Down East 2013 ©
Latitude with Attitude
Maine shares at least one thing with Bordeaux.
Most people don’t appreciate how far south Maine is. No, really. A rough-cut red granite post along Route 1 in Perry marks the forty-fifth parallel, a latitude with attitude halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Not only does it cut Maine more or less in half, the forty-fifth bisects Bordeaux in France, Sevastopol on the Black Sea, and the length of Mongolia. Look at any map, and it’s apparent that most of Europe and Asia are north of the forty-fifth — and Maine.
The idea that Madawaska is south of Paris (the one in France, not in Maine) takes some getting used to. So does the weather. No one rhapsodizes about springtime in Fort Kent. But then Maine doesn’t have the North Atlantic Current, the European branch of the Gulf Stream, to moderate its temperatures. That’s why London has a winter climate (and an attitude toward snow) more appropriate to Washington, D.C., than to Battle Harbour, Newfoundland, with which it shares nothing but latitude.
The marker in Perry was first installed in 1883 by two surveyors for the U.S. Coast Survey, Charles Meigs Bache and Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow —brother of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Given the relatively crude mapping methods of the time, the pair did a credible job of pinpointing the right spot on Route 1. (The “gores” on Maine maps represent surveying mistakes of considerably larger magnitude.) Today’s GPS and satellite mapping techniques put the true intersection with the forty-fifth parallel within a stone’s throw of the granite post.
Perry had turned the spot into a local landmark and point of town pride, but the original brass pin and surrounding picnic area were slated for demolition when the highway was rebuilt last year. The town’s eight hundred residents rallied to save and improve the site, according to selectman David Turner. “It’s nice to think we’re at the same latitude as Bordeaux,” he notes. Now if only it came with the same weather — and the wine.
A 1915 version of Twitter urged a Maine vacation.
Trains and ships were still the preferred mode of travel, and “daytripper” had yet to enter the vacation vocabulary, but Maine Governor Oakley C. Curtis was a man who recognized the value of tourism. So on April 19, 1915, Curtis signed a proclamation declaring Maine Postcard Day. The Portland Democrat asked every resident to drop a postcard to six out-of-state friends or relatives, urging them to vacation in Maine over the coming summer.
A wild event put an end to sailing season last year.
Reading the weather is one of the most challenging aspects of boating season in Maine, but last fall people near Boothbay Harbor faced conditions they’d never expected. On the afternoon of October 28, at nearly low tide, the harbor suddenly filled up to nearly high-tide stage — a height change of nearly ten feet — and then emptied almost as quickly as it had risen. The cycle happened twice over the next twenty minutes or so, tearing docks from their pilings and damaging several moored boats.
As boaters repaired the damage and life returned to normal, oceanographers and scientists from New England to Alaska took up the case of unraveling the mysterious phenomenon. “When this first happened, the National Weather Service in Gray called us that evening and we started looking to see what might have happened,” explains Bill Knight, an officer with the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. “Our first thought was that there had been a submarine landslide, but there was no activity of that sort recorded. But apparently there were some squall lines that passed through the area, and our working hypothesis now is that the squalls created a meteotsunami.”
Tsunami? In Maine? According to Jeff List, an oceanographer at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a meteotsunami differs from its larger, deadlier kin in that it is caused by a low-pressure system that literally causes the water to bulge upward underneath it. A wave is then created as this storm moves rapidly toward shore. Last October’s squalls were traveling at about ninety miles per hour, perfectly in sync with the wave that had formed. “It’s a very unusual phenomenon, because you have to have a good match between the speed of the atmospheric disturbance and the speed of the tsunami at a particular water depth,” List says. The damage was restricted to the area around Southport, Boothbay Harbor, and Bristol because the storms were so localized and because of the topography of the ocean bottom, he explains. While the storms may have
triggered more than one wave, it’s also possible that only the first event was a meteotsunami, with the following rising and falling waters caused by a resonance effect as the wave literally bounced around the Boothbay area.
Though the fall event was dramatic and unusual, List says Maine actually dodged a bullet. “If the incident in Maine had hit at high tide, it would have been a lot more serious,” he says. Luckily, such storms are rare during sailing season. “A whole bunch of factors seem to have lined up to make these waves so strong.”
In Saco and Kittery seniors can work off part of their tax bills.
Until recent times it wasn’t unusual for Maine towns to accept payment in kind for property taxes. Farmers routinely paid their annual bill with truckloads of home-sawed lumber for a town construction project or gravel for road repairs, and more than one school janitor was sweeping floors to cover his or her taxes. The practice fell out of favor, but now two Maine communities are reinventing the idea.
Saco and Kittery have both created programs to allow low-income taxpayers to work off part of their property taxes. “If you’re sixty years old by April 1 and qualify for the circuit-breaker tax program, you can volunteer to work for the city for a couple of weeks and get up to $750 off your tax bill,” explains Dan Sanborn, Saco’s assessor. “I’ve got twenty positions already funded, all kinds of jobs.”
Kittery is taking a slightly different tack, using its version as a safety net for older, low-income residents who are facing eviction or foreclosure. They too can earn a deduction up to $750 for such tasks as answering phones or filing documents.
Kittery town manager Jonathan Carter says the idea began with a similar program he saw in Massachusetts. He asked Representative Walter Wheeler to submit a bill in last year’s legislature modeled on the Massachusetts law. A legislative committee whittled the ten-page bill down to a single sentence giving towns the option of allowing residents to work off taxes — the how and why and who and other details are left to the municipalities.
Sanborn says he has all kinds of jobs that need to be done, from collecting water samples at swimming areas to reading to children in the after-school program. “One guy came in who knew all about running cameras,” he says. “Now he tapes all the city council and school board meetings.”
Carter allows that the program requires some discretion. “The more you do this, the more you cost the community in tax collections,” he says. At the same time, he thinks working off taxes may be much more common in the near future. “If the economy doesn’t turn around soon, municipalities that want to continue
to provide services will become more reliant on citizen-based work,” he explains.
“I’m excited about it,” says Sanborn. “If everyone does a little something, everyone benefits.”
Easy Go, Easy Come
Popham’s shifting sands make the beach even more interesting.
Many of the more than 150,000 people who visited Popham Beach State Park last summer were stunned to
discover that their annual pilgrimage out to Fox Island had been cut off by the Morse River, which breached a sandbar last year and made accessing the rocky island a wet challenge, even at low tide. On a daily basis lifeguards had to wade out to the island before high tide to remind people to return to the mainland, lest they need a more elaborate rescue later on. They also tried to inform visitors that the river’s inconvenient new route was not due to human interference but instead was caused by the same quirk of Mother Nature that has broken through the sliver of sand three times in the past forty years. “It was shocking to a lot of people,” remarks Brian Murray, the park manager at Popham, adding that at high tide more than half the beach’s precious sand seems to be missing, compared to previous years. “A lot of people couldn’t believe it was the same beach and said ‘What have you done?’ ” A few visitors actually complained about bumping elbows with their towel-neighbors during peak summer days.
The good news is that the beach can return to its former shape relatively quickly, and Murray reported in late January that a thin sandbar had built up near where the old one had been. “At the moment you can walk out to the island at low tide, because a lot of the sands have started to fill in,” he says. “It’s started to solidify, but any storm could change that.”
Even if it does, Murray says visitors last year found an upside even to this alarming quirk of nature. “Hey, tables that were back in the woods now have a waterfront view,” he laughs.
Saving the Crooked River
Sebago’s salmon duck a dam plan.
Maine regulators generally look with favor on proposals to restore or renovate historic sites in the state. Every rule has exceptions, though, and fishermen all over the state sighed with relief in January when the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ruled against allowing a dam to be built at the restored Scribner’s Mill on the Crooked River in Harrison.
The Crooked River is the source of virtually all the wild salmon for Sebago Lake, one of the last four indigenous landlocked salmon fisheries in the state. So conservationists reacted with alarm when Scribner’s Mill Preservation, a group devoted to restoring the old sawmill, asked permission to rebuild a long-destroyed dam at the site to power the mill in the traditional manner. Not only would the dam hinder upstream movement of spawning salmon, it would create a mill pond perfect for the establishment of such warm-water predators as bass, pickerel, and northern pike, which would like nothing better than to snack on both the adults moving upstream and smolts moving down to the lake.
“We’ve estimated that 60 percent of the available salmon spawning habitat is upstream of the dam,” explains Francis Brautigam, the regional fisheries biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which opposed the dam application. “That was a major concern.” Invasive predator species are already well established in other tributaries and in Sebago itself, he adds, so preserving the Crooked River as a salmon nursery became even more important.
The preservation group can still appeal the DEP’s decision if it desires. Meanwhile Brautigam and others are urging the state legislature to reclassify the river to stop any future dam construction. “It’s an important stretch of water,” Brautigam notes. “Sebago’s salmon depend on it.”
There’s good news and bad news.
It’s a new rite of spring — vacuuming the dead ladybugs off the windowsills and shooing the live ones out the door. Each year about this time, we look up from the desk and are amazed at the number of ladybugs that have suddenly crawled out of the woodwork — literally — to flit around the room and creep across the windows. Where do they all come from, and why don’t we remember this pestilence from twenty years ago?
“They’re such a conundrum,” explains state entomologist Kathy Murray. “They’re beneficial to farmers and gardeners, but they’re such a pest at the same time. If they’re in the garden chowing down on aphids, they’re great. If they’re in the house causing allergies and offensive odors, not so much.”
Maine has some thirty native ladybug species, but the culprits of the spring explosion are three invasive species, all of them deliberately introduced from Asia to help American agriculture, according to Murray. “They were actually initially released by the government back in the 1970s,” Murray says. “We had been telling people that they were a new invasive from Asia that came in through New Orleans, but that’s only part of the story.” Over the past couple of decades, all three species have moved into Maine, and they like what they’ve found.
In Asia, the bugs overwinter in rocky outcrops. “Here they like our homes better,” Murray says. Clapboards and
shingle siding are especially convenient cold weather quarters. “My house is a ladybug magnet,” Murray says. “The first sunny day after the first frost in the autumn, we see them mobbing the house and crawling in around the windows. If they can find cracks and crevices, they overwinter in the wall voids.”
The Asian ladybugs have few natural enemies here, and people quickly learn that the insects emit a powerful odor when crushed. They can also cause allergic reactions. Murray suggests disposing of the home invaders with a vacuum equipped with a high efficiency air filter. Otherwise, “we just have to bear with it and remember that they’re actually beneficial,” she advises. “Eventually the populations will even out and find an equilibrium, but that often takes quite a long time.”
We can hardly wait.
Hog Island Hiatus
Audubon’s summer camp takes a break.
More than half a century of bird watching and nature education has gone on hiatus at Hog Island, the well known and much loved summer camp operated by Maine Audubon. Last fall Audubon officials decided to suspend the camp’s operations for a year while they search for ways to make its programs more profitable. “The reason is financial,” admits Sue Cilley, Maine Audubon’s acting executive director. “We just couldn’t continue to do it the way we’ve been doing it.”
A teen birding program was reportedly successful, but the camp has required additional support from Audubon for six of the past ten years. Its bread and butter has been the teachers and their families who flocked to the island off Bremen each summer to learn more about birds, ecology, and coastal biology. Those numbers have been shrinking steadily, and last year so few people signed up that many August programs were canceled. “Last summer was the first time we closed early for lack of enrollment,” Cilley says. “Some of that I think was an
effect of the economic downturn.”
Cilley is aware of the irony in that explanation, since Hog Island opened in the depths of the Great Depression in 1936. Except for a pause during World War II, it has operated continuously ever since, and Cilley emphasizes that the current hiatus is a suspension, not a permanent closure. “It’s such an incredible location, and everyone who goes there is touched by the experience,” she offers. “We just need to figure out a different way to do it. I’m really hopeful we’ll find a solution.” Hog Island’s fans and alumni hope so, too.
“In the Blackberry Patch”
to my father
There are no tigers here. The only
claws at my back are the noble
guardians of delicious fruit.
Though the webs are many
here they are wings of angels.
He found the patch at the edge
of a small field and now forgets
his nickels and dimes
and the scalpel across his belly.
For entire minutes, I forget
success has nothing to do
with joy, sometimes.
The stains on my fingers
could be blood but can’t be.
I am miles from the thrashing
ones faxing and emailing
their ambitions off each other’s backs.
Any battle is not mine.
My son prances along
the path, sweetness dripping
from his lips. The sky
is blue and our cares are crushed
to the fruit, their deaths so sweet
in our teeth.
—Allison Childs Wells
FOUND IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Free for the Taking: We have six lovely, free range, organically fed hens that need a home. They have stopped laying and as we named all of them, we cannot eat them. I bet they will be tasty. Hallowell, ME.