Downeast, All the Way
LOCATION FEATURE-August 2012
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Fish, art, crows, and conversation in the easternmost towns on Maine’s coast.
Ah, the irony.
It’s the first few hours of a weekend trip to the far eastern reaches of Maine, and in a tavern near the wharves in Lubec, I hear several locals talking about their favorite brands of canned fish. One man says he’s so devoted to Latvian sprats that he buys them by the case and claims to eat one or two cans every day of “the good ones in sunflower oil.” Another man likes the King Oscar brand for the “two-layer” sardines in olive oil. And a woman a few barstools away says she buys canned tuna and sardines for her husband for the health benefits. “He needs the fish oil,” she says. Other customers along the bar nod knowingly.
The irony of this conversation is that it’s taking place on a waterfront that was once lined with sardine factories—a former kingdom in the fish-cannery world. Hanging from the bar ceiling is a sign for Excello sardines, a brand that was once packed in Lubec. While the town’s last full-time sardine operation closed more than a decade ago, its salty history has lured me to downeast Maine for my second summertime visit. A few years ago, on a lark, we spent a single night in Eastport, where we watched the tremendous rise and fall of the tides, wandered the shoreline and shops, and sipped wine while eating grilled seafood at the Pickled Herring restaurant (think northern California meets Maine). During that trip, we didn’t have time for anything more than a quick spin through Lubec. Ever since, I’ve wanted to return for further exploring.
This time, we’re spending a couple of nights at the Inn on the Wharf, a century-old former sardine factory in Lubec. Imagine that. Victor Trafford, who also operates whale-watching tours during the summer, checks us in, then shows us to a room with red mod chairs and three windows overlooking Johnson Bay. Actually, all the rooms have windows or porches directly on the bay. Since buying the property in 2002, Trafford and his wife, Judy, have converted the former cannery into an inn with a restaurant, a dozen suite-style rooms, and three apartments. Everything is modernized, but many of the original elements remain, including a network of boiler room pipes that crisscross the dining room ceiling. A massive tank, which formerly held hundreds of gallons of olive oil used in the canning process, is still in place a few yards from the inn. On the bay side, where the inn has its own wharf for fishermen to unload fish and lobsters, Campobello Island, a part of New Brunswick, Canada, can be seen just across the water. That night’s special at Fisherman’s Wharf, the inn’s restaurant, is line-caught halibut “from right out there in the bay,” says one of the cooks in the open kitchen located just beyond the large pastry case and live-lobster tank.
We are way downeast, some 250 miles northeast of Portland. Getting to Lubec involves venturing farther north and east than most travelers to Maine ever do—at least those coming from the United States. On the way to Lubec and Eastport (with populations of about 1,500 and 1,300, respectively), we pass through busy Ellsworth, quaint Milbridge, and finally Machias and East Machias. We order hot dogs at the Riverside Take-Out in Machias, where we find that the homemade coleslaw has a terrific wasabi kick. And in East Machias, we stop at the basket-laden roadside stand of Richard Tuell, who will celebrate his eightieth birthday this summer. The former car mechanic says he’s been making baskets of oak, ash, and cedar for almost 30 years, and he invites us into his workshop, housed in a modified truck trailer, to show us the wooden forms he uses to shape the woven strips of wood.
Elsewhere on the drive, the often sparse, rural scenery between towns features seasonal ice-cream stands and other take-out joints, including the famous blue-painted shop with a pie in the sky sign on Route 1 at Columbia Falls. A buoy-sized “blueberry” orb with white capital letters spells “Pies” on the sign that’s mounted on a tall pole beside the igloo-shaped Wild Blueberry Land gift shop, bakery, and mini-golf course. Blueberry barrens stretch for miles and miles along the roadway here, and every August tens of millions of pounds of low-bush berries are picked and canned throughout Washington County. We turn from Route 1 onto ME-189, where the road splits off toward Lubec, and we eventually come upon an elaborate, personal folk art display at the edge of a cove that involves life-size wooden figures in shirts and dresses. I remember this roadside oddity from my last visit. When we pass the scene again, it’s all still there—only with more of the eerily human-like figures arranged around a boat or leaning on fences like the members of a lost colony.
FOOD, FOG, AND EASTPORT ART
The incredibly dense “Fundy Fog” in this area is known to set in quickly and then burn off or otherwise disappear without notice. Our first night in Lubec, the fog rolls up while we’re at the Water Street Tavern sharing a dinner of chicken wings, haddock chowder, and good hot bread with cold butter. But in the morning, the sky is fairly clear when we walk down the hall to the inn’s restaurant. I can see well past the wharf to the bay while I break open a steaming popover and slather it with blueberry sauce. The breakfast menu includes a lobster Benedict made with chunks of fresh, hand-picked lobster, which we try, to see if it’s as rich and delicious as it sounds. It is. Then we’re off to Eastport for the day. The innkeepers tell me that in the height of summer it would be only a 15-minute ferry ride between Lubec and Eastport. But to drive there takes almost an hour. On the tremendous mud flats that extend out toward Cobscook Bay along the causeway to Eastport, I see a lone person on the silver-gray expanse in a blowing mist. Probably 300 yards away, the figure is bent at the waist—digging clams, I guess.
Eastport’s downtown is a charmer. We park on Water Street near the Shop at the Commons, where I chat with Sue Crawford, one of the founders of the gallery, who shows me some of the sculpture, paintings, photography, and other works from dozens of regional artists. The shop’s collection includes traditional fish-scale baskets once used in the sardine factories, and fine basketry made by local members of the Passamaquoddy tribe. In some of the baskets, porcupine quills have been incorporated into the weave. A few doors away at Really Bad Antiques, shop owner Allan Sutherland has stories about the objects he sells, from parlor clocks that were collected by a local innkeeper to a German-made, three-speed bike hanging from the ceiling that was originally bought in Bangor in the 1970s. A little farther up Water Street, at the Eastport Breakwater Gallery, painter Cynthia Morse describes the “raw quality” of Washington County’s local art, which she sees as a reflection of the culture and landscape. I mention that I’ve noticed fish and crows are prevalent in paintings and sculpture here—separate galleries in Eastport and Lubec feature “crow” in their names—and she tells me that crows definitely have a presence in the daily life around Eastport. Some mornings, she says, all is quiet except for the ruckus of crows cawing before full daylight.
We stop for lunch at the Greek-inspired Liberty Cafe for a gyro, and then notice that besides a few Greek salads being delivered to tables, bowls of macaroni and cheese seem to be a popular order with the local lunch crowd. Across the street, “Cannoli Friday” is written on a chalkboard sign outside of the Moose Island Bakery. We go inside and order a mini cannoli and an éclair. Why not? Re-fueled, we drive a mile beyond town and stop in to see the Harris Point Shore Cabins and Motel on a strip of land jutting into Passamaquoddy Bay. The vintage yellow cabins are lined up on a circular drive, and most are located on the very edge of the shoreline. In the office, we meet Jeannie Harris, who says she began working at the classic camp back in 1947, along with her husband, George. She’s seen many changes, since people today want many more conveniences like cable television (some units have it) and Wi-Fi (not yet). “Why do I need a computer when I have paper and pens?” she says.
LUBEC NIGHT, CAMPOBELLO LIGHT
Back in Lubec for our second evening, I decide we should start extra early (our innkeeper notes that places can clear out by 8 p.m.) so we can get in a mini pub crawl to three watering holes within a few steps of one another on Water Street. The street’s line of wooden buildings also houses gift shops and art galleries, as well as a hardware store, a chocolate shop, and a gourmet sea salt producer. The streetscape has a frontier town quality that I admire, reminiscent of a western movie set or the Alaskan outpost in the television show Northern Exposure.
At the Water Street Tavern, a Friday rush made up of locals and the first summer visitors fills the dining room and bar. Two men in a band named Austin Thomas Unit are taking requests and playing songs on their guitars, including a rendition of “The Gambler” that gets the dining room crowd singing along. After a while, we start our little crawl by stepping out during the musical break. Across the street at the Irish-style Cohill’s Pub, we order plates of hearty shepherd’s pie and pints of Guinness. It’s still light outside when we make our way to our third stop, Annabell’s Pub, a roadhouse bar with a pool table and, that night, a band sitting in a circle playing southern rock and blues. The beer is flowing and people are dancing. At one point, a woman standing nearby tells me she lives just across the bridge on Campobello Island. She smiles and says, “There’s not a lot going on in Lubec, but there’s a lot going on.”
The next morning, we grab coffee at the inn, check out, and start exploring again. The lights are on at Bayside Chocolates on Water Street, and when I walk inside a dozen or so people at a big table greet me with “hellos” and “good mornings.” This appears to be a local meeting place, particularly for some of the community’s elders. Chocolatier Eugene Greenlaw, who is also a lobsterman, gets another pot of coffee brewing and brings out a tray of large, blueberry muffins hot from the oven that he sets on a side table. He offers me some of each, and I find a seat while the conversation picks back up—mainly talk about the day’s news in the paper and which boats have been out lobstering. Four of the men get a cribbage game going. Eugene invites me to taste some of the chocolates he’s been making, including dried blueberries dipped in chocolate and something called the “Coffee Cup” that involves coffee beans and a cream-and-sugar custard. I buy some seashell-shaped chocolates and several Needhams to take home.
I don’t want to leave Lubec quite yet. Four boys in Boy Scout uniforms are marching and playing snare drums in a parking lot—possibly practicing for a summer parade. I notice that the door is open at the Historic McCurdy’s Smokehouse, a museum across the street. On our last, speedy visit, I missed the chance to go inside the former herring-processing plant, which closed in 1991. Inside, the pervasive smell of smoke and fish is still amazingly strong. A museum volunteer plays a documentary video and shows us the processing equipment. She says the source of the smell is the hundreds of sticks in a rear room—dowels upon which oily fish were hung during a process that involved days of round-the-clock fire stoking and smoking. I study the displays of framed photography, including Frank Van Riper’s wonderful black-and-white images of the smokehouse employees. In the window of the Lubec Landmarks building next door, I see a notice for a sculpture installation to “commemorate the lost factory industry of Lubec.” Another gallery beside it, the Narrows at Lubec, is having its grand opening this summer. From the defunct canneries here and in Eastport, art is rising.
We have one more goal for our weekend excursion. We brought passports, and I want to drive over to nine-mile-long Campobello Island, which looks so close to Lubec that you feel you could almost swim to it. Campobello is actually closer to the United States than to Canada, and it’s only bridge connects to Lubec, not New Brunswick. Our first destination is the very comfortable, very large (18 bedrooms!) red “cottage” where Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent many summers. My favorite part of the home is a sunny room where the man who would later be president played games and built toy boats with his children. From there, we venture along a shore-hugging road that offers occasional views of Eastport. At the northern end of the island, the road ends at the parking lot for the East Quoddy Lighthouse, also known as Head Harbour Light, which was built in 1829. We quickly surmise that if you want a close–up view, the deceptively short hike to the light involves walking up and down rusted staircases, across a wooden footbridge, and over slippery, seaweed-covered rocks that are submerged, twice a day, by incoming tides that can rise 20 feet or more at a rate of five feet per hour. “Extreme hazard” signs are posted along the path, but the tide is low when we arrive, and we decide to make the trek. Along the way, a fog from the Bay of Fundy forms again. Although I can hear what I imagine is a lobster boat motoring nearby, I never see the phantom vessel. Before we leave for the drive back home, I stare for a while longer into the thick wall of fog. Maybe there’s not a lot going on here, I think, but there’s a lot going on.