Acadia

02/26/2013

Maine High School Grad Rates Up Again

Bangor Daily News announced the results of the Maine Department of Education’s measurement of the 2012 state graduation rate. For the third year in a row that rate has increased, and is now at 85.34% This puts Maine in the top quarter of the US graduation rates. Comparisons to other states are difficult because it seems every website uses tabulation that has a different result, and then there’s the year to year differences. Even more difficult is attributing the causes of this happy statistic. No child left behind? The Maine Laptop program? Small classes? The great recession? Whatever the result, it looks like Maine educators deserve credit, so thank a Maine teacher today. And I don’t think we can attribute our gains to easier graduation requirements!

from http://www.americashealthrankings.org/all/graduation (slightly different data)

Although it’s dangerous to use anecdotal information to explain a trend, nearby Deer Isle-Stonington High School certainly is doing something right, and may offer clues. The school district contains Maine’s biggest lobster catch area, so local kids may not necessarily be college-bound, but the rates have soared from 58% in 2009 to 94% in 2012. The new principal Todd West has outlined what he believes to be behind the meteoric rise. It all comes down to individual attention. Availability of staff and aggressive monitoring of student achievement on a monthly basis are the specific steps Principal West has taken.

At the bottom of the pack are schools in urban districts, where kids are more likely to be in poor circumstances. Only 75% of kids receiving free or reduced lunch costs graduate, compared to 93% of the non-subsidized. There are also gender differences (males, 83%; females 87%). We noticed this problem when our daughter applied to colleges. In efforts to counter the paucity of boys, colleges admitted them with lower scores, much to our dismay.

Our governor is not helping to graduate more kids. He has taken steps to de-fund teacher retirement and has flatlined school funding. But let’s look at the bright side, Maine schools are improving and just maybe they will survive until the next governor.

 

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02/15/2013

The Silence of the Clams

Walleye painting by Timothy Knepp

I have just spent over a month in Michigan. Ann Arbor is a great town and has a dazzling array of restaurants, but I found myself avoiding seafood. How fresh can a clam be in Michigan? OK, I’m spoiled. I can go down to the shore here at SeaCat’sRest and dig clams so fresh they don’t have time to scream before I drop them into boiling water. I had to work in the scream thing because I came up with this great title, but in reality I’m just fishing for a reason to use it.

Michigan has great freshwater fish: whitefish, smoked chub, lake trout and my favorite, walleye. But there’s the mercury  problem. Michigan’s fish advisory tells us:

from: www.michigan.gov/documents/FishAdvisory03_67354_7.pdf

Wow! Scary! The mercury is atmospheric, emitted mostly by coal burning power plants and concentrated in the fat of fish over time. Asia is the biggest polluter by far. Every step in the food chain concentrates the mercury approximately ten times. This is called biomagnification. Therefore a plant eating fish (or mammal) has much less mercury because it doesn’t eat the fat of other animals in which the mercury is concentrated. Mercury is one toxin among many, but it is the most important. Others include PCBs and Dioxins.

Human health risks from methylmercury exposure have been widely documented, and include neurological effects, impaired fetal and infant growth, and possible contributions to cardiovascular disease.

www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/…/pdf/sources_to_seafood_report.pdf

So what about fish from salt water? Doesn’t marine fish from Maine’s coastal waters also have unhealthy levels of mercury? Yes and no. True, older, bigger fish like bluefish, swordfish or shark, or fish which spend part of their lives in fresh water like striped bass should not be eaten by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also, the toxin-concentrating part of the Maine Lobster, the tomalley or liver ( the part Julia Child loved to make a sauce out of) should be avoided. But the State of Maine also says, “All other ocean fish and shellfish, including canned fish and shellfish: Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant and children under 8 years of age can eat no more than 2 meals per week.” That’s pretty liberal compared to the Michigan guidelines. The diluting effect of the vast ocean and the active tidal currents help to spread the toxins out so that Maine coastal seafood is not faced with the toxin uncertainty of freshwater ecosystems. The thing about saltwater fish is that the mercury levels are pretty unvarying. For example, the mercury level of .3 parts per billion is an average for a given species throughout the world’s oceans. If a given species had that level in Lake Michigan it might have twice that in one of Michigan’s interior lakes or rivers. This is because the local environment’s acid levels could be higher, putting more atmospheric mercury into solution.  So the warnings for Michigan’s fish must reflect this by assuming the worst case. Even more restrictive are the government warnings about Maine’s freshwater fish. No fish should be eaten by pregnant women or children under 8 except landlocked salmon or brook trout, one meal per month.

The take away from this brief review of the mercury problem in fish is to 1) observe the consumption guidelines for the fish in question, 2) Make sure the fish comes from a larger body of water and 3) eat young or small fish, and remove the fatty parts. Maine has a low level of mercury inputs, but most mercury comes from the atmosphere anyway. With our strong tidal currents, Maine’s coastal waters have no “hot spots” like an acidic Adirondack lake or industrial harbor. There’s still too much mercury for a perfect world, but as we move away from coal and other fossil fuels, the future looks brighter. As for clams, mercury is not the problem, pollution or red tide (paralytic shellfish poison) is what you call the hotline for: 1-800-232-4733 or 207-624-7727.

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01/07/2013

Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith, from http://www.americanrhetoric.com

Maine Republicans, with a few exceptions, are a breed apart. Being Republican in Maine meant being in favor of abolitionism, state’s rights, your father’s fiscal conservatism and personal freedoms. For the most part modern Maine Republicans have steered clear of the Bible-thumping, “other”-bashing, anti-compromise, gun toting, conspiracy-spewing qualities our congress now seems infected with. We can be proud of our Maine senators and congresspeople of both parties. Fare thee well, Olympia Snowe.

Margaret Madeline Chase Smith was one of our Republican senators we can be especially proud of.  She confronted bully Joseph McCarthy and brought him down…eventually.

Margaret and her parents from http://www.mcslibrary.org

Margaret was born in Skowhegan, Maine on December 14, 1897 to George Emery and Carrie Matilda (Murray) Chase. George was the town barber and Carrie was a waitress, store clerk, and shoe factory worker. Daughter Margaret graduated from Skowhegan High School and was captain of her girl’s basketball team. During  high school she worked as an operator at the telephone company where she met local businessman and politician Clyde Smith, 21 years her senior. After high school she taught school and also worked as an executive for the Maine Telephone and Telegraph Company. From 1919 to 1928 Margaret  joined the staff of the Independent Reporter, a Skowhegan weekly newspaper (owned by Clyde Smith) for whom she was circulation manager. During these years she became active in women’s organizations, first the Skowhegan chapter of the Business and Professional Woman’s Club and later serving as president of the Maine Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. On On May 14, 1930, Chase married Clyde Smith at the age of 32.

She soon became active in politics, and was elected to the Maine Republican State Committee, on which she served from 1930 to 1936. Clyde Smith was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1937 and Margaret accompanied her husband to Washington and became his secretary, speechwriter, researcher and office manager. It was because of this training that she was prepared for what was to follow in the spring of 1940: Clyde suffered a heart attack and convinced his voters his wife could stand in for him in the fall election. He died on April 8, 1940. In November Margaret was elected with 65% of the vote. She continued to serve in the House until 1948 when she was elected to the Senate with the slogan, “Don’t change a record for a promise.”

Joseph McCarthy, from wikipedia

Margaret Chase Smith, in the tradition of New England Republicans, maintained an independent streak. She often supported FDR’s New Deal policies and later opposed some Republican judicial appointments. But her greatest act of independence, and the one for which she will always be remembered, is her Declaration of Conscience.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized his fellow Americans with his witch hunt for Communists, first in government and then branching out into all spheres. At first Margaret welcomed this search for spies but soon became convinced that most of the accusations were without evidence, and were done for hysterical or self-promoting reasons.  After only a year in the Senate, Senator Smith delivered her famous fifteen minute address, never mentioning Sen. McCarthy by name. The full text can be seen here. In it she express the following:

  1. The right to criticize;
  2. The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
  3. The right to protest;
  4. The right of independent thought.

But she also took her own party to task:

Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.

…But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.

Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of “know nothing, suspect everything” attitudes.

The immediate fallout of this speech was her loss of membership on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (the Senate version of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee). She was fired by McCarthy and replaced by Richard Nixon. She and her co-signatories to the Declaration of Conscience were referred by McCarthy as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs”. It would take another four years before McCarthy was censured in the Senate. Margaret voted in favor.

Can the current House of Representatives learn something from our esteemed senator? I hope so.

1962 convention, from http://www.mcslibrary.org

Margaret continued to serve until 1972. She was a presidential candidate in the 1962 Republican primary but the nomination went to Barry Goldwater. She was the first woman to have her name be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major political party’s convention. At the end of her political life she moved back to Skowhegan and worked on her library. She also lectured at universities and in 1989 received the Presidential Metal of Freedom from George H.W. Bush. She died in 1995 at the age of 97. Come to Maine and you will see her name everywhere, we’re proud of our First Lady of the Senate.

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01/01/2013

Maine and the North Pole

Some folks look at a distorted map of the US, where Maine curves up like a hitchhiker’s thumb and think Maine is the last stop before the North Pole. This post is not about Maine’s undeserved reputation as an arctic peninsula, but how many expeditions to the North Pole had something to do with Maine. This was because of Maine’s seafaring traditions, not its proximity to the Arctic. After all, most of France and all of the British Isles lie north of Maine. The googlemap to the left shows how we line up with Europe if the Atlantic Ocean were to disappear. Bar Harbor and Bordeaux share the same latitude. Too bad we don’t have a gulf stream. If so the temperature would have been in the 60s today (Bordeaux) instead of the upper 20s.

Geography lesson (and whining) over. Perhaps the first Mainer with polar ambitions was Herbert Leach. Born in 1858 here in Hancock County he joined the expedition to the North Pole on the steam ship Jeannette from San Francisco led by Lieutenant Commander G. W. DeLong on 3 July, 1879. The long ordeal is beyond the scope of this blog but the ship got frozen into the ice for two years and rode with the ice pack for thirteen hundred miles. The crew survived by hunting polar bears and walruses. After the Jeannette was finally crushed by the ice the crew set out in their three lifeboats to Siberia. Only one of the three survived, the one with Herbert Leach and twelve others. After being fed by natives and a trip to Yakutsk, Siberia, the crew took a long train ride to Europe and back to the U.S. Herbert Leach died in 1935 at the age of 77. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery, North Penobscot, Maine.

from Wikipedia

The big kahuna of Maine polar explorers was Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 – Feb. 20, 1920). Although born in Pennsylvania, Robert graduated from Maine’s Bowdoin College in 1877 and lived in Fryeburg Maine. His home is now the Admiral Peary Inn and the island he bought in Casco Bay, near Portland, is now open to all. Find out more about Peary’s Eagle Island here.

Robert Peary’s goal of reaching the North Pole left no stone unturned. He had a special steamship built, the S. S. Roosevelt (after Teddy). It was a shallow-draft, coal burning steamship with extremely rugged construction. It had 30 inch thick steel covered white oak hull planking and a solid battering-ram bow meant to withstand ice crushing and a rounded hull design meant to be frozen in pack ice.

The S. S. Roosevelt from www.pearyeagleisland.org

I imagine he read up on the Jeannette. Below decks was so crammed with machinery and coal that crew quarters had to be above deck. The ship was also sail-rigged to save fuel. He made several voyages to the north of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northerly land mass and the world’s tenth largest island. Here he positioned men, dogs and supplies in preparation for his 1909 push to the Pole, his third attempt. The island was by no means close to the pole, he still had to travel 500 miles by dog sled and foot, over frozen pack ice with ridges up to 100 feet high. The polar night was no time to travel, so he had to wait until early spring to set out, and had to hurry back to beat the breakup.

Matthew Henson, from his book

Interestingly, Peary send most of his crew back short of the pole and chose as his closest co-explorer an African American, Matthew Alexander Henson (Aug. 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955), who reached the North Pole with Peary on April 6, 1909, along with four Inuits. Henson wrote about his adventures an a book called A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, published in 1912. It is available as a free download at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20923. Peary wrote the forward, in which he said,

Again it is an interesting fact that in the final conquest of the “prize of the centuries,” not alone individuals, but races were represented. On that bitter brilliant day in April, 1909, when the Stars and Stripes floated at the North Pole, Caucasian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian stood side by side at the apex of the earth, in the harmonious companionship resulting from hard work, exposure, danger, and a common object.

Peary’s motto,  Inveniam viam aut faciam, “Find a way or make one”, seems like a requirement for successful explorers. Admiral Peary died on 20 Feb, 1920 at the age of 63. He lies in Arlington National Cemetery.

from findagrave memorial #799

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12/26/2012

Maine Lawn Rebel

Google street view of where I grew up.

I grew up in a land of conformity. The houses were all on 1/4 acre lots in a new subdivision and the measure of a family’s social standing had a lot to do with whether their lawn had dandelions and if the edges which met the sidewalk were cut razor straight, with no blade of grass allowed to bend over the cement. I always fought this. It was enough to cut the grass I thought. Let the next door people worry about getting on the cover of Lawn Beautiful. Flash forward 40 years and not much has changed. Now instead of pushing around a gas powered mower most suburbanites contract out their lawn care to a company like “Chairman Mow, we cut the grass of the ruling class“. Even at SeaCat’s Rest it’s common to hear the roar of internal combustion engines and the smell of exhaust, unchecked by the pollution controls common to the cheapest of cars, wafting in from neighbors. How did this all begin and why does it continue?

There’s a simple caveman explanation. Imagine your cave is in the middle of a thick forest. Now picture it higher up, overlooking a broad meadow or lake. In which would you feel safer? The one with the broad vista, of course. You can see ‘em coming. Bloodthirsty foes or hungry relatives. Time to lock the door and pretend you’re not home. Could our love of lawn be any more than just that? Actually, yes.

English countryside. Photo by Andy Edwards

Consider the English colonists. They came from a pastoral land where every square inch of rural land was used for crops or grazing. They brought grazing animals with them and forest cover meant hunger, for animals and humans alike. Massachusetts was not Somersetshire. Trees had to be cut and grass planted. By 1640 we had established permanent markets for importing English meadow seeds like timothy and alfalfa. As our farms flourished, trends in English landscape architecture reinforced the ideal of lawns. In 1830 the lawnmower was invented by the Englishman Edwin Budding. By 1850 the lawn was part of the American preferred home landscape, with no other purpose than to look good.

As the lawn grew in popularity from Maine to California and south to the Gulf of Mexico, measures were taken to ensure its health in a variety of climates. Drought resistant grass varieties were planted in the south and when nature couldn’t provide, the Industrial Lawn took up the slack. By the 1950s the modern lawn required watering, chemical de-weeding with herbicides and greening up with fertilizers. It was cut, in ever greater frequently due to the fertilizers, with enormous inputs of fossil fuels. By the time I was in college it was said that Americans put more fertilizer on their lawns than India used on food crops.

Path to SeaCat’s Rest

For a while now there has been a movement afoot to reverse this trend. There’s a “freedom lawn” movement which seeks to develop a method of taking the industrial component out of the American lawn. Ornamental grasses, perennial flowers, native varieties and relaxed cutting and interference are part of this approach.  Mainers are a little less serious about their lawns anyway. Sometimes, meadows are allowed to grow and only bush hogged when woody plants (usually alders) appear. That might be every two or three years. I’ve never seen anyone in Maine apply lawn chemicals. Lawns are mowed, but weeds are free to flourish for the most part. Visitors from the south often comment that our lawns look a little wild and uncared for. I guess there are parts of the country where the industrial lawn still rules.

It’s no wonder Maine is lax on lawn care. Our own Hannah Holmes, who lives in Portland on 2/10 of an acre wrote a book called Suburban Safari, A Year On The Lawn in which she describes in great detail the ecology of her freedom lawn. On page 104 she says,

   Whatever you call it, it’s a popular landscape choice around here. Maine has been slow to recognize the genius of turning a perfectly good vegetable-patch-with-garbage-dump into an outdoor shag rug. And if we must have a shag rug outdoors, by gorry, we ain’t gonna manicure the blasted thing.

Here at SeaCat’s Rest we maintain a strip around the house of mowed grass, which I cut with an electric mower. Other parts of the property are covered by either woods or Kathleen’s extensive perennial flower and ornamental grass extravaganza, where butterflies and hummingbirds find plenty to eat. We still have the caveman expanse in the form of the North Atlantic. Just this side of the shore we allow nature to prevail with wild blueberries, raspberries and bunchberries. I like to cut back the woody plants by hand every spring to maintain the view, but most of the vegetation is untouched to preserve the integrity of the bank. At least one of our guests remarked that our setting was “rustic” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment (see reviews here).  So there it is, if you book lodgings here you have to deal with a Maine Lawn Rebel.

View from the bank

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12/11/2012

Smartest States: Maine is Fifth

Guy in a monkey suit from http://animal.discovery.com/tv-shows/finding-bigfoot

This post was an accident. I was cruising my cable channels looking for something worth watching. My former top channels have been dumbed down big time. The Learning Channel is now the Leering Channel with My Strange Addiction, Hoarding: Buried Alive and Sister Wives. The History Channel is now the Military Hardware and Paranoia Channel  and sadly, the channel which brought us Mythbusters is now showing Zombie Apocalypse, Moonshiners and American Chopper. Last among this list of shame is  Animal Planet. We used to see shows which taught us something about other species but now we’re subjected to Finding Bigfoot. As if this was somehow a subject which is contained under the heading “Animal Planet”! It was while watching the excruciating first five minutes of this sham that I asked myself if some of America’s states are so stupid as to provide fodder for the footage and eyes for the advertisers. I didn’t stick around to see what lowest common denominator businesses had done the math to convince themselves that they could sell to the Luddites who watched this drivel. Instead I was compelled to repair to my beloved internet to see whether Oklahoma was as low on the intelligence scale as suggested by the episode aired on 12/2/12.

Initially I was apprehensive to see where Maine fit in this list since I know that Mainers don’t have the bucks to send their kids to college as easily as other states. Our colleges are not bad, just divided between expensive, excellent private colleges and so-so public universities. Coming from Michigan I’m spoiled from its full spectrum of affordable public universities, serving kids at almost any SAT level, as long as they’re residents. At the top is the University of Michigan, just short of Ivy League status, with tuition accessible to all. With all that, Michigan is not the smartest state according to statemaster.com. In fact it rates as number 27, well behind Maine. Poor Oklahoma is at #39. Maine ranks as number 5, behind Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Check out the full list at http://www.statemaster.com/graph/edu_bes_edu_ind-education-best-educated-index.

Senator-elect Angus King, from wikipedia

The ranking is based on a number of factors,  “on student achievement, positive outcomes and personal attention from teachers”.  I know that Maine’s education reputation has leaped forward in recent years. We have always had small classes, but we used to be dogged by high teenage pregnancy, smoking and low high school graduation rates. Thanks to our newly elected Senator Angus King, when he was governor from 1995 to 2003, our state sent the message to our kids that we were investing in their future. In a bold move, the state of Maine gave every 7th grader an Apple laptop for school. Our daughter was in 7th grade then and hit that wave perfectly. Some older teachers had to retire early, they couldn’t handle it. Now it’s time we show the results to all who doubt the value of education spending and keeping up with cutting-edge technology. Thank you, Angus King. We humans are tuned into bad news, ready at the drop of a hat to blame someone for a problem but rarely do we notice what works, thanking those who do right.

From L. L. Bean

Still, our SAT scores are low and with a low rate of college degrees for their parents, kids have an uphill battle in Maine. We are poor by New England standards so the money spent on education could be higher. Two parents working mean unsupervised after-school time. Our employment opportunities are skewed toward tourism and natural resources, neither demanding higher education. So the fact that we’re #5 is pretty good. Let’s hope we stay there and expand the high tech economy so that our kids stay in Maine. Maine has a lot going for it. The beauty and lure of the outdoors is what everyone knows about, along with our affordability, but we’re also ranked high on peacefulness, low on crime, high on health and now high on smarts. If only we could change that mandatory fashion rule for November: You must wear blaze orange!

 

 

 

 

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12/04/2012

Joe Holden, Maine’s Flat Earth Evangelist

from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=74125990

Let it not be said that I only write about things favorable to Maine’s image. Long after the earth was known to be a sphere, a core group of die-hard biblical literalists decided the earth was flat, no matter what. One of them, Joseph Holden, who lived in the central Maine town of Otisfield made himself known as a prominent flat-earther.

My MS Word mock-up of a handbill from http://www.mainememory.netartifact20139

Born in 1816, Holden worked  his way to become the owner of several sawmills in rural Maine but never married. He called himself “professor” but there is no evidence his education progressed beyond Otisfield’s one room schoolhouse. It is said his mother tried to walk on water. He was a lifelong Republican and served as Justice of the Peace, census enumerator and even ran for state senate.

Coming of age in the mid 1800s he was a witness to Charles Darwin’s rise to fame and saw the scientific community’s gradual acceptance of the tenets of evolutionary theory. Finally, the Descent of Man, released in 1871 confirmed  Darwin’s evidence for a family connection between humans and apes and escalated the war between science and religion which continues to this day. Joseph Holden chose his little piece of the war and fought it for the rest of his life. Being more or less financially secure, it is doubtful the small admission he charged for his lectures did more than pay for his travels, so a scam artist he was not. From stories told by the town historian Jean Hankins it seems he was a tolerated and colorful character, annoying perhaps, but not a threat. Townspeople “respected his right to be foolish if he wanted to.”  His poor hearing made argument futile, so most of his victims just nodded their heads in agreement. Another convert.

His main demonstration was to fill a bucket of water and set it upon a post. He bet his audience that he could return in 24 hours and the water would still be there, proof that the earth didn’t spin about an axis or move in any other foolish way. When he began to lecture at the age of 75, he was a constant presence in the state legislature, attending every session for many years. He lectured in Portland, Boston and even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. His lectures were filled with common sense arguments and humor. People came for the entertainment and left feeling entertained, but likely not converted.

Joe Holden died on March 30, 1900. His passing was noted by at least one sympathetic newspaper (Statesville, NC Semi-weekly Landmark):

We hold the the doctrine that the earth is flat ourselves and we regret exceedingly to learn that one of our number is dead, because there are few of us and one can ill be spared. But we are not without hope. One of these days the idea that the earth is round and turns over every 24 hours will be relegated to the roar along with other antiquated notions.

 

Amazingly, flat-earthers exist to this day. Just check out http://theflatearthsociety.org. I can’t say the people who run the website are true believers or it’s just tongue-in-cheek, but with all the other bizarre beliefs out there, why not? At least this one doesn’t seem to involve stockpiling ammunition.

In his will Joe bequeathed $3 per year to the parishioners of the Otisfield Baptist Church for an annual  summer picnic. Each August he is still celebrated in Otisfield with the gentle ridicule and good humor. I wonder if anyone leaves a bucket of water on his grave.

Sources used for this story:

  • http://www.sunjournal.com/node/238260
  • Christine Garwood (2007). Flat Earth.
  • http://www.findagrave.com
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth
  • Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1992). Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

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11/26/2012

Maine’s Elephant Resort

Rosie in retirement. Photo by Barbara Hatch for Hope Elephants

Of all the things we think of when we say Maine, one of the last things would be Asian elephants, right? That changed as of October, 2012  when two of the big mammals took up permanent residency in Hope, Maine, about 1-1/2 hours west and south from SeaCat’s Rest. Veterinarian and former circus elephant trainer Dr. Jim Laurita worked with Rosie and Opal back in the 70′s and decided he wanted to provide for them a comfortable Maine retirement. He raised $100,000, built a huge, 3,120-square-foot heated barn and purchased the necessary veterinary equipment for their care. There were a few negative opinions expressed from an animal rights group, but for the most part the community was supportive. Several fundraisers have already happened and promise to continue to provide for their feeding and upkeep. Check out the Hope Elephants facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/hopeelephants.

Rosie and Jim Laurita. Photo from http://www.facebook.com/hopeelephants

Opal and Rosie’s new home is not a tourist attraction, so if you want to see them or their human caregivers you have to arrange it through the facebook page. They are always ready to accept donations to their non-profit. Future plans do include an education center and a viewing deck, and Dr. Laurita has already allowed school groups to see the elephants. The primary objective is to provide for the elephants and increase awareness of older elephant’s needs in their retirement years. Rosie and Opal are now in their 40′s and may live to 80, so Maine will have the big hungry mammals for a while.

The criticism from In Defense of Animals claimed the new barn and large (1+ acre) paddock was unsafe and inhumane and our climate was inappropriate. Dr. Laurita says elephants encounter snow in their native habitat on occasion and certainly in zoos and some like it, some don’t. Both animals have ongoing health issues and Hope Elephants is equipped to address them. Opal has foot and leg problems while Rosie suffered nerve damage to her shoulder. There are plans for an underwater treadmill. To me, it doesn’t sound like these animals are suffering from being in Maine, and from the photos they seem to enjoy it. Some day I hope to see for myself. Pines,  lupines, apple trees….and elephants!

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11/15/2012

Our County goes Green

Hancock County, Maine, containing Bar Harbor and Lamoine just got a lot greener. According to census figures we have 23,300 households. Eighteen thousand, or 77% of those household’s electricity needs are now matched by the new 34 megawatt Bull Hill Wind Project just 30 miles away from SeaCat’s Rest, atop 600 foot Bull Hill. Of course, the power is fed into the grid so the power goes everywhere, but it still means Hancock County is now a significant energy producer. It only happens when the wind blows, but the engineers at First Wind have done their research and picked a site where there is dependable wind. The success of a wind site can be expressed as the capacity factor, the percentage of rated output that an array produces over time. It’s too soon to know Bull Hill’s, but another First Wind array in Maine, Mars Hill, has achieved 35% according to here.

The substation where voltage is matched to the grid.

On the fourteenth of November, 2012 I traveled to Bull Hill to see this project for myself. It’s a little remote and requires driving over gravel roads for a while, but the site is accessible to all and I recommend that everyone take a look. The land is owned by H. C. Haynes Inc, a timber company and leased to First Wind. Haynes has a policy of allowing access to its lands for recreational purposes, and so the extensive roads servicing the installation are available for visitors at any time. Standing under a 300 foot tower with slowly spinning 150 foot blades is an awesome experience.  Seeing nineteen of them spinning together is humbling. Actually, seeing all nineteen at once is not easy, since each tower is about 1500 feet away from its closest neighbor.

The blades above my head spun at about 12 RPM, a blade swishing by about every 2 seconds at 128 miles per hour at the tip.  I wanted to ask someone what the turbine’s output was at that speed and soon after I was speaking with a young First Wind worker at the facility’s substation who was kind enough to answer my questions. At 12 RPM he said, the generation was “at rated output” or about 1.8 megawatts. The wind was not that strong on the ground, about 12 MPH here at home, so I was surprised to hear that. The young man, who decided not to have his name mentioned, explained that the site is chosen after several years of monitoring wind speeds and that the model of the turbine is chosen to match the wind resource. The Vesta V100-1.8 MW is a model fitted to lower wind speed sites, reaching rated output at 27 miles per hour. I don’t think the wind was that strong even 300 feet up. At 15 miles per hour the output is 600 kilowatts.

Investment in a wind installation is not a casual affair. Not only does the local population have to be on board ($340,000 per year in taxes and community benefit payments helps), but the project needs to be near an existing power grid so that the overall project cost can be kept reasonable. And then the wind too. Being on top of a hill is a big help. There are other, windier sites in Hancock County, but many are close to the coast and off limits for aesthetic and political reasons. Finally, the young man reported that most people don’t realize that the new wind economy has already pumped a billion dollars into the Maine economy.

The Bull Hill project in some ways resembles a housing development in that there are winding streets and flattened build sites with good drainage and planted grass.  All the power from the turbines goes through buried conduits, so like a fancy development there are no wires overhead. Each turbine sends out its maximum 1.8 megawatt at 34,500 volts. It joins with the output of other turbines and heads to the substation, all underground. At the substation the collected power is boosted to 115,000 volts and joins the grid. The substation is staffed 24 hours a day and so the facility is an ongoing employer, keeping watch of the 19 turbines. I asked about the maintenance of the turbines, specifically if the three hundred foot climb was by ladder. The answer was yes, but there is a “power assist” which is basically a lifting cable clipped onto a harness which makes the climb a little less tiring. I would hate to get to the top and realize I forgot my wrench. Tasks at the top include greasing the gearbox, tightening bolts and checking power connections and output. I was hoping to get an invitation to the top but it was not to be. It’s probably a good thing, I’m not crazy about heights.

Wind power is still controversial. Some people hate the way turbines look and others object because they are supposed to kill bats and birds. Still others claim they are an unreliable and expensive source of power.  I like the way they look and hope the source proves to be viable. I am no expert when it comes to giving an intelligent assessment of this power source, but when I look at those big turbines I know there is wind energy being converted to electricity and I see no smoke. As someone who lives 15 feet above high tide, I need to make sure the Greenland ice sheet doesn’t melt, and it’s certain that humans producing CO2 are not helping. That’s my opinion!

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10/29/2012

Maine’s Oysters

Maine is synonymous with lobster, but we also produce some of the best oysters (Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster) in the world. In warmer areas oysters can be grown from egg to adult in a year, but in Maine they take three or more years to reach a harvestable size. The extra growing time results superior flavor and texture, firmer meat and a thicker shell. The nexus of the Maine oyster industry is the Damariscotta River, a little short of the halfway point up the coast from the NH border and about 100 miles from SeaCat’s Rest. Maine oysters are expensive but worth it, and people around the country are starting to find out. The Damariscotta River has hosted oysters for thousands of years as revealed by huge 2000 year old midden piles of shells left by Native Americans.

Growing oysters, unlike clams, is not just a process of harvesting a wild creature. The production of our prized bivalves starts with site selection. Oysters are endemic to brackish water, the estuaries of rivers where ocean waters mix with fresh. The fresh water must be clean. Polluted water would not only produce unhealthy oysters, they would taste bad as well. So like a fine wine growing region, specific rivers and even parts of rivers, produce the best oysters. Therefore they must be farmed intensively. Maine has 32 oyster farms. Relying on naturally occurring oysters in prime areas would be like harvesting wild grapes for wine.

The process of farming oysters starts in the hatchery in winter. Mature oysters are induced to produce egg and sperm by manipulating food and water temperature while they lie on trays in tanks . Fertilized eggs are at first free swimming but eventually attach to tiny crushed shells fragment provided by the hatchery. During this growth phase they consume huge amounts of algae, which must be provided in the hatchery. Eventually they achieve “grow out” where they can be transferred to mesh bags out in the river. Here their diet changes to a natural one, and they continue to grow until their size requires larger accommodations.

from http://www.pemaquidoysters.com/

Some growers keep their oysters in floating crates until they’re ready to harvest, but others transfer their investments to river bottom for a while. This requires either hand harvesting with scuba gear, or a mechanical dredge. Either way, the reward is a superior product, commanding a premium price in New York restaurants. Fortunately, visitors to Maine have the opportunity to sample Maine oysters near the source at a local price. Every September the village of  Damariscotta hosts an Oyster festival. Admission is free and the oysters are plentiful; 15,000 were served in 2012.

The Maine oyster industry is small compared to the lobster industry.  Currently oyster sales amount to $8 or $9 million dollars per year while lobster sales total $340 million. Although Maine oysters are often out-shined by lobsters, the product quality is just as good and they will likely grow in importance in the years to come.  Recent threats from disease and the possibility of hurricane damage still makes oyster farming a gamble, but Maine’s cold winters assure that our oysters attain a sweetness not present in fast-grown southern varieties. If you can afford a few Maine oysters at $1.09 each (supermarket price, 10/29/12) you will be able to enjoy a taste of the  briny-sweetness of Maine.

Our oyster appetizer. Photo by Pat Gray.

 

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