Naturbuhne am Atlantik (a translation)

This is basically a rough-and-tumble translation of the Stern article, “Naturbühne am Atlantik,” originally found here.

Fine beaches, steep ravines, clear seas and luxuriant forests besides: Nature has it all figured out in Maine. The U.S. state in the northeast lures both the active traveler and the retiring tourist.

For two weeks the “Friendship V” has been off the raging sea. The days were stormy, and sometimes dark clouds overcame the port of Bar Harbor and darkened the city as if by nightfall. But today, on this day at the end of July, the view is clear; the last remnants of clouds sit 20 nautical miles from the coast, gathering on the peaks of Mount Desert Island. The hunt for Nixon and Breaker and Clinton can begin.

“It’s hard to say where they are now,” the captain says. They could be anywhere here in the Gulf of Maine, one of the most nutrient-rich places in the world. They come in spring from the Caribbean, swimming and eating in the far northeast of the USA, putting on their fat for the winter. Nixon, a finback whale, gets his name because he allegedly has the same profile as the former president. Breaker is an attention-starved humpback, who has become a real companion to the “Friendship V.” Where the finback Clinton gets its name, the captain doesn’t say; it has something to do with women, but the captain doesn’t want to start any arguments.

It does not take 30 minutes before, on the horizon and near a small rock island in the middle of the gulf, a fountain of water sprays several meters into the air. The ship sets its course, and only 100 meters to starboard a massive, dark grey body emerges from the water, slowly and mysteriously like a submarine. It is a finback. Its spray is so loud that it drowns out the sound of the boat’s engines. And its curiousity is so great that it circles around the ship for half an hour. It’s not Nixon or Clinton. “There are hundreds,” says Captain Greg, “the majority of which we’ll never see again.”

The finbacks are the second-largest whales in the world. They can grow up to 25 meters long, and if there is an ideal place to observe them, it’s here in the Gulf of Maine, where they’re as exotic to Mainers as seagulls are to the North Sea beach. The passengers on-board paid $45 and were prepared for the sighting, but, as incredible as it is, they stand open-mouthed at the railing and say words like “majestic” and “august.” There are vacationers who drive out nearly every day because they can’t get enough of watching the largest mammals in the world. They say that the whale calves sometimes dance with the bow waves, and that on good days you can see more water-spouts than in the trick-fountains of a spa garden.

You could actually spend your entire vacation there on the sea, because the animals always rob your breath: finback whales, humpback whales, dolphins. But the coast of Maine is long and varied and full of attractions. For example, you could drive from one lobster shack to the next, standing in each tiny inlet, big as summer houses, and the whole day eat nothing but lobster with butter, lobster with Pasta, and lobster in white wine sauce—which is as common to the natives as salted herring at the North Sea beach. You could also sail along the steep and cliff-strewn coast on board a four-masted sailing ship, between the hundreds of small islands, and evenings have lobster cooked in beer at the beach. Or begin the day, like nature-enthusiasts, in Acadia National Park: the only National park along the US east-coast where you can find all manner of ecosystems together on the coast, what Nature gave Maine in abundance: lakes, ravines, beaches, forests and mountains, which reach to the sea.

At sunrise kayakers paddle on the sea up to Sand Beach, a beach in a rocky bay. From there they clamber up the mountain, pull themselves up between red cliffs and gnarled birches. At the top they jump in the mountain lake and swim through it in order to mountainbike along the cliff, with a view of the islands and waterfalls and the bright buoys of the lobstermen. It’s the perfect beginning of a day in Acadia, if one can bear the overdose of nature. It has something intoxicating to it and is absolutely recommended, if one wants to experience Maine in one day.

You could also leave yourself several weeks’ time, taking a drive in the south and experiencing the intoxication again and again, because there are always bays more beautiful, paths still lonelier, a more idyllic bay, on this 5500-kilometer-long coast with its 68 lighthouses. The travel leads across narrow, winding roads to peninsulas which reach out into the ocean like bony fingers. The bright houses are made from wood and often stand behind wild, flowering gardens. You pass beaches with blueberries and cranberries and antiques of the sea world. Maine is the state where you get blueberries at gas stations and lobsters in general stores. It is the state that has more galleries than banks and more antique shacks than supermarkets.

Only two hours south from Bar Harbor you arrive at Deer Isle, a long forgotten part of Maine, and at the peak of this island, in the mountain built by the ocean, is the village of Stonington. The houses stand on stilts, the roads are narrow, the wind tastes of fish and cappuccino. If there is one place that embodies the spirit of Maine, it’s Stonington. On the pier rowdy seamen gather. In the summer they travel out to sea every day; in the Winter, unemployed, they readily spend evenings telling of which colleagues they’ve already lost on the high sea. And next to them stand artists from all parts of America, who paint pictures of the rowdy seamen and the coast, which, here, is picturesque like nowhere else.

Also on this Sunday you see them together on the pier—the artist and the fisherman. Here at the lobster shacks, the lobster costs six dollars. A cheerful fisherwoman sings country songs that a local radio station plays. It’s a lifestyle between dropping out and driving away; between soul-searches and job-searches. A life that is not yet wiped out by the fangs of the travel industry. But “it goes wicked fast at our coast,” says the painter Connie Hayes. “The city developers come and take the shore from the fishermen and the nooks and colors and nativeness from us.”

But with its 60 offshore islands (the largest archipelago along the east coast of America), Stonington is also the ideal starting-point for kayak tours on the ocean, so beloved in Maine. The trips lead between rocks and past islands with names like Wreck Island or Saddleback Island (which is for sale for $1.7 million). You could sit on the sandy beach, bathe in fresh water ponds and spend the night there, on a deserted Atlantic island, and the next day paddle to the next island and the next to the nicest one of all, the Isle au Haut—large as Amrum—where somewhere around 60 people live year-round, fishermen and writers, and where the mail-boat comes once a day. Maine is different from mainstream America. In Maine live people who don’t find silence or solitude threatening. In Maine they to recycling seriously, and warn of hiking near black bears and moose mothers. In Maine you’ll find lobster-burgers at McDonald’s. In Maine the Bush family has its vacation home, but on cars bumperstickers declare, “Protect the World — Send Bush to Mars”. If there’s anything like an opposite of Texas, it’s Maine, the largest of all New England states.

On one of the lonely streets of the coast, Waterman’s Beach Road, 73-year-old Ann Cousens put up her lobster shack. It’s a sunny day, the southwest wind carries away the mugginess of inland, and the sea is still. Her grandchildren take tiny boats to their 800 buoy-marked traps and bring tubs full of lobster back: 300 on this day. She doesn’t usually say much, but if it concerns lobsters, she says somewhat more, and Ann Cousens could talk for hours of it.

Lobsterfishing is its own philosophy, she says, and even the people who are already in their third generation don’t completely understand it. You can steam or boil lobsters. You can cook in salt-water or sea-water, smother in butter or mayonnaise, garnish with lemon or lime. What’s certain is: you’ll eat lobster best in these lobstershacks, these cheaply built, weathered huts on the water. “Here you have the real life,” says Ann Cousens, “not like in Camden. Here you have real boats, not like in Camden. Here you have real people, not like in Camden.”

Camden is something like the St. Tropez of Maine. The lobster here is expensive and served on linguine. The boats are noble and need footbridges to reach. Camden is exceeded only by Kennebunkport in southern Maine. There, where the nicest beaches are. There, where the Bushes live. There, where the fashion shops are. There, where Maine has a little something from Sylt. Or Fifth Avenue. There, where no rattling boats float around, but old windjammers.

A trip on board this Windjammer, the “Appledore II,” costs $25. On board you might find a millionaire from Manhattan, but also sailing enthusiasts from France, and when the fog lifts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful sail. Past lighthouses and the ever-changing coast, where a pair of bald eagles has built a nest. Dolphins jump out of the water and greet the “Appledore II”; seals sun themselves on a rocky island. In the evenings the two-masted sailing boat anchors in a lonely bay. In a kettle full of beer the ship’s cook boils two freshly caught lobsters. He covers the kettle with seaweed, on top of which shrimps and mussels cook. You hear the buoy-bells and the fog-horns of the lighthouses. Captain Nick comes from Florida and is soon on his way to the Caribbean. “It’s very nice down there,” he says. “But you can’t beat this. It doesn’t get any better. If only it weren’t so foggy.” There he sees it yet again. The Fog. And so he stays. Until the next morning.