May 25, 2019: Islands, Lighthouses and a College Party
After a quick hot chocolate in St. Stephen, I crossed the US border into Calais, Maine (pronounced callous). This was the least secure and most relaxed border I have ever crossed – a far cry from the super intense Mexican border crossings at Calexico and Tijuana. In fact, if you didn’t see the sign telling you to go to Customs, you easily walk into the US unknowingly.
The US side of the border had a couple gas stations (gas is 30% cheaper in the US due to taxes) and an outlet mall. I am certain that many Canadians cross the border purely to fill their tank.
I then drove 20 minutes to the St. Croix Island International Historic Site. This obscure National Park Service Site is the country’s (and the world’s) only International Historic Site. It is also one of the smallest Park Service units- in addition to the visitor center, the park has 400 feet of trails. St. Croix Island itself – visible from the end of the 400 ft trail- is part of the park, but is only accessible by private boat. While on the international border, the island is in US territory.
I timed my visit here to correspond with their opening day (they are only open from late May- October). That made me the very first visitor of the year! The ranger and all the volunteers were very excited that I was the first visitor of the year. We did a small photo shoot to commemorate the occasion.
Once the photo shoot was done, the ranger gave a 15 minute history lesson on one of the most important sites in northern North America you’ve never heard of: St. Croix Island.
While the French had been to northern North America many times before, all their expeditions were either exploratory trips or seasonal hunting expeditions for beaver pelts. They never built a permanent settlement and never spent a winter there. That all changed in 1604 – three years before the British settlement at Jamestown. After surveying the coast of the Bay of Fundy, explorer Pierre Dugua decided to build an encampment on St. Croix Island with 79 men. The island was small enough that it could be easily defended, yet large enough that they could actually build a town. Fish and fresh water were plentiful.
However, the French were not ready for the Maine winter. Even though Maine and France are a the same latitude, the Maine winters are considerably harsher and the winter of 1604 was an exceptionally harsh one. The first snowfall was in early October. Eventually the river developed dangerous icebergs trapping them on the island. With no access to vitamin C, the men developed scurvy (although they didn’t know that was the problem). 35 of the 79 men died and most of the others were near death. Once the spring came, the native Passamaquoddy traded deer meat which had enough Vitamin C to save the remaining men. The whole experience spooked the French so much that they relocated that summer to Nova Scotia.
While the St. Croix Island settlement itself didn’t remain, the men who wintered there were the first permanent European settlers in New France. Their descendants and legacy became the Quebecois, the Acadians, and the Cajuns.
45 minutes east of St. Croix Island, I reached Lubec, the easternmost town in the 50 United States. From there, I drove 5 minutes to the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, the easternmost point in all of the 50 states (the distinction of the easternmost point in all the US states and territories is a lot more complicated). It is here that the US Canada border meets the Atlantic Ocean. I marveled at how far I had come.
I thought about the southwesternmost point in the US- where the US/Mexico border meets the Pacific at Imperial Beach, California 3,353 miles away. The land was dry and the imposing double border fence stretched far into the ocean to stop people from swimming across. The disgusting Tijuana River spilled Mexican sewage into the water making swimming unsafe for your health- not that that stopped anyone. The border itself could only be approached under armed guard for 8 hours a week.
But here, the border could not be more different. The scenery was lush and forested. The ocean was clean. There was no security of any kind. It was peaceful.
While Calais is the easternmost border crossing to mainland Canada, Lubec has an international border crossing to Campobello Island. This island is Canadian but has no road connections to the rest of Canada. The only ways to get to the rest of Canada are to drive through Maine or take a ferry from late June through September.
Campobello has a huge historic value to the US: it is the site of the Roosevelt family’s summer home. Franklin Delano Roosevelt grew up summering in this home and eventually inherited the home. It was in that home that he decided to get into politics. It was also in that home where he contracted polio.
The home is governed by a board consisting of members from both the US and Canada. It’s official designation is International Park, as it is neither a US nor Canadian National Park. The park is considered an important symbol of US/Canada relations; there are multiple exhibits on that topic in the visitor center. The home tour took about 35 minutes, which was remarkably quick for a 19 bedroom house. There are also many trails around the island.
I then drove 3 hours back across the border and down to Waterville, Maine for my cousin Mallory’s graduation from Colby College. Colby is a classic New England liberal arts school. It has about 450 students per class.
I met the family at a block party hosted by one of her friends. Many upperclassmen live in cute houses in the town.
That night, I got dinner with about 10 members of my extended family. Then we went to campus for a Graduation Dance held in an enormous tent. The band was fantastic and kept everyone rocking until midnight.
I then went to a dorm party with my cousin. I was surprised to see so much alcohol and partying in a dorm, but then again there isn’t much else to do in town and the school is small. Without a lax alcohol policy, I think the school would have trouble recruiting and retaining students.
May 26, 2019: Graduation and Portland Food
Today was the day of Colby’s graduation, most definitely the largest annual event in the town of Waterville – population 16,000. The beautiful campus sits on a hill about three miles from downtown.
The graduation ceremony was held on a lawn in front of the main library. The speaker was David Kelly, a famous TV writer and son of a longtime Colby hockey coach. He gave a wonderful speech; my favorite piece of advice was this: if you love your job, great. If you hate your job, you will find something better. The people in the most danger are those that kind of like their job. Those people are trapped in mediocrity. I deeply resonated with this- while I enjoyed the lifestyle that my previous job offered, I did not feel satisfied by the work itself and my role.
After the ceremony, Mallory held a farewell lunch at her home and I headed out.
My next and final Maine destination was the city of Portland – 75 minutes to the south. Portland is Maine’s largest and most famous city. Portland, Oregon was founded by people from Portland, Maine.
Portland has recently become a very popular destination, mostly driven by the food scene. It is considered to have one of if not the very best food and beer scenes in the entire Northeast. Everyone in Maine seems to have a Portland restaurant recommendation.
The center of town is called the Old Port and was swarming with people for the Memorial Day weekend. After checking into my sleek backpacker hostel (which cost $50/night), I met up with my college roommate Drew who drove up from Boston to meet me.
We visited the Portland Art Museum. The museum had a stellar collection of American art, but had a very strange non-intuitive layout. One building is a historic home from the 1700’s. The other building was designed by I.M. Pei. They are connected by a narrow hallway. I really did not like the vibe. We then ventured over to a bar for some local beer.
I then met up with my friends Emma and Katie who were visiting from New Hampshire. We embarked on an epic food tour. We started at Duckfat, which is known for its fries which are made with…duck fat. Then we got flight of beer at the Liquid Riot Brewing Company. Then we got an incredible array of small plates at Central Provisions.
A few things surprised me: the crowds were crazy. Everywhere had a line out the door. The quality of the food was exceptional (everything was delicious and high quality and would be a top find in any city). Finally, the food was about 40-50% cheaper than LA for the same quality food.
May 27, 2019: More Portland
That morning I took a stroll around the eastern promenade- a park overlooking Casco Bay. A lot of people were working out and walking their dogs. I then got breakfast at Holy Donut, which serves donuts made from potatoes. While it sounds weird, the texture is amazing. I got a donut made with local blueberries.
I then drove 20 minutes south to Cape Elizabeth and Portland’s most famous attraction, the Portland Light. Maine’s first lighthouse is perched over an exceedingly rocky shore. Swarms of tourists from around the world were taking pictures with the lighthouse. Despite the crowds, the atmosphere was still beautiful.
A few minutes south is Two Lights State Park. While named for the two nearby lighthouses, there are actually no lighthouses in the park. Instead, I got unspoiled rocky coastline to explore and a short forest trail. I enjoyed this place a lot more than I was expecting.
My next stop was Lobster Shack at Two Lights. This is another classic Maine seafood shack with the best ocean views. The shack has been around for 50 years.
Having had a few lobster rolls now, I came to the conclusion that they are totally overrated. Yes, lobster is good, but you don’t get enough on your roll to be filled. Also the rolls in Maine are served cold with a big glob of mayo. In nearby Connecticut, the rolls are served warm with butter. I’ll take a Connecticut lobster roll or a lobster dinner or a lobster stew any day.
My final stop in Maine was the Allagash Brewery which is located in an industrial area 20 minutes inland from downtown Portland (and 45 minutes from the lighthouses). The brewery is known nationwide for its Allagash White (a Belgian whit that is 80% of the brewery’s output). I was surprised to learn that Allagash has a very developed wild ale program. I have a good understanding of the brewing process from taking many many brewery tours, but the process of making wild ales was completely new to me and far more complicated.
Wild ales get their yeast from unusual sources such as unwashed fruit and yeast randomly floating in the air. The soon-to-be-beer sits out to allow the yeast to germinate. At the end of the brewing process, these beers are usually aged in barrels used for other alcohol products such as wine or whiskey, adding yet another flavor onto the beer. The aging process can last for years or in one case I saw, a decade. The staff was extremely knowledgeable about wild ales and that aspect made this tour unique and worth a visit.
From here, I headed south towards New York.