Musings from Maine
Maine's solar system keeps growing.
When astronomers booted Pluto from the league of planets back in August 2006, Kevin McCartney fielded calls from all over the world from concerned fans of the Maine Solar System Model, which stretches for forty miles along Route 1 between Houlton and Presque Isle. McCartney, a geology professor at the University of Maine in Presque Isle and director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science, says the solution was simple: the model might lose a planet, but it would gain three dwarfs.
Dwarf planets, that is. The original model of Pluto and its moon, Charon, will remain in their display case in the Houlton Information Center, even though Pluto has been downgraded to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union. In addition, a model of Ceres, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, has been installed on Route 1 near the Jameson Road in Presque Isle. The model of Eris, which orbits far beyond Pluto, can be found at the intersection of Routes 1 and 6 in Topsfield, ninety-five miles from the Sun in Presque Isle.
"Pluto always has been an odd planet," McCartney notes. "It has a very peculiar orbit and doesn't really fit in with the other planets." Adding Eris "instantly more than doubled the size of the model," he says. The model is scaled at one mile per astronomical unit (the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun, or about ninety-three million miles).
McCartney anticipates expanding the model as more dwarf planets are discovered in the depths of space beyond Pluto. "I imagine that ultimately the Maine Solar System Model will stretch all the way across Maine," he says. That would be a stellar example for future astronomers.
Out of Touch
Apple's iPhone didn't take Maine winters into account.
The largest technology craze since, well, the iPod, the highly anticipated iPhone was released by Apple this past summer and, as predicted, took the market by storm. This cellular phone is so much more than just a talking machine, combining music, Internet browsing, digital photography, and phone into one extremely sleek and cool gadget. In fact, it's so cool that within three months of its release, Apple had already sold one million phones (it took the iPod two years to reach that milestone).
This cool factor, however, doesn't translate for cooler climates. As the iPhone's first winter shifts into full gear, Mainers and other cold weather dwellers, won't be able to use all the amazing features of this shiny, new phone - unless they take off their gloves.
You see the new iPhone, with its extremely user-friendly interface, employs some of the latest touch-screen technology available. Apple's Web site boasts, "With its large multi-touch display and innovative new software, iPhone lets you control everything using only your fingers. You can type using the predictive keyboard, glide through albums with Cover Flow, scroll through photos with a flick, or zoom in and out on a section of a Web page - all with the iPhone multi-touch display." Unfortunately "the latest technology" doesn't include glove-clad hands. Sure, you can do all of the above if you have warm fingertips. If, on the other hand, it's ten degrees below zero and you're clutching your phone on the side of the road where your car just died and you happen to be wearing gloves to prevent frostbite, then you're out of luck, or at least out of a glove.
But apparently the inconvenience isn't stopping any Mainers from buying the phone. We contacted a couple of AT&T (previously Cingular, previously AT&T . . . we can't keep it straight) stores in the state. (The iPhone only works with AT&T service - sorry folks who live where AT&T has spotty coverage and all you Verizoners out there.) Deidre Rinaldi, of the Ellsworth AT&T location, said sales were definitely not affected. "There are so many devices right in one - people love that feature." When asked specifically about using it in the cold weather she said, "I haven't had any problems. I used it just yesterday when I was shoveling my driveway." Yes, she did use it . . . she removed her glove.
Don't look to robins as signs of an early spring.
At first glance, someone who reports seeing a robin at midwinter can seem wildly optimistic - or perhaps delusional. Robin Redbreast is supposed to be a harbinger of spring, not a portent for the next blizzard. Yet wildlife biologists and veteran birdwatchers say that robins are fairly common winter residents in Maine, especially along the coast.
Basically, it's because they're lazy. "Robins will stay as close to their summer breeding grounds as possible," explains Professor Rebecca Holberton, an ornithologist at the University of Maine who, coincidentally, specializes in polar region bird life. "Robins are really short-distance migrants if they can get away with it." Robins lack the compulsion to fly far south each fall, despite their reputations. "Birds that go to the Deep South and the tropics are pretty much hard-wired to migrate," Holberton notes. "Robins don't have that."
Last winter observers reported seeing large flocks of robins around the state, which Holberton attributes to a bumper crop of the fruit that robins forage throughout the cold-weather months. "During the winter, robins tend to stay in large flocks near big patches of fruit," she notes. "Mountain ash, crabapples, autumn olive are all favored foods. Plus people have planted a lot of ornamental shrubs that also produce fruit and help robins survive."
Robins carry enough fat reserves to survive for several days if bad weather prevents them from feeding, but an ice storm or lengthy blizzard will force them farther south in search of food. That can also bring robins from Canada into Maine. "If you see robins that are bigger and darker than our usual robins here, they're from the far north, the taiga country in northern Canada," Holberton offers.
Spring may never be the same.
A Symbol for Camden
To find the Snow Bowl, first find the sign.
The Camden Snow Bowl is the only place on the East Coast where you can ski with an ocean view. This month it once again hosts the hugely popular U.S. National Toboggan championships. Small but spunky, this ski area is the source of considerable civic pride. And it's darn near impossible to find.
Travelers on Route 1 who lack MapQuest or a prior visit must rely on spotting a tiny twelve-by-eighteen-inch sign - sporting a stylized skier that closely resembles Egyptian hieroglyphics - to catch the turn off the highway, and then follow similar signs that mark the winding path to the ski area on the back side of Camden. At night or during bad weather or even on a sunny summer day, it's all too easy to miss a sign and end up in neighboring Hope - or hopeless, as the case may be.
"That is an issue," acknowledges Jeff Kuller, the Snow Bowl's manager. He blames Camden's strict - some say draconian - sign ordinance, which requires that signs for municipal facilities cannot have any words on them, only symbols, and must be hung on a single post. "Those are the largest signs we're allowed to put up," Kuller explains. "Even the blue Maine Department of Transportation directional signs aren't allowed. It's absurd."
Signs have been a battleground in the Penobscot Bay tourist mecca for decades, and local businesses periodically mount attempts to amend the ordinance. "There's a contingent of residents in town that doesn't want signs," Kuller says. "It's tying our hands behind our back." Town manager Roberta Smith says the ordinance even became an issue when the town was rebuilding a wastewater pumping station at the public landing recently. The federal and state agencies that helped fund the project required a sign on the construction site noting their participation. "The signage required didn't conform with our sign ordinance," Smith recalls. The agencies finally "agreed to a smaller sign," she adds.
Camden code enforcement officer Jeffrey Nims says there's talk of forming a signage committee to revisit the issue this year, but then there was talk of it last year, too. The problem is especially ironic given the fact that the Snow Bowl has always had trouble paying for itself. On the one hand, the town won't allow the ski area more prominent signage to help bring in more business. On the other, the Snow Bowl is the target of perennial complaints from townspeople about the need to regularly underwrite its operation with tax funds. This year the town will contribute about a hundred thousand dollars to the ski area's budget. It gives new meaning to the concept of paying for the view.
Maine engineers are proving that wood craftsmanship never goes out of fashion.
The outdoors looks more high-tech every time we step outside, with everything from fiberglass tent-poles, handlebar-mounted global positioning systems, and carbon-fiber cross-country skis making themselves a home amid Mother Nature. But a group of researchers at the University of Maine is proving that quality wooden craftsmanship will never go out of style, and of all people the American military seems to agree.
Working under a contract from the U.S. Army, Professor Habib Dagher and the crew at the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center in Orono have created a unique wood-composite panel system that can be assembled inside a military tent to protect soldiers from fragments during a mortar attack. Each of the panels, which feature a wood core surrounded by layers of resins and fibers, weighs about seventy pounds and can easily be assembled in less than an hour. The panels recently won a "Best of the Best" award from the American Composite Manufacturers Association, acknowledging them as the top composite invention of the past year, and the UMO center has received an additional $2.5-million contract to continue development of the life-saving panels. Dagher says the army also wants to use a similar wood-composite panel in its next generation of tents.
Robert Kennedy, president of UMO, says the composite center is a great model of how Maine industries and ideas are once again attracting international attention. "Habib and his colleagues have incredible intellectual energy, and their work reflects the highest ideals of the land-grant university tradition," Kennedy remarks. "This project is a vivid example of the kind of work that can make a real difference in people's lives by making them safer."
In the Mail
Castine has an unlikely claim to fame.
When the Castine Post Office first opened in its current location, it didn't sell stamps. Couldn't. Stamps hadn't been invented yet. The Castine Post Office has been in the same building since 1831, making it the oldest continuously operating post office in the United States. (Stamps were invented in Great Britain in 1837 and adopted in the United States in 1847.) "They delivered the mail by boat and wagon back in those days," notes the current postmaster, Al Rollins.
Six postal employees work out of the two-story building, Rollins says. The original brick and stone exterior is now covered with clapboard siding, Rollins explains, but the building remains a local Main Street landmark - and the post office still makes sure the mail goes through 177 years later.
Snowboarders in Portland can practice their tricks without leaving downtown.
Walk through any city park that includes a hillside during the winter and you can't miss the smooth tracks that sledders leave behind, as kids (and more than a few parents) discover that the best way to beat winter is to enjoy it.
These days, though, you might also notice a few of the jumps, rails, and other obstacles that snowboarders build to turn a snowy hillside into an impromptu terrain park. One such place is Portland's Payson Park, between Ocean Avenue and Baxter Boulevard, frequently cited as one of the best sledding spots in the state. Recently, though, the Forest City has given a boost to local shredders by installing a rail and a "fun box" for them to practice their tricks upon. This is the third season the low, metal features have been in place (they're removed during warmer months), and city officials say they've proven popular with youngsters who can't make it up to Sugarloaf or Saddleback every day.
"It's not very big - it's really sufficient just to do one trick, and then you have to hike back up the hill," remarks Phillip Labbe, parks and cemeteries division manager for the city's parks and recreation department. "But you go by there and kids are using it, so at least it's giving them something to do." Labbe says the city has spoken with people at Sunday River about assisting with the terrain park or even expanding it (a Colorado ski resort operates a park in Denver that features six rails, from beginner to intermediate), but so far the city is sticking with just two features, both situated to the side of the main sledding area.
Who knows, with such cool improvements in the Forest City, the next Seth Westcott may turn out to be a city kid.
FOUND IN UNCLE HENRY'S
Free military 2x4x5 safe. 1,200 lbs. If you can pick it up, you can have it. Great for metal scraps. I have no way of moving it. Will need tractor or crane to pick it up. Acton, ME.