North by East
When owls attack, the secret history of spruce gum, and more.
WHEN OWLS ATTACK
Better watch your back.
One of the pleasures of a Maine winter is enjoying the crystal-clear clarity of the night sky. (Who needs a plasma TV when Orion’s belt is as sharp as can be.) One of the best places to enjoy viewing the constellations in high-def is at the Rolland F. Perry City Forest in Bangor: a 680-acre natural gem laced with ten miles of trails just off Stillwater Avenue.
Although the forest is technically closed to the public at night, Queen City snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and walkers often visit the area on moonlit February nights. But last winter a few nocturnal visitors were given a rude welcome when they were attacked, literally, by great horned owls that foresters say were defending their turf. More than half a dozen people reported meeting the two-to-four-pound raptor up close — a few sustained cuts, though nothing that warranted stitches — and a couple of small dogs nearly got snatched away.
“It happened in late winter, when people were cross-country skiing, and an owl would fly down and tap somebody in the back of the head,” remarks Bangor City forester Brian Dugas. “They were defending their nests, though we never knew where those nests were.” Dugas says that while such attacks are rare — a similar incident was reported several years ago, though that one involved a biker — the forests are natural spaces, and people visiting them should respect their wildness. Crews have posted signs at each parking lot warning of attacks. Does this mean Stephen King should devote his next book to killer owls?
Dugas says, no. Despite their silent approach and impressive wingspans (up to sixty-inches) great horned owls are harmless creatures. “This isn’t a vicious attack,” he declares, but he quickly adds: “I would expect the owls will be back this year.” The next time we’re roaming the Bangor woods, maybe we’ll wear a thicker hat.
For the first time since World War II, Maine is sending troops straight into combat.
This month, when 150 Brewer-area men board an airplane for northern Afghanistan, they’ll be joining a proud group of 2,300 Mainers who have fought overseas over the past eight years. But these soldiers, members of the 172nd Infantry Regiment’s Bravo Company, are unique in that they will be the first Mainers deployed directly into combat since 1942.
“I have to admit that I am more concerned about this mission than I have been about others,” remarks Major General John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, noting that this call-up means that 50 percent of his forces are now deployed. Other Maine troops, including the 540 men and women of the 133rd Engineer Combat Battalion who have served overseas recently, are in support roles like transportation and evacuations, says Libby. “ is performing an infantry mission in a very dangerous part of a very dangerous country. But I recently spent time with the men — in the infantry, they’re all men — and I sensed a quiet confidence in them.”
That confidence, Libby says, is derived not just by their extensive training and conviction in their mission, but in their awareness of Maine’s military legacy. At an assembly last December, Captain Paul Bosse, Bravo Company’s commander, told his men that they would be following in the footsteps of heroes like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. “It’s in our blood as Mainers,” Bosse said. “If you find yourself on the battlefield, with bayonets fixed, remember this, our history as Mainers tells us without hesitation, we’ll give them cold steel.”
We wish them well and await their safe return home.
Remembering a forgotten flood.
What would Pennsylvania’s famous Punxsutawney Phil have done if he’d emerged from a burrow in Bangor on Groundhog Day in 1976? He most likely would have floated away.
The Groundhog Day Gale of ’76 remains one of the most remarkable weather events in Maine’s history. Meteorologist Gregory Zielinski, author of Conditions May Vary (Down East Books), lists it in his top ten Maine weather moments of all time and describes the gale as an intense nor’easter and a tremendously strong storm.
“Almost all of Maine was on the warm side of it,” says Zielinski, “so it was a rain producer with strong winds.” Southwest Harbor recorded gusts of up to 115 miles per hour. In addition to facing high winds, coastal areas were also battered with heavy rain — up to nearly two inches — and raging seas. The result was a tidal surge up the Penobscot River’s embayment. For about three hours near midday, downtown Bangor endured a flood. Reports indicate that approximately two hundred cars were submerged in the waters.
“We went to a lot of flooded cellar calls,” says Brian Houston, then captain of the Brewer Fire Department that had been called to Bangor that February 2 to assist with the emergency. “It was one of those events, like the northern lights, people just seemed to be watching.”
Houston recalls one heroic act by Mr. Harold Goss, who swam down to rescue a woman who was floating through the parking lot in her car. They ended up marrying each other (though they later got divorced, Houston notes).
In praise of Maine’s signature candy.
Let’s see. Last summer’s blueberries are but a memory, and the maple sap won’t start running for another month or so, which means February might just be the most barren month for Maine foragers, right? Well, it wasn’t always so. A hundred years ago, winter in Maine was synonymous with spruce gum, the naturally occurring candy popularized by Bradford native John B. Curtis.
Though Native Americans and loggers had for years enjoyed nibbling on a bit of the hardened sap, Curtis was the first to build an industry out of the stuff. Starting in 1848, he and his father began gathering and boiling the hardened, naturally sweetened spruce resin and selling it as “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.” The pair’s kitchen-stove enterprise quickly outgrew their wildest expectations, and by the 1860s Curtis had three factories processing 12,000 pounds of the distinctive confection.
Curtis managed to build a fortune out of spruce gum before chicle-based gums took over the marketplace in the beginning of the twentieth century. A 1913 article in the New York Times states, “Maine produces more spruce gum than all the other states combined. In order to be fragrant and agreeable to those who chew it spruce gum must be ripened under certain climactic conditions that are found at their best in northern Maine.” To this day, spruce gum is still harvested here (you can order a box for under ten bucks at www.naturallist.com). But neophytes be warned: spruce gum is to Juicy Fruit as Moxie is to Coca-Cola — it takes some getting used to.
Splintered wood and soft-packed snow
Lie underneath the lantern’s glow.
I’ve made this trip a hundred times
To stoke the stove when the fire gets low.
I’ve swung my ax a thousand times
Split hardwood oak and softwood pine.
I like the heat the hardwood throws
And white pitch bubbles as the softwood whines.
My trip is short; the load’s not light.
My breath clouds up the clear, starred night.
My heart knocks hard, but my arms are strong.
A few flakes fall from calm, black heights.
No clouds above, the snow seems wrong,
But I don’t think about this long.
There’s more than wood to fetch tonight.
I poke the coals, put the kettle on.