Why L.L. Bean started making all those kayaks, canoes, and duck boots

Maine is bigger than you’d think, and half of it is still unpopulated.

In fact, the easternmost county in the USA is more than twice the size of Rhode Island or New York’s Long Island – or, if you prefer, bigger than the two of them put together. And it’s merely half of Downeast Maine, with Hancock County comprising most of the western flank.

Washington County, aka “Sunrise County,” has a population of only 32,000 – about the size of Juneau or Fairbanks, Alaska, or Dover, New Hampshire, my home of the previous 21 years. You know, the one I repeatedly referred to as a small city. My, how my perspective’s changing!

Most Downeast folks live near the rugged coastline, with the largest municipality in Washington County being Calais, the connection to mainland Canada, followed by Machias-East Machias, Eastport, Lubec, and Jonesport.

The four largest public high schools have about a hundred graduates a year – combined.

One of the many streams and wetlands.

There are many reasons Downeast reminds me of the Far West, though it’s generally much wetter. In fact, 21 percent of the county is covered with water, much of it as big ponds running along the valleys between the low-elevation mountains. Many of these often island-specked bodies extend two to five miles in length and at least a mile across. And that’s before getting to the bogs and fens or wild rivers and tide meadows or marshes and swamps or prolific beaver ponds. The technical definitions vary, depending perhaps on how wet your shoes get. Quibble as folks might, the northern half of the county seems to be more lakes and wetlands than solid ground. I’m not sure if the Atlantic bays and coves even count in this tally. Quite simply, we’re surrounded by a lot of liquid, so watch where you step.

Lake Meddybemps

What also strikes me is how little development rings the shoreline of the lakes. Many have only a few “camps,” as we New Englanders call the cabins, trailers, or cottages and their docks, with the remainder in full, unspoiled forest. Make a bid, if you must.

It does make for a lot of unspoiled tranquility, for those who are so inclined, if you can deal with black flies and mosquitos. Moose often come as a bonus.

Often you’ll even see a beaver lodge.

My wife has long insisted I have a face made for the 19th century

Among the artists-in-residence the Tides Institute invited to town last year was tintype photographer John DiMartino from Brooklyn.

He was certainly the most visible, with his big camera and tripod everywhere and his workaholic hours. He was enthralled with the place, its light, and its people.

John DiMartino at work in downtown Eastport last summer.

Curiously, his medium gave everything he shot a back-in-history quality, as well as reversing the subject before him.

Here’s what he did to me.

There’s no retouching of a tintype and no cropping, either. It’s all in the camera.
As a model, you have to hold the pose. And don’t blink for six or so seconds.

For more of his portfolios and other characters he captured in town, check out his website, johndimartinojr.com.

Sea smoke

Surrounded by wisps of vapor, a scallop boat dredges in the waters between Maine and New Brunswick.

Driven by low temperatures and low humidity, vapors known as sea smoke rise from the warmer waters of the sea below. Not that they’re anywhere what you or I would call warm. Still, some mornings you cannot even see the water from any distance but only a churning cake frosting, and when it races in a stiff breeze, the effect is eerie, like looking down on a storm.

This is the end of the road

But not a dead end. Rather, I see it as a destination, a place of arrival or culmination, rather than a fatal trap. Like Key West or Provincetown or Cape May that way. Or so I hope, only smaller and less touristy.

When I said it’s on the verge of being discovered, a neighboring couple shuddered and individually chorused, “I hope not!”

Well, an influx of income and youth wouldn’t hurt. Leave it at that.

Downtown Eastport in the dead of winter, as viewed from the Breakwater.

Maine has many fingers that reach out to the sea, but among them, tiny Eastport is unique. There are reasons it’s called the City in the Bay. Technically, it’s an island – or a group of them, with the two inhabited ones connected to the mainland by causeway. Moose Island, where most of us live, is still big enough for plenty of explorations, including a state park, forests, and rocky coves.

Along my life journey to here, I did write a novel about subways, which now has me thinking. A packed underground train can carry 1,200 to 1,800 passengers. Compare that to Eastport’s year-round population, around 1,300, swelling to 6,000 in high summer.

I can joke about coming here to die, but I’m not being morbid. Rather, I just don’t feel there’s anywhere else I’d rather live out my remaining years. Let’s call it focus.

Yes, I’ve loved big cities, though among them I’ve lived only in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Boston, close as it was, served largely as a place to visit, even if once or twice a week.

One thing that’s changed everything is the Internet. I’m not as isolated as I would have been even a decade ago. I can stream concerts, operas, and indie movies, as well as order self-published books or about anything I want retail, even download rare historic volumes, often for free.

In some ways, it’s seemed I’m just setting up shop – or camp – here.

Covid really has changed a lot of our social outlook. It made me hungry for face-to-face gatherings, which a small town can foster, yet it’s also made long-distance meetings more flexible. We don’t always have to drive for hours anymore.

I’ve long touted pedestrian-friendly communities, and that fits the tip of Moose Island where I’m living.

And, yes, via blogging, I can stay in touch with a world of folks like you.

Once the car’s parked, it can stay there as long as I want.

Just down the street

Weather Underground kept scaling back its anticipated snowfall here, cutting it to a tad over three inches. Instead, we woke up to this yesterday, about 9½ inches after a day of blizzard conditions. Seemed strange going from near whiteout one day to cloudless blue the next.

Gotta dig out to make room for more.
Should I mention this was a break in our ongoing gale conditions?

We’re bracing for subzero temperatures in the coming nights, but a minus four is still ten degrees warmer than just up the road. And then another half-foot is on the horizon.

I know we’re hardly alone when it comes to scenes like this, and I’m grateful I no longer have to commute through hazardous storm conditions.

How’s the winter kicking in where you are?

I’m East of Acadia, if not quite Eden

I like to think that natural beauty can be found anywhere, but I have to admit that too often, what’s happened is that brute ugliness has prevailed in far too many places, typically as a result of greed. There’s no excuse for much of that, either. A little extra expenditure could have added grace to any development, created visual intrigue, lessened the harshness. Urban or rural or what’s in-between, alas.

Whenever possible, I chose career moves that opened me to natural or artistic settings and inspiration – along with opportunities to shine professionally. It’s meant avoiding suburbs, for one thing. Sometimes, though, it’s also meant invoking a sliding scale of value – you know, finding pockets of serenity within otherwise harsh localities. And then there were some other postings that principally industrial, even when it was mostly farmland. So it’s been a mix.

Still, as I’ve said, I came to realize that had I remained in my native corner of Ohio, I wouldn’t have been able to write poetry, the vibe was simply wrong. Or, if I had, it would have been much different from what I’ve done.

On the other hand, the four years I lived two hours east of Mount Rainier, back in the late ’70s, gave me repeated access to one of America’s greatest national treasures, often from lesser-known perspectives. What memories! And that’s before I turn to much of the back country and wilderness that was closer to our home. I even came to love the beauty of the desert where I was living, a landscape that initially struck us as hideous.

Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park, glimpsed from the east.

Now I’m finding myself dwelling two hours east of an even more popular natural park, Acadia. Already, I have glimmers of many backwoods and remote rocky shores to explore in-between.

Technically, all of Downeast Maine is also Acadia, the French name of the region. For most folks, though, Acadia means the park.

The biggest land mammal out west was the elk, while here in northern New England, it’s the moose. Just as the celebrated shellfish here is lobster, rather than Dungeness crab.

The fact is, for many people, either place is about as close to paradise as you’d find on earth.

And, yes, I’m feeling lucky – or especially blessed – that way.