To go “down east” is to go “to Maine” … or if you are already in Maine, to go to the “real” Maine.
As you drive down east on Route One, you can see the transition as clear as the gull shit on Schooner Head. This is to say, it is subtle and misleading. Geology, culture, the weather, and the sea make the Maine coast what it is, and all four of these factors start to blink in and out as you leave Boston and head down east (up north). Sandy beaches give way to rocky heads, you hear pockets of Acadian and Maine accent as long as you get your coffee and donuts or your clam rolls somewhere other than a fast food restaurant; the fog runs later and later in the day, and the nature of ‘blue’ (as in sky) changes slowly. And the ocean shifts in color: blue with light brown streaks indicating shoals to brown with dark grey greenish streaks indicating ponderous depth. As a rule, if you look at the hills behind you and multiply by two, that is the depth of the sea at cruising distance from the shore. Heading down east, to the point where the rocky shore is ubiquitous, the ocean is over a hundred feet deep just a short distance out. The lobster buoys that become more and more common as you go down east are tethered to traps at these great depths.
By the time you get to the coast of New Hampshire, all the fundamentals are in place. The New Hampshire coast seems like Maine and it is hard to tell when you’ve passed from the Live Free or Die state to the Pine Tree State. For the average Bostonian. But the average tourist of any stripe heading out from Boston rarely gets much farther than Freeport. But you are not really in Maine yet. This is the part of Maine that caters to Boston.
Many years ago, they used to make shoes in this part of Maine. That was an industry that moved north from the coastal areas and the Merrimack and Connecticut valleys in Massachusetts following deforestation (you need certain kinds of trees to make shoes). So shoe companies moved from places like Gardner and Lawrence up to the ragged jagged coast of Maine, and set up on the small but reliable rivers draining the rocky interior, where water power could be tapped to run the tanning and production mills. Near the end of the lifespan of the Maine shoe industry (which has presumably moved to other lands) discount outlets opened and people from Boston and environs would drive up to Maine for a picnic, a bit of shoe or boot shopping, and a nice lobster dinner at discount rates. The idea of driving up to Maine for a discount on something caught on as a thing to do. Eventually, the phenomenon of the “Discount Mall” was born, in Maine and New Hampshire. This concept has since spread to the rest of the country (though not everywhere) . If you have a Factory Discount Outlet district or mall in your neighborhood, now you know know where this shopoholic’s mecca comes from, as a concept.
But of course, the discount malls ruined Maine for everybody.
But the good news is that Maine has a long coastline, and no large airports. It is hard to get from one end of the state to another. If you are going from Boston, a few hours gets you to the shopping districts, but many more hours gets you to the middle of the state, where the most beautiful national park in the world … Acadia …. is parked on the coast. Then, it is several more hours beyond this to Eastport, which is the end of the USA, last stop before Canada. By the time you get to Eastport (and very few people go there as tourists) Maine has long sloughed off the Boston Shopping theme. Maine has sloughed off the fake lighthouses and fake stranded boats designed as restaurants. Lobster is not on every menu to cater to the tourists who go there to eat the lobster. No. Lobster is on every menu because that’s what they’ve got. Cheryystones? Forgetabout it. Ehyup… gotta go to Boston if you want those clams. We’ve got longnecks, though. Plenty of ’em. But if ya be a tourist, make sure to ask for extra bellies, or you’ll get all necks.
Oh, and dialect gets a bit thicker too.
Now about the hurricane that is heading for East Port as we speak. This is serious, and do not be surprised if the lobstermen lose a lot of traps. And that will be quite expensive. The number of traps a lobsterman may have is often numbered in four digits, and they cost, I think, close to a hundred bucks each, and need constant repair and attention. This contingent of traps is built up over generations. Replacing thousands of traps lost in this storm, should that happen, will be a much bigger outlay of insurance than replacing sunk boats and torn off roofs.
No houses will be destroyed by this hurricane because the houses in Maine are different than the houses in, say Galveston, Texas. First, they are built on rock, not sand, because Maine is built of rock, not sand. Second, they endure storms not much different from a Category One hurricane on a regular basis. Third, most of the houses in Maine are well over a century old, and have been enduring these storms all this time. Fourth, it snows in Maine. The houses are built to have a couple/few thousand pounds of extra weight on the roofs. The houses in Maine are built well above the high water line. The houses in Maine are built of cedar and brick. Any homes that did not meet the requirements were crushed or blown away by the winter or the sea long, long ago. The houses in Maine are not going to blink at a Category One storm.
There will be a few boats lost, a lot of traps lost, and a few bothersome erosional events …. the occasional parking lot cut in two, some culverts will clog and so on. But the houses, the trees, and most of the power lines will endure just another storm. Most of the local produce … the lobsters and sea fish …. will not notice the storm. The clam flats will be affected locally, but you know, the clam flats are always blinking in and out of viability, what with red tide, fresh water flooding, and other factors, so any one who relies on the clams without a second job like a lobster boat or a place on the county road crew is a fool anyway. This is well known. Oh, and the other product of this region: Pine trees (to make paper) could take a hit, but as I say the trees are strong and the state is big (and mostly pine forest). If the fetch is strong enough, we’ll have brackish spray killing white pines edging the vleis. But otherwise things should be fine.
I mentioned the gull shit on Schooner Head. I should explain. First, you need to know that a “head” is a mass of rock protruding towards the sea. Schooner Head is a very large cliff that harbors thousands of gulls, and it is a major feature located in Acadia National Park. This is the site of the first sinking of a British war ship during the American Revolution. This particular victory was accomplished in a most Maine-esque fashion.
Word of the colonial rebellion had been passed to the Admiralty, so the captain of this particular British warship was wary and ready for action. Nighttime, sailing with a strong full moon. Coming around the southeast corner to the lee side of Mount Desert Island, and heading north into an unexpected and rather soupy fog, he spied the sails of a large ship that appeared to be lurking in a deep cove. This was an unlikely place for anything but a war ship, and since it was asail he thought it likely to pounce, so he hailed her and did not wait long for a reply before firing a single shot off her bow as a warning. As fast as he ordered this first shot, he heard a cannon blast in reply, and a cannon ball sailed past his fore deck.
What he did not realize was this: The sails he saw were none other than centuries of seagull poop dribbling down from thousands of nesting sites on Schooner Head, mistaken for sails in the foggy conditions. The sound he heard of cannon was an echo, and the cannon ball that sailed across his fore deck was his own, bounced off the rock at just the right angle.
The captain, alarmed at the readiness and aggression of this other ship, ordered a full broadside. His ship came quickly aport, the canons loaded and a fusillade launched against the enemy ship. But the enemy ship was a granite cliff, and many of the cannon balls bounced sharply off the rock, returning this hapless captain’s fire, and sinking his ship beneath his very feet.
And that is the story of the first American naval victory during the Revolution, as told to to me at least a dozen times while standing ashore or sailing avast Ships’s Head. In the sun, with no fog, so it is kind of hard to believe. But I’m sure it is true.