long-antennaed shadflies, or caddisflies, that will be in my face and hair a few months from now.

deadmilksnakeFawnPond_Lakewood

weaselprints_Lakewood

Delicate tracks of a weasel or mink

At the edge of the stream something had dug a hole through the snow to the leaves and earth below. Whatever hunter this was found the prey it had sensed, and the curled remains of the slim milk snake rudely pulled from his winter’s sleep lay discarded nearby. There is no safety even buried in the dirt, below several inches of snow, and a crust of ice.

Fawn Pond was larger than last time I was here. The beavers had been busy, and a long dam kept the water from flowing to the lake. A mound of branches and tree limbs with the tiny teeth marks of the beavers was piled over their underwater retreat. Crystals, formed when the warmth from beavers’ exhalations mingled with the colder air outside, rimmed a few twigs at the top, sure sign there were beaver below. Skirting the edge of the beaver lodge were pairs of small dimpled prints, the bounding gait of either a mink or a weasel. I followed these along the edge of the pond, as they led to Lakewood and the woods road to my car. At the stream where the two ponds joined an otter had left sliding marks on the ice, and a hole where he went below the surface. Clear otter prints and chutes went over the dam, along the stream, and down the ledges back towards Lakewood. It was a steep descent, and the water fell in a series of short falls, framed by long clear cliffs of ice. The otter had cruised around saplings, bounded over small rills, and shot down steep slopes, seemingly having fun, and heading towards home. Mrs. Peel slid and wriggled right behind, leaving larger slide marks and prints for the next tracker to examine.

It was a short adventure, perhaps only two and a half miles, but there was life, and there was death. There were remote worlds and minute details. There were deer, dogs, humans, coyotes, chickadees, a tadpole, snake, caddisfly larva, otter, weasel or mink, mouse, and beaver.

Let me know what tracks you may have seen!

OtterslideFawnPond_Lakewood

Otter slide and hole, Fawn Pond near Lakewood


Otterprint_Lakewood

Otterprint along stream between Fawn Pond and Lakewood

Mrs.Peel and author

Mrs. Peel and author at Lakewood, Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park community Day trips Destinations Maine Maine destinations Nature Log

Winter in Winter Harbor

Dogs watching Wonsqueak Harbor

It's a dog's view, and I wish it was mine.

Black Friday, and we were up and out early. Our destination was not the sales and bargains the day after Thanksgiving is known for, but Schoodic Peninsula, an odd disconnected portion of Acadia National Park. Our goal was a walk with ocean views, designer breakfasts prepared by someone else, and then back home to split wood and get ready for winter.

Snow came early this year, and we were ready for snowshoes and piles of white around our ankles. We had spun though eleven unplowed inches to get to my sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving Day where it sparkled out the windows, but now we wanted to be in it, not looking at it. We tossed our gear in the car and headed off island. It was not long before we blew off the hike, breakfast, split wood agenda and just took it as it came. We saw a road we had not been on, and took it. Unplowed and snowy we came around a curve and disturbed a small group of turkeys. They stretched their necks and single file strutted off through a path in the woods. Turkeys are a common sight, but we had not seen any in about six weeks and had commented on their absence. “Guess they feel safe now,” I said. It was Black Friday, after all. Thanksgiving was over.

Back on track, we arrived in Winter Harbor, the town just before Schoodic and our hike. Tourism may be part of its economy, but the feel of this village is that of a simple coastal Maine community. There is a bank, a few restaurants, a grocery store, a five and dime that has everything you could ever need, and not a t-shirt shop in sight.

The Five and Ten has it all.

We wandered about town before our walk, getting the winter feel of Winter Harbor. Summer folk are gone, but there is no sense of the forlornness that pervades nearby Bar Harbor with plywood coverings nailed over shop windows and the fountains in the parks covered with stark plank pyramids. The cashier at the market gave us directions to a friend’s house, and it felt good that she of course knew where he lived. We stopped at Chase’s Restaurant for a coffee refill, and left with the waitress saying they would have stopped serving breakfast when we finished our hike. She said she has lived in Winter Harbor all her life, gladly suggested places to eat in nearby towns, called us dear in typical Downeast fashion, and we parted with smiles. We did not take the time to drive to Grindstone Neck, a stretch of summer homes and awesome hills we bike in the summer, but headed straight to Schoodic. In a field off to our left we saw three turkeys grazing. After weeks with no sightings, we had two in one day. Wild turkeys know their calendar.

Spruce Point, Maine

We had no clear idea where the trail we wanted started, and didn’t really care. We turned left onto a road with no street sign, because neither of us knew it, and found, to our surprise, it led to our path. Had we been looking for the trail, we’d never have found it. The only sign indicating the trail was over fifty feet after we turned onto this unmarked road. It was steep and winding, and took us to the top of the hill we had expected to be climbing. There were no tire tracks before ours as we made the ascent. When we left hours later, ours were still the only tracks. I doubt in July we would be the only ones on the trails.

Our hike started high, and was an easy ramble with views of our home, Mount Desert Island. There were ravens, squirrels, signs of coyotes, and at one lookout, an interpretive panel with moose tracks on it. We found this a bit perplexing, as it implies this might be a moose habitat, and it is not. There are several easy trails here, we wandered them all. The snow was only a few inches deep and so we did not get to use our snowshoes, but we were the first to walk the paths since the snow had fallen, and making the first footprints is always a sense of privilege and delight.

Wonsqueak Harbor, Maine

Wonsqueak Harbor, Schoodic Peninsula


Leaving Schoodic we pass through Wonsqueak Harbor, which not only has the best harbor name I know of, but is also a classic picturesque harbor that demands you take its photo whatever the season or weather. The local dogs enjoy the view too; a half dozen were hanging out on the roof of a porch overlooking the water.

The sun was now high, gleaming on the water droplets at the tip of every branch and twig. It was time to split that wood, and so we headed home. As we neared our island we saw half a dozen turkeys along the road. I suspect they are not as stupid as their reputation suggests.

Acadia National Park Destinations Maine Otter Creek

In a fog

A small boat on the ocean, visibility twenty feet, no navigation system, and close to ten o’clock at night is not a good place to be. We did not mean to be there, but there we were, lost in the fog.

Fog changes the familiar. It has a presence, and the cool moisture is palpable. It cloaks the sharp edges of things making them a bit less comfortable, but beautiful and mysterious. I am happy walking in fog on the well-known paths behind my house. The soft gray contrasts with the dark forms of trees, accentuating their branches. It is not weather to explore new territory, however, or to stray off the trail. Driving on foggy nights takes concentration. The road disappears into the light of the headlamps, and progress is slow and tense. I only drive on foggy nights out of necessity.

To be out in a boat in such weather is foolish, and it can be fatal. We were foolish, but it was not fatal. This sounds melodramatic, but we were indeed in danger. We know better, so how did this happen? How did we end up floating, engine quieted, trying to hear a bell or sound that might tell us where we were?

We live close to the ocean, and our favorite restaurant is on an island just a few miles offshore. The Islesford Dock is on an old wharf and you feel like you are floating on water as you eat. The location and views are enough reason to go, but the food is taste after taste of heaven: Buratta cheese, rice, grain and pine nut cakes with spruce tree oil and roasted vegetables from the garden out back, sautéed kale with just the right tenderness and garlic. I close my eyes and swoon whenever I think of their food. There are usually fellow ID fans at the bar, and it is always a joy to meet fellow addicts. You can get there by ferry, but that means planning, as well as eating, around the ferry schedule. So we bought a boat.

As soon as they open for the season we head out, and during the long summer days we are back safe in our harbor well before dark. We go several times a week, it is a short 15-minute ride and we know it well. The season was drawing to an end, and we felt the need to go as much as possible before they closed. The days were also getting shorter. We asked a couple of friends to join us, and to meet us at the dock at five, but from that point on a series of unfortunate events unfolded. Individually, none of them would have been a problem, but cumulatively we ended up where we did.

Life jackets, check. Hand-held compass, check. GPS, check. Hmm, batteries are low. A few minutes were taken to find new batteries and toss them in the bag. Cell phone check. Powerful spotlight. No check. We searched the shed where life jackets and this light are kept but could not find it. We went up the road to the garage, another possible place for it. We debated. We planned to return before dark, but it would be close. We felt we needed it, and went back to the shed and found the lamp where it had fallen behind the counter we store the jackets on.

We get to the dock, and instead of the boat on the water ready for our friends; they are there ahead of us. We launch and head off, half an hour behind schedule. As we are leaving the harbor I explain we were late looking for the light. I point to it, but where is it? We each thought the other had put it in. Again the debate, go without or go back? We go back for it. We arrive at the restaurant with time to eat quickly and get home before dark, but it is packed and we have to wait half an hour to order. It is then my husband reaches for his cell phone to find it is not hooked to his belt. The fog we had seen off in the distance moves in, between home and us. The fog is there, we have to go back through it, we decide we may as well eat first. But the kitchen is backed up, and it is after eight when we finally eat. If I had a choice of last meals, this would be it.

We get underway, but it is after eight, dark, and, as my husband says, the fog is dungeon-thick.

We leave the Islesford Dock and go from one buoy to the next. After the third one there is a short stretch before the buoy at the mouth of Northeast Harbor, which would guide us home. We pull out the GPS, but the batteries we had grabbed turn out not to be new batteries. We had our powerful lamp, but it simply reflected a wall of gray. We see dim running lights of another boat, and coming close see it is a boat someone had told us was going to Northeast. We follow it. At some point one of us said, “seems as though we should have hit that buoy by now.” The boat we were following was not heading to Northeast Harbor, but to Southwest Harbor. We turn around, and think we were heading back the way we had come, but become disoriented. We take a bearing with the hand held compass, but it just does not seem possible. Maybe the compass is broken, we think. We move slowly, sweeping our light across the water to let other boats know we were there. There is, surprisingly, traffic on the water. Large shapes heard long before they are seen.

The fog is so thick and heavy our clothing is wet and our hair is plastered to our heads and necks. The constant moan of ships’ horns let us know we have company out there, somewhere. And quite close, we just cannot see them. Abbie and John, our dinner companions, are in it with us, no accusations, fear or complaint. We discuss whether we should trust the compass, and take turns wielding the light. The possibility of being out all night is a real one. We are all calm, calling it an adventure, while offering reasonable suggestions and avoiding lobster buoys. Abbie has a cell phone, but it only has a few minutes left. We decide to save it as a last resort. A large piece of flotsam emerges from the fog and silently drifts by.

Finally we hear a bell, marking the harbor entrance. We get close, and check the number, it is can number two. It is the first bell we heard since we reversed direction and so we feel it has to be the mouth Northeast Harbor. If we set our bearings and trust the compass we would see harbor lights in about two minutes. We floated, keeping the red can in sight. If it was not the Northeast can, and there was a problem with the compass, we might be heading to Ireland. We were divided here on what to do. It felt like the win or lose question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It was really important that we make the right choice. It was time to use a lifeline. Abbie turned on her phone.

Our friend Edgar grew up on Islesford and makes his living on these waters. He had joined us briefly at dinner, and had been hired to bring a party back to the mainland. He couldn’t be far away. We called. Abbie explained our situation, and the red can. It is not long before Edgar tells Abbie, “I’ve got you, be right there.” In minutes the Instagator was beside us, and we felt safe, and could admit just how very unsafe we had been. As Edgar bobbed comfortingly beside us and offered to lead us to harbor, the Elizabeth T. came by. Captain Danny Lunt is another man who is at home on the water. He is a local legend, known for competency and calmness. They were headed for Northeast. Edgar asked him to guide us, and we left our lifeline to follow the Elizabeth.

It was a long ride. We were wrong, we had not been at the buoy at the mouth of Northeast Harbor, so it is a good thing we did not head off following the compass. We might very well have ended up out of sight of land, and very lost.

We followed Captain Lunt, but it was still not smooth sailing. His wife Linda describes that night as follows: Wild Ride Last Night on the Elizabeth T! Rainy, foggy, Dark, and around 9:30 someone in a small boat darted from nowhere in front of us, then did the same thing to the folks behind us – NOT SAFE! Don’t know who they were, but hope they are not on the water today!

We were the folks behind them, and thank them for bringing us home safely.

The next morning my husband called Edgar. “Good morning, God,” he said. “This is the village idiot calling to say thank you.”

Some lessons come at great expense. Our only price was a damp ride with cheerful friends.