Travel June 2011

The Wicked Coast

Maine is a joy in summer, but even more captivating in winter.
Jake Wyman/Getty Images

Wherever you look on this coast, you see a Wyeth vignette. It was an icy diamond-bright day in late winter in mid-coast Maine, under a cloudless sky, the tide ebbing from the ice chunks that encrusted the rocky shore like blocks of salt, the north wind whipping whitecaps across the bay. This stretch of water, the lower end of Penobscot Bay, known and charted and fished by Europeans for more than 400 years, once teemed with cod as it now teems with lobsters. As for the particular details of seaside granite and tangled kelp and white clapboard houses and driftwood washed smooth by waves, it is clearly Wyeth country. The man known locally as Andy once lived and worked just down the peninsula, at Port Clyde. His painting The Patriot depicts the father of the man who still runs the nearby sawmill.

I was visiting a lobsterman friend to ask a favor. This man greeting me would himself suit a Wyeth portrait. He was warmly dressed, a heavy coat over a down vest, cord trousers, rubber knee-high boots and a fisherman’s thick rubber gloves. He was crouched in the sun on his own dock, surrounded by tall stacks of lobster traps.

“What are you doing here?” And he laughed, because he’s used to seeing me in the summer. I laughed too, hearing “doo-in hee-yah.”

I said I needed him to run me out in his boat to an offshore island where I had to transact a little business. Of course he said yes, no problem, did I want to go right now before the tide ebbed away?

We were soon on the water, the wind cutting my face, the islands glittering around us. The last ice age carved this coast, created the narrow south-trending peninsulas and lumpy granite islands, all of it now softened by tall spruce trees, “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” as one of its literary chroniclers described it. In summer these trees perfume the coast and support osprey nests. My friend was telling me how this had been an awfully snowy winter. It was not a complaint—for months it had been perfect for snowmobiling up near Rangeley. Oh, yes, very cold, but he had warm gear and added that one day (“I am serious”) a few years ago on that trail, the temperature was 37 below zero, Fahrenheit. And he laughed.

Most visitors to coastal Maine know it in the summer. In the nature of visitation, people show up in the season. The snow and ice are a bleak memory now on the long warm days of early summer, but it seems to me that to understand a place best, the visitor needs to see figures in a landscape in all seasons. Maine is a joy in the summer. But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter. You see that the population is actually quite small, the roads are empty, some of the restaurants are closed, the houses of the summer people are dark, their driveways unplowed. But Maine out of season is unmistakably a great destination: hospitable, good-humored, plenty of elbow room, short days, dark nights of crackling ice crystals.

Winter is a season of recovery and preparation. Boats are repaired, traps fixed, nets mended. “I need the winter to rest my body,” my friend the lobsterman told me, speaking of how he suspended his lobstering in December and did not resume until April.

But his son, younger and stronger, was preparing, this week in early March, to set out his traps—800 of them. His chosen area was 35 miles out to sea; with his stern man helping, he could bait and set 100 traps a day. What I take to be heroic effort is an average day for men like him, and women too—it’s not unusual to see a woman piloting a lobster boat and hauling traps.

I love talking to this man and his neighbors, because they are the enduring community of the Maine coast, making a living in the same fruitful and laborious way that people here always have. The coast was known to Europe from the earliest times. John Cabot claimed it for King Henry VII in 1497, Verrazano sailed “down east” in 1524, Captain Weymouth set foot here in 1605 and was rowed in a shallop up St. George’s River, which he named. Charts made during these voyages were used by Europeans seeking fish. Indeed, as Bill Caldwell writes in Islands of Maine: Where America Really Began, fishermen from England, France, Spain, and Portugal were familiar with Maine’s islands—so much so that by the early 1600s as many as 300 foreign fishing vessels were working the waters off the Maine coast.

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Paul Theroux has written 28 works of fiction, 15 works of nonfiction, and a play. His latest book is A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta.

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