Musings from Maine
Down East's editors discuss Maine wolves, free muffins, Daggett Rock, and more.
Photo of Daggett Rock above courtesy of Maine Geological Survey
Call of the Wild
Heard any good wolves lately?
Laura Sebastianelli has heard all the jokes about howling — that she’s howling mad, just howling at the moon, a real howl, and so on. What she wants to hear is a doggone response. Sebastianelli and a small cadre of volunteers have spent several months this summer and fall visiting the North Woods and howling like wolves, hoping some real wolves howl back.
The Northport naturalist works as an adult program director for the University of Maine Extension Service, but five years ago she worked out west for the National Wildlife Federation doing wolf tracking and howling surveys. As part of the job, the accomplished tracker learned how to howl like a wolf, and in June she trained eight volunteers to do the same. “The confirmation of a wolf in western Massachusetts last April got me started,” she explains. It was the eighth wolf found in the Northeast in recent years, including three in Maine.
Sebastianelli emphasizes that she is not involved — and doesn’t want to be involved — in the controversial debate over whether wolves should be reintroduced or encouraged to repopulate Maine. “I’m interested only from the standpoint of a curious naturalist,” she says. “There’s a lot of conjecture now. This is a search for answers.”
The howling humans carried digital tape recorders to capture responses, which are then analyzed by a computer. “I’ve heard one canid response that sounds interesting,” Sebastianelli admits. “I’m not saying it’s a wolf — that has to wait for the analysis — but it doesn’t sound like a coyote.”
Sebastianellli’s Wolf Inquiry Project has received several small grants to help cover expenses, and she hopes to continue the program next year with additional volunteers. (Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.) “It’s an incredibly powerful experience,” she explains. “More people should be having experiences like this.” If nothing else, learning how to howl like a wolf sounds really wild.
On the Rocks
A system of trusted weather buoys hits rough seas in the Gulf of Maine.
Back in 2001, when the first automated buoys of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMoos) began transmitting wind speeds, water temperatures, and other pertinent weather conditions, mariners thought they’d finally gained the upper hand over King Neptune. Instead of heading blindly out into the Gulf of Maine they could now check to see if a fogbank had swept over Georges Bank or southern swells were threatening to expose Cashes Ledge. Today, however, the $6 million in federal funds that got the buoys into the water have long since been spent and the state money that has kept the buoys in operation ever since has become even harder to come by.
Starting this fall, up to half of the system’s eleven buoys will be plucked from the high seas unless funding washes ashore somewhere, depriving scientists of critical data for studying everything from global climate change to fisheries patterns and populations, and denying up to a hundred thousand unique Web visitors each year the information they’ve come to rely on. “Over the last several years there has been a decline in federal funding for ocean observing systems like GoMoos, and we’ve been able to keep our program running on a shoestring budget only because the state, the University of Maine, and the University of New Hampshire have supplied funding,” explains Tom Shyka, chief operating officer at GoMoos. “But that could only go on for so long, and we’re at a point where without additional funding we can’t redeploy four or five buoys this fall.” The buoys targeted for removal are in Penobscot Bay, Cobscook Bay, Casco Bay, and just west of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. An additional buoy previously removed from the New Meadows River will also not be replaced, Shyka says.
With the federal budget and state coffers reflecting the sagging economy and international commitments, Shyka recognizes that the $1.4 million his organization needs to survive seems like an easy line item to cut, and he is pursuing ideas that range from selling advertising on the GoMoos.org Web site to finding private sponsors for individual buoys. But as the long-term impact of global warming and rising water temperatures begin to make themselves known, these yellow buoys represent an overseas deployment that should be maintained for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes a muffin is more than a muffin.
People create endowments for a lot of reasons — to create scholarships or further medical research or underwrite community organizations. James Sham has created one to benefit breakfast.
Back in 2007 Sham was on his way to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture when he recognized the distinctive profile of the Empire Grill on Water Street in Skowhegan. “I had just seen Empire Falls on HBO,” he recalls. “I ended up going in, and I was astonished by the strange conflation of fact and
Empire Falls, based on Maine author Richard Russo’s book, is set in a small Maine mill town, and much of the movie, which starred Paul Newman and Ed Harris, was filmed in Skowhegan and Waterville. The movie crew created the Empire Grill from a former pizza shop, and it played a large role in the film. When current owner Tim Miller bought the business in April 2007 he kept the name. “It felt architecturally like a movie set, with the veneer of faux finishing,” Sham says in a recent e-mail from Houston, where he now lives, “but all of the folks and interaction there seemed quite genuine and sincere.”
Sham, who has a history as a performance artist and as a sculptor and painter, decided to memorialize the encounter by raising an endowment from local people, the Empire Falls film crew and cast, and artists who pass through town on their way to the school. The resulting nine thousand dollars was invested to underwrite one muffin each day, given away by the restaurant’s waitstaff. “Whoever is on duty in the morning, with whatever criteria they choose, and with or without whatever ceremony they want, gets to give it away,” explains Miller.
Miller loves the idea. “My initial reaction was, ‘Why not?’ Some guy wants to give away a muffin every day, I want to be part of it,” he says with a laugh. “How can it be a bad thing?” The seventy-one donors’ names are immortalized on a huge bronze plaque that Sham made. “It’s two feet by three feet and quite heavy,” Miller says. “We had a heck of a time hanging it.”
Sham says he chose a muffin because “it’s not as utilitarian as a bagel or toast. It’s a little more indulgent than that. . . . I wanted to choose something that would always be received as a pleasant gift, rather than a subsidy of your breakfast.” Each muffin represents a tiny piece of performance art, “the beginning of a story, in which the diner, the recipients, and circumstances determine how it ends,” he explains.
Miller says every customer has an equal chance of earning the free muffin, with one exception. “If you ask for it, you don’t get it, in more ways than one,” he says. He admits that some of the recipients “look at me like I’m nuts, like I’m trying to put something over on them. But it’s not a scam. It’s a Sham.”
Daggett Rock is the coolest Maine rock you’ve never seen.
There are big rocks, and there are bigger rocks. And then there’s Daggett Rock, the Taj Mahal of Maine boulders. At eighty feet long, thirty feet wide, and twenty-five feet high, the granite landmark in the western Maine town of Phillips is the source of local legend and a certain notoriety — Daggett Rock is an erratic. (See photo above.)
An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong with the rocks around it. Instead it was dropped after being carried for miles and miles by a glacier. According to the Maine Geological Survey office, erratics can range from pebbles to boulders, and Daggett Rock is the biggest in Maine. It originated in the Saddleback Mountain area more than ten miles to the northwest, according to geologists, its eight thousand tons a testament to the power of the glaciers that once covered Maine.
“You have to see it to believe it,” says Elaine Hubbard at the Phillips town office. “It’s a very interesting place.” Hubbard says the rock was more popular back when visitors could drive to it, and postcards featuring the formation date back to the late 1800s. “There were picnic tables up there and everything,” she says. “It was very popular.” These days travelers park on the road and hike in along a short trail. Autumn is the best time to see it because the leaves are off the trees and its full size can be appreciated.
According to local legend, the boulder got its name some two centuries ago, when a drunken woodsman named Daggett climbed the rock during a fierce thunderstorm, took the Lord’s name in vain, and declared that he couldn’t be touched. A gigantic lightning bolt answered his curses, struck him dead, and split the rock into the three pieces visitors see today.
Fortunately, fall thunderstorms are pretty rare. Still, you might want to speak piously if you pay a visit.
A new online instructional video chronicles an irrevocable decision.
Contrary to popular belief, hunting accidents in Maine have dropped significantly from the 1950s, when as many as a dozen people a year died in the woods during deer season. These days hunting accounts for only one or two fatalities each year, fewer than almost any other outdoors sport. But even one death is too many. So state fish and game officials hope every hunter in Maine — and in every other state, as well — takes the twenty-three minutes needed to view Irrevocable Decisions, a video documentary about the 2004 death of James Griffin, Jr., of Levant. [Click here to view the video online.]
Produced over an eighteen-month period by students from the New England School of Communications in Bangor, the video uses interviews with family and friends, including the young man who shot Griffin, and hunting safety experts to chronicle how a single lapse in judgment ended in the twenty-one-year-old’s death while hunting deer near his home. “This video is going to be used in every hunter safety class in this state for years to come,” declares Paul Jacques, deputy commissioner for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W). “It’s just unbelievable, very directed, very focused. Listening to the original 911 call is just chilling.”
Jacques says the school approached IF&W about a year after the shooting looking for a project to do. At the same time, the department was looking to update its hunter safety material. “We’ve had videos before, but they’re really old, from the 1950s and 1960s,” he explains. “They looked it, too, with old cars and haircuts and clothes. They really weren’t what we needed for today. This is a huge improvement over what we had.”
The extraordinarily powerful video was posted to the department’s Web site just before hunting season opened last year, and a mass e-mail was sent to some 45,000 hunters who had purchased licenses online urging them to watch it. Fifteen thousand people clicked on the link within the next twenty-four hours, and tens of thousands more viewers have watched it in the months since. Jacques says other states have contacted the department asking for permission to use it in their hunter safety programs. “It’s free to download for anyone,” he says. “It’s there to make people very, very careful when they go out to the woods.”
The one message viewers should take away from the video, Jacques says, is the finality of the decision to pull the trigger. “People have to realize, once you let that bullet go, you can’t call it back.”