The Blue Hill Peninsula Where Down East Maine Begins


by Charles McGuigan          PHOTOS Catherine McGuigan

Four years is a long time, and although summer vacations, other excursions and assorted day trips with my son Charles during that period were always acts of joy and discovery, there was a wheel missing that could sometimes make for a jerky ride.  This summer that wheel, my daughter Catherine, was back, along with yet another on—her beau Tyler. The plan was to leave at one o’clock on a Monday morning, and be back the following Sunday. By leaving that early we hoped to put the mid-Atlantic states behind us before eight. But, as with the best laid plans, we didn’t pull out of Richmond until two-thirty with me behind the wheel. At our first pit stop at a Wawa in Maryland, Catherine climbed into the driver’s seat, and she and Tyler would alternate all the way up to New Hampshire, through rains that were often driving, and traffic that was stop-and-go. In all the years our family has traveled together, I was always the sole driver; having two very good drivers sharing that burden was a relief.

By late afternoon we reach Brunswick, just 20 miles from Bailey Island, where we always spend our first and last nights in Maine, and always at the same place, Cook’s Island View Motel. We eat an early dinner of lobster over on Harpswell at a place called Estes, where you get two lobster for under twenty dollars—no frills, no sides, just lobsters, which were alive fifteen minutes before you crack their shell.  We all sleep soundly that night, and at the first gray of dawn, which is overcast and misty, I leave the motel room and in the parking lot spot seven crows perched on the uppermost and leaf-vacant limbs of a birch. Two of the birds on the topmost branch seem to be kissing.

An hour later, we pack the car, and head over to the Giant’s Stairs, just a quarter mile from the motel, and park in front of the little Episcopal Church there, then make our way along the paths that run along this singular formation of basalt and quartz that was formed 500 million years ago. We climb these massive, rocky ledges as if they are stairs, and get one of the best views there is of Sebasco Bay, watching the deep blue water crash white against this rocky shoreline. On the other side of the path, there is a dense and perfect and untended botanical garden created by the unerring hands of nature. There are giant colonies of beach roses, the hips as large and red as cherry tomatoes. And right next to them grow stands of New England asters, pale lavender with yellow eyes. An entire blanket of orange jewelweeds. In among this all grow sumac. There are no invasive species here, and no fertilizer or pesticide is every used. Nature tends to it all. This wild swath of Maine coastline is maintained by the nearby town of Harpswell. Back in 1910, Captain William Henry Sinnett, a Bailey Island native, donated this two and a half acre strip of coastal land to his community because he wanted to ensure that all could enjoy it. That seems to be a prevalent view up here, which is why there is such a profusion of land trust holdings all along the coast. It’s as if Mainers have long understood what Native Americans have always known—no one really owns land.

We head up the coast to our Airbnb cottage in Penobscot at a leisurely pace. Catherine and Tyler are in the backseat and they pick at one another like lion cubs, and Charles, whenever he has an opportunity, attempts to join in the gentle fray. I love to watch and listen to them interact, Tyler, consciously or not, taking on the role of big brother, and Charles responds to it.

Penobscot is a town on the Blue Hill Peninsula, but it sprawls for miles and miles from the shores of the Bagaduce River to the rolling blueberry barrens that dominate much of this area. The houses are sporadic at best, and we finally find ours, which is owned by a man named Jeffrey who works for the nearby town of Castine, home of the Maine Maritime Academy. He built the house himself, a two-story saltbox with more than ample room for the four of us, though we could easily sleep another two in the living room, and all for $72 a night.

Throughout the night it rains, not heavily, just a slight pattering that Charles and I can hear from the loft bedroom, the ceiling and walls of which are festooned in a pair of massive and multi-colored jib sails. In the morning, early, I leave the house and scope out the woods where wild blueberries, perfectly ripe, await plucking. I fill a cup and return to the house, and Catherine and I make breakfast, nibbling on the berries which are smaller than peas. The rain is now not much more than a drizzle, and a few hours later it lifts altogether as we make our way into the town of Castine where we wander along the streets, then head over to a place called Witherle Woods, which is another part of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. It’s an uphill climb through spruce and firs, and occasional groves of white birch that always seem to form dense colonies. Near the top, towering pines frame spectacular views of Penombscot Bay.

We then head over to Little Deer, and then Deer Isle, where we climb rocks, explore tidal pools and pay the perfunctory visit to Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, where you can buy an assortment of homemade jellies and chutneys, and wander through the woods which are filled with the fantastic sculptures of Peter Beerit, all made with the refuse of our culture, things that might have been pulled from a scrap yard or a junk yard, or found in a drainage dish. Always worth a visit.

At the very tip of the island is the town of Stonington where you can catch a ferry to Isle au Haut, part of Acadia National Park. Fog settles in around us as we make our way along the main street, and then out to the wharfs that line the harbor. By nightfall we’re back in our temporary home in Penobscot, and we make dinner and talk well into the night.

Here’s the thing: I really like Tyler. He’s smart, funny, and somewhat sardonic. What’s more, he can cook, and has a resourceful mind. Above all else, though, he treats my daughter with love and respect, and a father could ask for no more.

The next morning, our third full day in Maine, we drive the forty miles over to Mount Desert Island. Instead of going to Acadia National Park that day, we decide to hit all the towns on the island, beginning with Bar Harbor. We pass quickly through the commercial district and walk along the pink granite sea wall which runs in the rear of fabulous homes that were built more than a hundred years ago.

We then head over to Sommesville and Pretty Marsh, then Tremont and Southwest Harbor. This side of the island is not quite as ritzy as the other side. The houses are more modest, and the restaurants nowhere near as pricey.

On the other side of the island we visit Northeast Harbor, which is extremely well-to-do, and then drive over to Seal Harbor, where a strange thing happened the last time Catherine, Charles and I were in Maine together.

That summer five years ago, we carried our rods and reels, a cooler and a tackle box to the municipal wharf, and out to the hinged dock that rises and falls with the tide. We walked to the end of the dock and I stripped out a squid on the deck, and just as I was baiting the twin hooks of a top-and-bottom rig, I heard someone call my name. I looked to my kids who seemed puzzled. When I turned toward the parking lot I saw my brother Bruce with his wife Andrea, and their kids, Kirsten and Matthew. He and Matthew each carried a rod-and-reel. It turns out they were on vacation, staying in a small cabin in Bar Harbor. So we fished until dusk and hit the incoming tide just right, and with it shoals of Atlantic mackerel and pollock. Charles kissed the first one I caught, a pollock, slimy as an eel. It was for good luck and good measure. And the luck paid off because among us we must have caught fifty or sixty fish, all of which we released, though we didn’t kiss another one.

The next night my brother and his family joined us for dinner and I bought twelve lobsters for less than sixty dollars—the going price that year was under four dollars a pound, the cheapest I’ve ever seen it. We ate with relish, and late into the night sat around the fire telling stories and Charles, who had moved into my lap, fell asleep before the stories were ended.

We try our luck this year from the same dock, and never get so much as a strike. As we pack up our gear and stow it in the Honda CRV, I talk with a lobsterman who’s pulled up beside me in a pickup. Turns out he’s from Oklahoma, and came Down East twenty-five years ago and just stayed on.

He points to a perfectly dressed, granite seawall behind us that rises seventy feet above the waterline. It is topped with dense greenery.

“You know who lives up there?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“Martha Stewart,” he says.


He nods. “She buys her lobsters from us,” he says, then quickly corrects himself. “I mean, she doesn’t come down to buy them. She sends her people.”

We hit one final village called Bass Harbor. There we climb the pink granite cliffs below the lighthouse, and wander through a fog forest, densely populated with spruce and balsam, where the ground is rich in fern and moss, and the air pulses green with chlorophyll.

The following day the weather is crystal clear, and it’s already heating up by nine in the morning when we pull into Acadia National Park, which is aptly called the Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast. With more than three million visitors annually, it is one of the most popular holdings of our National Park system. It harbors the highest headlands on the East Coast, the tallest peak in the US on the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails, rich biodiversity, and virtually every ecosystem on the island is home to at least one endangered species. It is one of our favorite places in the world.

We begin with a six-mile bike loop, the first half of which is a steady incline, and then it’s pretty much all downhill. This 436-acre lake, the largest on the island, was carved by glaciers thirty thousand years ago. The waters are so pristine you could drink from it, and it serves as a reservoir for Bar Harbor and other island towns. It has an average depth of fifty feet, and is home to scores of aquatic creatures, including land-locked salmon and giant lake trout.

After the bike ride we climb to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. The entire ascent is one visual drama after another, from the thick balsam forests at the base to the alpine environment approaching the summit. So much of it is texture and color, and at the very top you can see for miles out into the Atlantic, which is dappled with scores of spruce-draped islands, and to the west you can see the mountains of interior Maine.

There are more than 80 varieties of lichens on Cadillac, and they grow more profusely as you approach the peak. They cover vast sheets of pink granite, and their designs and colors are painterly in an abstract fashion.

Afterwards we drive over to Atlantic Brewing in Town Hill, and try Blueberry Ale, Island Ginger and Coffee Stout, along with a sampler from the adjacent Mainely Meat BBQ. Later in the evening we pick up four lobster at IGA grocery store near Trent, then head back to Blue Hill.

When we check out of our house in Penobscot the next morning, we find a great roadside clam shack called Bagaduce Lunch just a few miles away. They serve up full-bellied clams, or steamers as they’re also called, beer-battered and fast-fried in peanut oil. We sit on picnic benches behind the restaurant, and as we eat, watch the outgoing tide of the Bagaduce, reversing its flow. That evening back down on Sebasco Bay we find a village called Cundy’s Harbor where we eat more steamers, along with fish and chips, then head to the same motel room we had slept in that first night on Bailey Island. When everyone is asleep, I step outside and walk down to Mackerel Cove. It is about one in the morning, and tomorrow we will be heading back to Richmond—a thirteen-hour haul through heavy rains, as it turns out.

During this past week, I’d come to know Tyler better, and got to know even more about my own son and daughter. Tyler grew up on a coast similar this one out in the Pacific Northwest, but he’d never been to Maine before, and he loves it. Next summer we’re all planning to head out to Tyler’s old stomping grounds, and travel the entire West Coast.

Overhead, the sky is clear and the night enflamed with a red half-moon and a bellicose Mars. And then the Perseids arrive, streaking the heavens with flashes of pale green light. Things you would miss if you looked away for a nanosecond.

About CharlesM 289 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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