The Working Waterfront

Coastal Maine: A sense of place

It was home for nearly 20 years—until last year

Tom Walsh
Posted 2022-08-03
Last Modified 2022-08-03

Before Maine, the Midwest was home for 30 years. It is again, now overlooking Minnesota farmland, not the Maine coast’s dark skies. Each vista, Midwest and Downeast, stunning in its own way.

Throughout those 20 years, seventh-generation Downeast neighbors would inevitably ask why in the world People From Away move from corn country to coastal Maine. The answer? A love affair. With a sailboat. It seems there aren’t any overnight sailing opportunities and no lobster pots to dodge west of the Mississippi.

There are no nautical destinations in the Midwest that require provisioning a sturdy 27-foot pocket cruiser for week-long jaunts to ports of call as distant from coastal Maine as those along coastal Nova Scotia. There is no chance in the Midwest of anchoring overnight in the utter darkness of a heavily wooded island near Halifax, only to be awakened by the assorted sounds of bears onshore fighting. Or more likely mating.

Real and imagined, its history runs rich and runs deep, at least as deep as the mudcaked on a blood wormer’s boots.

There was no chance in the Midwest of sailing below a hovering Canadian military helicopter, and sending word by radio that, being under sail, she had to right of way. Word came, too, that directly below was a massive nuclear submarine eager to surface. We can wait, they said.

Great fun while it lasted. There are no more right whales, no doe-eyed seals, no ever-curious dolphins, nor tasty mackerel grilled on deck for breakfast. Not in the Midwest.

Maine’s coastline is all about the weather, sometimes very angry weather—akin to the Midwest’s killer tornadoes. In winter, Maine nor’easters arrive snowing sideways in hurricane-force squalls. The timeless and dynamic scent of the sea is a three-day drive from the Midwest, and that found on a remote northern Canadian shoreline.

Every sunrise over the Gulf of Maine is dramatic. No two are alike. As iconic coastal Maine painter Winslow Homer once said: “The life I have chosen gives me hours of enjoyment. The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.”

Maine’s coastline is an archive embracing many thousands of years of dynamic regional history, both cultural and geologic. Real and imagined, its history runs rich and runs deep, at least as deep as the mudcaked on a blood wormer’s boots. Coastal characters are to be found everywhere, many with more stories than Aesop himself. No extra charge.

The history of coastal Maine entombs many cultures. Some stories are prehistoric, long embraced by Maine’s indigenous cultures that today are few and far between, for reasons their stories help explain. Other stories involve ever-thinning, modern-day remembrances of the travels and travails of wealthy Wall Street white guys in ties, in with the family by rail or by ferry or both from New York, Boston, or Philly. Off for long summer weekends of lobster bakes, dry martinis, and romping with kids and grandkids on the rocky Downeast shoreline.

Where the sustained offshore winds are now doesn’t mean that’s where they will remain.

Today’s Maine is America’s whitest state. Downeast is more than 95 percent white. What little diversity persists largely involves small Native American communities, whose cultures and traditions were systematically dismantled by French-English territorial warfare. Colonial geo-political tactics quickly reduced native tribes to battlefield fodder and expendable political pawns on the heavily forested economic and political chessboard that was then Maine.

Maine is America’s oldest state in terms of folks over 70. Not Florida. Not Arizona. This unique demographic would seem to obligate Maine to provide a quality health care system designed to anticipate, assess, and address the needs of aging patients and their families, all close to dealing with debilitating illness and death.

Such a system does not exist in Maine. Nor will it. At least not Downeast. Not in places like coastal Washington County, among Maine’s poorest counties. It’s also one of the poorest counties in America. Nor will reliable, accessible, and affordable health care happen in Portland even as it devolves into a suburb of Boston, the self-proclaimed Mecca of medical care in New England.

Meanwhile, up I-95 from Boston in Vacationland, the number of universities in Maine that train medical doctors remains zero.
Coastal Maine by definition inevitably is on the front lines of climate change. It has been and it will be forever. Recent climate change aside, Maine was downwind for decades of the once-thriving Great Lakes steel mills, their pollutants deposited in Maine through years of acid rain.

Mercury it seems is not only a planet but a highly toxic heavy metal. Bottom line: Enjoy the catch, but best not eat the fish to be had throughout Maine’s endless wilderness expanse of rivers, lakes, streams, and estuaries.

Gulf of Maine offshore winds and slowly warming waters are now center stage in the dynamics of North Atlantic climate change. Dreams of floating offshore wind turbines and reviving the coastal fishery are just that, wishful thinking.

Where the sustained offshore winds are now doesn’t mean that’s where they will remain. As for warming seas, that phenom is not going away anytime soon. Remember Maine shrimp? Twenty years ago, before they migrated north into Nova Scotia’s colder waters, the little buggers were a dollar a pound, alive and kicking, sold along the side of the road. Never again. Scallops may be next.

Coastal Maine is blessed with a cluster of artists. Painters, writers, musicians, sculptors, photographers, chefs, basket makers, and more. Artists thrive on seascapes and apparently breed like rats. Maine’s coastal islands attract painters of all sorts, drawn to its offshore archipelago like moths to a flame.

Think Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, John Marin at Small Point, Andrew Wyeth at Cushing and son Jamie Wyeth on Monhegan Island. There are countless less-famous painters, too, among them actor Zero Mostel. When not on a Broadway stage headlining Fiddler on the Roof, Mostel for years went hermit to paint while holed up near Jamie Wyeth’s studio on Monhegan Island. Apparently not a fan of tourists, Mostel was known to locals as prone to “occasional lapses of propriety.” In one theatrical outburst, Mostel stood ranting on a crowded Monhegan public dock, waving off an arriving tourist ferry, shouting “Plague! Plague! Cholera! Go back!”

For better or for worse, coastal Maine embraces an endless supply of tourists. Such is the lure of the sea. Between Memorial Day and Columbus Day countless Downeast businesses rely on a seasonal tsunami of tourists bearing credit cards. It’s the 16 weeks required to break even.

Some iconic destinations remain fixtures: Monica’s Chocolates in Lubec, Raye’s Mustard in Eastport, whale watch cruises out of Bar Harbor, Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, the smoked seafood at Winter Harbor’s Grindstone Neck of Maine, The Fore Street Grill in Portland, and the nostalgic amusement park rides at Old Orchard Beach.

Meanwhile, during those four chaotic months, Acadia National Park is swallowed whole by tourists. From dawn to dusk, millions of visitors swarm over Mount Desert Island’s galleries, jewelry stores, restaurants, watering holes, bike rental shops, kitsch/gift shops, and ice cream emporiums. Among them are thousands of passengers and crew being ferried ashore by tenders, to and from an endless parade of 100-plus behemoth cruise ships that anchor in Bar Harbor, polluting both the harbor and community.

As for tourists, it’s apparent that Maine’s fragile coastal economy can’t live with them and can’t live without them. “Honey, let’s get up early and take the kids to see the first glimpse of the sunrise from Cadillac Island.” Not a problem. “I’ll just get online to the overwhelmed National Park Service website for Acadia National Park and book a pre-dawn parking spot.”

Tourist to Bar Harbor cab driver: “Why is the water in Frenchman Bay so low today? Is there drought here?”
Cabdriver to tourist: “No, sir, it’s not drought. It’s what we call the tide.”

Retired Downeast journalist Tom Walsh recently moved from a seaside home overlooking West Bay in Gouldsboro to farmland in southeast Minnesota.