North by East
The Downeaster is like a skinny Maine town on wheels, balmy Bangor gets worldwide attention, and more.
Cartoon by David Jacobson
Maine on Wheels
Now in its tenth year, the wildly successful Downeaster has carved out a unique niche.
In 2002, Down East optimistically welcomed the return of passenger rail service to Maine with “All Aboard the Downeaster,” a forty-page special section detailing everything a would-be rider needed to know about the new Amtrak train, from making reservations to exploring the communities at the then-nine stops on its 116-mile line. Devoting such a big chunk of the magazine to the first Portland-to-Boston rail service in thirty-five years was something of a leap of faith on our part. It had taken the train’s advocates more than a decade to negotiate bureaucratic and funding hurdles, after all, and the Downeaster still had plenty of skeptics as it rolled out of North Station on its inaugural run.
No such blind trust is required for our continued enthusiasm as the Downeaster marks its tenth anniversary. The train is one of the fastest growing lines within the Amtrak system (ridership has more than doubled since 2005), it has one of the best on-time records, and its customer ratings are high. The Downeaster has been so successful, in fact, that it is extending service to Freeport and Brunswick this year.
All that, and the Downeaster, one of a handful of Amtrak services overseen by a local authority, has its own distinct personality, too. “The moment it pulls out of Portland it turns into a long, skinny Maine town,” says Wayne Davis, chairman of the passenger rail advocacy organization TrainRiders/Northeast, paraphrasing former Governor Angus King, who occupied the Blaine House when the Downeaster made its debut.
It was Davis who began the effort to return passenger rail service to Maine in 1989 and, like the Little Engine That Could, never gave up. Today he instructs the fifty or so volunteer hosts who greet and assist passengers on the train and in the charming Wells and Saco train stations.
The fact that the four Maine stations are town-owned contributes to the Downeaster’s friendly vibe. “There’s a lot of pride,” observes Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), which manages the Downeaster’s budget, contracts, promotion, and customer services. “And that extends to the crew and staff, who are based in Portland. They are Amtrak employees first, but they also consider themselves Downeaster employees.”
The Downeaster also happens to be the only Amtrak train that contracts with an independent food service to run its dining car. Epicurean Feast showcases Maine products like Amato’s sandwiches, Wicked Whoopies, Shipyard Beer, and, occasionally in the summer, lobster rolls. No wonder people love it.
Davis, for one, is not surprised: “I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so’ . . . but I did.” -- Virginia M. Wright
For a brief moment, a city in Maine was the warmest place in the United States.
Those looking for a place in late November to slap on the tanning oil, break out the flip-flops, and enjoy the sun wouldn’t place Bangor, Maine — a city with a mean temperature around thirty-one degrees — at the top of their list. However, at 8 a.m. on November 30, the city was the warmest spot within the continental United States.
Before the sun rose in Southern California, and before Miami reached its normal level of tropical perfection, Bangor was the only city above the sixty-degree threshold throughout the day’s early hours. For one morning, global warming seemed to be completely centralized in Maine.
The unseasonable weather didn’t last — the city’s temperature fell from sixty-three to forty by the end of the day, and it snowed just two days later. The warm spell came and went in a matter of hours for residents. However, Bangor’s moment in the sun took on a prolonged life as the news gained Internet buzz.
A national map from weather.com at 7:15 a.m. showed a cold front of blue temperatures ranging from fourteen to forty-seven degrees across the country, with the notable exception of its eastern extremities — Maine and Florida — each awash in a warm, shining, yellowish tint. An image of that map garnered over 1,200 comments and 1,500 votes to become a top story on reddit.com — a user-generated news site more visited than the New York Times, with more than a billion page views a month.
Within minutes, Maine users reported their first-hand experiences: “Sitting right under that number sixty-two right now, wearing a T-shirt with the windows open. This is excellent,” said reddit user TotalMeltdown. “I can go outside today without my winter coat. Love it!” according to PrincessZ. International users wondered where Maine even was, while others, knowing that Bangor is the hometown to author Stephen King, came up with elaborate plots for a fake novel called Warm of the Century.
The comments quickly fell into a well-worn path frequented by Mainers — bonding over our state’s extreme weather. Two old classmates from Scarborough Middle School reconnected, while residents from Buxford, Sanford, Caribou, and Fort Kent were excited to find other commenters from their hometowns. User Daeedorian noticed a pattern: “I love that whenever Maine is mentioned on reddit, every redditor from Maine starts posting to figure out if they know each other. Ah, Maine.”
Even when we log on to one of the world’s largest and most populated Web sites, Mainers still find a way to come together and talk about the weather. Ah, Maine, indeed. - Will Bleakley
Not So Smart Phones
Cell phones used on Maine’s eastern border are an hour off and a country away.
Forgive residents of towns along the Maine/Canadian border if they roll their eyes when you talk about the amazing capabilities of your iPhone. That same device that talks to you about the weather in a dulcet female voice, pinpoints your exact location on a GPS map, and precisely guides your blue dot to the nearest KFC in Houlton, can’t tell you what time it is — or even what country you’re in — when you’re taking in the sights at West Quoddy Head.
In many towns along the border the strongest cellular service a phone can find is that of Canada-based Rogers Wireless. Unless otherwise specified, phones switch, without warning, to this network. For residents, tourists, and business travelers, this automatic adjustment results in excessive international roaming charges and a clock that’s shifted an hour ahead to the Atlantic Standard Time Zone.
Bob Peacock, an Eastport city councilman who must pay for both an American and Canadian cell-phone plan, outlines the problem: “In one spot of my house, my phone basically thinks I’m in two places at once,” he says, speaking from a Canadian network while in Lubec. In his living room, when he faces west, he receives an American signal. By turning a mere 180 degrees, Peacock, according to his phone, suddenly qualifies for nationalized health insurance, owes allegiance to the Queen of England, and is an hour late for dinner. “I know many people that come here for a few days find themselves waking up an hour early because of their alarm, or going home to discover a huge phone bill.”
Some of those people Peacock refers to are the men and women who courageously serve our country. Every Fourth of July, hundreds of out-of-state naval officers dock in Eastport to enjoy the holiday. It’s an important celebration for the city, and the biggest event of the year. Alas, the good feelings of the weekend last only until the next cell phone bill. “Sailors leave owing six hundred dollars after being here for just a few days,” according to the city manager of Eastport, Jon Southern, who says the city puts copies of the most egregious bills in a welcome packet to the navy to warn them about phone usage.
“It’s such a significant problem for the area, it’s something we get contacted on regularly,” Southern remarks. “I’ve heard wild stories. When you start getting into international data charges, bills get into the thousands.
We’ve been working on trying to get our own cell tower.” Service providers claim, however, that putting up a tower doesn’t make financial sense for a town with only 1,600 residents.
With prospects dim for any change, locals make do. Everyone knows exactly where the spots are around town to get the right service, and no one leaves home without a watch. U.S. Cellular also offers significantly reduced roaming deals for those on the border. Still, most residents are forced to make monthly calls to dispute inadvertent charges. “It’s a real pain in the butt,” Peacock says, but one that many people have had to accept.
According to Southern, “We have a saying that whoever brings a U.S. cell phone tower to Eastport will have a gold statue put up right alongside the downtown fisherman statue.” - W.B.
Maine’s ferries are forced to adjust to its passengers’ increasing weight.
We’re going to try and put this politely, Portland . . . Casco Bay Lines is recalibrating the capacity levels on its transportation vessels to better reflect the adjusted ballast of its passengers. In other words, you’re getting a bit thick around the thighs, riders, and the ferry system is reckoning with your extra pounds as it calculates how many people can ride to Peaks Island at a time. Now, wasn’t that nicer than saying you’re too heavy and you’re going to sink the boats if you don’t get off?
In the 1960s, the U.S. Coast Guard determined the maximum number of passengers allowed onboard based on an average weight of 160 pounds per person. Since then, McDonalds served over a billion people, Netflix put Law & Order on instant view, and food got its own television network. Put those factors together and it’s clear why the Coast Guard recalculated its perception of the average weight per person to a number that’s twenty-five pounds heavier.
As of December, every Coast Guard-licensed boat service in Maine scaled back its passenger limits, and its effects are being felt across the state. For Casco Bay Lines, its biggest boats, — the Machigonne II and the Aucocisco III — decreased from a 400 to 350 passenger capacity level, at least until a proper naval engineer-led stability test can be performed.
“The reality is that people are heavier now than they were even twenty years ago,” says Nick Mavodones, operations manager of Casco Bay Lines and a Portland city councilman. “Our boats were built well enough that we may not go down in number after the test. If we do, it’ll have an impact, but not as much as it does on smaller operations.”
The ferry service to Isle au Haut is frequently at capacity for several weeks over the summer and relies on this influx of tourists for revenue. “We’re going to take a hit,” says Garrett Aldridge, a captain on the Miss Lizzie ferry. “The boat’s gone from being able to hold seventy people to sixty, and that certainly will hurt our bottom line.” According to Harold Cushing, owner of House Island Lobster Bakes & Tours, his scenic tours of Casco Bay will now carry 14 percent fewer passengers. “It’s basically going to be money out of my personal pocket, because who else is going to pay for it?”
We know Five Guys burgers recently opened in Portland, and those episodes of Law & Order aren’t going to instantly watch themselves, but for the sake of Maine’s coastal tourism, it may be time to start hitting the gym. - W.B.