Centre de Plein Air, Beauport, Quebec. We have declared today a day of rest and venture no further than the local Tim Horton’s donut shop and nearby Wal-Mart. Rain is expected shortly so David hoists another sail alongside our awning. Nathan cleans out the mouse habitat and lays down fresh wood shavings. David makes up the bed to create two long sofas with a small table between them. I work on cleaning out our mini-fridge and finish off the last flour tortilla on hand , making my own version of savory crepes avec asperges et jambon à la Hollandaise. I contemplate a nap.
During our morning walk to the neighborhood donut place Nathan has observed the universality of old men gathering to discuss the morning news over their petite cardboard cups of senior café. He tells me that Tim Horton’s is the perfect blend of McDonalds and Starbucks since old men are known to congregate beneath the golden arches while old ladies are more likely to while away their idle hours at Starbucks. While I make a torturous attempt to order mon café avec crème, I see that the two groups just stake out different sides of the same establishment; how French! It’s kind of like the unisex bathrooms he discovered a few days back. At first we were all a bit disappointed to see how very American much of Canada appears. But upon closer examination subtle and not-so-subtle differences begin to emerge.
We are less on guard and have begun to relax more as we venture out to this new land. David is now attempting his own version of pidgin-French, trying to French-ify English words be adding ‘la’ at the front and ‘ette’ at the end. At Wal-Mart he points out that there is no waiting at the hair salon since I desperately need a trim. I try to explain that I don’t mind mangling a foreign tongue to buy food or a beer, but it is another matter entirely to communicate the subtleties of a preferred hairstyle to someone I have just me when I don’t even know the word for ‘curly.’ He grins smugly and suggests that I just say, ‘less longggg.’ But I strongly beg to differ, pointing out that the way he has pronounced it I would be asking the stylist for a multitude of tongues. While we are making progress, I don’t think we can afford to get too cocky yet. I tell him he should direct a French-speaking barber to cut his hair and see just what he ends up with. Enough said.
Canada. From New Brunswick to Quebec Province. It’s getting a little trickier to find clam chowder now that we have left the ocean coast and are winding our way through the Great North Woods of New Brunswick. At first light we strike our Wal-Mart boondock camp in Woodstock, NB and head across the parking lot to the golden arches for fast food breakfast Canadian-style. Poutine. Hot crisp French fries doused in thick brown gravy and liberally sprinkled with gooey hot cheese curds. Move over Egg McMuffin, and gimme some of that simple French trapper chow. David looks skeptical as I offer him a nice juicy forkful of gloppy fries. But really it’s not half bad. Goodbye sweet Chowderhead, hello Cheese Eater Hottie.
Thus fortified we ease on up the road for a quick looksee in Grand Sault (Great Falls). According to local legend once upon a time a brave young Indian maiden became the heroine for her entire Maliseet village by luring a raiding party of more than three hundred rival Mohawks in canoes over the watery precipice. A carved wooden statue stands beside the visitor center parking lot to commemorate the event, but today it looks like young Malobiannah is tempting the hordes of invading Anglo tourists to take a long dive off a short tower across the water on a Zip-Zag excursion. We admire tourists flying over the seventy-five kilometer tall falls on their zip line harnesses before making our way to the province of Quebec.
On the provincial border we pull over for information and guidebooks. We are greeted by four knowledgeable college students eager to offer assistance, as we are clearly in need of firm guidance here. I take out my list of questions and young Naomi starts pulling out colorful booklets for every region along the Saint Lawrence River. David sits to my right trying to keep up as she answers questions rapid fire and flips through the pages of handy fold-out maps to offer additional information in a mix of grammatically correct French and English. But every time I pass a booklet to David to study, she takes it back to address my next question. David is seriously woebegone and confused by the time we leave. There is really no hope for a deliberate and slow talking Welshman in a fast-moving hip hopping youth culture. We will just have to figure things out in our own sweet time.
We drive to the Saint Lawrence River and take a scenic detour through farm country in the rich delta region, spying berry patches, fields of potatoes in full flower, dairy cows, and numerous smoke houses for drying pork and fish. But the farming operations that most strike my fancy are the string of eel fisheries that dot the lovely coast shrouded in fog.
Taking our lives into our hands we pull into a local poissonnerie (aka seafood market/cafe) in Kamouraska for dinner. Lamentably there is no clam chowder to be had, but they do make up a fine fish soup as well as a tasty lobster bisque. I note with interest several entrees featuring les anguilles (eel) boiled, smoked, or pan-fried. I play it safe and order David the longe de saumon. We will definitely have our work cut out for us over the next six days trying not to eat something we might rather avoid.
We camp for the night in Riviere-Ouelle beside the Saint Lawrence preparing for our siege on the old walled city on the morrow. It is strangely exhilarating to think that one stray participle fired into the air could prove to be our undoing. I suppose there could be worse things than a double order of poutine. Before drifting off to sleep I teach my young son how to order ice cream in French. Crème glacé, s’il vous plaît. Sweet dreams indeed.
fat pants required
The Maine diet: now there is an oxymoron for you. Okay, so if you work sixteen-hour days wrestling hundreds of fifty-pound lobster traps out of the sea, then maybe you can get away with a 5,000 calorie daily diet. Otherwise, those fried belly clams, bowls of lobster bisque, and generous scoops of fresh made Maine blueberry ice cream are bound to catch up to you.
Jordon Pond famous popovers
We have been enjoying local fare from the tall pine state for more than a week now, and regrettably I must confess that Bar Harbor Ale does NOT have any discernible slimming properties. I cannot snap my jeans, and my belt is on its last setting. Unfortunately, I am not strong enough to resist the temptation to polish off the last piece of deep golden fried haddock left from Nathan’s unfinished child plate of fish ‘n chips. And don’t get me started on the buttery, garlic mussels; fat, stuffed lobster rolls; and infinite number of ice cream flavors.
famous lobster ice-cream
At Ben ‘N Bill’s Ice Cream shop on Bar Harbor’s Main Street I ask for a taste of their world-famous lobster ice cream, reported to be a bestseller shipped around the globe. Maybe if I can combine my two biggest vices, then I can split my sins in half? Or maybe the unlikely combination will act as a kind of aversion therapy curing me of my cravings? Nope. No such luck. While I do not need to repeat this particular gustatory experiment, I have to say it’s not bad. But don’t worry; I have no plans to ship any back home just yet. I guess the only thing to do is sign on as a fishing boat deckhand and hope that the vocational experience of trapping, gutting, and cleaning fruits of the sea will prove to be unsavory enough to cure me of my insatiable appetite for all things Maine. Until then, I am in the market for some comfy sweat pants with cute little crustaceans down the front and a clever trap door on the rear.
This is our first visit to Maine, the Tall Pine State. Vacationland. Playground for captains of industry and droves of white-collar refugees busy fifty-one weeks of the year scaling the skyscraper cliffs along Manhattan, Boston, and Philadelphia’s gold coasts. The summer invaders call themselves ‘Cottagers;’ these very self-important people who build thirty-room seaside mansions and immense granite sea walls to keep the local riff-raff from spoiling their waterfront views.
I have foolishly come to Bar Harbor expecting to be charmed by the clipped, lyrical sea chant of old Maine accents just like the ones I remember from the old Sunday night TV show set in Cabot Cove, Maine. Ayyyyyy-yup. But no, it’s the broad, flat tones of Philly, the shallow mouth breathing sighs of Brahmins from Boston’s Back Bay, the shrill notes of upstate New York, and the gravelly rumble of the Bronx cheer I hear instead. I comment on this to my niece Hannah who is working building wooden boats in nearby Brooklin, Maine. She hears it too. At the nationally known school where she teaches Vacationland wannabes to paddle their own canoe, folks from across the continent and across the pond gather. Germany, Sweden, China, Japan, and Merry Olde England sit side by side in the cozy dining hall sipping expertly prepared New England clam chowder for supper.
It’s a healthy melting pot of eager visitors, crowing over their great good fortune to discover Maine and her Bold Coast. Their enthusiastic voices fill the air, displacing the burr and cadence of indigenous peoples and earlier settlers, muddying the rich local color with imported inflections as they intone over their iced lattes. In every Bar Harbor gift shop window we pass are souvenir T-shirts with the words, “Got Lobstah?” But the lobstermen themselves are mute here in these parts.
Hannah tells me the only person she has heard with a Maine accent in her international school filled with summer people is the lady who cleans the bathrooms and sweeps the floors. Local visitors seem to be much more interested in swapping tales with other up-and coming out-of-towners than listening with a keen ear to the long time residents who make this place their home for more than a few weeks of the year.
Here beside the crashing waves the silence of the lobstermen in mid-July seems almost deafening. But I reckon if we stuck around long enough for the temperatures to drop the noisy chorus of invasive species would be swept back out on the tide and scattered by chill winds, clearing the air for the song of the fishermen to return. After all there are plenty of rocky hiding places and dark recesses on land and sea where native species can wait out the passing storm, avoiding detection until the time and tides are more favorable. Ayyyy-up.
Bar Harbor, Maine. The state’s scenic roadway markers proclaim this to be the Bold Coast: this land of stark contrasts where hard-headed windblown boulders stand proud. A mighty ridged wilderness barren of trees beside an ever-changing sea: this is Mount Desert. The ashen skulls of her granite sentries look out over an angry ocean – Cadillac, Dorr, Bubble, Sargent, and Gorham.
This rock-strewn island with its stony visage is truly a birder’s paradise. We look for peregrine falcons tucked into the faces of the vertical cliffs. I crane my neck to see an immature bald eagle circling the bay at low tide. Osprey families build driftwood homes for their young in dead tree snags, channel markers, and other unlikely perches. In the understory of fir trees at the base of the mountains, small collections of songbirds flit nervously. Warblers, robins, and juncos: they are right to feel uneasy sharing their island sanctuary with so many hungry raptors.
Today I take my own small fledge into Bar Harbor for his noontime feeding. Here among the outcropping of man-made Victorian cliff faces and shaded outdoor patios, he gobbles down a fresh Panini sandwich in an internet café. While we are eating I comment on his tangled nest of windblown hair. “Enough,” he says. He is ready to take flight and cut it all off.
Asserting his independence, he tells me he has been thinking about it for a while and has decided he would like to be bald for a change. He wants to find a barbershop. His dad and I exchange glances, and decide to seize the moment. Its been more than two years of plaintive cries on our part, reminding him to comb and care for his unkempt shoulder length hair. Bald? Why not, we think. Sure it’s drastic, but I rationalize that it will grow out soon enough. To goad him, I offer to pay for him to pierce his ears at the same time. He is on the point of accepting before he asks if it will hurt very much. I decide its time to put the brakes on this speeding locomotive of personal reinvention and so I explain in graphic detail how painful the needle can be. We do however forge ahead with plans to search out the nearest sheering shack.
We find Razor Ray’s on Main Street opposite the China Joy takeout restaurant. No waiting. In moments our ‘tween bird is in the chair, a sheet draped about his neck, the hum of an electric razor in the air. Before anyone has the presence of mind to reconsider this brash act, the deed is done. Our sniping little shore bird is now an almost bald eagle. Whoosh. My remorse is nearly instantaneous, but my son soars on the wings of his newfound independence. I can practically see the adrenaline pumping just beneath the surface of his freshly shaved noggin. Well, we have certainly decided in haste. But the Vacationland state is not a bad place for repenting at leisure. We wander down the boulevard a few paces behind our youthful buccaneer as he swaggers up ahead to the souvenir stores in search of pirate treasure. Surely he will have sprung a fresh crop of downy feathers in time for the start of junior high come August. Right, matey?
Beech Mountain, Acadia. Our family jots down short phrases on tiny yellow slips of paper high up on Beech Mountain. At the urging of our naturalist guide, Ranger Todd, we are trying to translate our personal experiences of the Maine woods into poetry. He has aptly named his two-hour guided walk through the lush mountain woods, Green Kingdom. If only our words could do this place justice.
- The mountain air so fresh and mellow
- With trees of green and lichen, yellow
- Up here alone I am at home
- In a place called Acadia
- Cool granite lintel
- At the door of Maine’s deep wood
- Beech mountain stood
H2O to go
Bar Harbor, Maine. As the fog spreads across the inlet at high tide I wonder, have we taken on sufficient water during our travels to last us through the next ten months in the desert. The honeyed taste of rain breathed deep into the back of my throat, the misty film of salt sea air rubbed into my cheeks, the oozing fertile mud of the salt marshes and mussel beds tucked in between my toes. Will it be enough to soak our parched roots and tide us over for ten more months in the desert? We drink deep here.
July 5. Freeport, Maine. We quit one beantown for another, driving to L.L. Bean Headquarters in Freeport, Maine. It’s a spectacular day after last night’s tropical rains. The humidity has been blown back out to sea with the storm’s tailwinds, and the sky glows brighter than colored beach glass this morning. We head out onto the highway to discover our first real rush hour traffic. Everyone from the city on the hill has packed up the ca-h for a Maine beach get-away it seems. We sit pah-ked on Interstate 95 for a good long while. So I crack open the slim biography of Henry David Thoreau penned for the youth market, and our family slips into Walden Pond with the young pencil maker and his freethinking family for the next two hours without ever leaving our carriage.
We cross into New Hampshire and stretch our legs at the welcome center. I ask about the traffic and request suggestions on where to find good clam chowder. Our Granite State interpreter just grins and makes wry comments about the summer weekend visitors, but he does know where all the good clams are. So we make our way to Kittery and Bob’s Clam Hut to gulp down David’s first four-star soup of the trip. I’m not sure if admiring a naked crustacean bathed in butter and rinsed with cream qualifies as a transcendental experience, but I know that my soul mate has found his true north on the shores of the deep Maine woods.
We make our way to the coastline and take our first Maine walk in Rachel Carson’s old woods at the National Wildlife Refuge created at her instigation. The marshes are lovely, and small treasures are hidden beneath the bright green canopy of bordering trees.
Later we drive into Freeport expecting fireworks and a free jazz concert on the lawn. Eventually we find the parking lot reserved for overnight recreational vehicles in this mega-outlet town and hastily pack lawn chairs and a picnic hamper to go. I hike up the hill and follow the crowd. The postage stamp green space is neatly tucked in between the outcropping of various L.L. Bean emporiums. I spread my blanket and think better of unpacking my wine glass after observing dozens of nursing mothers with gaggles of young children nearby. Well, it’s not a jazz evening after all but a circus. Okay, we can do this.
The fireworks have been postponed for a second night due to suspect winds, but the circus does go off without a hitch. A small troupe of recent graduates from Montreal’s famed National Circus School tumbles, tight rope walks, juggles, mimes, clowns, and spins about the outdoor stage as a postcard sunset paints the sky behind them. A lithe young dancer in form-fitting black spandex with a red bucket over her head pulls Nathan from my lap to dance with him in the grassy aisle. Two Avant garde jesters shriek in mock horror to discover the small mouse in his lap. Yes. It’s true. We are our own small circus.