North by East
Something fishy in Whiting, a Portland pub stirs up its own witch’s brew, a row over lobster roe, and more.
Cartoon by Bill Woodman
Why have pounds of herring been dumped on the same yard in Whiting?
There’s a twist on Route 189 in the Down East town of Whiting whose reputation is so infamous that it’s begging to be named. May we suggest Herring Elbow?
Herring don’t have elbows, of course, but this particular elbow curve appears to be a magnet for the oily little fish. “This is the third time!” exclaimed Esther MacLaughlin, after a truck overturned and dumped 22,000 pounds of the slippery lobster bait onto her lawn one morning in August.
Trucks carrying fish from nearby Campobello Island in New Brunswick, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously summered, are a frequent sight on Route 189, says Whiting Fire Chief Craig Smith, who lives next door to Mrs. MacLaughlin and was awakened by the crash. “It didn’t smell too bad,” Smith reports. “These fish were fresh. They were right out of the water.”
Despite being well posted with signs cautioning drivers to slow down, the curve is notorious for accidents. “It’s practically a right angle,” Smith says. “People just lose track of where they are, and they drive way too fast.” A few weeks before the herring truck accident, another trucker clipped a guy wire and snapped a telephone pole in two, cutting power in neighboring Lubec for nearly five hours.
Robin McPhail, Mrs. MacLaughlin’s daughter, says car accidents were a fact of life while she was growing up in the unfortunately located house. “We can see right into Lubec village. One day we saw a car coming and we said, ‘Oh, they’re not going to make it,’ ” she recalls. “Sure enough, they flipped.” Miraculously, she adds, no one has ever been seriously hurt.
The August fish spill was not as messy as the two that preceded it, McPhail says, noting that the August offering was divided among eight boxes, which seemed to reduce the distance the fish were hurled. “Last time they came right up to the house,” she says. H.C. Rolfe & Sons, of Milbridge, removed the herring with excavators and dump trucks and carted the loads to a landfill.
Asked how her mother felt about her yard being a three-time dumping ground for lobster bait, McPhail said, “She takes it with a grain of salt. She thinks all the publicity is pretty funny.”
A Hallowed Ale
One Maine brewery takes its superstitions seriously every Halloween.
Toward the end of every summer, Ed Stebbins eagerly awaits a full moon. Otherwise, he’s counting the days to the thirteenth of the month — but only if it falls on Friday.
Those are the days when the brew master and one of the founders of Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co. begins to brew a recipe he crafted twenty years ago that has become one of the company’s most sought-after beverages: the Halloween Ale.
“We like to bless the beer by brewing it on one of those days,” says Stebbins. “It just adds to the fun and the mystique and the allure." That voodoo appears to be working. The ale is the company’s most popular seasonal brew.
“It’s trite to say, but it’s a cult,” says Thomas Wilson, marketing director for the brewpub, which is the oldest in the state. “People wait for it to come out, and when it starts hitting the shelves, they start snapping it up.” Last year the company brewed three hundred barrels in two months. That’s 9,300 gallons drunk mostly by Mainers (now that’s scary!).
“As the weather gets colder, your palate longs for a bolder taste and richer flavors,” says Stebbins. “After a summer of drinking pale, fizzy summer beers, which are very light and refreshing, you want a sweeter, darker beer with a hop presence.”
Halloween Ale has a higher alcohol content — about 6 percent — which doesn’t hurt, either. “We say it’s scary, but not too scary,” adds Stebbins.
Gritty’s fetes its spirited spirit at the annual costume party at its Portland pub on Halloween night. And just like the ghosts and ghouls, the ale disappears into the night after the witching hour. “The amazing thing is the day after Halloween, it’s really hard to find a drop of it anywhere across the state,” says Stebbins. “It seems to evaporate overnight.”
For Sale: Maine’s Loneliest House
Maine’s latest waterfront bargain requires some serious sweat equity.
Talk about panoramic ocean views. The Casco Bay piece of real estate up for auction this fall offers true 360-degree views of Portland Harbor, Cape Elizabeth, and the bold Atlantic. But that same ocean also provides the challenge for anyone interested in buying Ram Island Ledge Light, just a couple miles off Portland Head Light and next to Cushing Island. The minimum bid of ten thousand dollars might seem like a steal for such a stunning location, but just inspecting the seventy-two-foot tower could be a challenge. Where most lighthouses are situated on small islands with at least a bit of land that stays dry even at high tide, the base of this 105-year-old granite icon is underwater for more than half the day, even during calm weather.
“We have gotten more calls than usual about Ram Island Ledge,” says Bob Trapani, Jr., executive director of the Rockland-based American Lighthouse Foundation. The foundation held the license for the lighthouse from 2005 until 2007 but gave it back to the Coast Guard because it couldn’t find a local group with the necessary skills to maintain the light. Those skills include boat-handling as much as fund-raising. “Ram Island Ledge is a tough one,” Trapani says. “The biggest obstacle is the fact that it’s in an area that is only accessible, even for a really good boat handler, on a very select number of days a year.”
Even if you’re able to scramble onto the ledge, Trapani says a ladder is the only means of accessing the tower itself, and from there it’s a long iron and oak interior staircase to the keeper’s residence and the lantern room. The tower is just twenty-four feet wide at its top, and Trapani admits that the living quarters are not for the claustrophobic. “You’re walking in circles, with not much in the way of dry land,” he declares. Don’t expect solitude will bring tranquility, though: the foghorn blasts every ten seconds, and the third-order Fresnel light flashes every six seconds.
Trapani refuses to guess what maintaining a lighthouse like Ram Island Ledge would cost (since it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, renovations need to be approved), but says that in general the structure is in good shape.
For now, at least, prospective lighthouse owners will have to take Trapani’s word for it. A late-August landing at the light for registered bidders was scrapped due to seas that appeared calm — three-footers — but proved to turbulent for a safe landing.
A wet case of buyer beware, indeed.
Here Comes the Sun
Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels capture energy for Unity College.
The seventies have returned to Central Maine. Thirty-two solar thermal panels that heated hot water in the White House when it was occupied by President Jimmy Carter are now firing up the millennial generation at Unity College. With author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, several Unity students are currently driving one of the panels back to the White House, exhibiting it in Boston and New York along the way. They hope to present the panel to President Barack Obama on October 10 and encourage him to install a new modern solar array atop the White House and enact comprehensive clean energy legislation. The road trip is part of the Put Solar On It campaign orchestrated by 350.org, an organization trying to build an international movement to cut greenhouse gases.
It’s the third time in two months that Unity and the solar panels have made news. In August, Huang Ming, chairman of China’s Himin Solar Energy Group Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of solar hot water heaters, visited the college to accept two of the panels for the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou. Not long after, A Road Not Taken, a documentary about the panels’ journeys, was screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. In recent years, Unity College (enrollment: 555) has loaned panels to the Smithsonian Institution, a Canadian museum, and to Google, which displayed them in its Washington, D.C., headquarters during the Obama inauguration.
For the forty-four-year-old college that brands itself as America’s Environmental College, the solar panels “are the gift that keeps on giving,” says Peter Marbach, the former development director who rescued the forgotten panels from a cavernous government warehouse in 1991. “The college was struggling financially to stay alive,” Marbach, now a fine art photographer in Oregon, recalls. “We needed something to lift the morale of students and faculty. Then I stumbled across these images in a magazine of the Carter solar panels collecting dust.”
Marbach admits he’s both bemused and thrilled by the long, strange trip the panels are taking. “It warms my heart that it’s helping the college solidify its place as America’s Environmental College, but it’s also getting people to look at what could have been and make sure we don’t get complacent again.”
There’s a row brewing over lobster roe.
Maine gourmets attending the Fancy Food Show in New York City this summer might have been intrigued by a Canadian company’s offering of a fifty-gram jar of “lobster caviar,” complete with the gold label and thirty-dollar price tag befitting such a decadent commodity. Danny King, president of New Brunswick-based Village Bay Sea Products, says his scientists have been laboriously studying how to harvest lobster eggs while still complying with laws prohibiting the landing of “berried” female lobsters. This year they became the first company to figure out how to retrieve the eggs from within the female lobster, before she begins carrying them on her exterior. “There is nobody in the world who has come up with this, and that’s why we’ve been secretly working on it for three years,” King says. “Response has been very intrigued, very positive, and we now have some leads into some high-end companies in the U.S., Russia, and Japan.”
In the U.S., though, King faces an uphill battle as he has recently learned that any product labeled caviar must come only from finfish, and so he will have to market his product under the decidedly less appetizing title of lobster roe. But the Canadian processor says he is still determining how many lobster eggs can actually be harvested each spring — he hopes to produce five tons next year — and so he is not seeking to develop too much demand, too quickly.
Maine food researchers have also begun to think outside the box — or in this case outside the lobster crate. Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine at Orono, says scientists here are focusing on a distinctly more blue-collar cuisine. “We have a student developing a lobster sausage,”
Bayer reveals. “It’s a summer sausage, like a Slim Jim, so it wouldn’t need to be refrigerated.” The university has some other top-secret recipes being tested for other “value-added” products that could be made from lobster meat — but no caviar. “I’ve looked at the concept, but it’s not something we’ve done,” Bayer says.
That’s quite all right — somehow a seafood Slim Jim seems a bit more appropriate in a Maine shopping bag than a hoity-toity tin of pilfered lobster eggs.
Adrift With No Skipper
Tiny unmanned boats journey from Maine to the Azores.
Find yourself sailing on any of the seven seas these days and you’re likely to happen upon ships bearing the signatures of such revered Maine boatbuilders as Hinckley, Stanley, and Lyman-Morse. But if you find yourself in Brittany or Portugal, don’t be surprised to see a Maine-built boat cruising blithely along without a captain, no less.
Over the past couple of years Dick Baldwin, a physical therapist from Belfast and accomplished sailor, has overseen the launching of more than half a dozen 4.5-foot unmanned boats from various points between Maine and the Virgin Islands. Each of the fiberglass boats, powered only by a two-foot-tall sail resembling a kite, carries a global positioning system transponder that broadcasts its speed and location every two hours to a Web site (www.educationalpassages.com). The boats are launched from Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship, State of Maine, during its annual cruise and recovered whenever they stop or wash up on shore. So far those final destinations have included Ireland, France, Nova Scotia, and most impressively, the Azores.
“I never expected they’d go as far as they have,” Baldwin remarks. “Even the GPS company that tracks them (www.iboattrack.com) didn’t think they’d go this far.”
Baldwin says the boats — each of which has been overseen by a different Penobscot Bay high school between Rockport and Searsport — have had an impact far exceeding their tiny stature. “We’re starting boatbuilding careers, as the kids get interested in the design of the boats,” he says, adding that this year’s fleet has been redesigned by Camden naval architect Mark Fitzgerald. Middle school students have used the boats to study oceanography, while others have learned about international relations. The students also learn about fund-raising — each boat costs about a thousand dollars, though local sailmakers and marine stores have donated much of the equipment necessary.
Though the program is just a hobby for Baldwin, he says Maine students are already taking it more seriously than he ever thought possible. The former ocean racer says the launch late this year of four boats features a new twist: a race, albeit one with no destination, no set course, and no crew.
Talk about a voyage into the unknown.