Tag Archives: Portage Lake

Returning to my roots – the great outdoors

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Hiking a low mountain in Maine to California redwoods

 

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir, 1901

Growing up in rural Northern Maine, I was outdoors more than in. It was the thing to do. Camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, canoeing, sailing and more in the summer.

During the winters I was still outdoors – snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing – but spent a bit more time indoors. After all, it was winter in the deep, dark North Woods of Maine and being inside was about survival. I’m not completely crazy.

Behind my childhood home on the hill overlooking Portage Lake and the small town of Portage was a now-feral hay field and beyond that was a mountain. Not much more than a hill, really, especially by the standards of the Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountains. It was no Mount Shasta or Mount Whiney. Just a plain, low mountain, ancient and worn, and covered with soft and hardwoods. More ancient than the Sierra or even the Rockies, I seem to recall. Just worn down over time. But in my youth it was a place for adventure and play and escape, with no limits to childhood imagination.

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From that field and mountain, I imagined exploring African jungles and Australian outback. I survived and thrived on countless imaginary deserted islands and roamed the American West ridding it of outlaws. From that spot in Northern Maine, my imagination allowed me to explore the world, rescue heroines and the underdog, and rid the world of the Nazi scourge. In my imagination, at least.

But there are times to imagine and there are times to simply do. I climbed all over that mountain in my backyard and countless others over the years. After a period of aimlessness at University of Southern Maine, I went to Chico State on National Student Exchange. I went for a semester … years ago. And I simply stayed.

Chico was nicely located for outdoor activity – close to hiking, camping and water sports, big on the bicycle culture. The only thing Chico is missing is the ocean. Sea and surf and salt air would have been wonderful there. It was also close to the Sierra Nevada.

But during the first holiday weekend I was in Chico, a group of NSE students and I took a road trip in the opposite direction as the Sierra. Instead we went to Crescent City along the North Coast, stopping to hike among the towering redwoods and along stony beaches. Later I worked as a wildlife firefighter for three summers, putting me deep into the outdoors, sometimes hiking and working in protected wilderness few people get to see ever.

Landing in Vacaville after working at a series of small newspapers, Lagoon Valley Regional Park and Rockville Regional Park were good places to stretch my hiking legs. Muir Woods National Monument in Mill Valley was another favorite place to lace up my boots and simply walk among the trees.

Being outside and hiking have been my life.

Until a couple of years ago, that is. I combination of a knee injury and series of girlfriends who did not share my love for the outdoors limited my exploration. Even limited my adult imagination, I suppose. I did not go to the forest and mountains for far too long. I should have visited the doctor sooner to work to mend the knee and left those disinterested girlfriends behind to go to the forest and mountains. I did neither.

But time passes and knees mend. Thought of disinterested girlfriends fade quickly. I’m back to hiking. And I’m loving it again, just like I always did.

The latest hike last weekend took me to Calaveras Big Trees State Park for the South Grove Trail. And, yes, there are very big trees in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park – giant sequoias, ponderosa pines, sugar pines, incense cedars and white fir, with Pacific dogwoods, leopard lily, Hartweg’s iris, crimson columbine and more. The foliage was passed peak when I hiked the South Grove Trail and the Bradley Grove Trail, about 10 miles of hiking. But I will go back to hike a few other trails.

I plan to hike for decades to come. On the Bradley trail, I ran into two couples and they all must have been in their 80s and there they were hiking. A lifetime of activity means a life worth living.

I’m glad I’m back to hiking. It has been a part of my life since I was a small child climbing that low mountain. It’s part of me. It always was. It always will be.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

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Firefighting women of Portage Lake

[My father, Louis Michaud, was a local volunteer firefighter for years when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Portage Lake, Maine. I recall that he was the fire chief for a time and was in charge of fire suppression at Pinkham Lumber Mill in nearby Nashville Plantation. He worked at the mill, first in the yard, later as the dry kiln operator and foreman, and then he was in charge of the mill’s cogeneration plant. The fire suppression job came along with the territory. And in a small town like Portage in those days, everyone came running when the siren mounted on the Town Hall sounded. It was always exciting when the siren went off, often in the middle of a family meal. He would jump from whatever he was doing and drive off in his pickup to the Town Hall to jump into the fire engine parked in the hall’s basement. While attending the California State University at Chico, I was a wildland firefighter for three fire seasons. I even considered joining the fire services as a career. What I did not seem to know – at least, not until I stumbled across a story in the town’s history, “Portage Lake: History and Hearsay – Early Years to 2009,” was that my mother, Diana (also called Diane) Michaud, also had firefighting training. Other women mentioned in the story are mothers and other relatives of my childhood friends. Bea Cormier used to cut my hair and I played with her sons throughout my adolescence and in high school sports. The story that follows is in a section of the Portage Lake history covering 1970 to 1979 and was likely written by Rachel Stevens, a local woman who also happened to be my first school teacher. Her Maine sense of humor is woven into the writing. The story is on Page 57 of the history, for those of you who have a copy, and it mentions an earlier story in The Bangor Daily News, but fails to mention the date of the story. – KM]

 FIREFIGHTING WOMEN

The Fire Department in Portage was a volunteer organization, which meant there was always a need for more people to help at fires, being willing to be trained in using the equipment and showing up at meetings. At the time, many of the men who were active in the Fire Department worked out of town and were not available during the day. If a fire broke out mid-afternoon, it had a good start by the time someone reported it and the men could get away from work, get the truck and get to the fire.

A group of women, most of them wives of firemen, decided to help. They were all in Portage during the day, so they were immediately available if there was a fire. In a Bangor Daily News article about the group, Diana Michaud said, “We felt we ought to know what to do if a fire broke out.”

Bea Cormier organized the group, which included Diana Michaud, Barbara Paradis, Grace Nason, Shirley Nason, and Avis Bass. They received training from Roger Marquis, a firefighter from Presque Isle, and learned how to operate the truck and the pump. The training included use of a respirator, resuscitator, and inhalator.

Grace Nason described with satisfaction being able to demonstrate how to pop the clutch when taking the fire truck up Hayward Hill. And they put their training to good use.

The Bangor Daily News article described a Monday morning fire when there were more women than men: “Those present have a lasting memory of Mrs. Cormier’s arrival in high boots and hair rollers with axe in hand.” In an interview, Bea, Diana, Barb and Grace agreed the training made them confident. Hearing the siren no longer seemed frightening when they knew they could do something.

Every call presented an adventure. One of the first ones occurred when the information Bea Cormier received had her taking the truck up the West Road, only to have Rena Boutot race out to stop her and tell her the fire was on the Cottage Road. Bea realized with horror that she had to turn the truck around, something she had never done. Fortunately, she was able to drive through the loop at the artesian well and reverse direction.

There was the time they responded to a fire at a camp. A 100-pound propane tank in a shed blew as they were arriving, going straight up and straight down. They were all shaken, but went on setting up. Diana went back for the Jeep, the men arrived and they put out the fire.

On their way to a possible drowning on the West Road, Diana’s car hit a low branch, but she never stopped. When she came home, however, she found her spaghetti sauce burned and the house full of smoke.

This group of women provided a useful service, and was an important part of the Fire Department. They were able to get equipment to a fire and have it ready to work when more helped arrived. Because of what they did, property was saved and less damage occurred.

Portage Lake axes indicate trade link | Bangor Daily News

[This is a cool story for those who know Portage and Portage Lake. Of course, “portage” is the French word used for the act of carrying a canoe or other boat overland, which would happen when travelers had to move from one body of water to another. This is where I grew up. Jim Dumond was a longtime game warden in the area and I believe owned Dean’s Motor Lodge for a while. And the Gagnon name is a very familiar one in Portage. It will be interesting to see just how far back they can track these artifacts and if there are any more there. — KM]

PORTAGE, Maine — Every object passing through a person’s hands has a story to tell.

Sometimes those stories are centuries in the making and take years to tell themselves. Just ask Jim Dumond and Antoine Gagnon of Portage whose story of trade between two nations and two hand-forged axes dates back to the mid-1600s.

The axes initially were discovered in the 1950s on a piece of land known locally as Indian Point on the banks of Portage Lake.

“My grandfather Fred Cliff was clearing some land in between two camps, and the fellow he hired to pull stumps turned over some dirt and there were these old iron axes,” Fred Edgecombe of Kure Beach, N.C., said during a phone interview Saturday.

Now retired, Edgecombe owns one of those camps and has one of the axes.

“In the late 1970s my cousin got the larger of the two axes and I got the smaller one, and we’ve been sitting on them ever since,” Edgecombe said. “Nobody had much of an interest in them and all of sudden, it’s like, ‘Wow, people are interested.’”

In fact, Dumond and Gagnon are very interested in the axes and what they represent.

Last summer the two men got a good look at the old tools and, thanks to some intensive research on the Internet, were able to match the symbols on the blades, indicating they had been crafted from iron ore mined in Spain around 1640.

“These trade axes are just awesome,” Gagnon said. “They looked like a metal hatchet, [and] on the sides were stamped a cross within a circle.”

According to Dumond and Gagnon, the trade axes — so called because French and British trappers and colonists traded them for furs with the area’s Native American residents — probably found their way to northern Maine thanks to the Acadians who came to Maine around that time.

Both men say they have Acadian and Native roots in their family genealogies and are fascinated by what the blades represent.

Click for the rest of the story by Julia Bayly in the Bangor Daily News.

 

Rainfall washes away much – just not memories

Rain showers soaked much of Northern California the other day. It was not enough to cause serious problems beyond localized street flooding, but it was a nice, steady, wet change of pace for a region that regularly sees summertime temperatures above 100 degrees.

The showers washed away dust and soot and grime and brought with it that cleansing smell that comes with the first real rainfall of the year, the smell that reminds us of childhood things. It permeated the air for much of the day.

It was nice.

It was refreshing.

And beyond the gray skies, it was illuminating.

Stockton needs a good washing from time to time. Stockton is a dusty, crusty, musty city and dusty, crusty, musty cities need washing on a regular basis. Otherwise, they turn to dry silt and blow away on the winds of indifference.

The water gurgled through the drainpipe just outside an opened balcony door and the sound of raindrops hitting the leaves just beyond was audible. A ping, ping, ping came from the stove vent as the drops crashed onto the vent’s hood on the roof.

Cars splashed by up and down the street. With ample time since the last major rainfall, oil and dirt had built up on the street surface. California drivers very likely had forgotten that the water from first real rainfall of the year loosens that oil and dirt from the street, causing slippery driving conditions.

And many people abandoned outdoor adventures for the comfort of homes and HD televisions and the National Football League or a movie classic.

The rain reminded me of my childhood spent in the North Woods of Maine. Why wouldn’t it? Mark Twain – or someone else – wrote about the weather:

“If don’t like the weather in New England, wait 15 minutes. It’ll change.”

Or something similar, at least.

The point is that New England weather – especially in Maine – is a fickle thing and occasionally a very harsh thing.

In the North Woods of Maine there is plenty of precipitation and there is much time spent bundled up against the weather – rain, sleet, wind, snow, and more snow. As a child growing up in Aroostook County, it seemed that rain came nearly any time of the year, even in winter if it was warm enough to turn snow and ice to sleet and then rain.

Despite being well-suited for the weather, Mainers make a sport of grumbling about it. If it rains too much, it’s bad. If it rains too little, it’s bad. If the wind blows, curses!

But we worked in it and we played in it and the forest grew green because of it. And rivers flowed and lakes rose because of it.

And the National Weather Service and the local weathermen – they were all weathermen then – were slandered and their manhood questioned whether their daily weather prognostications were correct or not.

I recall a childhood memory in which my mother is driving my sister and me north to Eagle Lake or Fort Kent or Saint Francis to visit family. Outside the very bright red Chevrolet Cheville it is raining – the windshield wipers slapping back and forth and the wheels splashing along the roadway. My sister and I are arguing over which of us will be Mom’s “co-pilot” on the trip north, along the way imagining that the car is a plane and the ornamental buttons on the passenger door and dashboard are plane controls.

Truly, neither my sister nor I were “pilots” of any kind; at the time, our young legs could not reach the car’s floorboards.

Later on, in a newer memory, I recall camping on the shores of Perch Pond with the rain coming down hard for what seemed like days. Part of the memory includes playing games in the Cormier’s sprawling family tent, part of it includes being perpetually damp, part of it recalls the thin thudding sound the raindrops made as they hit the canvas tents, part of it recalls the heavy, clinging, soaked clothing.

A memory from about the same time recalls a trip into the woods to pick fiddleheads, raindrops hitting the hood of a windbreaker I wore for the trek into the woods not far from Portage Lake. The forest was drenched. Each step brushing against the ferns and grass and small trees brought an even more thorough drenching, soaking shoes and socks and pant legs and the human legs under those pant legs.

I remember watching the splash the drops made – millions upon millions of them – in the nearby river and the sound of the drops slapping the trees above and the accumulated water tumbling from saturated leaves to the saturated ground beneath. It seemed prehistoric.

Still later, while in high school, we practiced soccer in the rain – and occasionally in the snow. The rain then did not seem to cleanse things, but to make them simply sodden and muddy and heavy from the weight of the water. Soccer shoes and socks became heavy, sweatpants and sweatshirts clung to shivering teen boys, and baseball caps worn in practice and on the sideline in a futile attempt to ward off the rain became soaked. Water and mud and grass stains infused in the clothing and the body by the rainfall.

Other memories of New England rain abound, of course, because rain is so much a part of the history of the place – the forest and the land and the water and the air – and of the people.

But rain washes away dirt and grime and occasionally flushes away things made by man and Mother Nature, but rarely does it wash away memories.

After all, memories are merely refreshed by a good rainfall on a fall day.

Award-winning tourism photo | Bangor Daily News

Award-winning tourism photo | Bangor Daily News

Check out the winning photo for the Aroostook County Tourism summer photo contest. Follow this link to the Bangor Daily News or to the Aroostook County Tourism website. The photo is very nearly Rockwellesque.

The scenic views category winner took a shot of Portage Lake at sunset. It’s just as I remember it growing up! I’m guessing from the angle that it was shot from the south or southeast corner of the lake not too far from the public beach, but I could be wrong. It is unfortunate that the Aroostook County Tourism website does not allow for a larger version of the photos.

Ol’ smoke eater, news hound suspects grass fire, finds none

My father was part of the volunteer fire department in Portage when I was a child and I’m pretty sure for a time he was the fire chief, but I could be wrong about that.

He also was in charge of fire protection at the lumber mill where he worked. I remember him running out of the house if the fire whistle in the middle of town sounded or if he received a call from the mill that something or other had caught fire. I also recall going to the mill with him one winter day and him using a frontend loader to mix snow into a waste wood pile that had caught fire by spontaneous combustion.

And given that I spent three summers humping up and down the Sierra Nevada and its foothills breathing in smoke and dirt as part of a firefighting hand crew, it is a bit surprising – at least to me – that I did not make firefighting my life’s work.

In all honesty, however, it sort of was my life’s work since as a reporter I spent much time chasing fire engines and ladder trucks and ambulances while covering cops, crime and chaos.

But I haven’t covered a roadside grassfire or a wildland fire in quite some time.

I was sitting on my balcony the other day reading a Stephen King novel – what Mainer hasn’t read at least one of King’s novels? – when I noticed a rice-paper delicate speck floating into my view. It was the size of a dandruff flake, really.

Then I noticed a dozen or so more drifting over the apartment from the west.

My first thought was “ash” and “fire.” OK, my first two thoughts.

I sniffed the air, but did not detect smoke, so I didn’t panic.

But I did briefly think back to the wind-driven Quail Lakes fire in Stockton during June 2008 in which dozens of families were forced to flee from their homes because of a roadside fire that spread into a condominium complex and a neighborhood, destroying homes and other property. It was truly devastating and I wasn’t planning to go through what those families were forced to endure.

I made a quick mental checklist – computer, change of clothing, get the car out of the gated underground garage – should smoke begin to bellow over the apartment from points west.

I took a quick look out the front door and spotted no browning of the air and smelled no smoke and went back to reading the novel.

More rice-paper ash – my guess was that it had to be from a grass fire perhaps along Interstate 5 that bisects Stockton – floated over the apartment and in to my view. And I noticed a slight browning of the air, even though I could not smell smoke.

I heard no sirens so I figured the fire had to be some distance away, especially since I could not smell smoke.

Giving in to the instincts of the ol’ fire-eater and news hound in me, I decided to hop in the CRV and take a look. After all, if I planned to blog about it, I surely needed to find the fire.

Or not.

I drove around the neighborhood to the west of my apartment for 30 minutes or more and never found fire or smoke. Frankly, Stockton has a pretty good fire department and firefighters are quick to jump on roadside fires. They are not interested in reliving the Quail Lakes fire.

Grass fires don’t normally make it into the local paper. This one didn’t either or I would have added a few more details.

Ah, well, nothing but a couple flakes of ash, a slight browning of the sky, and fruitless evening drive in search of a grass fire. It could have been a much more exciting evening.

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The secret of Secret Rock is no secret at all — local lore

It must be the triple-digit temperatures that regularly hang over the San Joaquin Valley like a hammer against white hot steel just pulled from the forge.

Or perhaps it is because I was born on the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.

Or perhaps it is because I grew up in the frigid expanse of the Deep Dark North Woods of Maine and it will take a lifetime – or longer – for all of me to thaw.

It really doesn’t matter. I’ve been thinking about summer quite a bit lately. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the summers of my youth. And local lore.

Even before teachers started talking about summer reading lists and vacations of which they so longingly and protectively spoke – they always seemed to have a look in their eyes that spoke of the anguish that came with the long, long academic year – it was time to crank up Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.”

In case you forgot, here are the lyrics to that lovely tune.

Well we got no choice

All the girls and boys

Makin’ all that noise

’Cause they found new toys

Well we can’t salute ya

Can’t find a flag

If that don’t suit ya

That’s a drag

School’s out for summer

School’s out forever

School’s been blown to pieces

 

And so on.

But there was much more to the summer than sitting around listening to a man named Alice.

Sure, there were summer jobs and chores and that sort of thing. Summer school for some; summer camp for others.

And, occasionally, the dreaded family vacation. Being cooped up in a car for hours upon hours was no way to spend a summer vacation.

But there was so much more about summer than those things.

There were pickup games of baseball and basketball. There was golf. There was swimming and canoeing and sailing. There were barbecues. There were Red Sox games on the black and white TV. And more.

There is something special – mystical, even – about those summer days of youth. Days of personal and community lore, if nothing else.

Portage Lake is nestled among hills and mountains of central Aroostook County. State Route 11 winds its way from the south over a hill and down into the flatland where rests the town – Dean’s Motor Lodge, Coffin’s General Store, the post office, a few more businesses, and homes for several hundred residents.

Except for the public beach, the seaplane base, and the Forest Service facility, year-round homes and vacation cabins are sprinkled on the wooded hills and flats that make up the shore of Portage Lake.

The ancient hills for the most part are gentle and worn down over millions of years of shifting plates, pounding rains, persistent winds, and – a late-comer to the wear and tear – man and machine.

A contrast is an outcropping of earth and rock – very probably New England granite – that overlooks the water and town from just east of the lake.

Every community has lore. Some of it is good. Some of it is not so good. Some of it is simply neutral. Local lore many times sprouts from older children trying to impress younger children, the local lore that includes stories to scare younger children. It’s the lore passed down from generation to generation to generation of the people who are born, live and die in such places as this.

Part of the lore of Portage is a slab of stone known among generations of Portage school-age children as Secret Rock.

There was never any treasure or tragedy associated with Secret Rock, at least none that I recall these many years since. No pirates or other scallywags buried booty near Secret Rock. And no love-struck, lovesick couple ever took a plunge from Secret Rock.

There were no frightful creatures hiding in the cracks and crevices of the quartz-injected granite, no monsters hiding in the nearby forest. It was simply a rock, a rock not much larger than a tennis court, as I recall.

Frankly, there wasn’t much “secret” about Secret Rock. I could see Secret Rock from my childhood home, especially in fall and winter when the trees were free of leaves. And there were times when ant-size figures could be spied crawling up the face of the steep trail that led to Secret Rock.

Perhaps the secret was the one most children kept from their parents when it came to potential peril. After all, the trail up to Secret Rock was steep and children of a certain age did not tag along because they could not make the climb.

The climb also could not be made in winter. Snow and ice covered the rock and the trail leading up to it.

Climbing to Secret Rock was a summertime activity.

But it was the lore of the land and climbing the slope to Secret Rock was a rite of passage for generations of Portage Lake children.

Not far beyond the rock – at least, not far as I can recall – was another steep climb and the road that led to the local golf course with its holes set out along the hills just beyond the town.

It was an adventure for children to climb to Secret Rock and not much of an added strain to continue on to Portage Hills Country Club.

We all need local lore.

It is part of regional lore and national lore and global lore. It helps bind us a community. It solidifies shared memories of our youth. It gives us a common ground and reminds us that our differences, no matter how massive, how divisive, can never defeat us if we hold to local lore and all that it represents.

We all need local lore. We all need our Secret Rocks.

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Launch the Maine Stuff in My California Apartment series: Maine stuff in my California apartment No. 1

This is the first photo in an irregular series called "Maine stuff in my California apartment." It includes a book of a history and heresay and a cookbook to mark Portage, Maine's centennial. And a cookbook to mark the centennial of the local Catholic Church parish.

This is the first photo in an irregular series called “Maine stuff in my California apartment.” It includes a book of a history and heresay and a cookbook to mark Portage, Maine’s centennial. And a cookbook to mark the centennial of the local Catholic Church parish.

I’m launching a new feature today on Letters From Away. I’m calling it “Maine Stuff in May California Apartment.” From time to time, I will photograph and share stuff from Maine or related to Maine that can be found in my California apartment. Um, I suppose you probably figured that out from the title of the series.

Most of the Maine Stuff may seem insignificant to some, but it is my stuff and it means something to me. I suppose it means something to me because the Maine Stuff helps me maintain my tie to that emerald jewel of a state.

I’m not sure how often or how regularly I’ll post Maine Stuff photos on Letters From Away, but the other night I took about two dozen photos of Maine Stuff and I didn’t even leave my living room, so there is Maine Stuff aplenty in this apartment. Look for at least one new Maine Stuff in My California Apartment at least once a week.

Enjoy! Or not. It’s your choice.

Today’s photo shows three books found in my California, a book of history and heresay and a cookbook marking the centennial of my hometown of Portage located on Portage Lake in Aroostook County and a cookbook marking the centennial of the St. Mark’s Parish and Missions. Portage turned 100 last year and St. Mark’s – including Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Portage – turned 100 in 2002. Fun stuff in the history book and yummy stuff in the cookbooks.

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This Maine native just can’t get into the Winter Games

I really should love the Winter Olympics. After all, I grew up in snowy, wintery Maine where winter sports lasted longer in the year than summer sports. Remember, three seasons there – winter, mud and July.

But not so much.

I couldn’t even get into it after a Maine kid, Seth Wescott, defended his Olympic gold medal by winning the cross-snowboarding competition. I still couldn’t get into it after Hannah Kearney, Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Shannon Bahrke, Apolo Anton Ohno, Shani Davis, Chad Hedrick, Shaun White, Bode Miller, and more all picked up medals.

And I really don’t care about the medal count. The Cold War is over. There doesn’t seem much point in waging a Gold War.

As a kid I did frolic in the snow. I did a fair amount of tobogganing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. I even ice skated for a while as a child, but I grew tired of falling on my bum. More than once while skating at the rink near the artisan well at the south end of Portage Lake did my feet come out from under me, landing me quite squarely on my tail bone. OK, “tail bone” is not the medical name for that remnant of an ancient tail, but you know exactly what I mean. And I mostly enjoyed the tobogganing, skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and, yes, even the ice skating.

There is no feeling of peace and aloneness quite like the one experienced after skiing or snowshoeing into the forest miles from civilization to stand and hear the bitterly cold wind blow through the tops of tall conifers and white birches. There you hear the heavy plop, plop, plop sound of snow being dislodged from branches and falling to the snow-covered ground below. It is so peaceful, so alone and so “quiet” by city standards that even the creatures of childhood stories, stories of boogeymen and headless woodsmen, come back to life just a tiny bit.

It was a time that I truly enjoyed the Winter Olympics. I remember rather vividly watching TV coverage of the Miracle On Ice. I recall watching the bobsled competition, the ski jumping and other winter sports, but nothing really took hold for me.

I remember in junior high school participating in winter carnival events – snowshoeing, speed skating, tobogganing – but no winter sport really took hold for me.

In the winter, I played high school basketball for the junior varsity and later varsity teams, and on the weekends I snowmobiled on or around Portage Lake or cross-country ski on some of the snowmobile trails in the forest behind my home on the hill overlooking the lake.

But nothing takes hold for me during these Winter Games in Vancouver. Granted, I watched in envy and awe at the women’s mogul competition in which two Americans and a Canadian stood to receive medals. And I watched a bit of the luge competition. The death of the competitor earlier in the week made it a morbid necessity, I suppose. And I watched a bit of Ohno racing and Vonn rocketing

I was born in Maine about as far north as you can go in this country, to be truthful, but I was born at about the summer solstice. I blame timing and the summer solstice, then, for not being a more enthusiastic cross-country skier or luger or hockey player.

As a child, I loved late spring and summer, running through the fields of wildflowers and mustard plants and into the forest, many times following the trails that had been cut for snowmobiles. All summer long I would play baseball, soccer, golf and rode a bicycle. And when I was not doing that, I was paddling a canoe, sailing a small sailboat or swimming in the cool Portage Lake. All the while, longing for the summer to last just one more day, one more week, one more month.

It doesn’t make me un-American to not care about the Winter Olympics. That might be akin to calling someone un-American for not liking baseball and failing to watch the World Series or someone not liking American football and not watching the Super Bowl.

Maybe next time I will strive to overcome my summer solstice-induced apathy toward winter sports and watch the coverage. Maybe.

Officials say ice still thin on Maine lakes

 
Car parked on frozen Portage Lake.

A car parked on a frozen Portage Lake in Aroostook County can be seen in the left third of the photo. It is unclear what year the photo was taken, but it was taken from the parking lot of the public beach.

 I grew up in Portage in Aroostook County, which is located on Portage Lake. Every winter we would skate, snowmobile and cross-country ski on the frozen ice. I never did it – because it always seemed too darn cold – but others would haul ice shacks onto the ice every year to fish. 

It was a part of life living in the Great Deep Dark North Woods of Maine. And it seemed every year or so someone would fall through the ice, usually while riding a snowmobile or driving a vehicle on the ice.

And the highlight of the spring was the “ice-out contest.” Yep, a local fundraiser where you buy a ticket betting on the time and day that the ice would be “out,” which I believe was determined by whether or not the local game warden could pilot a boat pretty much from end to end of the lake without being impeded by ice. Above is a photo taken from the Portage Lake public beach parking lot. There is a car on the frozen lake and to the right you can barely make out that there are a couple of people on the ice, probably skating. I do not recall when the photo was taken. 

Below is the top of a story on the Bangor Daily News’ website about the Maine Warden Service again warning people to stay off the ice. I’ve also included a link to the rest of the story.  

By Nok-Noi Ricker     

Bangor Daily News Staff     

  

Personnel from the Maine Warden Service dealt with a number of emergencies on Maine waterways over the weekend, but none that resulted in serious injury, agency spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said Sunday evening.      

“We’ve responded to a number of incidents on lakes throughout Maine,” she said. In every case, “the people have gotten out of the water.”      

Even though residents are being warned about the thin ice on Maine lakes, especially the deep-water ones that are covered with a thick layer of insulating snow, people continue to break through, she said.      

Here’s a link to the rest of the story.      

  

 

Water, water everywhere … and even some to drink

I went back to the DownEast.com trivia question today and was interested in it because I grew up in a home on a hill overlooking Portage Lake, Maine.

My mother continues to live in a cottage in a cove of that lake and I have posted photos here of views from the deck of her home. It is a wonderful place, albeit incredibly cold in the winter.

The question today was: How much of Maine is covered by water?

Answer:

About 12.8 percent, or 4,523 square miles of the state’s total 35,385 square miles.

Frankly, I would have thought it would have been more. I grew up canoeing and sailing on that lake in the summer and snowmobiling across it in the winter. It seemed like whenever driving we were crossing a bridge over a river or driving near a lake or pond or other bit of water.

And if you take a look at a map showing water – rivers, streams, ponds and lakes – it would seem to be better than a mere 12.8 percent.

Well, there you have it.

Big – or not so big – debate: Blueberries vs. strawberries

It may be a tossup for me which are the best – wild strawberries or wild blueberries.

Trust me, I could eat a vat of either plain.

Then there are the options. Strawberries and cream vs. blueberries and cream. Strawberries on pancakes vs. blueberry pancakes. Strawberry pie vs. blueberry tart.

And don’t even get me started on strawberry cheesecake vs. blueberry cheesecake. That would get me going like a pup chasing its tail.

But you get the point. It’s all good to me when it comes to strawberries or blueberries.

I recall as a child clambering out of my house overlooking Portage Lake, Maine, and running to the wild hayfield just beyond our backyard. There, scattered by the berry gods, were tiny wild strawberries growing on tiny stems among the hay stalks.

My sister and childhood friends would take various containers – usually cleaned plastic Cool Whip containers – and crawl through the wild hay to puck the tiny wild strawberries from their little stems. We would pick until the containers were full or we were, since often we ate as much as we put in the containers to be used later for strawberry shortcake or in the morning to top pancakes.

A horse trail used by the local stable ran along the back of the wild field at the edge of the forest and there were times we would sit in the field munching on the sun-sweetened fruit and staining our fingers red as the horses plodded by and butterflies fluttered here and there.

Portage Lake is a bit north for blueberry growth or we most likely would be filling those Cool Whip containers with those tiny blue spheres of heaven. (I hate it – hate, hate, HATE it – when people say something is a “tiny bit of heaven,” but in the case of strawberries and blueberries – especially WILD strawberries and WILD blueberries – it is the case.)

Cultivated strawberries and frozen blueberries are poor substitutes that I must suffer now that I am “from away.”

Of course, wild strawberries and wild blueberries are not the only foods I miss being from away. Lobster, of course, tops the list. I miss the chance to have lobster on a distinctly more regular basis than I do now. Sometimes boiled or steamed over an open fire on the beach or on the stovetop or barbecued on the grill on the patio or deck, drowned in melted butter and accompanied by steamers, corn on the cob and beer. Now that’s eatin’.

Fiddleheads, cabbage rolls, and fresh maple syrup are among the foods I miss being “from away.”

One of my fondest memories as a youngster comes from stopping on the way to my Uncle Clayton’s home just outside Fort Kent at Rock’s Motel and Diner, for some griddle-cooked hot dogs. My parents loved ’em. I loved ’em. I remember entering the tiny diner – the place always seemed to be crowded with hardworking woodsmen and farmers taking a break from their toil – and being hoisted onto one of the red vinyl stools to have one of Rock’s dogs. Or two. And onion rings, as I recall.

Today, familiar flavors from Maine are limited to canned sardines – several Maine and New Brunswick brands can be found in stores here in California.

And Christmas food baskets from home: Captain Mowatt’s Canceaux Sauce and assorted chocolate-covered blueberries, blueberry salsas, baked beans, and beer bread come from my sister, who lives on the right side of the border with New Hampshire, and my mother who still lives in the tiny town where I grew up, Portage, about a three hours drive north of Bangor.

And thank God that BevMo and other West Coast stores carry products from Sea Dog Brewing Co., Shipyard Brewing Co. and Allagash Brewing Co. How could a Maine boy get by without a brew from time to time that reminds him of home?

California is American’s bread basket – and fruit, vegetable, nuts, dairy and beef baskets, too. The climate and rich soil of the Central Valley make it prime for growing most things with relative ease. (Farmers, I know, there is nothing easy about farming. I did write relative ease.) The growing seasons in California are long and bright and sunny. Finding and keeping enough water to irrigate the fields is a continual and growing problem for California farmers.

And while blueberries do come from the Northwest, there are not the same as good, ol’ Maine wild blueberries.

And try to explain fiddleheads – or cabbage rolls or ploye [buckwheat and whole wheat pancakes introduced by French-Canadians to the Saint John River Valley] – to anyone who has not tramped through Maine woods to track the curly delight is like trying to explain baseball to a Mongolian sheep herder.

Two fun recipes

OK, enough of all that, because it is making me hungry. I have two very minor recipes involving blueberries, one for kiddies and one for adults. Don’t mix ’em up.

Purple Monster Oatmeal

½ cup Quaker Oats

¾ cup water

Handful of frozen blueberries (I know, I know, if you’ve got access to fresh blueberries, use them.)

Pinch of salt

Combine the water, blueberries and salt and bring to a boil. Stir in the oatmeal, reduce heat and cook for a minute. The juice from the blueberries will turn the oatmeal purpleish and should trick, er, entertain children into eating up all their oatmeal. That combines the positive aspects of oatmeal with the very positive aspects of blueberries in a colorful, fun dish.

OK, that was the recipe for kiddies … for all ages. Here’s the blueberry recipe for adults.

Blueberry Vodka

Citrus vodka (Oh, who am I kidding? Use whatever flavor of vodka you enjoy … in moderation.)

Frozen blueberries. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, use fresh if you’ve got ’em. But using frozen means the need for less ice and more room for vodka.) Put about an inch – or more, if you’d like – in the bottom of the glass.

Pour the vodka over the berries. Add cracked ice if you want it even colder, say for a summer drink.

See? Pretty minor recipes by any standards. But I’m guaranteeing that if children do not enjoy Purple Monster Oatmeal, they are bound to turn into very unhappy adults who won’t enjoy Blueberry Vodka. And, let’s be perfectly honest, we need more people who enjoy Purple Monster Oatmeal and Blueberry Vodka.

Fun blueberry facts

I did not find fun facts about strawberries, because, well, I didn’t look for them. The world of late has been pretty excited about blueberries. Here is what I found on the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website.

  • There are 60,000 acres of wild blueberries growing in the southwest portion of the state.
  • American Indians were the first to use fresh and dried blueberries for flavor, nutrition and healing qualities.
  • Blueberries were not harvested commercially until the 1840s.
  • The direct and indirect impact on Maine’s economy was $250 million.
  • Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world and produces 15 percent of all blueberries in North America, both wild and cultivated
  • Just 1 percent of the wild blueberry crop is sold fresh; the remaining is frozen and most is used as an ingredient.
  • Lowbush blueberries are harvested by hand raking or by mechanical harvester in late July or early August when most of the berries are ripe.

Wild blueberries are good for you

The biggest thing about blueberries everyone is learning about is their antioxidant properties. I say, if they taste good they must be good for ya. But here is what the website had on that.

“Wild blueberries have the highest antioxidant capacity per serving, compared with more than 20 other fruits. Using a lab testing procedure called Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC), USDA researcher Ronald Prior, Ph.D., found that a one-cup serving of wild blueberries had more total antioxidant capacity (TAC) than a serving of cranberries, strawberries, plums, raspberries and even cultivated blueberries. Antioxidants help our bodies protect against disease and age-related health risks by canceling free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules associated with cancer, heart disease and the effects of aging. Potent antioxidants are highly concentrated in the deep-blue pigments of wild blueberries that neutralize free radicals and help prevent cell damage. Antioxidants also protect against inflammation, thought to be a leading factor in brain aging, Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases of aging. The potent antioxidants found in wild blueberries include other phytonutrients such as flavonoids and other phenolics such as anthocyanins; wild blueberries were higher in anthocyanin content than other tested fruits and vegetables.”

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