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.

This will be the Barn’s biggest year yet, I promise

It’s hard to believe the Red Barn has just passed its tenth anniversary. Frankly, I thought this blog would be going dormant by now, that we would have exhausted everything I have to say or show, but that’s not what’s on the horizon after all.

Instead, thanks to our downsizing and relocating to a remote fishing village with an active arts scene on an island in Maine (whew!), I promise you the best year yet. And, yes, Dover back down the coastline will still be a big part of the mix, but in a new way.

Each year, the Red Barn has changed its emphasis somewhat, and in doing so explored new fields while leaving others behind. Looking back, I’d say it’s made for a natural evolution. The poetry, for instance, has moved over to my unique digital Thistle Finch imprint. Much of the Quaker experience has gone to my As Light Is Sown blog. And newspapers just aren’t what they were, while their “war stories” fade into a foggy past.

During that decade, though, my novels were finally finding publication, and that provided a lode of new material and thinking to share with you.

Photography also became a much bigger part of the mix, thanks to my digital cameras, so much so that I can now claim shooting as one of my hobbies.

Add to that the bunnies and vanity plates and some wordplay, for a little fun, which will continue, as will the Tendrils.

The original visual artwork from my high school portfolio, alas, has been depleted. Let me confess that as the pieces came up, I often wondered why I had done this or that back then. There are some wild leaps of intuition that amaze me now, not that I’d ever venture such confidence these days. Ah, youth! (Sigh.)

A double rainbow, as seen when I was caught in an unexpected shower behind us last summer.

What’s new this year is a close look at Eastport itself and the surrounding Bold Coast and Sunrise County. It’s a remarkable landscape with a host of fascinating characters and wildlife. Having been here a year now allows for some perspective in the discoveries, ones you, too, will be sharing. The encounters have opened a whole new world for me, even as part of upright New England. They’ve also revived many sensations I’d been forced to leave behind in the Pacific Northwest more than 40 years earlier. I hope to be able to convey that awe of natural wonder. I still can’t believe this landlocked Ohio boy looks out the window and sees the ocean daily.

A neighbor’s first holz hausen firewood pile, though it took him three efforts to get it right. I didn’t miss stacking firewood last year, but I definitely missed the comfort of wood-stove heat through much of the winter.

The year also provided me with a writer’s retreat, long stretches of solitude while the rest of the family remained behind, apart from their festive visits.

I was already well into the first draft of my next book when we uprooted but quickly got back down to business here. Alas, after showing the manuscript to a circle of beta readers, it was back to the drawing board for a thorough reworking. I should have been suspicious when the book seemed to write itself. Without revealing too much, I will say the project keeps me connected to Dover but in a fresh way. You’ll definitely be hearing much more while it inches along toward publication.

Another neighbor’s red barn just isn’t the same as the one I left behind.

The barn itself has become a memory, a symbol of the longest place I’ve lived in my life, and maybe even my roots in the farming heartland.

 

 

When you wish upon a fish

Back before Covid, folks in Eastport would kiss the giant sardine sculpture that descends on New Year’s Eve from the Tides Institute’s headquarters as a gesture for good luck. This year, however, the act turned into placing a sticker on a surrogate fish, fun all the same.

To learn about the giant sardine and its companion maple leaf, you’ll just have to stay tuned till next year here. By then, I’ll be anxious to hear how many of your wishes came true.

Here’s wishing you and yours all the best in 2022.