LONGFELLOW WHERE?Maine has a mystery mountain range.
The Weather Channel is many Mainers' guilty pleasure, the one spot on the remote-control's circuit that almost always has something worth a few seconds of their time. But residents have been furrowing their brows over a section of the channel's popular "Local on the 8s" segment, which gives local and statewide weather forecasts - including a report from the Longfellow Mountains. We know the White Mountains and the Bigelows and the Mahoosuc Range, but where are the Longfellow Mountains?
"I can't answer that question just off the top of my head," admits Cliff Lippitt, president of the Geological Society of Maine. Neither can most people, it turns out. According to the Web site peakbagger.com, all the mountains of Maine are considered the Longfellows, by order of a legislative resolution passed in 1959. The Maine Office of Tourism Web site refers to the "Longfellow Mountains of western Maine," while mainetour.com breaks them out as specific (unnamed) peaks separate from the Katahdin group, the Boundary Mountains, and the Mahoosucs. Still other sources say the Longfellows are the northernmost extension of the Appalachian Mountains chain, stretching from the western border of Maine to Katahdin.
Peakbagger.com, a site devoted to mountain climbing and hiking, recognizes the difficulty the name offers. "[D]espite its official status, this name has little currency among travelers and mapmakers," the site advises, "probably because the Appalachian Mountains in Maine are, at best, an irregular, disconnected, random series of ranges, ridges, and peaks."
Why the Weather Channel should choose the name remains a mystery - they haven't answered our queries yet - but it appears the channel's forecasters are referring to the Sugarloaf/Saddleback part of western Maine. "A lot of mountains in Maine have a map name that isn't easily found or well known," Lippitt explains. Given the attention Mainers give to the weather, perhaps the Weather Channel folks could choose something a tad more recognizable.RAKERS' LAMENTThe blueberry harvest turns toward machines.
Tens of thousands of Mainers remember earning their back-to-school money bent over a blueberry rake, laboriously hand-harvesting the state's premier berry crop. Now hand raking itself, possibly the most backbreaking job in agriculture, may well become a faint memory as more and more blueberry farmers turn to machines to harvest the crop.
"We don't have hard figures, but I estimate at least 80 percent of Maine's blueberries are machine-harvested now," says Dave Yarborough, the blueberry expert at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. "Ten years ago it was perhaps 20 percent. It has really flipped in recent years."
Several factors are at the root of the shift, chief among them the availability of labor. The days when a blueberry grower could fill a picking crew with local teenagers and seasonal workers from Canada ended in the 1980s. Migrant workers from Mexico and Central America have filled the gap, with upwards of ten thousand or more coming into the state each summer to harvest the crop. Now that labor source is drying up, too, says Yarborough.
Coupled with that have been improvements in harvesting machine technology. With the help of a Maine Technology Institute grant in 2000, Zane Emerson of the Maine Blueberry Equipment Company in Columbia Falls developed a motorized walk-behind harvester that has proven popular with growers. Other manufacturers have developed tractor-mounted harvesters. Each can do the work of ten or more rakers, and by mounting floodlights on the machines they can operate twenty-four hours a day.
"I've got seventy-five machines out in the fields now," Emerson says. "Each one can do two acres a day easy. What that means is that someone with thirty acres of blueberry land can harvest his own ground. He doesn't need to look for outside help."
Maine wild blueberry harvests have averaged about seventy-five million pounds over the past decade, although weather conditions and other factors can cause broad swings in individual years. "We've been as high as 110 million and as low as down in the forties," Yarborough notes. Prices have also swung dramatically, with blueberries this spring bringing up to a dollar a pound, "which is unprecedented," Yarborough notes. "The demand is very high right now, due to news about blueberries' health attributes, demand from Japan and elsewhere, and growing domestic use."
Yarborough sees a day coming when machines will harvest the entire crop, with hand raking limited to small private plots and specialty needs. When that happens, an era will end on the blueberry barrens, and backs all over Maine will sigh at the memory.ACADIAN MISNOMERA new SUV misses an opportunity to match Maine's environmental ethic.
By and large, automakers seem to do a decent job of matching the names of their vehicles to the places they are supposed to evoke. A Dodge Durango is perfectly appropriate in the mountains of southwest Colorado, a Chevy Tahoe seems quite at home powering through the snow to Squaw Valley. Which is why it was a bit of a disappointment when GMC came out with its Acadia recently. To be fair, the crossover sport-utility vehicle is pleasant-looking and features all of the comforts of the family Buick (it is, in fact, built on the same frame as the Buick Enclave). But wouldn't it have been nice if the folks at General Motors could have spent a bit more time researching Maine's only national park and noticed, for instance, the fleet of propane-powered buses that allow nearly a thousand cars a day to stay parked in Bar Harbor, rather than filling the air with carbon dioxide? Instead of matching the park's environmental ethic, the Acadia offers a gas-guzzling sixteen miles per gallon.
Please, if anyone's ever going to roll out a Katahdin pickup truck or a Sebago SUV, might it at least be a hybrid?LET'S MAKE A DEALHow much should the state pay for Crescent Beach?
Maine is rightfully proud of its park system, and one of the gems is Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth. Thousands of people enjoy the park's cool breezes and sandy beach each day during the summer. But few of them realize that more than half the park is private property leased to the state by its owner - and the lease is almost up.
A hundred acres of the 187-acre park are owned by the Sprague family, descendants of shipping and coal magnate Phineas Warren Sprague. Back in 1960 when the park was created, they gave the state a fifty-year lease on the land for the munificent sum of one dollar. Now state officials and the family are starting negotiations to continue the deal in some form. Failure would mean closing the park, since the Sprague land includes the access road, a piece of the parking lot, and about half of the beach itself.
The Spragues, through the family's Sprague Corporation, have a long history of quiet philanthropy and land conservation in southern Maine, but Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, is taking a realistic view of the negotiations. "We understand times have changed," Harris allows. "I don't believe we'll get that price again, but I'm optimistic we can work something out either through lease or acquisition."
Harris says he knows of no other park in Maine with a similar arrangement of public-private ownership. "The land under Cobscook Bay State Park is actually owned by the federal government," he notes, "but that's a different situation."
The first meeting between the state and the Sprague family took place in April, but Harris isn't ready to give a firm timeline. "That's to be determined," he says. "We have a definite end date, though - 2010."
Here's hoping he meets the deadline.THE MONSTER OF CHESUNCOOKA North Woods legend lives on in campfire tales.
The North Woods are full of stories, and every so often someone tells us one we haven't heard before. So it was natural that Roger Ek, a former fishing guide up in the Chesuncook Lake region above Millinocket, piqued our interest when he started talking about the Monster of Chesuncook. Now a real estate agent in Lee, Ek says he first heard the story back in 1974 from an elderly man at the site of the old boom house near the mouth of the West Branch of the Penobscot where it enters the lake.
As Ek tells it, the story began back around 1910 during the spring log drive. "When the logs got to Chesuncook Lake, they had to be encircled by a big log boom," he explains, so a steamboat could tow them down the lake. A steam-driven donkey engine at the boom house was used to pull the ends of the boom together.
"On one windy day the winch wasn't powerful enough, and the steam safety valve kept blowing off," Ek continues. "The boss said to stick a wedge over the valve spring. The boom came together, and just as it did the boiler blew up. The operator was badly burned by the steam and ran screaming off into the woods. Nobody could catch him. The loggers heard him screaming out there for days."
Shortly afterwards, loggers started missing food and other supplies. Eventually they realized it was the engine operator, and they began leaving food out for him on purpose. In spring and summer, he "borrowed" supplies from visiting guides and fishermen. On the rare occasions when he met someone in the woods, his horribly scarred face sent them running in the opposite direction. Inevitably, folks began telling stories about the "Monster of Chesuncook."
"Wild tales were passed around, and some people were afraid to go up to the north end of the lake," Ek recalls. "This left the old boom house pretty much unoccupied, so `the Monster' took up residence there for the summers. He would leave if somebody came by, but he seemed later on to enjoy scaring the bejeebers out of people."
Ek says sightings of the Chesuncook Monster ended around 1925, but the stories lived on, passed around among fishing guides and the occasional visitors to the region. Ek says Maine author Fannie Pearson Hardy Eckstorm wrote an account of the legend in one of her books, although he hasn't been able to find a copy.
The boom house burned down many decades ago, and all that remains today are the stories told around campfires. "I used to tell the story, leaving the dates out," Ek says, "and people in my party would ask if he was still around. I told them I wasn't sure, but he might be. They all stayed pretty close to camp."
As well they might. There are strange things in the Maine woods, and the Monster of Chesuncook is only one of them.THE BIG CLIPRoadside mowing is costing a lot of green.
Mowing is one of those homeowner chores that loses its luster rather quickly. By the end of June, any lawn ranger could be excused for thinking that a flock of sheep or an experiment in planting meadow flowers would be an improvement over pushing a noisy, smelly, expensive lawnmower back and forth across the front yard. Unfortunately, those aren't options for the biggest lawn maintenance company in the state - the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT). Nonetheless, mower fatigue is setting in at MDOT, too, although it's driven more by money than boredom.
The MDOT mows, clips, or sprays eight thousand miles of highway shoulders across the state, including two hundred and fifty miles of Interstate, either using its own crews or with contractors. Given that the effort costs upwards of a million dollars a year at a time when money is tight and potholes and bridges are in dire need of repair, the obvious question is: Why?
"The most obvious reason is safety," explains MDOT spokesman Mark Latti. "By keeping the grass low it reduces fire hazards from cigarettes thrown from passing cars or from hot exhaust systems when vehicles pull off the highway." Mowing also improves sight lines at intersections and ramps and lets drivers see animals such as moose, deer, and coyotes more clearly.
Latti says the mowing also keeps tree saplings from colonizing the verge. "You really don't want trees taking root along the highway," he offers. "They crowd the pavement and reduce visibility, plus they increase icing issues in the winter by shading the highway. If you don't mow, you get a situation like we have on Interstate 95 north of Orono, where we have to go in and remove mature trees [Down East, June 2008]
Financial pressures have forced the MDOT to cut back on the cutting, Latti says. "It costs fifty to seventy dollars an acre to mow. We're now mowing some areas just once a year that we used to mow twice a year," he says. "In some cases, we're cutting just every other year. Parts of the Interstate that we used to do three times a year will only get cut once this year."
Maybe the highway folks should take a second look at that flock of sheep.PRISON BREAKFor the right buyer, this navy jail might be a steal.
Even on a coastline dotted with distinctive structures, the former prison at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery stands out. White, sprawling, with turreted towers and imposing walls, it looms over the entrance to the Piscataqua River like a medieval fortress. For more than thirty years, though, the building has been Maine's biggest white elephant, empty, decaying, and full of lead paint and old memories. Now the navy is hoping to turn it into someone's dream come true.
This past spring the navy announced that it was putting the old prison up for lease and asked for development proposals. More than thirty organizations, from real estate developers to nonprofits, have expressed interest in finding new uses for the 265,000 square feet of space.
This isn't the first time the prison has attracted development attention. Back in the late 1990s, New Hampshire entrepreneur Joseph Sawtelle signed a lease with plans to turn the building into premium office space. He died in 2000, and the deal faded away. "Shortly after that, 9/11 occurred," explains Commander David Kelly, deputy commander of shipyard operations. Given that the prison sits behind two security checkpoints inside the shipyard, which repairs and refits nuclear attack submarines, "it's fair to say that in the post-9/11 era, our view of security changed," Kelly notes.
The navy reviewed its Enhanced Use Lease Program, which encourages military installations to find private uses for unneeded facilities, before deciding that the prison and thirteen other properties at other bases could be offered to the public. "We are confident we can work with a developer with the right business plan," Kelly says. Rather than try to create a list of allowed uses for the structure, the navy provided a list of prohibited uses. "We don't want to constrain the imagination of a developer by telling him what he can do," Kelly explains. Any business use that requires unrestricted public access, such as retail stores or a casino, is necessarily off the table.
The prison was built in 1908 and over the years housed tens of thousands of prisoners, including German submariners in World War II. Despite the imposing six-story cellblock and lightless solitary confinement cells, the prison was designed to rehabilitate inmates through education and vocational training. The navy closed it in 1974, and the structure has been deteriorating ever since. Any developer will have to cope with peeling lead paint on the walls, asbestos insulation, and collapsed ceilings.
Kelly has no estimate of how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building. Still, he says "interest has been pretty good," and he hopes to see a number of proposals by early summer. One will be chosen for further negotiations, with a lease hopefully signed by early next year. Whoever gets it will have views to die for, one of the most eye-catching structures on the New England coast, and a big job ahead to enjoy.MAINE LINGO:
Mollyhocked: Broken beyond repair. "That trawl winch is completely mollyhocked. Gonna need a new one."FREE FOR THE TAKING
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