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View from the Porch - Issue 109

Issue 109

By Peter Bass
Illustration by Caroline Magerl.
I suspect for all of us there is a personal moment of transition, sometime in the spring, which we note each year, at least to ourselves. The moment this happens can range from March 1, which is the day I declare in my office that we have “broken the back of winter,” to June 1, when my wife receives an annual e-mail from a friend stating that “June is busting out all over.” The latter, you might remember, is a song from the musical “Carousel,” the only Maine-centered Broadway musical to seamlessly combine clambakes and marital discord. If you are reading this as soon your copy arrives, welcome to the promise of spring. Don’t pull the cover off the boat quite yet, however, as we have a lot of news to cover from the frozen months: Maine gets a big pile of money from the Feds to extend our slow speed rail service up to Brunswick, those same Feds turn off the Loran navigation system, and the oldest elm in New England finally succumbs to Dutch elm disease. So pull up a rocker but leave your coat on. Forward to the Past Maine got great news in January. The Federal government decided to send to Maine $35 million to bring state-of-the-art, 1950’s-era infrastructure to our passenger rail system, which to this point has been limited to a Portland-Boston run that goes neither to Logan Airport nor connects with any real trains, and gets to its destination a half hour later than a bus leaving at the same time. Plus the bus leaves more frequently and is about 40% less expensive than the train. In 2012 we can expect the same disadvantages all the way to Brunswick. And it is only costing $35 million to get going. Press releases regarding the new service to Brunswick indicate a 50-minute train trip for what takes 30 minutes in a car or bus. So why do our elected officials fall all over themselves supporting large expenditures for low-speed rail? It isn’t to provide speedy, affordable inter-city transportation; buses are faster and cheaper. We are confused. On the Porch we support fast, efficient, and comfortable public transportation. Our regular reader will recall our interest in New Urbanism: clustered housing and services that can make personal car use a rare need. Good public transportation is essential for this to work. But to change habits, the public option needs to be a better alternative: fast, convenient, and inexpensive. I have ridden the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train). The Downeaster is not the Shinkansen, and doesn’t need to be, but for $35 million it should at least be as fast as a bus.
Road Less GravelledIllustration by Caroline Magerl.
Cars Wheels on a Gravel Road While we’re in the transportation mode, let’s consider a new old idea taking hold in some towns: going back to gravel roads for lightly used rural routes. The problem with the term “lightly used road” is that it isn’t lightly used when you are the one who lives at the end of it. In an AP article by Clarke Canfield that we saw on, we learned that the town of Cranberry Isles is considering tearing up pavement and going back to gravel on some of its roads instead of spending a half million to re-pave. They’re not alone. Michigan converted 50 miles back to gravel in the last year. The pro-gravel crowd points to all the petroleum-based asphalt and chemicals saved by not paving. The pro-tar group, however, has a trump card: Mud Season. That settles the argument on the Porch. We wax nostalgic on the Porch from time to time. We enjoy sailing gaff-headed catboats. We like slow trips to nowhere on excursion trains. We like Lucinda Williams singing, “Car wheels on a gravel road.” We like to get off the Information Super Highway at least once a day. But as long as we have to use an automobile to go anywhere, pavement has its attractions. When I was a kid in Wilton, Maine, we were required to attend town meeting as a social studies assignment to see “Democracy in Action.” One of the items on the warrant was always an appropriation to “defray tarvia,” a term which I found out meant paying for asphalt. It generated all kinds of spirited debate about which roads in town needed work, and was great theater for the youngsters in the bleachers. Best View in the State of Maine To settle—or perhaps to further confuse—one of our favorite topics on the Porch, we invite our readership to contribute ideas for the “Best View in the State of Maine.” Submissions should include the location and some idea of how to get there. Here are some of our candidates: (1) top of the fire tower on Mt. Kineo, Moosehead Lake; (2) height of land on Route 17 south of Rangeley; (3) top of Morse Mountain in Phippsburg; (4) Cadillac and other peaks in Acadia National Park; (5) Center Hill in Weld; (6) Bob’s porch on Schoodic Lake, with a Molson Ice in the foreground. Years ago I read a study that children who grew up with long vistas available to them developed differently from those who grew up in the urban canyons. The results of the differences were all in favor of those with a view. A good place to contribute to our survey is the comments section at the end of this column’s online version at We’ll report in later columns. Please also throw in the names of any nearby fried-clam emporiums. Knocking About in August In an e-mail from Alec Brainerd of Artisan Boatworks in Rockport, forwarded to the Porch by an interested party, we learned of a 100th Anniversary Regatta to be held in late August on North Haven Island involving Manchester 17s, North Haven Knockabouts, Dark Harbor 17s, and Northeast Harbor B-boats (whatever they are), plus some related craft. Mr. Brainerd’s missive indicates that this event is built around the great yachting traditions of eating and drinking, separated by brief periods of competition. The event starts with a picnic on Sunday, August 22, and ends with drinks and nibbles in the evening. Collegial, convivial, and Corinthian at its roots, the regatta also promises to spark spirited competition, judging from my confidential sources. After all, bragging rights for the next 100 years are at stake. Even back in bleak January, crews were training hard: refining sandwich recipes, dusting off the wicker picnic hamper, and carefully testing the exact proportions of a perfect Dark & Stormy, over and over again. If you own one of these boats, or know where one is lurking in a shed waiting for a return to glory, you are urged to contact Mr. Brainerd at We are looking into getting a live feed to the Porch from the MBH&H blimp. Bill Returns Now that the legislature is back in session, our friend Bill has been commenting on Maine issues again. Here are some of his latest musings as garnered from the headlines of Maine newspapers: » Bill could aid towns near (wind) turbines Bill’s family must have interests in an ear-plug business, but Bill hasn’t decided if he’s going to give any away yet. » Bill looks to cut UMS Internet sales Long a champion of free enterprise, Bill doesn’t want the University of Maine System selling broadband to the hinterlands. He prefers that bankrupt companies supply those services. » Bill prompts soul-searching among farmers, markets Bill is evidently a spiritual leader on the side and is guiding his flock to clarity on what the definition of “farmer’s market” should be. Sounds like trying to define what the definition of “is” is. To expand somewhat on Bill’s last effort, we enjoyed reading an article in the Belfast Republican Journal via that detailed an interesting exchange at the Maine Farmers Market Convention in late January. The subject of discussion was the definition of “farmers’ market” itself, which is enshrined in state law. The current definition is vague, requiring that 75% of something be produced by a local farmer. It is not clear if it means 75% of a vendor’s offerings must be produced by them, or at least by another local farmer, or that 75% of the vendors must be local farmers, or that 75% must be an agricultural product versus a craft item, such as a mitten. All this became an issue this summer when a Freeport farmer was denied a space at a farmers’ market because it was “full,” while some existing vendors did not as clearly meet the spirit of the rules regarding who and what could be part of a farmers’ market. We may have to convene the Porch regulars to elucidate the nomenclature. America’s Tree In my little town of Yarmouth, we don’t often have stories that receive national exposure. Unlike Vassalboro, we don’t have a topless donut shop to garner wide notoriety. We do have Herbie, New England’s oldest elm tree, though. Or we did until Tuesday, January 19, 2010, when Herbie came down. While it was widely reported around the country, we found Amy Anderson’s accounts in The Forecaster particularly engaging and thank her for the details. We relied upon them for the following belated report: Herbie was cared for by Yarmouth’s tree warden of 50 years, Frank Knight, now 101. Mr. Knight managed to fight off Herbie’s many bouts of Dutch Elm disease but not the last. Yarmouth, like many New England villages, lost hundreds of elms over the years, and Herbie should have had streets full of competitors for his title. For the record, he was over 200 years old, 110 feet tall, and had a canopy 120 feet wide and trunk circumference of 23 feet. Generations of school children knew his story and, thanks to the Associated Press, much of America now knows it as well. I received clippings or web links from family and friends in Seattle, Washington; Boulder, Colorado; and Norfolk, Virginia. In a follow-up story, David Sharp of the Associated Press reported in the Washington Post: “In particular, Herbie’s demise is bringing out of the woodwork highly specialized scientists who study tree rings: dendroclimatologists, who look to tree rings for answers about the climate, and dendrochronologists, who specialize in determining the age of trees based on rings.” To which I say, eat your heart out Vassalboro. We may not have topless waitresses, but we do have dendroclimatologists. Let Us Praise Redundancy Redundancy Back in January, the Department of Homeland Security announced that as of February 8, we would have all of our electronic navigation eggs in one basket, the Global Positioning System, a.k.a. GPS. Until that point the Loran system was still available. While GPS is marvelous in its many iterations for land, sea, and air navigation, the lack of redundancy is somewhat disconcerting to the prudent seaman. Everyone I know generally carries a backup GPS, but that doesn’t really address the remote possibility of the whole GPS system going offline. A GPS system failure would be catastrophic for civilian and military interests worldwide, so I suppose there are plans to reduce that possibility to some statistically comfortable level. But what about sunspots? Or jamming? The Loran system is not being dismantled so it can still be resurrected in an improved form, the technology for which has already been developed (e-Loran, or enhanced Loran). A Maine company, Crossrate Technology, makes a combination eLoran and GPS receiver, and has a wealth of information on its website, Senator Susan Collins has gone on record strongly advocating continuation and modernization of the Loran system. It has been 30-plus years since I took a celestial navigation course and the last noon sight I tried put me in Nebraska somewhere. Let’s hope that the odd few million dollars are found to keep this alternative alive. It is superfluous, certainly, and another crutch for those who do choose not to bother to learn the requisite dead reckoning skills as a back up to electronics, but it is technology that is housed on U.S. soil and not in the international commons of outer space.
ShackletonIllustration by Caroline Magerl.
I Taste a Liquor No Longer Brewed In a BBC news posting from early February, we learned that additional cases of liquor from the Ernest Shackleton expedition to the South Pole (1907-1909) have been unearthed, or more accurately, un-iced from his hut of 1908. The great excitement in the drinkers’ world is that a heretofore lost blend of whiskey may be replicated after analysis. Fortunately, the hut was in an area of Antarctica supervised by New Zealanders, so the alcoholic beverages were handled with the proper reverence. The whiskey was originally consigned to Shackleton’s expedition by the Glasgow firm of Whyte & Mackay, whose current master blender, Richard Paterson, hopes to get a crack at recreating the blend. See Mr. Paterson’s blog,, to get in on the excitement. You might have to enter a search for “Shackleton” or “South Pole.” Also on the liquor front, to no one’s surprise, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy easily outdistanced all competition as the most purchased spirit in Maine for the umpteenth year. Maybe in 100 years, someone will unearth a case of ACFB under a remote shack in Hancock County. In that event, however, the drinking world will not be all a-twitter, because the special blend, that is ACFB, will still be the #1 spirit in Maine. So let us close out winter with the taste of Shackleton’s whiskey on our mental tastebuds and with the expectation that the rockers will soon be lined up on the Porch again. Feet up, binoculars at the ready.

Long-time MBH&H Contributing Editor, freelance writer, and raconteur Peter Bass is an owner of Maine Cottage Furniture. Click here to read other articles by Peter Bass >> To submit your comments... newsy tidbits, photos, illustrations, clippings, rants, and raves for possible use in this column, use the form below. Or mail to “View From the Porch,” P.O. Box 758, Camden, ME 04843 or fax to 207-236-0811. Items may be edited for length and clarity; materials become the property of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors, Inc.

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