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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been living in Eastport a full year now. Admittedly, during the initial four months, I was commuting the 300 miles back to Dover every weekend or so, mostly to help declutter the house and prepare it for sale. What amazed us, though, was how quickly my loyalties switched – Eastport was where I felt at home, not the house I’d lived in for the previous 21, the longest of anywhere else in my life.
As you know, I delighted in Dover. Some of my previous moves had left me homesick for a year or more – the colleagues I missed, the social and arts circles, the landscape and opportunities. Even in some of the less attractive places, there was something or someone I regretted leaving behind or unfinished.
This time, though, it felt more like dropping a fantastic perfect lover by being swept away by someone more exotic. You know, leaving a knight’s castle to go off to live on a shack on an island with a mermaid, even if she smelled like fish. (Remember, we’re talking about homes here, not actual people.)
Trying to sort out the reasons for the ease of my quick identity shift has been tricky.
I was at a point in my new creative project where extended solitude would be very helpful. And it was. You know, the writer’s retreat or arts colony.
Covid had also already distanced me. I was no longer swimming laps daily and seeing that crowd. Quaker worship and committee work was on Zoom. Choir in Boston was suspended. With museums and concerts canceled, there wasn’t even any point in taking the Amtrak down and back. And the research I was doing had enough resources online that I could finish the project. There are some questions that might be answered if I had a few weeks to spend in the reopened archives, but I’m content to leave off where I have for now.
Eastport has more of an active arts scene that Dover did, though there was plenty once you included a few neighboring towns. It’s just that the one here feels more organic, as you’ll likely be hearing. We have to be resourceful, since there’s nothing like Boston over the horizon, as there had been in Dover.
Getting back out in the wilderness has been especially invigorating, even if the years are taking a toll on my hiking abilities. Ditto for taking yoga classes on the waterfront here in town.
Did I mention meeting a series of fascinating people, all with rich stories and experiences?
Or the artists-in-residence or world-class chamber music performances by local pros?
Quite simply, I’ve declared this was my best summer ever. The prior highs had always had some big downsides – trouble at the office, upheavals in romance, unnecessary complications. Not so this one.
We had hoped to get the renovations under way, but all of the contractors have been booked out for a year – and even if we had one on the job, supplies have been hard to get, as is the case everywhere. The delay does give us a chance to plan more thoroughly for what we want to see done. And it did mean I didn’t have everything torn up for the workers. I’ll leave that for next summer.
Since the ground isn’t frozen, this will melt off quickly. But it’s what greeted us when we woke up this morning.
My first exposure to a winter of heavy snowfall started off the day after Thanksgiving and continued, with one melting around Groundhog Day, until nearly Palm Sunday. That was Upstate New York, with around 130 inches of snow total.
The stories I could tell since!
A MURDER OF CROWS (collectively)
a hundred crows a minute
according to a professional counter
over Owings Mills
as I stood on my deck, transfixed
maybe a half-hour