North by East
Two Maines in Winter
Up in the County, three feet of snow is just another flurry.
The forecast here on the coast a few weeks ago called for two to three inches of snow overnight capped with a chance of rain. Observers could be excused for wondering if someone had just announced the apocalypse. The school cancellations began almost immediately; lines for milk, bread, and videos formed at the local supermarkets; and even here at Down East there was talk by a nervous few of closing the shop early.
Meanwhile, in far northern Maine, Fort Kent Police Chief Ken Michaud's one concession to the thirty-nine inches of snow (you read that correctly — more than three feet of the white stuff) that fell in a single storm just before New Year's Day was to drive his plow-equipped pick-up truck to work instead of his cruiser. "It's just another day," Michaud shrugs. "Storms like that might close school for a day, but it doesn't stop people from going to work."
Call it another example of the Two Maines. While some in York County stock up on bottled water at the first few flakes, Aroostook County residents rarely even notice any flurry that brings less than six inches of new snow. Michaud, 61, says he remembers blizzards back in the 1950s that dropped three to four feet of snow at a time and winters when snow piled up so high that he could reach up and touch the telephone wires when he walked to school.
"It's all in how you're equipped to deal with it," he observes. "Probably 60 percent of the people up here drive four-wheel-drive vehicles. We had fifteen payloaders on the street the day after the storm, clearing downtown."
"It's an inconvenience," offers Westmanland farmer Steve Miller, "but I don't think we have to invite FEMA up here to help us deal with it. Everybody expects it. Now if we had two or three storms like that back to back, then we might be in trouble." Miller, a former meteorologist for the Presque Isle television station, says he and his wife, Barbara, "are just inclined to hole up for a few days until things settle down."
Michaud understands why southern Mainers might look at his wintry nonchalance with a jaundiced eye. "In Portland people park on the street in the winter," he says with a touch of wonder.
Northern Aroostook is actually building a national reputation on its dependable snowfalls, which is another reason the folks up there welcome the white stuff. The U.S. Olympic biathlon trials were held in Fort Kent in December, and Presque Isle hosted the 2006 Biathlon Junior World Championships in late January. Snowmobilers keep the region's motels and restaurants busy all season. "Besides," Michaud points out, "all that snow insulates the houses."
The state's snowmobile handbook has no need for speed.
It's the question that every snowmobiler in Maine has asked: What is under that white label stuck on the inside cover of this year's regulations handbook? What did the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) deem so offensive that the printer had to pay $4,000 to recall and censor every copy of the handbook it could find?
As readers of the online Scruggs Report [Down East, December 2005], which first broke the story, and outraged IF&W officials now know, the blank spot hides "From Zero to Holy S#*% in 5 Seconds," the headline on an ad promoting the new Arctic Cat Firecat model. It was the wrong message in the wrong place in definitely the wrong state.
"We just couldn't have it go out like that," explains IF&W spokesman Marc Michaud. And for reasons more than just the implication of that eyebrow-raising "S#*%" in a supposedly family-friendly state publication. "Our whole [snowmobile safety] campaign this year is prudent speed," Michaud notes. "We've been trying to get manufacturers to tone down the reckless portrayals of their machines. We weren't about to let our own handbook promote this." Maine averages 300 snowmobile accidents and eight deaths every year, the bulk of them connected with inappropriate speeds on snow machines that are capable of traveling at more than one hundred miles an hour.
Michaud says the problem arose in a last-minute change to an advertisement that had already been approved for the handbook. "The change was made practically on the presses," he explains. "Even the printer was unaware of it. When we got the proofs, we noticed that the ad had been changed from what had been originally approved."
Faced with reprinting all 80,000 copies of the regulations, the printer, Trumbull Printing Company, in Trumbull, Connecticut, offered the white sticker as a solution. "We were able to stop the bulk of the books at the post office and the FedEx truck," Michaud says. He promises much tighter control over future editions of the regulation book and other publications that include paid ads. "We're going to require all changes to be approved by us before printing, no exceptions," he declares.
Copies that had gone to out-of-state distributors and individuals apparently were not included in the recall. "Collector's copies," one snowmobiler says with a grin. "You'll see them on eBay next winter, I'll bet."
Maine hopes to solve the mystery of the missing males.
As politically incorrect as it is to say it today, back in 1970 incoming coeds in the University of Maine System (UMS) were assured that "there was more than one man for every woman" on the university's campuses. No such luck these days.
In a stunning turnaround, the UMaine System now counts 21,480 full- and part-time female students on its rolls, compared to just 12,773 males. Even among full-time students, 61 percent are women, according to John Diamond, the system's executive director of external affairs. "It's a national issue, not just in Maine," Diamond points out. "I read an article recently where Alaska was bemoaning the fact that it's at 61 percent, too."
Maine's gender disparity is more pronounced than the national numbers, and the trend dates back well over a decade, according to James Breece, UMS executive director for planning and policy analysis. "If you looked at our student population ten years ago, you'd see the percentage of males falling off," he explains. But Breece is quick to point out that the actual number of men in college hasn't changed that much over the years — instead, the number of women has made dramatic increases.
"In 1972 there were 10,794 women in the University of Maine System," he says. "In 2004 there were 21,480 full- and part-time female students." The male population, by contrast, remained fairly constant at 13,024 in 1972 compared to 12,773 in 2004.
Breece says many of the added women are in the ranks of part-time students. "When you look at the distance education programs — ITV and online courses, the University of Maine at Augusta, satellite campuses, and such — those classes are heavily female," he points out.
Nationally the surge in female college enrollments has been attributed to everything from more women in the workforce to higher aspirations to older women who might not have had the opportunity earlier in their lives because of family responsibilities or social inequalities. According to national figures, 133 women will earn a college degree this year for every hundred men. Meanwhile, there is also research that shows men aren't as eager to continue in college, either to start a degree program or to move on to higher degrees after graduation.
Breece notes that, in Maine's case, the trend doesn't show signs of reversing. "There are about six percent more females than males in the K-12 public school system right now," he notes.
"Two girls for every boy"? It worked for Jan and Dean.
Dogs and Blogs
A lunchtime haunt for Lewiston politicos gets wired.
Simones Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston has always been known as a place to pick up hot news and political tidbits, where a rumor dropped in the right ear in the morning becomes a television news story or a legislative bill by evening. These days the information flow is even more intense. The Simones family may have the only hot-dog stand in Maine with wireless Internet service, known as Wi-Fi.
"People come in and open their laptops and BlackBerries, and they're set for the day," says George Simones. "In the morning we have the regular crew in the back room talking politics and checking the online message boards at the same time."
Simones says he and his father, Jimmy, got the idea after seeing so many coffee shops that offered Wi-Fi service to their customers, especially outside Maine. "We felt it would be a good step to take to entice people from Bates College," Simones explains. "Also, many of the local business leaders come in here for breakfast or lunch, and they like the chance to go online."
The Wi-Fi link is free, and George Simones says usage spiked upward very quickly once word got around that his hot dogs come with Web access. For some people, the Internet is the ultimate condiment.
Six Degrees of Syrup
Maine's sweetest industry faces a possibly sour future.
Anyone who thinks spring seems to arrive earlier each year has a friend in Sydney farmer Kevin Bacon (no, not that Kevin Bacon). This is the time of year when he starts drilling taps in the maples of his sugarbush, and he says Maine springs are starting sooner and staying warmer than he has seen in more than twenty years of making maple syrup. And that doesn't bode well for Maine's sweetest industry.
"Sure, we have good years and bad years," Bacon acknowledges, "but for the last five years we've been getting early thaws and really short sap runs." Syrup producers rely on classic early spring weather — cold nights in the twenties and sunny days in the forties — to stimulate the sap to rise from a sugar maple's roots to its branches. Anything that interrupts that pattern is a problem for Maine's 271 licensed syrup producers.
Last year Bacon boiled sap for only eight days during a collection season that normally would last four to six weeks. "I think we might end up with a season like they have in Massachusetts and Ohio," he theorizes, "very short and intense."
Kathryn Hopkins, at the Somerset County Extension Service in Skowhegan, says agricultural data show that maple syrup season now starts "at least several weeks sooner than just ten or fifteen years ago." She says other parts of New England are noticing the same trend.
Last winter taps started flowing in February in central and southern Maine, then a cold snap stopped the flow for several weeks. "Mid-March warmed up, and we had a week of solid sap flow, day and night," Hopkins recalls. The late heavy flow helped make up for lost time in the sap houses, but overall syrup production in 2005 was only 265,000 gallons, down from 290,000 in 2004. Maine ranks second in the nation, after Vermont, in maple syrup production.
No one is willing to attribute the weather changes to global warming, simply because, as Hopkins notes, "in the world of climatology this is not a large statistical sample. Is this a blip or are we really experiencing [climate] change?"
Pancake lovers everywhere can only contemplate the question with disquiet.
One pioneering sledder is finally getting his due.
Maine snowmobilers are a tough bunch, but at least a few of them might tear up when they hear that one of their own is finally getting the attention he deserves. Never mind that the recognition is nearly a half-century late.
E.B. Campbell, a Millinocket auto mechanic, was responsible for getting the Polaris snowmobile company to build a sled tough enough for Maine winters back in the late 1950s and sixties, when the machines were still notoriously unreliable. "People were coming up here with snowmobiles, but he was never happy with them because they just wouldn't go," explains E.B's widow, Elizabeth. Her husband eventually lured Polaris' founders to Maine for a winter romp that led to Campbell becoming a field tester, dealer, and developer of more durable, Maine-hardy machines. Polaris would go on to become one of the nation's largest producers of snowmobiles.
E.B. Campbell passed away in 1971, but earlier this year he finally earned a spot in the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wisconsin. "It's been a long time coming, but people around here are saying just that it's important he's being recognized," says Elizabeth Campbell, who continues to live in Millinocket.
A snowmobile ride is held every year in honor of E.B. Campbell in his hometown, and this year, like many before it, officials from Polaris will be among those taking part. They and the thousands of Mainers who hop on a sled this winter can thank E.B. for blazing the trail.
A speedy mariner has decided to moor in Maine waters.
When we last caught up with Bruce Schwab, the solo sailor who made headlines when he became the first American to finish a nonstop, unassisted sailing regatta around the world, he was happy to be an honorary Mainer by keeping his vessel, Ocean Planet, at Portland Yacht Services. Well, it seems that honorary wasn't quite good enough for Schwab, who recently sold his place in California and bought a house in Woolwich, where he'll be living full-time from now on.
In a manner of speaking. It's only been a year since the mariner completed his 109-day sprint around the globe, and Schwab has already launched a campaign to build a newer, faster vessel that will stand a chance of winning the next Vendee Globe race in 2008. And, of course, Schwab's planning to have the boat built in Maine.
Schwab, who was first attracted to the Pine Tree State by the caliber of the sailors and craftsmen here, says he's developed a stronger connection with the state's schools, companies, and yachtsmen than he ever expected. "We came to the right place with Ocean Planet," Schwab says. "It was the right place to prepare it, but it was also the right place to establish a future. It's the place that I've been looking for for a long, long time."