Today we welcome Nessa Burns Reifsnyder, co-owner of Fabricate, a fabric and scrapbooking store in Bar Harbor, Maine. Her family history in Maine dates to the 1830s. Born and raised in NYC, Nessa moved to Maine in 1982 and has lived there ever since. Along with her duties at Fabricate, she’s a freelance writer, editor, and designer. Welcome, Nessa!
As a resident of Vacationland (Maine’s longtime nickname), my contribution to this blog seems like a slam-dunk. What’s more, I reside in the most Vacationlandy place: Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. But I’m actually hoping to broaden your considerations of my home state beyond its rugged rock-bound coast. Moreover, my written observations will be less chrono-linear than previous entries..more like residential tourism.
Maine is an enormous state--so large that, in my southern Maine college days, my trip home to NYC was exactly the same distance as my friend’s trip home to the northernmost county of Maine. While most of our visitors confine themselves to Maine’s 3,500 miles of coastline (encompassing countless coves and harbors, ragtag fingerlets of land and some precious sandy strips), there are 33,215 square miles to Maine all told, once the sea is in your rearview mirror.
Before you leave that seaside, though, let’s consider what a coastal sojourn here brings you. Unlike a typical ocean resort vaca, featuring miles of warm beach sand under your bare feet, Maine’s waterfront is jaggedy, stony, slippery with seaweed and salty as brine. It’s not hard to imagine how generations of fisherfolk have made their living here; Maine’s coast is the essence of a working waterfront. The ocean waves that stretch out beyond the pinkish granite shore are given to shift color like a moody captain: dazzling blue sapphire on a sunny day, scowling greenish when the clouds are lowering gray; sometimes becalmed into glassy stillness, other times frothed with waves that blast up against the rocks in restless sprays. (You might try Schoodic Peninsula in Winter Harbor if you want to see how majestic and skyward our waves can get. This lesser-known adjunct to Acadia National Park is a massive shelf of granite thrusting right out into the Atlantic. Schoodic’s where my family goes when we want to feel like we’re “vacationing” on a free day.)
Did I mention the temperature of this temperamental ocean? At the peak of summer, you’ll be lucky if your toes are testing Maine’s stretch of the Atlantic at 60 degrees F. Way downeast, just before Maine ends and New Brunswick begins, the typical summertime water temp doesn’t rise above 52. So…Maine offers more of an inspirational waterfront vista, not so much a romping ocean playground. Leave your blow-up floaty toys at home. Now, perhaps you’re the hardy type who will dive into and swim around in this ice-chest, but for me, many years of wade-in attempts have always stopped at the ankle—and my feet ache just recalling the ice-water rippling over my instep.
You may be wondering why they call portions of Maine “downeast”; this age-old term (truly, centuries old) refers to the prevailing southerly winds along our coast that carry ships “downwardly” east.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to visit the main portion of Acadia National Park, a gorgeously preserved island gem that captures much of what makes Maine’s coastline the perfect vacation retreat; numerous other seaside towns are worthy of your tourism, also (Camden, Boothbay Harbor, Freeport, Kennebunkport, York, and so many more in between them). Having done that, let’s turn to the north.
Inland, the predominant color is a lush, dark green: the persistence of pines and spruce, with birches and maples elbowing in. Maine has 17 million acres of forest, from whence the masts of 18th and 19th century ships were formed, as well as telephone poles, bowling pins, drum sticks, and the pulp that became unfathomable reams of paper. But Maine’s working forest activities have not spoiled a vast wilderness to savor. If you take Interstate 95 north from Bangor, an hour’s journey will bring you to the Medway exit: the gateway to Mount Katahdin. The park surrounding Maine’s highest mountain peak is quite unassuming and controlled by the state, not the federal government. Regardless, there’s no denying the majesty of the mountain. The Native Americans in this state story-tell legends and folklore about Katahdin, and when one sees the mountain even from a fair distance, it’s not hard to imagine why. Even though Maine has more than 50 mountains (and you’d do well to visit any number of them, either in summer to hike, or in winter to ski or snow-sled), Katahdin arises mystically from its surroundings and dominates the forested region that rings it. I have to admit, I am biased: my mom hails from Millinocket, the last town before one enters Baxter State Park and Katahdin territory. But this site is as quintessentially Maine as any cove or harbor. If you’re an outdoors type, there are many camping and hiking opportunities around the Katahdin region, and then there’s the Holy Grail: climbing the mountain itself. I fervently wish I had that kind of stamina…but remember that part up above where I mentioned going home from college to NYC? My Maine roots run deep, but my city-girl heritage prevails.
I’ve taken you downeast, and somewhat up north. Well, Maine rolls onward from Katahdin, north to the Aroostook County region. My Québecois and Irish ancestors originally settled up here in the early 1800s. If you continue driving a couple of hours on Route 11 north from Katahdin—retracing a military road first plotted in the 1830s--you’ll find a river valley of rolling farm fields and wide open skies. My visits to what Mainers call “The County” always make me feel closer to my ancestors, because the scenery and the population have not changed much in the intervening century.
The top border of Maine is traced by the St. John River, a waterway for which the word “mighty” is not an exaggeration. Along with the river, numerous lakes and ponds provide water views and vacation spots, including Eagle Lake—“L” shaped and verdant, nestled into the valley. My great-great-grandparents were among the first settlers of this unsung little town.
Winter sports are a draw in The County; the town of Fort Kent is the site of the CanAm Crown Sled Dog race every winter--a qualifier for the Iditarod--and has hosted events for the Biathlon World Cup. There’s even a snowmobile highway (the Interconnected Trail System, or ITS) that allows visitors to traverse Maine’s north woods.
If you look at Maine’s map, you’ll see there’s also a western inland area which is quite vast, bordering New Hampshire and Québec. Routes 201 and 26 both offer beautiful tree-shaded drives, with classic small towns along the way. In the autumn, “leaf-peepers” savor these roads for the brilliant colors at every turn and rise. In fact, all of Maine offers vivid, breathtaking foliage—my husband and I still talk about the drive to Aroostook we took one October, when the trees were so blazingly red-orange for miles around, they looked like lava flows. And the coast of Maine teems with tourist buses and cruise ships during October…all seeking the tree show.
The natural beauty of Vacationland is unquestionable. But Mainers, I’ll be honest, often have mixed feelings about our state’s appeal to the millions of tourists who cross our border each year. I own a shop in Bar Harbor (arguably, the most tourist-saturated town in the state) and as much as I am grateful for our visitors, I get really, truly tired of questions about where folks can find THE BEST lobster. (Just for the record: it’s a shelled, overgrown sea-spider, basically. Plunge that baby in boiling water, make sure you have melted butter handy, and it’s gonna taste the same regardless of which restaurant’s serving it up. Oh, it’s yummy all right, but Mainers do NOT eat it as often as you’d think.)
One last Maine sight we get asked about: the princely moose. Antlers flaring to either side of his head, massive snout snorting…where can you find this immense beast? I’m sorry to say that I cannot pinpoint a specific place where you’re likely to meet a Bullwinkle, although many of the places I’ve described above have plenty of moose in their wooded nooks and crannies. However, the likelihood of a moose sighting tends to decrease as you approach the coast—yet another reason to explore more of Vacationland than the average visitor does.
As I wrote this, I kept thinking about Henry David Thoreau, one of Maine’s very first visitors from away—whose awestruck prose about this place helped set it in the national imagination. Here’s a beautiful series of observations from his book, The Maine Woods, that still resonate for my home state today. “Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain [Katahdin]. We were passing over ‘Burnt Lands,’ burnt by lightning, perchance, though they showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer, exceedingly wild and desolate, with occasional strips of timber crossing them, and low poplars springing up, and patches of blueberries here and there. … It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. ... What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star's surface, some hard matter in its home! … Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense!”
Nessa, thank you for being here today and sharing your part of the world! We visited Bar Harbor many years ago and were stunned by its beauty. When we get back, as we plan, we’ll have to stop by and say hello. (And enjoy the lobster )
Want to find Fabricate during your visit to Maine? Find their Facebook page!