The Bold Coast
IT’S A COLD MAN who can remain untouched by the charms of coastal Maine. I fell in love with it at the age of 10, when my parents took us to Boothbay Harbor on a motoring holiday – a quaint term, I grant you, but somehow fitting for that era. For years afterward, my plan was to buy a second home on the coast, and I made periodic trips to look for one. Never mind that I did not, as yet, own a first home; I often do things backwards. So, the 313 miles of coastal Route 1 between Calais, on the Canadian border, and Kittery, on the New Hampshire line, holds a certain, special appeal.
There is only one problem. In my love affair, one of the things I’d fallen for was a number: 3,478. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that’s the number of miles of actual coastline that Maine possesses. So, we are talking about big love, with the understanding that there will never be enough time to explore it all. To try to manage it, I adopted a strategy that every self-respecting man learns from grocery and Christmas shopping: surgical strikes.
U.S. 1 gets rebranded where it hits the ocean at Passamaquoddy Bay, to ‘Coastal Route 1’, although, as Virginia Wright points out in her book, one essentially loses sight of the water in Perry and doesn’t see it again until Gouldsboro, 75 miles down the road. No matter. It feels close. Stacked traps and lobster boats in winter cradles hint at its presence, and quick, tantalizing glimpses of it can be seen on the way through Machias, Jonesboro and Milbridge.
As well as its name, the road changes personality here, too. Often a secondary route in Aroostook County, Route 1 in Washington County becomes Main Street. Not the picture-postcard, Yankee Magazine-cover Main Street of Camden and Wiscasset further south, but utilitarian and no-nonsense. One gets the feeling that tourists, traveling up the coast on Route 1 from southern New England, decided Ellsworth – gateway to Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park – was as far as they ever needed to go. What lies north in Washington County is a Maine far less reliant on tourism – a $5.6 billion industry in the state in 2015 – and more on lobsters ($45 million in 2014) and blueberries (85 percent of the world’s wild berry production). The county boasts all of three traffic lights.
They call this the ‘Bold Coast’ – a label for which the marketing guys in the tourism office surely deserve a prize. Whether describing the 125 miles of coastline from Eastport down to Milbridge, or merely the 30 miles between West Quoddy Head in Lubec and Western Head in Cutler – I have seen it defined both ways – this is nature at its most elemental, the touch of humans relatively inconsequential. Spruce and fir forests crowd 150-foot cliffs, below which 20-foot tides surge and roar. Forests give way to peat bogs, and blueberry barrens and, occasionally, pocket beaches.
On a clear and calm day, it’s suitably benign – perfect for hikers exploring the trails in the Cutler Coast Public Reserve, a 12,000-acre expanse that came under state protection over the last 30 years. But on the day I first encountered this coast, with 25-knot northerly winds over an incoming tide raising 10-foot standing waves, I had the overwhelming urge to go crawl into bed.
It’s a gentler but equally impressive coastline that greets the traveler down the road in West Gouldsboro, where U.S. 1 opens onto the ocean once more. Frenchman Bay lies nearly at one’s feet, glittering in the sun on this sparkling fall day; behind it, in the distance, sits Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, capped by the dome of Cadillac Mountain.
I dawdle at the tourist lay-by for a while to absorb the sunshine and the view, and finally climb back into the Jeep. I’m headed south for Bar Harbor and Acadia, via Ellsworth, where I’m about to discover that summer is still hanging on.
Time for a surgical strike.
Go to Chapter 6, ‘Tin Man,’ here.
Header photo: Lobster boats laid up for winter, Eastport.