Friday, August 15, 2014

I Saw Three Ships

Hey, it's Christopher again. I'm going to assume that most of our readers are not familiar with the town of Boothbay Harbor, so I'm going to let you in on a little secret about the town usually reserved for locals: Boothbay Harbor is, as it turns out, a harbor. Armed with this knowledge, we knew we'd be able to see things most tourists might miss. As is often true of harbors, a wide variety of ships sailed in an out of the sheltered port nestled between two peninsulas, of which Maine has about a thousand, and it seemed like it would be a wasted opportunity if we didn't go out on at least a couple of them. Mom picked up a handful of brochures from the campground office, and as though performing a card trick, she fanned them out and picked three cruises for us to take around the harbor and nearby islands.
Puffin raft
The first of these was Cap'n Fish's Puffin Watch Cruise. The omission of half of the letters in 'captain' provided a maritime authenticity you just can't get most places, and their connection to the Audobon Society meant we probably would actually learn something about the lives of puffins as part of the experience. We drove down to the waterfront, where we had been told parking was provided. Unfortunately, we did not consider the lack of phrases like "complimentary" or "free of charge," and when we reached the parking lot in question, the man at the booth told us we'd have to hand him a $20 bill before he'd let us park there. With eyes the size of dinner plates and jaws on the floor, we handed over the cash. As is our habit, we had arrived right on time, by which I mean several minutes late, so we didn't really have time to look for parking elsewhere.

Christopher on the top of the aquabus
Having finally experienced piracy first hand, we headed down to the dock, handed over our tickets, and boarded the Harbor Lady. The Harbor Lady was one of Cap'n Fish's fleet of three, also including the Island Lady and the Pink Lady. All three sailed both the harbor and the islands, all three were pink, and all three lacked those usual feminine qualities of a sleek ship. They were more like double-decker tourbusses that floated. Still, we were there to see wildlife, not admire the boat, and this design did provide the most effective viewing opportunities for the passengers.

"Blah blah puffins.
Blah blah preservation."
We were soon underway towards Eastern Egg Rock, where once a year, the Eastern Bunny hides Eastern Eggs for... oh no, that's something else. Eastern Egg Rock is the island home of Maine's only colony of Atlantic Puffins. On the ride out, a young woman from the Audobon Society gave a talk on marine wildlife, mostly focused on how to identify the various birds we would see, but with some information on the annual cycle of puffin life as well. We learned how to identify the Common Terns by their forked tails, Laughing Gulls by their irritating calls, Guillemots by the fact that they look like puffins save for a white patch on their wings, and Atlantic Puffins by the fact that they look exactly like puffins. This time of year, the puffins would have the colorful bills that they are recognized for, but when the mating season ended, they would molt their colors (making them harder to spot), and head far out to sea (making them much harder to spot).

Home of the Eastern Eggs

I'll huffin and I'll puffin...
When we reached Eastern Egg Rock, it was more lively than the Cap'n or the Audobon woman had seen it in ages. There were puffins everywhere, forming great rafts on the water as they joined their little social groups. They'd fly past the boat, within 20 feet of us, and flash their colorful bills as though they knew they were the stars of the show. I assume most people are familiar with puffins, but for those who aren't, they are a relative of the penguin. Unlike their Antarctic cousins, however, the puffins have retained their ability to fly, though just barely. They aren't particularly graceful; in fact, they fly sort of like a sack of flour with wings attached, and they tend to land by simply ceasing to flap and hitting the water at whatever speed they happen to be traveling at. I had to admit, though, they were charming little
Puffin take-off
creatures. They were not alone, either. Terns dive-bombed the boat, as though trying to show the puffins how to really fly. Guillemots made passes, trying desperately to be mistaken for a puffin and get their picture taken. On the shore, a few cormorants sat with their wings spread in a dragon-like pose, drying them after a morning of fishing. There were even a couple of the illusive Audobon Naturalists on the island, hiding in their natural habitat of camera bunkers and tents. Satisfied with our fill of wildlife, we rode back into the harbor, landlubbers once more until our next cruise.

Our Sultry Schooner
On our itinerary for another day was a cruise around the harbor aboard the Schooner Eastwind. We drove back down to the waterfront, and with eyes the size of saucers and jaws at our waistlines, we paid $20 for parking once more. The Eastwind was a two-masted sailing ship and a legitimately beautiful vessel. We climbed aboard with about 25 other people and set out into the harbor. We had to motor about for a bit to get away from the dock, but once we reached the open harbor, the captain and his first mate unreeled the sails, and they filled with wind. There is something timeless about letting the wind push you through the water, a sideways wing cutting through sea and sky. The captain skirted around the edge of a rain storm and caught a good gust for us, tilting the ship to about 45 degrees. A few of the passengers panicked, but our skipper assured us that the ship had a ten ton keel, and it wouldn't tip farther than that unless we hit a hurricane. We sailed as far as Burnt Island, which has a fairly interesting history that the captain explained to us. Bear with me, because I'm going to attempt one of Dad's history breaks here.

Very Historical Lighthouse
Back when the town of Boothbay Harbor was still called Townsend, around the turn of the 19th Century, Burnt Island was owned by the McCobb family, along with Mouse Island to the north. The McCobbs lived on Mouse Island in the summers, and they brought their sheep to graze on Burnt Island. In order to make the island a flat, fertile, treeless area suitable for grazing, the McCobbs simply set fire to it, lending it its name. Once the sheep were out there, they had plenty of grass and they couldn't go anywhere, so they were essentially maintenance free. As trade began to grow along the Maine coast, a growing need for lighthouses arose, and on March 3, 1821, Congress appropriated $10,500 to build three lighthouses in Maine. The McCobbs were in a place to benefit from increased trade to Townsend, so Joseph McCobb sold Burnt Island to the state for $150. A stone lighthouse was built at the south end of the island, nearly four feet thick at its base, and James McCobb, Joseph's son, became its first keeper. The solid construction lasted, and now the Burnt Island Light is the oldest original lighthouse in Maine. It was also the last to be converted from kerosene to electric in 1962, and one of the last to be manned before it was automated in 1988.

The Burnt Island Light is distinct from many lighthouses in that it was not built to warn ships, but rather to attract them. As such, it has an interesting design. Most of its square light room has red-painted windows, save for two white slits. These slits create two beams which correspond with newer lighthouses on Ram Island and The Cuckolds, creating white strips in the water that mark the channels into the harbor around Squirrel Island in the center.

A fellow schooner, the Lazy Jack
The skipper entertained us with stories of his voyages around the world, and occasionally he would point out a Harbor Porpoise to us. Harbor Porpoises are very similar to dolphins, except for the distinguishing feature that they are not called dolphins. All too soon, it was time to head back in to port, another cruise behind us. If you're in the Boothbay area, I strongly recommend taking this cruise. It's a great experience for any age, and it will make you wish you owned a schooner of your own to sail the seven seas.

Preparing to Depart
The last of our marine excursions was a cruise aboard the Bennie Alice to Cabbage Island for a clambake. This is a confusing term, since the main focus was lobster, and although there were clams, nothing was baked. We drove back down to the waterfront, and with eyes the size of eyeballs and jaws at our jawlines, we coughed up another twenty bucks. The Bennie Alice was another buoyant tourbus, but with the extremely positive addition of a full bar. We took a toodling ride around the harbor before we eventually arrived at Cabbage Island, where the family that owns the business lives. There, at their converted home/restaurant, we were served fish chowder, which keeping with my past experiences, was really a soup. It tasted good, though, and with enough oyster crackers, you could soak up the broth. They gave us about a billion oyster crackers, so this was not a problem.

Confident owner of the best hat in the picture
After the appetizer course, we walked down the the cliff side with everyone else to pick up our lobsters. I opted for the special "land lobster" which tastes just like chicken, because it is. My parents got two one-pounders, and we all got steamed corn, clams, baked potatoes, onions, and a hard-boiled egg apiece. The food was great, and the island was beautiful. Dad complained however, because he had apparently been under the impression that we were going to Clam Island for a cabbagebake. This is just the sort of joke he finds hilarious, and since I talked about the Eastern Bunny a few paragraphs back, who am I to judge?

Chow Down!
After dinner, we were given a short time to walk around the island, explore, and take pictures. I found a good looking tree and found a nice crook to take a nap in. Some family on the boat thought this was hilarious and promptly took a family photo in front of me. So somewhere out there is a picture of a Jamaican family with a couple of sandals and a tilted-down cowboy hat in the background, and if I ever find it on the internet, I'll have to link it to the blog. Pretty soon, the Bennie Alice returned to take us back to the mainland. I had a beer on the way back, but there was a lot less toodling on the return trip. Ever the helpful one, Dad grabbed the cup out of my hand and chugged half of it, since I couldn't disembark with alcohol. I've been thinking of a way to thank him, but I haven't found a big enough bug to put in his coffee yet.

With our feet back on dry land, and our 12 days in Boothbay Harbor up, we packed up the RV and drove north for Trenton and Acadia National Park. I'm sure we'll have some great photos and stories of our experiences there to share with you, although at the moment, it seems like rain will be a heavily featured theme. Until next time, Bon Voyage!

Bonus Pics:

Pemaquid Light House

Exercising schnoodles
Turkey Vulture
Common Tern

Chris and friend

Cormorants squatting on puffin territory
Cormorant lift off
Most photogenic of the group

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