Beside the Tides

Where over-20-foot tide changes are the daily ebb and flow, we go water watching and exploring around Lubec, Cobscook Bay State Park, and one of the country’s easternmost campsites

We’ve hit the road in the last week of the camping season, before state park campgrounds close ahead of the winter snow. The plan is to go as far as we can, following Route 1 along the coast to find the gigantic tides off Lubec and the nearby craggy coves and long peninsulas jutting toward Canada’s maritime islands. Then, somewhere up there, out in the salty air, we’ll pitch a tent.

I’ve had my sights on Cobscook Bay State Park for a while. It’s known for its rugged tidal beauty, with sites overlooking the bay and its clamming mudflats. Tide changes here average 24 feet, with some ebbing and flowing 28 feet—more than three times as high as the tides of southern Maine. We’re chasing those tides. The idea is to experience an up-close view, but we don’t have a campsite reservation. We’re making the drive along Route 1 for some two and a half hours past Ellsworth and the Route 3 dip toward Bar Harbor, all on the faith that we’ll find what we’re looking for. I called ahead to the park office to hear a message that the sites are first-come, first-served in these late-fall days when the busy camping season is winding down.

We’re bringing some special and hearty provisions for what may be a chilly couple of nights. And, wedged securely in the back of the station wagon with the tent and sleeping bags, is a home-baked apple pie. I pulled the pastry from the oven last night, and we keep smelling the cinnamon. The apples inside are from Wight’s Orchard in Bucksport. We always stop at the hillside orchard on Route 46 in the fall to buy a bag or two of Cortland apples and a couple of the winter squashes that are arranged by size on wooden tables—from the mini pumpkins and smaller gourds to the whoppers.

Inspired by the season and the camping ahead, I made the slab pie with a southern friend’s recipe for butter crust and a filling that includes pecans and sour cream mixed in with the apples. We’ve also got the Coleman cookstove, and photographer Peter Frank Edwards has brought Maine yellow-eye beans along with some wild duck from a recent hunting day on a pond near Camden. Sleeping in a tent is better, after all, when you’ve got a belly of good food.

We’re talking of the wonder of tides and thinking we’re all set to settle in beside them very soon, but the farther east we drive, the cloudier the sky turns, until it’s thick with gray clouds that sit heavy and low. “Looks like it will be a rainy night in Lubec,” says Peter Frank.

I check the latest forecast and radar, which shows a heavy band of rain is set to drench the county around midnight. I imagine wringing out wet camping gear in the morning, and we decide to go for a plan B and stay in town for the first night. Luckily, the tidy Eastland Motel in Lubec, just a short drive from the park, has a room available, and the tavern kitchen at the Water Street Inn hasn’t yet closed for the season. Before we stop there for a bowl of peppery seafood stew with haddock, scallops, and shrimp, we drive around town and stop several times to get out of the car for a better view.

On Lubec’s hilly peninsula, we drive through streets of shingled houses to survey the water and sky from several vantage points, including near the historic McCurdy’s Smokehouse atop a pier on Water Street—the old herring processor was last open in 1991, and its wood timbers still smell of smoke. We park and walk from near the base of the breakwater that extends into the channel toward Campobello Island. Standing along the Johnson Bay shore in our rain jackets, we look out toward Eastport, which is only about 3 miles across the water but a 35-mile drive by car. The bay is the green-blue color of cold, and the wind is blowing, rocking the floating docks at the seasonal ferry terminal.

I notice remnants of sea urchin shells on some of the rocks, and we guess these must have been dropped by feeding seabirds. The waterscape of remote coves and islands and points in between is all part of the Cobscook Bay region, known for its extraordinary, twice-daily rush of tides. I soon hear the putter of a skiff motoring in and watch two men tie the boat to a pier. When one of the guys passes near us to walk to his truck, we start talking. His name is Randy, and he works in the salmon fishery around Lubec and Eastport. They’ve just returned from tending the pens near Shackford Head, he explains, which is less than ten minutes away by boat, and the site of a state park on the same island as Eastport.

Earlier, I picked up a map of the bay-area trails and parks, and there are dozens to explore. I ask Randy for his help narrowing where we will go. He suggests following South Lubec Road for the views of the Lubec Channel along its S-curves out to the West Quoddy Head Light, and then he recounts for us some of his visits to the Reversing Falls at Pembroke, where saltwater tides create a powerful gush of crossing currents between the mainland and Falls Island. (Looking at a map helps immensely to visualize the winding roads and puzzle pieces of land and water here.) “I’ve been through it plenty in boats, and went through it with my dad once on a full moon at nine at night,” he says pointing to the map to explain. “You’ve got to do it just right—go around this rock and through here and all. Otherwise, you’ll look down at some point and see rocks below you.”

After the motel overnight, the morning brings bright sunshine. Last night I heard buoy bells clanging as a chilled wind rolled in from Canada, replacing the rain. To take advantage of the brilliant day, we decide to get to the campground early. It turns out that a reservation wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. An attendant at the gatehouse lets us know that we practically have our pick of the place. On a campground map, she circles a couple of the sites she says are the best for tents.

Originally part of the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge that was founded in the 1930s, Cobscook Bay State Park and its campsites are nestled in mature woods and out overlooking water. To find our spot, we follow a lane through the woods that we just know must lead someplace special. At the end is a tucked-away campsite with a log lean-to and a short path through the woods that takes us to a rocky rise overlooking a cove. I don’t know it yet, but a land bridge that I see across the mud will become submerged at high tide and create an island. And the green seaweed clumps at low tide will float and bloom later, rising with the tides like pom-poms.

I can see the glint of a parked RV through the woods, but besides that it looks like we’ll have this observation point to ourselves—right in the heart of where rocks, mud, and saltwater meet for the extravagant tides. Cobscook is derived from a Maliseet-Passamaquoddy word for “boiling tides,” and we’re excited to have this shoreside view to watch the rapid tidal changes and diverse marine ecology. On the incoming tide, the cove we’re on begins to fill so fast that, when I crouch at the water’s edge to look for some shrimp swimming in the pooling water, I suddenly feel the rising water creeping into my shoe. I decide to seek higher ground and find a perch on sunny rock to watch the cove. Below me, rambling around in rubber boots as the tide washes in, Peter Frank points to scattering green crabs, and he lifts periwinkles, soft-shell clams, and blue mussels to show to me. But we won’t be gathering our own seafood dinner today. The campground allows campers to dig up to a peck of clams, when in season—but a sign at the gate noted that the clamming is closed because of a red tide warning. Disappointing, but we’re still rich with duck, beans, and pie. And I’ll make a campfire snack of popcorn later, once the coals get hot enough to keep the kernels popping under the foil of their Jiffy Pop pan.

It’s nice to have the ease of car camping here, and the convenience of having to lug gear only a few yards from the car to get the tent set up. I happily make a soft nest inside our two-person dome tent, now that the wet weather has passed. We crawl inside not long after dinner to read awhile by flashlight and then sleep. High in the quiet, deep sky of stars is the distant hum of a jet airplane. Maybe it’s a transatlantic flight, I think, while tucking deeper into my sleeping bag. Stretched out on a 11⁄2-inch-thick inflatable mattress, we couldn’t be much closer to the ground.

Hoot-to-hoot, hoo-hoo-hoo is the sound that wakes me at 3 a.m. Or maybe I wake because the temperatures have dipped into the 30s. Either way, I hear the owls. I reach down to where Esther, our little terrier-hound, is sleeping near our feet, and I pull her closer for warmth then drift back to sleep. The wild sounds start again—eagle chatter and crow calls signaling dawn.

“You probably heard the cows last night,” the ranger says when he stops by on morning rounds. He’s talking about Tide Mill Farm where cows graze in seaside pastures; we passed a marker for it on the road coming in. He also notes that campers on a different loop of the 888-acre campground reported seeing a black bear. By keeping our food stowed in the car, we had no pest troubles, we say.

After we warm up with cocoa and coffee heated on the Coleman stove, we head out for more exploring. Following a peninsula that pierces into Cobscook Bay, we take a public trail into Pike Lands, where we pass through a collector’s orchard of trees from around the world, where knobby red and yellow apples are still clinging to the branches. Heading back toward Lubec, a man at a roadside stand is selling winter squash, beets, potatoes, apples, and orange masses of pumpkins. From the 70- to 80-foot-high cliffs along the trail that begins beside the candy-striped West Quoddy Lighthouse, we watch the now-sparkling chop of seawater of the Lubec Channel. I scan for a sign of whales. At the Water Street Tavern, we had gotten into a conversation with some of the guests near us about whale sightings. One woman told of seeing a pair of humpback whales off Herring Cove during a recent excursion to Campobello Island, and said that, from land or from her sea kayak, she’s observed more whales around Lubec in the past year than she had in a decade.

Meanwhile, in and on houses and businesses around town, we’ve been noticing whale-shaped wood carvings above doors and on walls and mantels. We stop in at the Peacock House Bed and Breakfast to find proprietor Jim Hoffman, who makes and sells the carvings, and discover he has only a few left from the summer season. He explains that as a side pursuit he’s been carving the whales in wintertime, from cedar, larch, and other “wood with character” that he finds. We continue to explore and observe tide changes, revisiting spots we saw at the peak of high water, to view them again when the water recedes—for a short span of the day it’s possible to walk below the smokehouse, and to see a cove become a vast expanse of mud.

The tidal rhythms remind me of this morning. Esther fell asleep in the warmth of early sunshine on the rocks that rim the cove at our Cobscook campsite. As water refilled the flats and air bubbles rose from the bottom, a soft breeze blew in. I considered slipping away from my deep-sleeping dog to fetch a little more coffee from the camp stove, but the memory of the speedy tide that had flooded my feet earlier stopped me, and I decided to stay put. “I think the tide won’t reach her,” I told Peter Frank when he appeared from the campsite path with a funny grin. “But we better stay close.”

Nature’s in charge here. He reported that he’d just seen a red squirrel on the picnic table nibbling batter from the bowl and waffle iron that we used for breakfast. At least it wasn’t a bear, but that canceled the chance for a second round of waffles today.

Instead, we sat on sun-warmed granite for a while longer and simply watched the ever-changing natural scene—and the tides never did wash away Esther (or us). On Cobscook Bay, we have found, the tides just keep washing in and out, bringing the next adventure.