September 15, 2004
Tenants Harbor, Maine
43° 57.819 North
069° 12.121 West

Of Blueberries, And Fog, And Old Friends

By Bernadette Bernon

There have been a three constants on Ithaka over the past two weeks. One, the fog has thickly cloaked us, so that no matter where we sail, we see with the radar. Two, with the help of study tapes, Douglas has been struggling to memorize his Morse Code, so that he can sit for the FCC’s Code exam and hopefully earn the Ham General Class license. This means that, in response to my wit and scintillating observations, instead of responding with the charm and insight I covet, there’s been a cacophony of “dot and dit” noises emerging from my beloved morning, noon and night; all other “noise” aboard (me) has to be kept to a minimum. The third constant is that we’ve been in the throes of a blueberry frenzy, eating pints of the purply blue jewels almost every day now, and making them into pies, soups, and sauces.

Announcing the peaking of the blueberry crop.
Blueberry season has come late to Maine this year. Well into August, the usual month for the crop to reach its peak, Maine was a blueberry-free zone, unless you were willing to fork over a large chunk of dough for a small cardboard box of the beauties – and this dampened our consumption while increasing our cravings. Then, it happened; toward the end of August, and the beginning of September, kaboom! The crop peaked with a flourish, and then everywhere we went we bought blueberries, experiencing the joy of popping handfuls of perfectly ripened little juice balls into our mouths.

On a crystal-clear day, with a great wind filling our sails, and giddy with the ability to see far and wide for a change, we sailed from Blue Hill through the usual maze of lobster buoys, to Deer Isle in Penobscot Bay, all the while listening to the urban agonies of Harry Chapin emanating from our CD player.

Along Merchants Row are some of the most beautiful islands in Maine.
Around us on the journey, we passed one postcard-pretty pink-granite island after the next -- -- Hurricane Island, Butter Island, McLathery Island, Pond Island – all along the famed Merchant’s Row archipelago and up the bay, each one holding the promise of hide-away anchorages for other times. This stretch of Maine probably offers the most beautiful vistas of the entire coast, and I liked the thought of coming back to Maine every now and again over a lifetime, and exploring new islands and anchorages each time.

Deer Isle, separated from the mainland by Eggemogin Reach, has towns and villages sprinkled around it with lovely names begot of other eras, such as Sunset, Sunshine, Mountainville, Oceanville, and Stonington, the last one named for the granite quarrying that made Stonington a boom town in the late 19th century. It was during those years that many Europeans came to Maine, mostly from Italy, to work as stone cutters in the state’s burgeoning granite business. In Stonington, as the story goes, the Italians missed their arias so much that they built an opera house. It still stands over the town today, a relic of a bygone time; for the most part, the quarries of Stonington, and those of most of Maine, are now silent.

Paying tribute to the stone carvers of Stonington.

We visited our friend Betsy in Sylvester Cove, on Deer Isle, and through her had a glimpse of the country life. The bookshelves of her house are piled high with novels and reference books, and lots of games and puzzles for her children. We didn’t see a television. One day, Betsy and Douglas went out to the forest to collect mushrooms – I mean, how idyllic is that? -- which we made that night into an amazing risotto.

Another day, Betsy fired up her runabout, and together we zoomed out to visit a few of the uninhabited islands. As we rolled up our pant legs, pulled the boat ashore, and walked around in the streams, she taught us all about their delicate ecosystems. This was where Betsy had grown up, and her stories were from a lifetime of exploring the islands of Penobscot. Her family still had the house that had been built by her great-grandmother, who’d bought the land it sat on—in the 1870s—for $25, and who’d had everything brought in by schooner.

Betsy and Bernadette
On one of our last days, Betsy and I drove from Deer Isle to the mainland, and as we passed red barns here and there, I remembered something I’d seen in a book in the Southwest Harbor Library. In the 1700s, when it was time to paint a barn, they’d kill a seal for its oil, and mix it with red ochre to make a more durable stain. It was said to last for years, and that’s where the term “barn red” came from.

We drove through Brooklin, where writers Ann Seddons and Roger Angel live, and where the poet E. B. White’s house still stands, almost just as he left it, including his writing cabin with much of its original furniture. Maine seems to draw artists, and especially writers, to its idiosyncratic community of full-time residents mixed with summer people. Often, when Douglas and I would peruse the book-trade shelves in any hotel or gathering spot during our travels in Maine, we’d notice there’d always be collected volumes of Walt Whitman, E. B. White, and other poetry, mixed in with lots of liberal-minded political books, and other odd nods to the literary life; one afternoon we found “An Introduction to the Readings Of Hegel.” The binding had never been cracked, and I imagined the noble intentions of the person who’d thought he might plow through it over a summer holiday. Perhaps it’s a combination of the vagaries of the fog and weather, a stunning landscape that entices you to stop and stare as your surroundings disappear to white, and then appear again, but people seem inspired to do a lot of reading and noodling here.

One of Betsys hobbies is identifying edible mushrooms.
We set sail next to Tenants Harbor, where completely by coincidence we ran into several old friends we hadn’t seen in awhile. Eric and Liz had just bought a little cabin on the water, and moved up here from Connecticut. Billy and Joyce had driven up from Rhode Island in their van, towing their trailerable powerboat, and they were exploring the coast with their dogs. Bruce and Dorsey, with their dog Alec, were on the 34-foot sailboat Esmeralda from Jamestown, Rhode Island, and like Ithaka they were stopping on their way south. Frank and Linda had sailed up from Marion, Massachusetts, on their 38-footer Simba, and were heading north.

An old decoration from the side of the Stonington Opera House.
I was particularly thrilled to run into Simba, because I knew instantly that Frank, who recently sat for his Ham test and passed, would pull Douglas out of his Morse Code thrall, at least for a few social hours. Frank had used the same study tapes as Douglas, and the two guys commiserated about the paralyzing dullness embodied in several weeks of studying something you only need to know for five minutes of examination, after which you forget it the very next day. These two guys are kindred spirits.

The Stonington Opera House still stands. Today its home to a thriving arts scene.
One evening, as several of us were all sitting around in Ithaka ’s cockpit, rejoicing in the happenstance of this many connected people being in the same place at the same time, we noticed the names of the boats moored around us: Serenity, Tranquility, and Equanimity. All of them were from out of state, and we mused about what their names might have been if, before naming them, their owners had spent a few weeks trying to maneuver amongst the blanket of lobster-pot buoys that put a pall over every passage here. Perhaps then the boat names would more reflect the mood aboard: Surprised, Freaked, Tangled, Heart Attack. The number of pots is a nasty problem for cruisers.

The town of Stonington, as seen from Ithaka s cockpit.
Our time was drawing to a close. Tenants Harbor was our last Maine harbor, and I was feeling wistful enough about leaving, and fed up with a couple of greasy boat-maintenance projects we’d just finished, that I’d gone ashore while Douglas orchestrated his dots and dits, and wandered into a real estate office to find out how much things cost. I could live in Maine, despite the fog, despite the remoteness, despite the pots, despite the lousy cell-phone coverage.

Indeed, one day at the Tenants Harbor Market, the town’s only food store, and a teeny one at that, trying to get our T-Mobile cell phone to work, I stood with three other sailors – all of us in full foul-weather gear, one foot on the street, one foot on the curb, because that was the exact and only spot that you could get coverage for miles around. Across the street? Nothing. Farther in on the sidewalk? Nope. The result was that those of us on the curb who had Verizon (one guy) could make calls from that spot. Those of us with other carriers were flat out of luck.

The fog encourages cozying up to some good food and company. Heres a platter of sushi made by a gathering of friends.
One day this week, I looked at what I was wearing – flip flops and shorts, a teeshirt, then over that a fleece jacket, a Gore-Tex jacket, a winter fleece leopard print hat, and sunglasses. And I realized the incongruity of these pieces. The flip flops had never before met the fleece hat, despite being part of the same person’s wardrobe for several years. But this to me is one of the beauties of Maine. One minute you may be sunbathing and popping blueberries, the next you’re bundled up as if it’s the dawn of the Ice Age. One minute you’re gazing at a heartbreakingly beautiful tableaux of green conifers on pink granite, and an antique lighthouse painted in red stripes; the next, Mother Nature lowers a white blanket over your head, and your world becomes very small. One minute you’re flying along at 8 knots, the next, you’re yanked to a stop as a lobster buoy captures your prop. Ah Maine. One minute you love it and want to live here, the next you hate it and vow never to return. I miss it already.

The sunsets are spectacular from Sylvester Cove.