These days, there's more shade than sun on Maine beaches.
After thirty years of living on Long Sands Beach in York, Jim Fabiano knows a summer trend when he sees one. And the latest one really stands out. Tents.
"It started several years ago," explains Fabiano, a high-school chemistry and physics teacher who also writes regularly for local newspapers. "At first it was those little pop tents, a place to get the baby out of the sun or something. But in the last few years, tents aren't just tents anymore. They've become far more elaborate, with American flags flying above them and built-in coolers for beverages. I swear, I saw one last year that had an attached doghouse."
Most people, including Fabiano, blame the rise of tents on the fear of skin cancer and recognition that protecting children from sunburns in their early years helps lessen their risk of melanoma as adults. Tents also provide a refuge for changing clothes and a place to store the inevitable clutter of beach toys, folding chairs, and wet towels.
Whatever the reason, by last summer, Fabiano says, the York beachfront was practically a tent city, with large multiroom nylon shelters and screened-in enclosures where families and friends played cards, napped, and read - on the beach but not of it. And while Long Sands may be the most obvious example, tents are popping up on stretches of sand all along the coast of Maine. Even offshore islands aren't immune to the phenomenon.
"We're starting to see small tents on Old Orchard Beach," notes John Glass, the town's fire chief and lifeguard supervisor. "Occasionally we'll have a family set up one of those big canopy tents, but they really haven't become an issue yet. Frankly, we have more problems with umbrellas."
Glass says the beach can attract up to 5,000 people on a hot August day, but so far the town hasn't had to pass any rules concerning the amount of gear or the structures that visitors carry in. "If tents get to be an issue, we'll have to ask them to move back from the water," Glass offers. "That could be a problem at high tide, when some parts of the beach get pretty narrow."
Fabiano says York's tents have an air of seasonal permanence about them that he hasn't seen at other beaches. "On Long Sands, we see groups from Revere, Malden, Westboro [all in Massachusetts]," he explains. "They're often municipal workers - police officers and firemen and their families. Some days I wonder who's patrolling the streets in Westboro, because it seems all the cops are up here.
"But the weirdest thing is that the tents are always in the same place," he continues. "By August I can walk the beach, and I can tell that this tent goes here and that tent goes there. It becomes a little community all its own."
The fast and the furious are increasingly foolish.
Mainers and visitors with a need for speed are best advised to keep their pedals off the metal this summer. Maine State Police are promising a crackdown on speeders this summer in the wake of studies that show a steady increase in average speeds on the state's highways.
"There's been a ridiculous increase in extreme speeders recently," declares Colonel Craig Poulin, chief of the State Police. "We're seeing the average speed on Interstate 95 climbing well into the eighties, on a road with a speed limit of sixty-five. And then there's the crash we had on Mother's Day a year ago," he adds, referring to the accident on Interstate 95 in Carmel when a sport utility vehicle traveling at more than 100 miles per hour crashed, killing four youngsters and three adults in the worst highway accident in more than forty years.
While the number of speeding tickets handed out in Maine has remained relatively stable, the speeds police officers are recording keep rising. For example, between 2000 and 2004 speeding tickets for driving twenty-six to twenty-nine miles an hour above the limit increased by 50 percent. Criminal speeding - driving thirty miles or more above the limit - increased by 1,662 citations, or 23 percent.
Poulin hesitates to give reasons for the increase in traffic speeds. "A lot of it is attitudinal," he offers. "Whether it's people being busier, trying to multi-task in the car, talking on cellphones, I'm not sure. One of the things I've been raving about for the last couple of years is the car ads on television, where everyone is going airborne and jumping the highway, going 150 mph in a BMW. They certainly send the constant message of speed."
Poulin also points out that many popular video games are geared to high-speed chases and extreme driving. "What's the game, Gone in Sixty Seconds, or something like that?" he says. "It's all about speed."
Whatever the cause, Poulin intends his troopers to be the solution. He is concentrating his officers in high-accident areas and on highways with a history of extreme speeding, based on statistics kept by the Maine Department of Transportation. Drivers who think the open road is an excuse to floor it may find the only thing gone in sixty seconds is their licenses.
In Fort Kent, a hated fish feels some love.
There's an adage about lemons and lemonade that folks in Fort Kent must know by heart. They've turned their long winters to their advantage with dog-sled races, world-class snowmobiling, and international biathlon competitions. Now they're using the inadvertent - and much mourned - introduction of muskellunge into the St. John River to draw fishermen from all over New England and the Maritimes to the second annual Muskie International Fishing Derby.
Young muskellunge, a large, toothy, almost prehistoric-looking member of the pike family, were inadvertently released into the St. John River system from a lake in Canada some fifteen years ago, according to Dennis Cyr, the derby's organizer. "They grew in the river and local lakes for years without attracting much notice," Cyr says. When they finally came to official attention several years ago, some of the fish were already thirty-six to forty inches long. Biologists warned that the voracious predators would wipe out the brook-trout fishery and dominate whatever waters they colonized. The St. John River system remains the only water in the state with a resident muskie population, and many fishermen and state biologists would like to keep it that way.
"The state government folks don't like muskie, but they're here to stay," Cyr reasons. "And Fort Kent is always looking for ways to attract tourists. We don't see a lot of visitors in the summer, as you might imagine."
Last year Cyr proposed a fishing derby after recalling all the sport fishermen he saw on a visit to the Canadian Yukon who were fishing for muskie. "They were going up there and spending big money," he recalls. "So why shouldn't we try to get them to spend it here?" He did some research and discovered that muskie derbies are big business in the United States, with some contests in the Midwest offering up to $100,000 in prize money.
Fort Kent's first derby attracted eighty-seven competitors, and the winner walked away with $1,400 in prize money for a thirty-seven-inch, fifteen-pound fish. This year the derby is scheduled for August 13 and 14. "We're hoping to double our registration and offer a $5,000 purse," Cyr notes. "You know the state doesn't put any limit on muskies? They're still considered a trash fish. For the people of Fort Kent, though, they're gold in the river."
No wonder we use so much DEET.
Maine's blackflies have boasted a legendary reputation among residents and visitors alike ever since Thoreau complained about them on his canoe trip through the North Woods. In truth, though, as bad as the nasty little biters are, they have their season in spring and early summer and then fade away. For real longevity in outdoors annoyance, the champion is the mosquito, and Maine has more of those than even most natives realize.
"Mosquitoes start hatching in early spring and continue right into late summer and fall," explains Kim Foss, a former state entomologist who now works for Municipal Pest Management Services in York. The reason? "We have more than forty-five mosquito species in Maine," Foss says. "Each species has its peak time: spring, early summer, mid-summer, etc." Foss says Maine can count so many species because it has such a wide range of weather and geography, from the salt marshes along the coast to inland bogs and beaver ponds.
Even worse, weather conditions that might slow or even stymie the development of one species usually improve the population for another. Or they'll just wait around for conditions to improve. "Some mosquito eggs can live in the soil for thirty years, waiting for the perfect circumstances," Foss explains.
This year's cool, wet spring had many observers predicting record levels of blackflies and mosquitoes, and through early summer the fears appeared to be justified. Constant rain kept streams and rivers running high and fast, perfect conditions for blackfly hatches. There was also plenty of standing water in the woods and fields for early mosquito swarms.
"Spring mosquitoes like lots of snow and lots of rain to keep vernal pools full," Foss explains. Spring storms also sent storm surges and flood tides high into coastal wetlands. "We'll probably see a large population of salt marsh mosquitoes as a result," she predicts.
Mainers have coped with mosquitoes, blackflies, no-see-ums, ticks, chiggers, and moose flies for centuries, though, and we've learned to bite back. Old Woodsman's Fly Dope has given way to Ben's 100 and L.L. Bean's new line of bug-repellant clothing. Screen porches have transformed into open-air decks with citronella candles and a new device called the ThermaCELL bug repellant that has converted a good many Maine Guides into believers. No matter how bad the bugs are, Mainers are better - or badder, as the case may be.
Penny-wise Mainers finally get their due.
At a time when it seems there is no shortage of negative economic news in the Pine Tree State, word that Maine has come out at the top of a new study examining states' financial footing could not be more welcome. According to CFED, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that periodically ranks states based on a variety of criteria, Maine ranks third in the country in terms of households with savings accounts and trails only New Hampshire for having the lowest percentage of households with zero net worth, i.e. they own more than they owe. Nearly three-quarters of Mainers own their own homes, among the highest in the country, according to Jessica Thomas, one of the coauthors of the report. Overall, Maine was beaten for the best economic record only by our neighbors in the Green Mountain State and then only by a relatively paltry five points.
But even this financial silver lining, it seems, has its black cloud, with Maine turning in an embarrassing forty-second place for private loans to small business and, in no small surprise to Mainers, coming in forty-fourth for home value because of its high housing prices.
Most of us can agree that Maine has areas of its financial footing that ought to be shored up, but it's certainly nice when, once in a while, we end up on top.
This scheme for Skowhegan is all wet.
Back in the days of Maine's log drives, timber companies went to considerable effort and expense to blast away rocks, ledges, and other obstructions in the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. Now kayaking enthusiasts and civic boosters want to put the obstructions back - and turn the Somerset County town into a whitewater mecca that would attract extreme sports competitors from all over the nation.
Earlier this year the Run of River Committee won town-meeting approval for the project, and supporters claim they're close to landing some $1.2 million in federal economic-development funding needed to make the project a reality. Whether they'll win the approval of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which would need to issue the necessary permits for the project, remains to be seen.
"The permits will be tough," admits Greg Dore, who has spearheaded the whitewater park project for the past two years. Maine's environmental regulators are notoriously reluctant to allow substantive changes in any river, and placing the ten huge concrete structures needed to create a whitewater obstacle course in the middle of the Kennebec raises questions that have never been asked before, such as should a publicly owned resource - the river - be rebuilt for the enjoyment of a small group of people. Dore's committee has already spent some $30,000 for feasibility studies, and Dore says more is needed to underwrite an engineering study.
Dore says the idea first came up two years ago, when an avid local kayaker gave him an article about a whitewater park in Reno, Nevada. "He thought it would be a good idea for Skowhegan," Dore recalls. "I shopped it around, and a lot of other people thought it was a good idea, too, so we began moving forward with it."
The site for the proposed park is a stretch of town-owned land along the riverbank behind Skowhegan's business district. Dore notes that the Nevada whitewater park was made by digging a parallel channel beside the Truckee River and then diverting river water into the new riverbed. That's not possible in Skowhegan because "the bank is all ledge along there," he explains.
Instead Dore compares the Skowhegan project to the Ocoee River in Tennessee, where in the early 1990s a dry riverbed was excavated and redesigned using large boulders to create a whitewater kayaking course that was used as part of the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Dore says he hopes to see the project completed within five years. "We're proposing to put the river back the way it used to be, in a sense," he reasons. Whether other Mainers agree remains to be seen.