September 18, 2019
The Hidden Coast of Maine
Maine is full of surprises, and few know it better than Joe Devenney and Ken Textor. Devenney has been photographing the Maine coast for 37 years; Textor writing about it for equally as long. Separately—and occasionally on assignment together—they have turned over many stones along this very stony 3,000-mile- long coastline, seeking out and recording its moods, seasons, and secrets.
The following is excerpted from Textor’s and Devenney’s “The Hidden Coast of Maine: Isles of Shoals to West Quoddy Head,” available through Amazon. The large-format book is a celebration of water, land and light, the three elements coming together in a rugged and beautiful place unlike any other on the globe. As its title implies, the book represents a virtual tour of the Maine coast, but one that strays from the more touristy roads. Instead, Devenney and Textor provide glimpses of a less-explored Maine, places more familiar to winter surfers, seaworm diggers, working lobstermen and experts in the art of careening—but you’ll have to read on to learn more about that!
Harkening back to South Freeport’s more down-to-earth past, an aging fishing dragger shown above was “parked” in one of the toniest neighborhoods on Casco Bay. Exactly what the inhabitants of the Porters Landing district thought of this visitor has gone unrecorded, but we suspect that at least some longtime residents of this branch of the Harraseeket River smiled upon its presence.
In fact, Porters Landing is just one of several branches of the Harraseeket that became very busy in the 18th century with down-and-dirty vessels of various descriptions. Shipbuilding and shipping were big business in South Freeport for nearly two centuries, thanks to its sheltered location and waters that stayed relatively free of ice during the winter. A riverside general store, post office, and various boatbuilders survived well into the middle of the 20th century before surrendering to Portland-driven suburban real estate booms and L.L. Bean’s dominance.
Still, many residents within sight and hearing of the Harraseeket will correct you if you suggest that they are from Freeport. To be from South Freeport is to be from a different place entirely, one that is removed from mercantilism 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A casual passerby might look at this overturned boat in the weeds at New Harbor and conclude that it is washed up and forgotten. But a closer looks reveals a lot more life left in it, and a fair degree of respect, too.
Known as a dory, this boat is as New England as any vessel can get. Various forms of dories have been around for nearly 300 years, probably longer, and this flat-bottomed, slab- sided variation has been a favorite among Maine fishermen since before there even was a state of Maine.
Like the vans, pickups, and SUVs of today, the dory’s practicality was paramount. Loaded with fish, gear, bait, men, and what-all, they could go anywhere and serve most any function. Those qualities are what make this boat type still useful today. This dory, therefore, is not in the autumn of its years, as are the sumac and maples behind it. Instead, it shows every sign of being cared for by a no-frills fisherman who expects it to stay put for the winter and be ready for another year of fishing next spring. He’ll probably get exactly that.
To paint or not to paint, that is the question. Here on Vinalhaven, or in any of the other numerous salt-scoured communities along the Maine coast, paint is a frequent topic of discussion. And opinions are many. For instance, why would a rough, tough lobsterman want to paint his boat a dainty shade of mauve?
One common answer is that he has a sense of thrift. We can’t tell you the number of fishermen we’ve known who have put together a few half cans of various colors and come up with something eye-opening that they slapped on their hulls, muttering something like, ”Oh, what the heck.”
Then there is the thrifty Maine coast aversion to painting the south side of a building. The west, north, and east sides may get a nice coat of gray with white trim and maybe a touch of color here and there, but the south side? “Can’t get paint to stick to it anyway, so why paint it?” say the old-timers. Cedar shingles, however, seem to hold up pretty nicely. That brutal sun, the howling winds, and those persistent fogs and rain need a generation or two before they force the building owner to replace unpainted cedar shingles. Meanwhile, the color is so popular that paint manufacturers often call at least one offering “Seacoast Gray.”
Careening is a lost art in most coastal communities along the Eastern Seaboard. But this lobsterman in Brooksville knows the many values of the tactic. Obviously, anyone attempting to deliberately ground a perfectly good boat on a falling tide must first understand the vessel’s design.
This beamy workboat is wide enough to lie on its side and not allow the returning tide to swamp it. A boat with a narrower beam might not be so lucky. A quiet, unexposed cove also helps. After all, you don’t want wind-driven waves or wakes crashing into your boat as the tide slowly returns. And a hard, gravelly beach is preferable to walking about in muck.
In most places, when your prop is fouled or bent and needs changing, a marina or boat yard will be glad to pluck you out of the water and charge a substantial fee for the honor. But when a beach for careening is at hand, the tides will giveth what a commercial haul-out man would otherwise taketh away.
A Hollywood makeup artist can make just about any aspiring actor look like the dashing protagonist we all want to applaud. But does the actor in question have the “bones” to deliver the lines, generate the emotion, and captivate the audience? The analogy seems somehow relevant to a small rowing boat like this peapod tethered to its mother vessel in a cove on Eggemoggin Reach in the town of Brooklin.
Peapods once looked very different from this beauty and were found everywhere along the Maine coast. Indeed, any boatbuilder worth his salt, and many accomplished do-it-yourselfers with a barn and a hammer, knew how to get the bones of this skiff together without one look at a book, plans, or mathematics.
Predictably, those forerunners of this peapod looked a little rough. Planks overlapped each other like clapboards on a house. Varnish was unknown, and even paint was considered optional. And mahogany trim? Why use that when good old cedar, pine, and oak were available at the local sawmill? But then and now, a peapod delivers. Loaded or light, they cut through the water without fuss, turn around tight on a trap buoy, and get you home reliably if not especially dry. Peapods are worth applause in any scene.
At first, something seems wrong, but you can‘t put your finger on it. You gaze at Blue Hill Bay’s stunning beauty, marveling at the calm serenity of the northwest end of this sheltered body of water. It looks, smells, and sounds like almost any other Maine coast backwater at low tide.
But wait: Where are the lobster boats? Where are the lobster trap buoys? Blue Hill lobster boats do indeed ply the waters of northern Blue Hill Bay, but they set out precious few traps with their colorful marker buoys, making these waters seem a bit out of context in Maine. And the cause of this paucity is not manmade. Instead, blame a long-gone glacier, or glaciers.
Lobsters love to hide out, mostly for their own protection. Thus the predominantly rocky, haphazard seafloor of the majority of the Maine coast is perfect for lobster doings. But advancing and retreating glaciers tens of thousands of years ago scoured flat most of the upper Blue Hill Bay seafloor then covered this benthic landscape with mud. As a result, there are few submarine places for a lobster to hide. Thus, except around the rocky edges, there are few trap buoys and even fewer lobstermen to tend them in this upper portion of the bay.
Bass Harbor Light
Bars in Maine—even the ones that serve no adult beverages—can be as rough and tough as any waterfront dive the world over. Bass Harbor Head Light, for example, marks a bar that can knock a sailor on his can more surely than a roundhouse right. Unlike the sandbars with which most beach lovers are familiar, Maine bars are of a quirkier, flintier breed.
While sandbars usually run parallel to a beach, the Bass Harbor Bar extends nearly a mile directly offshore, south to Great Gott Island in the distance. Moreover, there is very little sand on this bar. It’s mostly solid granite with giant boulders here and there, and maybe the bones of a misguided vessel or two. Given its low-tide depths of 8 to 14 feet, you might think it doesn’t pose much of a hazard—but you’d be wrong. When the flood tide rushes in from the east, it slams into this bar and starts to tumble. Odd waves appear, currents swirl, and cold, deep water can make the fog a little thicker along its length. And when a wind blows against that tide, watch out. Square or pyramidal waves like you’ve never seen before start to heap up and can eat a small vessel for lunch. The reverse is true on the ebb tide.
Sit near the water cooler and you can learn a lot about what’s on the minds of people in the office where you work. The place to hang out in Jonesport is at busy Sawyer Cove, where you’ll learn a lot about a town decidedly out of the mainstream—and with its own way of discussing it.
For instance, if you hear a lobsterman talking about being “spleeny,” don’t be concerned about his medical condition. He’s just using a local expression describing someone’s temperament, falling somewhere between squeamish and cautious.
Likewise, if a couple of clam diggers mention “yowans,” don’t assume they’re referring to the surname of their neighbors. They’re actually talking about very young children in general, using a local word the origin of which has yet to be determined.
Fortunately, though, most Jonesporters are really quite “meet,” which is another local locution describing someone who is polite, agreeable, and generally proper in social situations. Thus the public launch ramp and pier at Sawyer Cove may not be quite as hip and up-to-date as the company water cooler and its associated conversations, but they’re every bit as instructive.
West Quoddy Head
Tides are a conundrum few people fully understand. Even locals living and working within sight of West Quoddy Head, which lords over the biggest tides in Maine, sometimes misread tidal complexities.
Take, for instance, how you get a 22-foot tidal range at this Lubec location. As many know, tides are caused principally by the gravity of the moon. But there are also the sun’s gravity and declination, the moon’s declination and perigee, the earth’s orbit and revolution, celestial alignments, wind velocity and direction, and certain centrifugal and Newtonian forces to consider. The bulge of water caused by all of the above factors arrives twice a day from the east, traveling more than 1,000 miles an hour until it bangs into southwest Nova Scotia, the submerged Georges Banks, and Cape Cod. Those three obstructions act together like a thumb over the end of a garden hose, forcing the water to accelerate as it heads for its destination.
It’s the squeezing and acceleration that makes the water pile up at Lubec, giving the waters near West Quoddy Head a reputation for swirling and crashing about like no other place along the Maine coast. Add some weather to the equation, perhaps a strong easterly gale for a few days or so, and the tides increase by several more feet, with additional chaos in the nearby waters. So a calm spring morning near low tide is all the more appreciated by any visitor to America’s easternmost point. And on most days, at this location, you’d be the first person in America to see the sun come up.