Category Archives: 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



Otter Creek

Tying one on

Assorted string

String, twine, rope, and ribbon, once part of everyday life, are seen less and less. The lumpy Kraft paper package tied up with fraying cord that was delivered parcel post is now rejected by the United States Postal Service. They want uniformity. Odd shaped bundles that ignited the receiver’s curiosity have been replaced with a half dozen standard ready-to-assemble priority boxes, complete with self-seal adhesive, no string required or even accepted. String may not be on the endangered list, but its homely presence is no longer a daily occurrence.

My dad had a varied assortment of string and cord, some was on spools, some in a bag, and others wrapped around shingles. He never passed any up at yard sales or flea markets. A giant spool, ten inches tall and eight inches in circumference, offered a lifetime supply of orange nylon cord. There was black cotton twine, brown-gray jute, and a white string in some other material that he would pass through a flame to melt and stop from fraying.

As children, my dad’s string was frequently resorted to. We made cat’s cradles, macramé hanging plant holders, and used it for jewelry. It was called into service to hang Christmas ornaments, and tied around the knob of a door that was then slammed shut to pull a tooth. I do not ever remember buying string at a store. We had whatever I might need for a project, hanging on the wall in his shop, neat and arranged by weight and type. His string was never in tangle, just as his knives were never dull. This was a man with a full-time job, three kids, and always in the midst of a project, from swimming pool deck, to fieldstone fireplace to growing award-winning beefsteak tomatoes or learning German. He still had the time to keep his string tidy.

Dad, of course, was not the only one with a string stash. Most households had a collection of it. String was a commonplace and completely simple commodity. It still is, but the three feet of twine that wrapped bundles of wood at the campground has been replaced with ten or more feet of clear stretchy plastic. The box from the bakery that was once tied up with white cotton string, offering a convenient carrying handle, is now quickly taped closed and handed over. We are certainly not a stringless society, but as it becomes replaced with tape, staples or plastic, the times we do tie things up are becoming more and more infrequent.

There is such a variety of string–so many hues, weights, and uses. My dad’s collection was beautiful. My more modest collection is a colorful assortment in a corner of the shed, admittedly not as neat as his, but an artistic still life nonetheless. While much string can be used for many purposes, string was also specialized. There was green gardener’s string, lightweight kite string, packing string, guitar string, fishing line, and some tightly twisted black string whose original purpose is long lost. And then there was a golden-brown rough twine used for bundling hay. This has been replaced with wire, but in the early 1900’s it was this honey colored and grass-scented twine that kept hay bundled into blocks for delivery as fodder.

Hundreds of pieces of string, saved from hay bales, tied together.

I know this because we have a wooden board with u-shaped curves at each end, which is wrapped with yards of hay twine. Some farmer carefully took the string off each bale of hay he used to feed his cattle. He accumulated these pieces all summer, and the following winter tied them together with tight square knots and wrapped it around the wooden holder he had made. Silvery gray pencil in an elegant script stated the year, 1938, and the total length of the twine. As he used it, he would cross off the old length, and pencil in the remaining amount.

The time required to do this is astounding. I marvel as imagine this unknown farmer tying a small tight knot and reaching for another rough length to add. A winter task, he probably knotted after dark, with a fire burning, and I see him in a high-backed comfortable chair with a dwindling mound of loose twine at one side, a growing roll of neatly tied string on the other. It is evidence of the importance of string and of the frugality of the beginning of this century. To save all those pieces, tie them together, wrap the new long length, and then use this string, is classic Yankee thrift. Decades later we look at this with respect and awe. Today, that bale string would be pulled off and tossed.


String is still utilitarian, but these painstakingly saved and tied rolls are works of art. Barbara Kurgan, designer and stylist from Otter Creek and New York City, has a deep appreciation of the beauty of string. She collects and displays balls of string and string accoutrements. String in mass, or as a ball, appeals to her. Her kitchen has an eight-inch tall spool of red and white baker’s string, and near it is a perfectly round ball of red twine perched on a string holder.  She is a collector, and her string collection mingles with her other collections on display in deep curio cabinet.

Baker’s twine in Barbara Kurgan’s kitchen

“String is rife with potential,” Barbara says. “I love when something natural has been transformed by man to fulfill a function, a wolf becomes a dog, and fiber becomes string.” She also likes all the words and phrases associated with string. “Think of the nuances,” she says, “Tie downs, tie one on, string someone along, string theory, strung out.”  She lifts a large flat spool from the cabinet. “This came from Japan, and is spun from twisted unbleached paper. I got it years ago, long before the ‘Green Movement’.” It is now in Maine, and while it is still string and capable of performing its function, it has been transformed once more. It is now captive in a tableau, and viewed for its shape and color and texture and the story it tells.

Curio cabinet with display of string and other objects in Kurgan’s Maine home

String, mundane, humble, and practical, is never showy or frivolous. Its simplicity is appealing. There are only two basic types, braided, and twined or twisted. Single-ply string is made by spinning fiber or fur, and can be made from nettles, hemp, maple, cotton, straw, jute, rabbit fur, sheep’s wool, alpaca, and the cocoons of larvae. There are even businesses which make yarn out of the fur from your cat or dog. It can be collected it when you groom your pet–my Maine coon needs frequent brushing, and soft brown and black kitty fur mittens are in my future.

After spinning the fur or fiber, the single strands are then twisted or braided. Thread with two strands is called two-ply, string with twenty strands is twenty-ply. It is then formed into balls, or wrapped around spools or bobbins. One single perfect strand is beautiful; a group of spools and balls become art. A massive ball becomes a tourist attraction. Francis Johnson rolled one ball of twine for twenty-nine years, eventually building a plexi-glass shed to protect and display it. Finley Stephens of Missouri rolled a ball of string weighing 3,712 pounds. It is now a draw at O’Malley’s Irish Pub in Weston, Missouri. He used packing string, gathered from area post offices. The post offices no longer use string, Mr. Stephens has died, and the ball of string will grow no more.

We may not use string as much as we once did, but when we do there is comfort and familiarity. String has remained relatively unchanged, and I tie a knot just as my mother did, and her mother’s mother’s mother. Together we form a long line, a string of string users, past, present and future, and we are slowly, inexorably, being rolled into a giant, record-breaking, ball of twine.



Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Mushroom fever

The start of our large autumn harvest

Death by mushroom happens every year, as it has for hundreds of years, but it does not deter me from gathering my favorite edible fungus, Grifola frondosa, sometimes called hen of the woods. Death in mushroom is a newer concept, and one I first heard of at a recent mushroom party. As a gatherer and eater of wild mushrooms, and someone who loves wandering old cemeteries but never wants to be in one, being buried in a mushroom shroud has a purity and simplicity that appeals.

It is mid October, leaf peeper season, and the leaves of the trees are burnt orange with an occasional blast of bright red. Storms have not yet stripped the branches, and photographers gather at choice locations to capture the glory of the Maine autumn. It has been a spectacular and long-lasting fall. This is also maitake season. My husband has joined me foraging, and our first outing yielded a half dozen rosettes of these earthy and flavorful mushrooms. More than once we filled the trunk of the car, and gladly gave them to fellow mushroom lovers. This fall we harvested about a hundred pounds. Other gatherers are collecting massive amounts as well. An abundance of color has coincided with an abundance of maitake several times. Years with few mushrooms have been paired with less than glorious foliage. Coincidence, or do the same weather conditions and temperatures that stimulate vibrant fall leaf colors also promote maitake growth? If there is a scientific connection I would like to know, but not knowing doesn’t dampen my mushroom fever at seeing so many giant fungi, and I cannot stop gathering them.

The color of old oak leaves and dead pine needles maitake often blend into the forest floor. It is their height and rose blossom shape that I spot.

In late September we drove along a dirt road though an old forest. ”Stop,’” I called. It was the first spotting of the season. Three large clumps of maitake rose above the ground cover of damp oak leaves, but they were blackened and gelatinous. They would grace no one’s table. Maitake have a firm slightly toothy texture when cooked, and retain their shape and size, not diminishing the way commercial white mushrooms do. Their flavor is deep and full, earthy and buttery. We have found them in other months, but it is late September and early October when we hunt them seriously. Fall is also prime time for many other mushrooms in Maine—hedgehogs, black trumpets, or a second fruiting of chanterelles. It is also the season for Laeitoporus sulphureus, or chicken of the woods, and we have harvested a good year’s supply from the stump of a two hundred year old ash tree just cut down at my husband’s family camp. These bright orange mushrooms are meaty, do not have much water content and when cooked are very like chicken in texture. Delicious, but it is maitake that capture my soul.


Varying shades of brown, the maitake mushroom resembles a giant dried rose with velvety petals curving away from a hidden center.

There are a few locations we check annually, and some produce year after year. Harvests vary widely, though. Last year we had perhaps five pounds, all were eaten or shared, and none saved for the winter. Next year may be equally slim. And so it was that this year’s bounty was greedily collected. We ate maitake in omelets and we added it to soup and stews. We sautéed it with bacon and added cream and rosemary for a pasta sauce. We had maitake and Swiss cheese quesadillas. My husband went off on a fishing trip, and I looked at the close to hundred pounds of fresh maitake on the table in the backyard. It was the first time I ever gazed at these delicious monsters with dismay. They might still be fine in a few days when he returned to help process them, but they might not, and to pick them and not use them was not an option.

A few phone calls and the mushroom party was on. The model is as old as community. I had mushrooms, and I needed help. The friends who came took away half of what they bagged, we had plenty for our winter supply, and in a few hours the table buried in mushrooms was bare. It is a simple formula to share a harvest, and share an evening. We covered the dining room table in paper and everyone took a pile of mushroom, a soft brush to clean off dirt, and a knife to cut away any spongy or questionable areas. Wine was poured; local feta, seedy crackers, and red pepper quiche were consumed.

Alexandra, Tammy and Marilyn clean mushrooms, there was plenty for everyone.

This was a hen gathering, quite appropriate for hen of the woods. There is freedom in a gathering of all women, laughter flows and hands never stop working. We exchanged information. “Where does one find all these mushrooms?” Tammy asked. While it was indeed a shame I had to pretend I had forgotten exactly where we found them, I could at least offer advice–they are most commonly found at the base of older oaks, usually trees with signs of damage such as a dead limb or lightening strike.

Maitake still life by Tammy Packie

We all had suggestions for preparing them, but conversation rambled down many other roads. I had passed a four-foot tall houseplant in a garish plastic Italianate urn to Marilyn, one of my mushroom-cleaning friends. I had been slowly killing the plant, but the urn was un-killable, and I could not just throw them out. “Flourishing,” she reassured me, “The dead leaves are all gone, and it is healthy and thriving.” “Still in that baroque pot? I asked. “Er, no,” she replied. “Does anyone want it?” she asked all us around the table. There were no takers, and suggestions of gold spray paint, theatre groups, Halloween décor, and anonymously gifting to a problematic landlord were offered. The conversation veered to cremation urns, which this unfortunate plastic pot resembled, and right back to mushrooms. We were, after all, sitting with one hundred dwindling pounds of mushrooms in front of us.


Maitake rose, by Tammy Packie

Forget urns or coffins–be buried in a corpse-consuming mushroom suit. Mushroom shrouds–I had never heard of them, but am right on board. Marilyn’s daughter told us about them, and it is a simply brilliant idea.

Jae Rhim Lee, visual artist and human-environment researcher, has founded the Infinity Death Project. The project includes a fungi-laced shroud as well as exploring cultural aspects of death denial.

From DEAF Expo, Rotterdam 2012: The Mushroom Death Suit consists of a base layer of cotton and a top layer of netting embedded with mushroom spores and mycelium, which allows the fungi to grow and spread across the body. The ‘Alternative Embalming Fluid’, liquid spore slurry that allows spores to develop and grow inside the body, accompanies the suit. Lee is training fungi to consume her own body tissue and excretions (skin, hair, nails, blood, bone, fat, tears, urine, feces and sweat) as part of her Infinity Burial Project.

Lee was asked in an interview, “How does one train a mushroom?”
Her answer: “Although the mushrooms I’m using prefer wood-based food sources, mushrooms will pretty much eat anything. The training process involves introducing different food sources to the mushrooms and then slowly depriving the mushrooms of wood-based substances. One mycologist has even trained mushrooms to eat plastics like Bakelite. “

The stylish mushroom suit

Before learning about the mushroom suit I had requested my family donate my body to science to have eyes, heart, kidney, every usable organ used, and then let some pre-med student practice on the rest. I have held firm to this for decades. My mind was changed at the mushroom party. My organs will still be donated, but the premed student loses out. A consumer of mushrooms, being consumed by them has a sense of circular completion. I will eat maitake, chanterelles, morels, trumpets, whatever fungi is in season, with even more relish, knowing that as they sustain and give me pleasure now, I will be one day feeding them.

Mushroom party is over, but we took away an evening full of laughter, boxes full of maitake, and a plans for a new wardrobe addition–the mushroom death suit.

If you gather from private property, please ask permission first. Lucky us, one of our sources is a neighbor who shudders at the thought of eating fungus. Oaks are frequently found near cemeteries, but my advice is to not gather in an area that systemic pesticides just might, maybe have been used. I would also never harvest from a tree close to a golf course. Those greens are pristine and beautifully maintained but mycelia draw from a fairly large area. It is possible that maitake do not pull nutrients beyond their host tree, but I am not taking that chance. Scientists, please tell me if you know, I have seen some lovely specimens at the edge of a golf course I just walked away from. (And lived to tell).


In The Garden Maine Otter Creek

Back to Green

Grape leaves with water drops

The plants in my garden flower abundantly in the Spring and Summer, going from the dreamy mauve and pink of lupines and bleeding heart to bold orange day lilies, blazing scarlet Monarda and deep purple monkshood. Now it is Labor Day, September, and instead of bloom I have green tinged with brown, and yellowing leaves. Some I will leave all winter–the flower caps of Queen Anne’s Lace provide a frilly cup to hold a serving of light winter snow, and the globe thistle create a spiky silhouette against the white ground. But now they just accuse me of neglect. I try to recall when I last tended the garden, and acknowledge the accusation is justified.

In Spring I weed and plant and live and breathe my gardens. Green, all that green after a dark winter inspires me and I wake to tend the returning flowers, shrubs and vines. I prune and thin and transplant as needed. Then I just step back and admire from a distance. In mid-July there is a massive invasion of unwanted growth, and I spend a few hours in a frenzy of weed-pulling, moving with determination from one flowerbed to the next, filling the wheelbarrow again and again.

Fading Queen Anne’s Lace

Then August blurs by in bike rides, boat rides, fund-raising dinners, family visits and no weeding. Today is Labor Day, and there it is once again, my September garden of green and brown. A pale Autumn Joy sedum is just starting to come into color and a late-blooming phlox adds some crisp white, but seed pods, yellowing leaves and dried flowerheads predominate. It has not always been like this for me. When I had a tiny in-town house with a picket-fence enclosing a tiny yard, I had the seasons under control. I had over-laying sheets of graph paper with neatly labeled plants, one for each season, so in spring I would know not to inadvertently plant on top of a yet to emerge platycodon or other late awakener. But 1600 square feet is a radical difference from an acre, and I have yet to master continual bloom here in Otter Creek. There is also a vegetable garden that requires attention, and so year after year I look around in September and sigh at the lack of color, while out of sight there are gaudy red tomatoes, ruby chard, glowing sunflowers, and vibrant squash blossoms.

Next year, I always say. That ten-foot run of phlox could be dug back to two, and surrounded with fall flowers. The Chelone is out of control, and a reducing it to a modest four-foot circle would leave additional area for Echinacea and rudbeckia. I sip my dark smoky tea, and really look at the weedy mess.

Last petals on the hydrangea

The overgrown patches are lush and full, tangled branches tumble under and over each other. Silver webs stretch from a flowerhead to a neighboring leaf, and the drops of dew, so many every night that the mornings sometimes seem washed by a light rain, reflect the light of the rising sun. There is sound, too. No gentle spring garden or showy summer blooms offer this. The leaves murmur, and there is a constant tip tap tap. It comes from all around, in the garden and from the trees above. A hiss and tremolo comes from the left, and I hear a sweet shimmering trill on the right.

The grapevines droop, each leaf holding a bright white spot of water on its tip. One drop falls with an audible “tupp” onto the leaf below. This leaf is then overloaded, and bends to send its drop and the newcomer to the next leaf. Many leaves are doing this, and the entire wall of vine is shimmying and sending out a chorus of “tip-tap –plop,” as the leaves, relieved of the weight of water, spring back up.

The climbing hydrangea near the grapes has a small fringe of white petals along the edge of what were massive flowerheads. A breeze shivers through the weeping cherry, and a lone petal drifts away from the hydrangea and descends to the browning grass, accompanied by the rustling applause of a yellowing trumpet vine, and the nodding encouragement of the Queen Anne’s Lace seed cups.

My gaze and ears continue to take in the weedy green again garden. Lazy for sure, but I think perhaps I will not pull out half the phlox and three-quarters of the chelone to plant a patch of September bloomers, after all.

Dried thistle pod

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.

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.

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.

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.