community Dramatis Personae Maine Otter Creek

Hills Like White Otters

Ben’s Hill, Otter Creek, from U.S. Geological Society drawing 1887

Dorr Mountain, Cadillac, and Champlain–these are the mountains that surround the island village of Otter Creek. Their namesakes were men of power and position. George B. Dorr was the founder of Acadia National Park. Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac was a French explorer who once held title to all of Mount Desert Island and founded Detroit. Cadillac cars were named after him. Samuel de Champlain landed in Otter Creek in 1604 and gave our island its name, Isles des Monts Desert. It was adventurers, movers and shakers, people who stepped out of a mundane life to explore new territory that we chose to name our mountains for. These mountains are my everyday view, sometimes red and orange with foliage, sometimes white with snow, but always the background of life in Otter Creek. They are ever-present but always out-of-arm’s-reach.

Closer than the mountains, right under our feet and beneath the wheels of our cars, are the hills of Otter Creek. My home sits on the top of Ben’s Hill and I drive up and down Marm Allen’s Hill every day on my way to work. No one seems to remember who Ben or Marm Allen were, or why they had hills named after them. Roads have been straightened, and some of our hills blasted and flattened. Marm Allen’s Hill on the old Bar Harbor road once went down to the brook that runs into Otter Creek, and then straight back up past the old Allen farm. Presumably Marm was one of those Allen’s. The first bridge at the bottom of this hill was built in the 1800’s just a few feet above the surface of the stream. Rocks from its footings can still be seen. The second bridge, wisely built a bit higher since snow melting in spring makes the stream roar, has also left traces. This bridge was still walkable in the late 1960’s, the timbers old but spanning the water. It, too, flooded every spring. Today there is just a culvert, with twenty to thirty feet of dirt piled above it, raising Marm Allen’s bottom, making her hill far more gentle and leaving the remains of the first two bridges far below.

The granite remains of the oldest bridge on Marm Allen’s Hill, with the concrete remains of the second bridge.

Marm did not found a city or get a car named after her, and Ben could have been a hobo, but they are as much a part of the geography of our small village as the renowned personalities our mountains are called after.

Corkscrew Hill was not named after anyone. The road up this hill started at the base of Ben’s Hill where a timber and stone bridge crossed Main Brook close to where it opens into the Creek. Tumbled granite blocks in the water show where it once stood. This bridge was abandoned in the 1920’s or 30’s but the timbers were still there until they washed away some time in the 1960’s. My husband’s father, Larry Smith, said that when it rained and Corkscrew Hill was slippery the Model T’s would go up the hill backwards in order to make it to the top. We have walked the old road bed, and while steep it does not seem to twist. Did the cars have to zig zag up like a corkscrew to get to the top, or, as a neighbor suggested, was a bottle of something uncorked for the long ride to the other side of the creek?

Standing near the old bridges, looking at the fill that was brought in to level Allen’s Hill.


We have two other hills here in the village. Music Hill is to the northwest of the cemetery and Music Hill Lane is the road leading to it. Paul Richardson, whose family was one of the village’s first families, thinks this name is fairly recent. Clyde Carter, whose family has been here for at least a few generations, recalls various members of the Smith family who lived up there playing what he calls old time music, fiddles and squeezeboxes and homemade percussion. Music Hill is as quiet as its neighboring cemetery these days.

Our last hill is Esther’s Hill. This was the local name for the long descent towards Seal Harbor, and finally there is someone who remembers Esther. Her name was really Vashti Esther, but she preferred to be called Esther, or V. Esther. She also had a pond named after her, and I heard the bullfrogs singing there today as I biked by. Esther was married to Lawrence Maynard Smith’s brother Maurice. She and Maurice had four children, Shane, David, Maurice and Martha, and one of the boys shot and killed Maurice the elder in a hunting accident.

After the accident Esther had better things to do than be a mother, and Martha and was raised by her grandmother Nyra, who also lived in Otter Creek. Now Nyra sounds like someone to name a hill after. While she may not have selected her three husband’s for their names, they make lovely sequence. Her first husband was Tripp, her second was Trott and her third, with whom she spent the rest of her life, was Harold Gallup. Harold did not live up to his name however, as Nyra once told my mother-in-law. “I’m interested, but Harold isn’t.”

The old road bed with the new road in the distance. Marm Allen’s Hill.


Although Nyra lived on the same hill as Esther, it is Esther’s Hill, not Tripp, Trott, and Gallup Hill. Martha says she is not positive her grandmother’s second husband really was Trott, but that is what the villagers said, and it might have been.

Our hills are less steep and curved than they were a hundred years ago, but even then they were not considered majestic enough to deserve the name of a worldly explorer. But Champlain Mountain, Ben’s Hill, Dorr Mountain, and Esther’s Hill, whether named for hobo or hero they are equally part of the landscape of life in Otter Creek.

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.

Camp Maine recipes

World’s best chicken stew

Tomato red dutch oven, perfect for chicken stew

Today I made the world’s best chicken stew. This is a bold claim, and I do not make it lightly. I will never make this stew again, nor enter it in a contest, nor pass the recipe on to others. It was camp food, and like so many moments and parts of life at camp, it was created off-hand and unplanned, and cannot be repeated.

Chicken stew is not something I would typically make at home, but it is perfect food to cook on the woodstove at camp. Camp? The word has become part of my everyday vocabulary, but it is a concept I did not understand when I first moved to Maine. Camp was where I was sent as a kid, and slept on bunk in a cabin with seven other little girls. Camp was where I ate from a mess kit, and wrote notes home because we were told to. Camp is where I began to taste independence, and disappointed my mother by never getting homesick. Camp was for kids, not families.

In Maine, camp has a capital letter. It is a second home. It might be rustic and primitive, as is my husband’s family camp, or fully fitted with all the mod cons, which I think takes away most of the fun. It is a place the family goes to, together, every summer, and frequently in winter. It is usually less than an hour away, and most commonly on a lake. When my husband’s grandfather bought the lot on Toddy Pond, there was one camp. Today there are over eight camps, and four are owned by family members, including the camp we use, which belongs to my sister-in-law.

We go to camp to walk on ice, sit in the sun, read, ice fish and eat. The intent is to catch fish for dinner, but I always bring food in case we get no fish. When I first came here, I would plan meals, organize them at home, and with delight impose my vision of camp food on my husband. He and his family had opted for canned beans, hot dogs, Dinty Moore stew, and mounds of bacon. I was not convinced. I would bring assortment of condiments along, getting packed to go to camp, unpacked at camp, then packed to go home and finally, full circle, unpacked back at home. My checklist included every spice I might possibly want, olive oil, pickles, cheeses and a selection of cocoa and teas. His grandsons happily joined me wrapping potatoes in foil to tuck into the woodstove, and though skeptical, accepted my spicy Mayan cocoa. It was fun, but a bit complicated. Zip bags of marinated meat were sautéed with seasoned and prepped vegetables. Polenta needed more than its usual tending to prevent sticking as the temperature on the woodstove top fluctuated. Salad greens needed to be protected from freezing, as camp sometimes takes a few hours to get warm. It was a production, but as long as there was plenty of bacon my elaborate meals were tolerated.

The fact that I insisted on using the woodstove to cook on was also tolerated. There is a gas burner at camp, but the large, even, cast-iron surface of the wood stove, which was already burning to supply our warmth, could not be ignored. I learned to regulate the temperature by a combination of adjusting the damper, opening the door slightly, and adding wood in small regular amounts. Opening the door made an instant impact, but also made it impossible to stand right by the stove. If I wore anything with acrylic in it, I soon felt as though my legs were wrapped in fiery blankets, and about to combust.

Camp, fireglow from woodstove in one window, sunset reflecting in the other

Things have gotten a bit more relaxed. Now, I do very little planning. I raid the fridge and root cellar for whatever looks promising. We stop at a market on the way, grab some things, and off we go. A few years ago I made cock-a-leekie soup with my daughter to celebrate Candlemas, and since then a variation on this hearty chicken soup has become the easy no-thought meal that is part of a camp weekend. It is always good. Food at camp always is. It can simmer on the woodstove for hours without harm. The ingredients are never measured and always vary, but it is still chicken stew, and it is delicious. Today’s was outstanding.

I had grabbed a pile of potatoes and carrots from the root cellar, onion and garlic, and pulled a bag of Maitaki mushrooms we had gathered in the fall from the freezer. A few odd leftovers were tossed in the box, we bought some chicken thighs and a green pepper at the market, and that was it. We no longer really plan on eating our fish for dinner, but look forward to the stew. I used to wait and see if we caught fish before starting to cook, but now I just get that stew on the stove and get out on the ice.

My sister-in-law has one of my favorite cooking utensils. It is a tomato soup red Le Club dutch oven. I look forward to coming to camp for many reasons; the sun on the ice, the quiet, the distance from all the responsibilities back home, and for cooking in this pot. It sits flatly on the woodstove, takes heat evenly, and is really easy to clean.

There was no olive oil, so I peeled a few strips from the pack of bacon and let that render in the beautiful tomato red pot. Slivered garlic and sliced onion were added, turned translucent, then slightly brown at the edges. The chicken thighs were cubed, blessed with lots of black pepper, and tossed into the now sizzling pot. We always bring a generous supply of wine to camp, and so there was plenty to pour over the browned meat. I did not wait, but chopped in the carrots, a few pieces of potato, stirred it all up, put the cover on and went out to fish.

I checked it on occasion, adding a splash of wine or a pinch of salt. I only did these things to nurture the stew, it really was doing fine without any further aid from me. We caught fish. Some we gave back, and some, a half dozen white perch, were kept for tomorrow night’s meal. The sky began to darken and I went back to the warmth of the camp. The stew seemed a bit liquid, so the bowl of left over mashed potatoes, intended for breakfast potato cakes, was dumped into the stew and stirred in. The mushrooms, which had been sautéed in white wine with lavender and rosemary before freezing, were mixed in as well.

A loaf of bread was tossed on the hot stove next to the pot to get warm and crispy.
I settled into the couch to read, and heard a distant cry of “Flag” as the orange flag of one more tip-up sprang up-right, indicating another fish on the line.

The creamy texture was smooth, golden, and just the right distance between thick and thin. It was the most delicious chicken stew I ever had, until next time we come to camp.

Taking a break, back in May!

View from camp

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

Day trips Destinations Maine Vanities

SLOAF John Doyon

John Doyon at Sugarloaf

John Doyon, loafer

There are 365 days in a year. John Doyon skies one hundred or more of those days, and he skies them at Sugarloaf. His vanity plate is SLOAF1. He lives at the mountain from Labor Day until May, and he skis whenever he can. He skis Early Tracks, that special time before the mountain opens to the public, sometimes starting down before daylight. He skis before work, and he skis every weekend. He skis in the rain, in the wind and in the cold. He is, in short, obsessed.

John was born in Maine, but lived away for many years, returning 15 years ago after watching The Big Chill, and feeling the call to reconnect. College memories of the Carabbasset Valley drew him to Sugarloaf, and here he found his passion. He also found a circle of friends that share this passion, and form a core group of “Loafers.”

“My wife and I have more friends here than through work or family,” John says. “This mountain is a bond.” He mentions the mountaintop dinner parties, complete with china and linens, and parties where everyone shares three of their favorites songs creating a musical timeline of the group from the 70’s to the present. John selected “Stairway to Heaven,” which he used to listen to when he skied here in his college days. This generated groans and good-natured ribbing, according to John. “They said it was too long!” he exclaims, shaking his head and laughing. “But it is a classic, what memories.” Most of this group grew up in the same era as John, and share a lot of similar memories. “The Sugarloaf culture” John calls it, a tight bond of skiers and skiers’ families that have their lives, activities, and social events orbit around the mountain.

John says this group, this friendship circle, is an important reason for choosing to live here, but it clearly takes second place to being on the snow.

John starts his day before full light, taking dog, paper and coffee to the foot of the mountain to assess. He checks the conditions–the weather and the snow, and decides which skis to use. Racing skis, carving skis, skis for powder– there are skis for different conditions, and it makes a difference. So does keeping equipment in shape. “I do a mini-tune every day, and a major tune-up every ten days,” John says casually, blissfully unaware that he is reinforcing his reputation for obsession. He also keeps a chart of which skis he uses on each day, to be sure not to stress them. He keeps meticulous records of the days and hours he skies to be sure he gets his one hundred days in each year, and to push for as many more as possible “One hundred and four is the most I’ve skied” he says, “Maybe this year I can top that.”

But May fourth is the cut off. That is the day the mountain closes. “I start getting bummed out in April,” John says, “It is a dark feeling, I hate to see those first brown spots.”

“Sometimes even in June you can find a patch of snow in the woods,” he says wistfully. But John is upbeat, even the sadness of contemplating summer is momentary. His natural good nature and optimism reassert themselves. May fourth isn’t here yet, and John has skis to tune, and a mountain to ski.

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.

community Maine Maine Vanities

SEWBIZE Kathy Stanley

Showbiz was not in Kathy Stanley’s mind when she created this combination of letters for her vanity plate. The owner of two fabric and sewing stores, and with over 100 miles between the two, she is just sooo busy. And, of course, she sews. But with a seemingly overloaded schedule she joined an amateur theatre group, adding rehearsals and shows to her list and another meaning to her plate.

Kathy is voluble and energetic, never still a moment. She outlined the history of the store, while pulling things off shelves for the trip to Portland, helping quilters with patterns, and directing workers. Everyone felt they were getting personal and caring attention. She continues to rattle off the many facets of her life, “Kids, theatre, church, teaching Sunday school, traveling back and forth to Portland, rotary, and sewing of course.”

Before Kathy opened Sewing–by-the Sea, she taught school for sixteen years. Frustrated by more and more restrictions and rules, she decided she needed a change. “I wanted adventure” she says, and resigned from teaching and just started to work. “I had no business plan, didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I did a bit of everything. I baked cookies and cleaned toilets. I did anything for a buck that first year, and wanted a sign up by the road that said that, but my husband wouldn’t do it.” she laughs.

Open seven days a week, including evenings, she gives credit to her family and employees, and everyone who comes to the shop for helping to keep it going. And while she talks about fabrics and business, it is the people she keeps coming back to. And it is very clear that behind her no-nonsense chattiness is a ton of compassion. “One little girl borrowed her sister’s baby stroller, hoisted the old family sewing machine into it, and pushed it to the store to learn how to sew. We couldn’t have her working on that old thing, so she had to use one of the store machines.” And then there was the woman who wanted one of the fancy costly bells-and-whistles machines, but had no money. Kathy chuckles, “She is sewing up a storm now, and I have a little blueberry patch out in the middle of nowhere!” And then there is the young teenager, who gets off the school bus at the store to learn with the sewing group. “She is a natural,” Kathy says. “She just works steadily away while all us old hens gossip and swap stories.”

A woman with a bundle of energy, and tons of heart, she does not find it easy to say to no to anyone who asks for help. It is not unusual to find her still in the store at 9:30, teaching a tricky sewing skill, helping with fabric choices, or simply helping someone with a walking problem down to their car. So where does she find the time for a theatre group? “It’s there” she says with her ready laugh. “I thought it was going to be a change from sewing, but in theatre, when you know how to sew,” she says, “you make your own costumes.” And help with others’ costumes, too.

That’s sew bize for you.

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 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.

community Festivals Maine Otter Creek

It Takes a Pig

Not much different from 1500

The coals in the pig cooker were snapping, the bonfire hissed and spit, our host cocked his head and said “shhhh, coyotes!” Conversations stilled, and we all smiled. It wasn’t coyotes, it was the kids by the apple tree hooing and calling, in some child game that we were not privy to.

We were at a pig party, orchestrated by a few Otter Creek residents including Farmer Chris Brown who contributed and prepared the pigs. Yes, pigs.Two pigs, one inside the other, and stuffed with apples, sausage, and bacon and rubbed with herbs before slow cooking over the coals. Tim Smith admits to going for coffee around two am, and sitting down to wait for it to drip. He woke an hour later. Kevin Walls, manning the cooker, looked at Tim knowingly when he returned and said, “You sat down, didn’t you? You can’t sit down.”

Naps or not, this team roasted a tender and flavorful pork roast. But they did more than that. They brought the members of this tiny village together to share food, and remember that we are neighbors. Cole slaw, casseroles, home baked breads, cakes and cookies, jugs of cider, and bottles of wine and beer. Plates were loaded and bellies filled.

We met the couple from a neighboring house, I asked if they had moved in recently. Nine years ago was the answer. It took a pigfest for us to meet. There were introductory conversations, kid story swapping, recipe exchanges, but a common subject was the village. Some guests had been involved in our small community events, others said they never knew when they were happening but would like to help.

We munched savory pork, and marveled at the hinged pork roaster with its motorized spit. Bones were wrapped in butcher paper and given to those who wanted them for their dogs.We listened to tales of the beginning of the roast, the efficient dispatching of the pigs, the seasoning and stuffing, and the gift of the roaster just a few days before the event. The pig meister, the farmer, and the host who hauled the firewood all worked hard, and were pumped up with their success. “Try some pig” one would urge if he saw an empty plate.

Smoke drifted among the clusters of people, a dog ran through our legs, a boy tugged at a little girl’s hat. The scene was reminiscent of an Hieronymus Bosch painting with figures scattered about, each involved in their own small piece of the scene. Or perhaps it was more like Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games, which portrays a village populated with small groups playing an assortment of games. Aptly, for many years, this was part of Otter Creek’s annual Christmas celebration, pinned to the wall for people to guess all the games.

Bonfires bond, may they never be illegal.

Day became night and a toddler slept deeply, his head back and mouth open, in his stroller. A circle of older women settled into sturdy lawn chairs around the fire for cake and coffee. The older children came from the field to be close to the bonfire, tossing in small branches and logs. People continued to arrive bearing dishes of food. “We have to make this an annual event,” I heard more than once.

When we left there was still a lot of pork, and party, to go. But we had gotten the best of it–we made friends, met neighbors, and felt connected by village and pig.


Chris Brown, Kevin Walls and Tim Smith. Thank you.

For more pig roast pictures go to the roasters Facebook page, Otter Creek P pig Roast.
Photos by Sue Cullen

Bar Harbor Day to day gardening Maine Otter Creek

Pumped Up

Hard body, graceful moves, and a regal profile – this smooth operator has moved right in, and I am right in love. I have just installed the well pump of my dreams.

When my 55-foot well did not supply an adequate amount of water I had a new, very deep, very expensive, well drilled. The old well still had water, so rather than abandon it I put a gray-green, refined and elegant antique pitcher pump on it. I liked the idea of being able to pump water if there was a power outage, and simply to drink from it as I gardened.

It proved to have a few leaks, and did not work when temperatures were below freezing. It went to my sister-in-law’s garden to be an ornament and I purchased a new pitcher pump from a company in Pennsylvania. This one was bright red, squat and a little rough around the edges, but promised to work. It did, but each spring meant replacing the leathers, and the moving parts froze into non-moving parts in just a few years.

I saw an old pump at a yard sale, got excited, then pragmatic. I would just be buying someone else’s problem. A long-handled pump at a local plumbing shop was almost a week’s salary, and not attractive. I could not find a new pump I liked, the old one had become purely decorative. The cobblestone surround I had been working on was left unfinished. “A work in progress,” I would say if anyone asked. It was a work stalled. This limbo lasted several years. I set aside some money in an envelope in my desk drawer labeled “Save the well,” and moved on. I saw the non-working pump on an unfinished stone column daily, but looked away in denial.

Eventually I was ready to cough up the money that had appalled me a few years back. I found a beautiful repro pump, much more lovely than my old pitcher pump, but as I read the details it was not so very different, I would still have leathers, and the chances of it working in the winter were not great. One search, I think it was for perfect pump, listed Bison pumps in Maine. I looked, and it was instant, unconditional love, proof one can find their perfect match online. Not old-fashioned, with no attempts to mimic a traditional pitcher-style, this pump is unabashed function and drop-dead gorgeous. It is also made in Maine, and I like to buy local. Almost triple the cost I had quailed at a few years ago, the Bison seemed like an investment I would not regret. I swallowed, but without hesitation ordered my pump. Ordering from Bison is not an impersonal exchange of credit card number and product. These people cared. They told me how to measure depth and diameter, and counseled the length of pipe I would need. When it arrived in three neat boxes everything was clearly labeled. The instruction book was in simple step-by-step English, and guided us through the installation process.

What pleasure to deal with a company that sees things from the customer’s viewpoint. They must have sent pumps to innocents like myself and asked them exactly what they needed to know to install it. Tags on the parts packages were numbered, and matched the instructions. Connections to be made that looked obvious bore polite warnings, “Please do not do this step before checking that you have completed the previous step.” They knew I was about to skip something important. “Read instructions completely before installing” I was told. A wooden paddle was enclosed to rest the pump on as the rods were lowered into the well casing. It would have been a strenuous task without it and we would have found a way to support the pump, but how nice that they thought of it and gave us the tool. We installed, but it did not pump. Within hours Judy replied and asked us to check the connections on the rods. We had not tightened one of them. We tightened it. It now works flawlessly. I know it will work flawlessly as long I as I am here to pump it. This pump is a spare, elegant piece of engineering. I drink from it every day. I love lifting the handle and pumping a few smooth easy strokes and hearing the rush of fresh well water. My cat leaves the house each morning and jumps on the stone basin below the pump and laps his morning drink. If he hears the pump when I pump water for myself he comes running over for the fresh water splashing into his trough.

This Bison pump satisfies on so many levels. It gives me a fresh water supply without electricity. It is a stainless steel sculpture that is simply stunning. It bears a memory of dealing with people who make a good product, and deal with customers with patience and interest. It was made with pride, and I pump it with pride and pleasure. What a testament to what made in the USA, made in Maine can be.