January 2011 Archives


Time to Reserve Your Acadia Spot!

Whether or not you choose to stay at SeaCat’s Rest, if you are planning on booking a vacation rental house through Homeaway, vacationrentals411 or one of the other sites, now is a good time to start thinking about finding that perfect spot for your Maine vacation. Calendars will start to fill up fast, and I have the feeling that there will be quite a demand this summer. By February the reservations will be flowing in and your free weeks may not match with our free weeks, and you’ll be stuck with a hotel. My prediction about next summer’s popularity has to do with a trend I saw in the summer of 2010. The presidential visit, end-of-season numbers up 19% (park visits) and our own business holding steady throughout the downturn leads me to think that recent improvements in the economy will be felt in greater bookings in the Bar Harbor/Acadia area.

Then there’s the weather. I don’t know if we’ll have another blistering summer (elsewhere), but here along the coast it’s lots cooler and that ocean breeze blowing over that 50-60 degree water means you can always find a cool spot. No one likes to keep cooped up in air conditioning on vacation; here in Downeast Maine you can bet on spending time outdoors–but take your rain coat just in case.

Food-filled ocean currents and cooler temps means lots of happy wildlife to see. Our wrinkled coastline means finding that patch of lonely shore is no problem. Climbing mountains or riding bikes on carriage paths will whet your appetite for a lobster dinner at one of our pounds or restaurants. Seek out the perfect photographic opportunity or boating adventure. I’ve written about these activities in these pages, but reading about them is not as fun as doing them!

Don’t think that because there are quite a few rich and famous who summer here that prices are out of reach. Acadia National Park and environs remain one of the more modest vacations you can take. Why? Because most of the people who live here take a good part of their pay in beauty, sacrificing higher pay for a cleaner environment with less noise, crime and stress. Bargains abound. You may have to move a little away from Martha’s part of Acadia to find the affordable places, but they are there. And don’t worry about being nickle-and dimed at every turn. it’s not like that here. So what are you waiting for?

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Bar Harbor’s Bugs

Underside of egg-bearing female Homarus americanus.

No, I’m not talking about the latest infestation, I’m talking about the one to four pound underwater variety which just about every visitor likes to see on his or her plate. The Maine lobster, Homarus americanus, leads a fascinating life. It starts with the female excreting her egg mass into her rows of abdominal flippers, “swimmeretes”, and gluing them there with a bio-adhesive, which she happens to also excrete. At this point a pretty weird fertilization occurs. A few weeks or more back the male lobster gave her a few packets of sperm which she stashed in a pouch and plugged. Now she pulls them out (older females can hold more and can fertilize several broods with one mating). The eggs stay glued under mom for 9 to 12 months. During this time the embryonic lobsters shed about 35 times.  Shedding is what lobsters do in order to grow, otherwise their shells become prisons. During this time the mother lobster must not shed, or the eggs will be lost. Her important job is safeguarded by Maine lobster fishers. Not only will they not take an egg-bearing female, they will mark her with a notch so that no one else takes her after she’s released her eggs.

Each time they shed, the tiny lobsters take a more developed form. When they finally hatch they are free swimming, propelling themselves with paddlelike appendages to the surface, where the wind moves them with the top layer of water, dispersing them like dandelion fluff. After a few more molts the free swimmers sink to the bottom in search of a safe home. By now they resemble tiny lobster, with tiny claws, antennae and legs. They are now “post larvae”. At this time it is important that the correct habitat is available on the sea floor–not sand, not clay, not ledge, but cobbles—medium sized stones. This is one of the big surprises of recent research, and perhaps the limiting factor to Maine’s lobster population.

If they survive they will continue to shed and grow. At first the shedding rate is blistering, but after a few years they settle into one or two sheds per year. It is at this time they enter adolescence, ready to mate and have eggs of their own. If they survive to over five inches in carapace length–male or female–they are considered “breeders” and can live long, productive lives, free from the dinner table. The egg bearing capability of a female is geometrically related to her size, so older females can really crank out the babies.

Over the course of the year, lobster migrate back and forth between deep and shallow water. The deep water stays warmer in the winter. Lobster move slowly in the cold, deep water and so don’t eat much. When things warm up they’re ready to move inshore and shed. It is at this time they also mate. Both deep and shallow places require housing, not only for safety from predators, but also from each other. They like to back into dark places and stick their antennae out. The perfect apartment even has a back door to escape through. Bigger males pick frequent fights to establish dominance and become alpha males, mating with multiple females. Both sexes require a safe place to shed. For a while their new body is like jelly and they can’t even stand.

So housing is important. Different bottoms offer different housing types to different age groups. One big concern of lobster fishers is that well-meaning government scientists may increase the size limit on lobster so that they may need bigger apartments. This may mean a lack of proper housing, resulting in greater mortality or migration to different areas. The end result could be a lower lobster population and smaller catches. File this in the unintended consequences section.

A lot of work, science and conservation goes into Maine’s sustainable lobster industry. Celebrate these efforts by having a lobster dinner tonight. Better yet, come to Maine and see what it’s all about.

Thanks to: The Secret Life Of Lobsters by Trevor Corson, Dr. Alistair M. Dove, U. of  N.H. and Maine Department of Natural Resources for photos.

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It’s Maine Shrimp Season

Maine shrimp

Few visitors to the Bar Harbor area realize that Maine has a shrimp season. This is because it happens in winter. Our shrimp are not what you would expect from the Gulf of Mexico, they are smaller, sweeter and lack the iodine flavor. In fact, they are a totally different species with the lofty sounding Latin name of Pandalus borealis. Gulf shrimp are either Penaeus setiferus, Penaeus aztecus or  Penaeus duorarum. Think of Maine’s wild blueberries compared to the larger cultivated type and that’s a good way to think of our shrimp too.

David Gardener, near Ellsworth Giant Sub on Rt. 3

While our native shrimp take a back seat to our more famous Crustacean, the Atlantic lobster, there are plenty of reasons not to forget this winter bounty. First, it’s local. It comes from the cold, clean water off the Maine coast. Second, the Maine shrimp fishery is sustainable. Catches are tightly regulated, closely monitored  and robust. Finally, Maine shrimp is very affordable and fresh. Around here, the usual way to buy is from the back of a pickup truck or van, unfrozen, along the roadside, although our supermarkets have them too. From David Gardener (on 2 January 2011), the shrimp can be bought with the heads on for $1.50 per pound. We bought 5 pounds, and when we cleaned them we ended up with about 2 pounds of meat, so this worked out to $3.75/ lb with shells, heads and eggs left over for stock.   David also offers cleaned shrimp for $6.00/lb.

Speaking of roe, why are all Maine shrimp roe-bearing females? Funny you should ask. Pandalus borealis start out as males and remain so for two years as they hatch and morph through larval stages. As they mature they head for deep water where they mate with females. Then something weird happens. By year 3 these males become females and produce eggs. They head back to the shallow waters in winter to spawn and that’s when they are likely to be caught.

The best way to cook Maine shrimp is to boil or fry very quickly, a half minute in small quantities, and add to whatever dish at the last minute. Over cooking is the primary mistake in preparing Maine shrimp. Some even like to eat them raw or seviche style.  Traditionally, Mainers like them battered and deep-fried. Chowders work well too.

Maine shrimp is shipped in limited quantities down the coast to New York City and beyond, and generates culinary excitement in the larger markets. This time of year food sections of major eastern newspapers brim with the news and recipes. Here are a few: Washington Post, The Portland Press Herald, New York Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Bangor Daily News. Maine harvests about 9 million pounds on average of shrimp, about 1/8 of our lobster harvest, and people who appreciate this delicacy know the season is short (136 days) and sweet.  Seize the moment!

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Looking for Snow: Sugarloaf, Maine

Seems like yesterday I was writing about our marvelous snowstorm. We made time to hit the cross country ski trails in Acadia National Park and found a fairly level trail to start off at the second parking lot on Rt 198 just north of Northeast Harbor. In a few days we were ready for another outing, but by then we had several days in the 40’s and the the snow was gone. We decided to head for the Carrabasset Valley and Sugarloaf Mountain. This is a three hour drive from Lamoine, but we were pretty sure there would be snow.

As we approached our destination, we started to have doubts. In Kingfield, just thirty miles away, there was bare ground. While a big ski resort like Sugarloaf was certain to make their own snow for their downhill skiers, cross country trails do not get this benefit. We were assured that there was adequate snow on the trails however by checking the website.

The snow was adequate, barely. The wide groomed trails had bare spots and the texture was icy. We are not expert skiers and the conditions were not very forgiving–the trails were fast and difficult. We should have been more savvy in interpreting their report on line. “Snow depth 3″-6″” is minimal when machine surfaced and “Machine loosened granular” sounds, and is, icy.

Despite our experience, if there is snow anywhere in Maine, it will be here. This is a great ski destination, the options for every type of outdoor winter activity are numerous.  This makes Sugarloaf a great destination for groups with folks who have different winter activity interests. Cross country- and skate-skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating are available at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center while the main resort features downhill trails for skiing and snowboarding. The extensive (20 km) trail network open to cross country skiing can be accessed for $20 per day or $15 after 12:30 PM. Of course, the resort caters to every need: lodging, restaurants, brewpubs and equipment. If only there was a little more snow on January 5, 2011….

Sugarloaf Mt. from the Outdoor Center

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Dragonfly Farm and Winery, Stetson, Maine

Frontenac Gris, growing at Dragonfly Farm and Winery

On Wednesday, January 12, in the midst of a wild blizzard, I visited the Dragonfly Farm and Winery on my way back from Vermont. There to greet me was the owner Todd Nadeau, who with his wife Treena grow grapes on two or three acres of gravelly Maine soil. What makes this winery unique in Maine is that all the grape wines are produced exclusively from grapes grown right on the farm. There is no option or inclination to buy grapes from other areas, in or out of Maine. That means this is the only commercial Maine winery where the wines can be said to offer the taste of the farm, a taste referred to as the “terroir”. The reason this is possible is that the winery is operated as a “hobby farm”, Todd and Treena have day jobs, so income from the winery doesn’t need to pay the mortgage, and we are the beneficiaries.

Todd Nadeau

Todd and Treena are both full-time Maine Air National Guardsmen, Todd a Lieutenant Colonel and Treena a Master Sergeant. Todd’s  inspiration to become a vintner started with his frequent military-related trips to the Moselle river area of Germany. Here he was practically forced to taste the local wine. Having never been a wine drinker, he was amazed at the taste and suddenly found his (second) calling.

German wines are made from varieties such as Riesling, Gewürtztraminer and Müler-Thurgau but these varieties can’t make it in Maine’s climate, even though we’re further south. Todd and Treena set about to find hybrid varieties which can tolerate our climate but produce wines which recall that first taste in Germany. The chosen white grape varieties are La Crescent, St Pepin, Frontenac Gris, Louise Swenson, Praire Star, Edelwiess and a few new ones which only have numbers. On the red side are St Croix, Sabrevoix, Frontenac and Concord. Other fruits yield to Todd and Treena’s winemaking skills: blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries and plums.

My two favorites are the Clarity, made from the La Crescent grape and Shorty, made from Frontenac Gris. The full list of Dragonfly wines can be accessed at their website, mainewinegrower.com. This time of year there are not many wines for sale and no grape wines at all, but on Maine Maple Sunday, March 27, Clarity, St Pepin, By the Numbers (made from the Elmer Swenson 7-11-22 variety) and Serendipity will be bottled and available for sale. You’ll notice from the photo that the winery is very limited in production and be advised that wines sell out fast. What is available on March 27 may not be around for long.

Speaking of Serendipity, that’s exactly what led me to this gem of a winery and many thanks to Todd, Treena and Todd’s mom Rita for the chance to visit. The weather was awful but the winery was an inspiration to those of us hoping for a healthy grape wine industry in Maine. I’ve heard many say that it can’t be done, but now I know better.

Dragonfly Farm and Winery is located just 20 miles from Bangor in Stetson, Maine, not far (8 miles) from exit 167 on US 95. Take Rt. 143 north and turn left onto Mullen Rd (Rt. 222). The winery is at 1069 Mullen Rd on the left, but you might want to call ahead to arrange a visit at 296-2226/2229.

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The Accidental Governor of Maine

I am not looking forward to this post. I really don’t like wading into politics, but certain comments by our new governor,  Paul LePage has made it necessary to offer a blanket apology to anyone who may be offended by this oaf. The election was one of those where an independent candidate split the vote into three, so the winner received his mandate with 38% of the popular vote, none of which were mine.

Paul LePage was quoted during the campaign as telling President Obama he could “Go to hell”. As if that weren’t enough, he just celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday by telling the NAACP they could “Kiss my butt”. What a sensitive fellow.

The governor’s excuse for this behavior is apparently his humble origins. He escaped an abusive family and  lived on the streets of Lewiston, Maine, earning a living shining shoes. He’s allowed to be rude and insensitive because he started out poor and only speaking French.

I don’t know how long he can use this excuse but it appears he is not becoming more statesman-like. In a way I’m enjoying the show, waiting for Mainers to render his tenure as ineffective as possible. Sooner or later he’ll go too far, insult too many people, lose his temper and become a laughing stock. In the mean time, please don’t think Mainers are like him. He was an accident.

Late word: Stephen Colbert had a few words to say about our governor too:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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A comment sent into Bangor Daily News:

Would this governor please spare a thought for Maine’s largest industry – tourism, when he makes such disparaging remarks? First he says that if he had been governor, he would have told Obama to “get the hell out of my state,” when he heard of the president’s vacation here last summer. Now he tells the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” As a business owner who benefits from tourism, I resent LePage’s remarks which are off putting not only to non-whites, but also to white folks who dislike bigotry. Thanks a lot to a governor who purports to support business. What a disaster this man is!

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Hu Eats Maine Lobster?

"Just make sure you serve Maine lobster."

I think it’s safe to say that China’s President Hu Jintao must like lobster from Maine; a great deal of research and preparation go into these affairs, and the menu items are carefully chosen. Thirteen years ago, when the last state dinner was served to Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, the menu also included Maine lobster.

The theme for the menu this time was “Quintessentially American” and was specifically requested by the Chinese delegation. The full menu is below, courtesy of drvino.com:

The complete dinner menu

D’Anjou Pear Salad with Farmstead Goat Cheese
Fennel, Black Walnuts, and White Balsamic

Poached Maine Lobster
Orange Glaze Carrots and Black Trumpet Mushrooms
Dumol Chardonnay “Russian River” 2008

Lemon Sorbet

Dry Aged Rib Eye with Buttermilk Crisp Onions
Double Stuffed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach
Quilceda Creek Cabernet “Columbia Valley” 2005

Old Fashioned Apple Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream
Poet’s Leap Riesling “Botrytis” 2008

from http://www.drvino.com/2011/01/19/state-dinner-menu-hu-jintao-quilceda-creek

I enjoy the thought of all those dignitaries dealing with shells and flooded plates, but something tells me the chefs figured out some way to spare heads of states from the usual lobster mess. Did President Hu wear a plastic bib? Someone knows, but they’re not talking. I have to comment on the black walnuts. This blows me away; I thought I was one of only about 10,000 Americans who love black walnuts. You can’t even buy them in Maine. They’re a Midwest thing I guess.

President Clinton’s dinner for Jiang Zemin in 1997 featured chilled lobster in tarragon sauce, probably not bib-worthy. The Bush Jr. administration didn’t like formal state dinners and never hosted one for Hu, much to his disappointment.

The thing about lobster is that  it can be as formal or as casual as you like. Here in Maine don’t expect white tablecloths and fine china. Most of the time you get a plastic bib and a bag of chips with your lobster, probably not fit for a visiting head of state. On the other hand, former President Jiang has been known to grab the mike and sing impromptu renditions of Elvis tunes. He seems more the plastic bib kind of guy.

Maine lobster has made the cut for a classic American food for many White House meals. It’s nice to know something from Maine has that status. It also happens to be one of the more sustainably harvested seafoods too.

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Sub Zero in Lamoine

On Monday January 24, the Acadia Maine coast experienced the coldest temperatures so far this winter, right on schedule. We reached -8°F just before dawn. Fortunately the ground and roofs are covered by a one-foot blanket of snow and the thermal mass of the ground is not that cold due to the mildness of the winter so far. Still, the cats are refusing to go outside. They ask, but as soon as they get their human to open the door they sit there and fail to budge. All that fur and nowhere to go. And they call themselves Maine Coon Cats!

One of the reasons I can shrug off this cold snap is the fact that the ocean is not even starting to skin over with a layer of ice. February is right around the corner and the sun will be getting noticeably stronger, so we need a lot of cold weather to produce a sea ice layer. As long as it stays liquid, it serves as a thermal sink, keeping the immediate coast several degrees warmer than further inland.

The ocean freezes at -2°C or 28.4°F. This is a little misleading, since the  freezing temperature depends on the salinity of the water, and this is always in flux. It also fails to account for the wind and tide stirring up the surface. In practical terms, the sea water has to have been chilled throughout to a temperature near 28.4°F in order for the top layer to begin freezing when exposed to cooler air temps. Right now our local buoys are reporting water temperatures close to 40°F, so freezing seems unlikely. Before freezing starts in earnest, shallow water close to shore skins over and that hasn’t even happened yet.

An odd thing happens when sea water freezes: it expels the salt. This happens because the crystalline structure of ice has no room for the salt ions. The salt is pushed into super-concentrated brine pockets in the ice or sinks below the ice layer. Sailors trapped on the ice knew this, they just melted the sea ice for drinking water. Anything mixed in water will behave the same way. One way to concentrate beer or wine is to freeze it. The high-alcohol product is then poured off the ice or filtered out. This is how Eisbok is made in Germany.

Thick, persistent layers of sea ice form in one of every 7-10 years here in Lamoine. These are the years locals remember and they tell tales of people moving houses out to the islands or deer migrations. Some islands have high deer populations and that’s how it happens. The effect of freeze-up on the local weather is dramatic, since the thermal sink of the liquid water is gone. Suddenly when the ice forms, our temperatures on the coast plummet and the usual annual bottom of -10°F becomes -20°F or less. In these years the lobsters are slow to arrive in shallower waters and may only molt once late in the summer. Lobster fishers waste a lot of time hauling and baiting empty traps. All this because the ocean cools off more than usual. But it won’t happen this year. There’s no sea ice! Not yet anyway.

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Why Visit Acadia National Park?

In continuation of my Top Ten series I’d like to list the top ten reasons to visit Acadia National Park this year. You may have many destinations to consider for your vacation; it’s a big world out there.

Bar Harbor from the top of Cadillac Mountain

  1. It’s beautiful. There’s not much more I can add except to suggest watching the Jack Perkins video here. Otherwise, I’d use up all the space for this post just on this one topic. This video is the real deal, it really looks like that here.
  2. Escape the heat. I put this toward the top because so many visitors come here for this reason. Even parts of the country nearby are much hotter in summer. This is because Mount Desert Island sticks out into the North Atlantic and is bathed in a cool ocean breeze throughout the summer. Imagine going to another park and not wanting to get out of your air-conditioned car. If you want to see the raw data, go here.
  3. Affordability. Travel+Leisure Magazine rated our island at #1 for best island to visit in North America, and one of their 5 criteria was value. Accommodations are reasonable (especially here in Lamoine), activities are free or nearly so and restaurants are affordable.
  4. Leave your car behind. The park is committed to reducing vehicular traffic and has a free shuttle bus service making it possible to get anywhere at almost anytime without a car. Also, the park’s 40+ miles of carriage paths are ideal for bicycling. Remember, you won’t need the car for air-conditioning, so why not give it a rest?
  5. Nice people. Ever been to a travel destination where if you lay down your camera and look away it will be gone? Maine has the fourth lowest property crime rate in the country. Our folks are pleasant and helpful and our low-stress lifestyle makes them that way.
  6. Get out on the water. Maine has a lot of shoreline, 3478 miles of it (more than California)  and you are missing out is you don’t enjoy it. Take the mail boat to Cranberry Island, rent a kayak or go out for a sail. See the seals and porpoises, puffins or blue whales. It’s all here on Mount Desert Island.
  7. Exercise. While it’s possible to have a great visit to Acadia National Park without taking a hike, it is especially suited for physical activity. Even Martha Stewart wrote an article about it. Bicycling, horseback riding and kayaking are all available. Our breezy cool climate makes exercise a joy.
  8. Culture and history. Acadia was the original vacation destination on the east coast and interesting people have been visiting and living here for centuries. Local museums cover the natural history and Native Americans, and guided walks feature the neighborhoods of wealthy summer residents. There’s a lot to learn about our history, so it’s best to read up before you come.
  9. Andrew Zimmern from discovery.com

    Seafood. How could we forget? Maine lobster is know the world over and this is the place to eat it. But there’s lots more: crab, clams, scallops, mussels, haddock, mackerel and shrimp. You can buy it fresh, have it at a restaurant or in some cases, harvest it yourself.

  10. Nearness. Most folks considering a trip to Maine know that we are close to Boston (5 hours by car) and NY City (8-1/2 hours).  If you live on the east coast you will be within one or two day’s drive. If you are in Canada you will find us right on the way to Atlantic Canada from Montreal or Toronto. The Bangor International Airport, an hour away, has  non-stop flight to Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

So when you decide about where to go this summer, keep this list handy and use it to compare with other places. We think we stack up pretty good. If you want some ideas about what to do when you get here, visit my Top Ten Things To Do In Acadia.

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