A Caveman's Guide to Maine
Maine’s evolutionary history, from wooly mammoths and pottery shards to mysterious mountains and hidden overlooks, is a tour in its own right.
Evolution doesn’t mean forgetting the past. In fact, our tour of bygone Maine reveals just how much yesterday can teach us about today. Let’s face it: Some people from away think Maine is stuck in the Dark Ages. Usually they’re basing that belief on the relative absence of BlackBerries (we’re more into blueberries) and the fact that you actually have to scout around to find a Starbucks or a Target here. But take a look around the Pine Tree State and you’ll see that a connection to the past really is a bit stronger here than elsewhere in the country. Where else can you find more Victorian houses per square mile, or tour a lighthouse that was commissioned by George Washington? Or climb a summit first reached by hunters and scouts defending themselves against the British, and see pretty much the same view.
You can make quite a summer itinerary by simply linking together the many sites in Maine that are largely identical today as they were centuries ago. The editors of Down East have done just that — beginning with a travel guide so easy to follow even a caveman could do it — and continuing with an in-depth explanation of the wild names behind some of Maine’s most popular mountain climbs. If looking backward makes us a little more old-fashioned than some of our big-city friends, we’ll just consider that an evolutionary step in the right direction.
Maine Ice Age Trail
Hal Borns has studied glacial geology from Antarctica to Europe, and he was struck by what he found along the Down East coast. “I’ve been working in eastern Maine off and on for the past ten or fifteen years,” says the UMaine Climate Change Institute’s founder and professor emeritus. “The record of glaciation is remarkable. The deposits are obvious, as opposed to some other places. They’re exposed because of blueberrying operations and they’re not buried by cities.” The Ice-Age carving of the underlying granite by retreating glaciers was so impressive — and unique in the United States — Borns decided the public had to know about it. So he set about creating Maine’s Ice Age Trail (of course, he had a lot of help). The forty-six-stop tour, concentrated for the most part east of Ellsworth, explores the landscape from a prehistoric point of view. Highlighting glacial carvings and unique geologic formations left behind when the giant ice slabs slid off to the south, the tour gives you an idea of what Maine looked like back when everyone had oversized brows and big underbites.
Officially launched with the publication of a map in 2006, the trail has close to fifty sites now, from the top of Cadillac Mountain all the way to a peat bog at West Quoddy Head. Some of these locations are truly spectacular in their own right — Somes Sound, the Bubbles, Schoodic Peninsula, Tunk Lake — but they’re all the more interesting if you understand the fascinating natural history behind them. Fossils, erratics — even a drowned forest — it’s all the result of massive chunks of ice sculpting the landscape, like an old-timer with his chisel. A lot of the trail travels through Acadia, state parks, and other very popular areas, so you shouldn’t have much trouble talking the whole family into taking your evolutionary tour.
The trail was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Maine Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, and a host of other federal and state agencies — even UHaul pitched in, painting an Ice Age Trail scene on 1,200 of its trucks. You can get all the details and find out where to pick up a map at iceagetrail.umaine.edu
Better Caves and Gardens
For the homeless caveman — or woman — there are actual caves in Maine. Or so they say. We’re not talking Carlsbad Caverns, but smaller grottoes — fissure caves by the sea, talus caves in the mountains, and limestone and marble caves along the coast. Perhaps the most appealing thing the state has to offer spelunkers — and troglodytes — is that its caves remain largely unvisited. (Outside of Acadia’s Ovens and the Allagash Ice Caves.) Those with actual names include: Fat Man’s Misery on Tumbledown Mountain, Inman’s Cave in Camden Hills State Park, and Murderer’s Cave near Bath. Moose Cave at Grafton Notch State Park, which features a boardwalk, might well be the most formal cave in the state. According to cavers at www.bostongrotto.org there have been caves reported at Squa Pan Public Reserved Land and up near the Quebec border around Rocky Brook. There’s also supposedly a cave in Orland in a place with the encouraging title of Cave Hill. And treasure seekers have long been trying to find a cave that is said to hold the gold of Captain Kidd near Blue Hill.
Quest for Fire
If you don’t know how to make fire (from sticks) don’t fret. Sign yourself up for a course at the Maine Primitive Skills School. Located on twenty-three woodland acres in Augusta, this twenty-year-old institution, founded in 1989 as the Good Earth School, teaches workshops in everything from survival to foraging to shamanic healing. “Earth Living 1: Primitive Survival” is the most basic course, including segments on water selection, hunting, trapping, shelter, and, yes, fire making. Caveman or not, it’s the sort of stuff everyone should know, but few people actually do. From there you can get into more evolved topics like healing with plants, preserving wild foods, making your own clothing, and creating baskets and pots. As a caveman, you’ll surely take to all of this and want more. You can sign up for scads of additional classes at the school or join the fun and do some networking at the Maine Primitive Gathering, an October conference of sorts for neo-primitives. Find out more by calling the Maine Primitive Skills School at 207-623-7298 or visit www.primitiveskills.com
Knuckle draggers are not usually drawn to museums. But any caveman will feel at home in a few of Maine’s history collections. The Maine State Museum (www.maine.gov/museum) is a fine place to start. Its permanent exhibit, 12,000 Years in Maine, features more than two thousand artifacts dating back to the last Ice Age. Walrus skulls and woolly mammoth tusks, Paleo-Indian weapon points, and fossils will take you back to the dawn of life Down East — or at least to midmorning.
Likewise, the Northern Maine Museum of Science (www.umpi.maine.edu/info/nmms/museum.htm) on the campus of UMaine Presque Isle, has a variety of items sure to put a smile on your oversized jaw. There, you’ll discover a model of a pterosaur — a flying dino with a wingspan of forty feet — as well as a cast of the ichthyosaurus, which was an aquatic reptile that looked somewhat like a dolphin. You’ll also find an exhibit that explores the physics of the T. Rex, another tooth from your old pal the woolly mammoth, and all kinds of fossils, including our very own Maine State Fossil, a primitive plant found in the Katahdin area during the Devonian Period. (That’s four hundred million years ago.)
The Hudson Museum (www.umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum) was a museum without walls for a while, sending its collections to places like the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, Husson University, and the University of Maine at Machias while the museum’s home at the Maine Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Maine at Orono was renovated. The Hudson Museum is now being reborn on the second floor of the Collins Center for the Arts, offering the public the chance to see one of the greatest mesoamerican collections in America. (The Hudson’s grand opening won’t be held until this fall, but if you drop by this summer you can get a great sneak peek at this impressive exhibit.) These artifacts from the state’s prehistory don’t date back quite as far as the Devonian Period, but they will connect you to your more recent cousins.
And don’t forget the Abbe Museum (www.abbemuseum.org) in Bar Harbor. The formal name of this place is the Robert Abbe Museum of Stone Age Antiquities, so you know it’s going to be good. Founded in 1926, the museum was formerly a tiny place at Acadia National Park’s Sieur de Monts Spring, but it expanded into a fancy downtown home in 2001. Inside, you’ll find fifty thousand pieces representing ten thousand years of Down East history, tools, points, skins.
There’s something both preschool — and prehistoric — about digging in the dirt. If spades and trowels and the potential of unearthing a mastodon jawbone appeal to you, then you may want to consider signing up for the Abbe Museum’s archaeological field school. These week-long courses take you to dig sites Down East where the museum believes there are prehistoric pieces to be found. Recent courses have been held at a shell midden site in Sorrento, where participants spent days sifting through the dirt looking for pot shards, stone tools, and bones. Fieldwork is complemented by lectures and time in the lab, giving you a real understanding of the processes of
archaeology. This year the program returns to Sorrento, excavating a site first explored by the Abbe in 1939. The course costs $350 for members, $450 for non-members. Find out more at www.abbemuseum.org/pages/
15,000 BC The last glacier over Maine, known as the Wisconsin glaciation, begins to slide away.
8,500 BC Maine’s first humans — Paleo-Indians — set up camp, migrate to prime waterfront real estate, learn to canoe.
8,000-5,500 BC Paleo-Indians appear to have made like summercators and left — the population dramatically recedes.
4,500-4,000 BC People start moving back. The Atlantic is washing up near the foot of Katahdin.
2,000-1,500 BC Birchbark canoes first appear.
4,000-1,000 BC Era of Maine’s famous ochre-lovers, the Red Paint people.
1,000 B.C.-1,500 A.D. Ceramic Period. Early Mainers learn how to make souvenirs (pottery).
Source: Maine Historic Preservation Commission