We returned to New York late Saturday night under threat of a hurricane calculated to hit landfall mid Sunday. The trip was one of the longest I have had from the Hamptons to New York City. Five inches of rain fell in the four hours it took for a ride that normally takes two and a half. The next morning the weather had calmed so I ventured out to find a New York Times for the latest news of the disastrous fall of Afghanistan and the plight of those still trapped in the country – Americans as well as the Afghanis who were relying on the United States to provide a safe passage out. The morning streets were wet and absent of pedestrians except for a few dog walkers who never shy from bad weather.
This New York morning looked very much like a year ago when the streets were devoid of people due to the Covid quarantine. The storefronts that had been boarded up during the protests over the killing of George Floyd were now open, but this was a different kind of calm, like the first snowfall on an early December morning. Apartment dwellers were holding in place until all the hurricane warnings passed. After picking up my paper at the corner bodega I impulsively bought a dozen yellow roses from the flower display at checkout for Patti to brighten the dismal day. I continued over to Lexington Avenue where at 69th street the road was closed off with police barricades. The Russian consulate is on that block. Perhaps there were some dignitaries in town in need of extra security. I made my way past the barrier and saw I wasn’t too far off in my guess. A movie was being filmed and the Russian consulate was part of the set, with one of the actors being filmed exiting the building. I walked past the firehouse on 69th and a fireman was standing at the open doors with his arms crossed viewing the Hollywood scene unfolding across the street. “Nice flowers,” he said. “Thanks,” I responded, and continued walking west to my favorite bookstore on Lexington, Shakespeare & Co. I like to stop there for a peek at the latest titles on display and it’s where I can cheat a coffee and danish. “Closed due to weather” read the sign in the window. I continued to my barber shop at 70th street. A haircut would be a pick me up I thought. Not to be. Closed as well. I walked a few more blocks north to see if the nail salon was open. After fishing all week in Maine a manicure would be in order. Not to be. All closed due to the weather. Bodegas were the only game in town. I was left to reading yesterday’s news and listening to WQXR while the hurricane was downgraded to a Nor’easter/tropical storm. My friend Ted in Montauk called in to say the winds out on the eastern tip of Long Island were 30 mph and the waves were pouring over the docks at his marina slip. I know the Hamptons will recover by dinner time. The roads will be open and free of the steady strain of traffic now that half the crowds left last night to beat the storm.
The solemn and quiet atmosphere in the city feels appropriate to me. Tomorrow I say a final goodbye to one of my oldest friends, Stef Poss, who died suddenly this past week. I have been fielding calls from mutual friends, reminiscing and reliving moments from our college years in the 1950s. Stef was married to one of my best friends. Lives, like hurricanes, pass, leaving survivors in their wake to carry on. But we never forget their impact.
Patti and I planned a nice walk on Gooch’s Beach for our last night here before the drive north to camp, where we will meet up with the grandkids and friends. It started to rain as we left the house and our walk turned into a car ride to Walkers Point, where the Bushes are encamped. I am still wondering what they had for dinner and if I should pop in to say hello. Anyway, the rain continued and became heavy, canceling the Red Sox game in Boston. Around 7:30 we decided to try our hand at finding a couple of open barstools in town for a bite to eat. Reservations are impossible in Kennebunkport, especially on a rainy night. Some restaurants even reserve a year in advance. A typical wait for a walk-in is over an hour. We tried both Hurricane and Alisson’s on Dock Square. The bar crowd at Hurricane was composed of a typical group of people. Some heavy, some old, some young and some, like us, Hungry and Impatient. But we were armed with a strategy. Patti taught me how to psyche out a bar patron to free up their seat. First, you order a beer, then you stand behind whomever you think is eating the fastest and the least amount of food. In some cases, you need to strike up a conversation to encourage them to take their dessert to go. Hurricane was packed with people three deep behind each bar stool. I noticed an older fellow, probably a Mainer, with his two very bored-looking grandchildren. I felt sorry for him since as a grandfather I know what it feels like when the kids have no interest. It is important to spend time with them and when I do, occasionally I will say things to get a reaction. I kidded that their grandfather was gifting the oldest a new Bronco and the youngest was being sent to Boarding School. I got a mixed response but did draw out a couple of smiles.
Patti and I finished our beers and gave up on trying to budge anyone from their seats at Hurricane. We relocated to Alisson’s, where at 8:15 the bar miraculously emptied. An incredible phenomenon. I guess all the patrons at the bar grew tired of eating, drinking and renting free the stools. Patti and I grabbed seats and downed our burgers with another Coors Lite. When we get to camp, I think I will ask Patti to make our bar reservations for next year. And I thought the Hamptons were overcrowded.
It was early evening in Kennebunk and the weather finally broke after two straight days of rain. Patti and I headed out of our rental house, eager to take a walk into town. The air was damp and the sidewalks strewn with gravel washed up from the roadway. At the intersection of Western and Beach Road, cars were backed up for several blocks. Seems everyone had the same idea about getting out after being housebound for days. We continued along the narrow sidewalk running west from the shore to the center of town where the bridge traverses the Kennebunk River. We proudly wore our “Maine” sweatshirts– a buy at the Bangor airport from last year’s visit to camp up north and marking us out as tourists but we didn’t mind, as we were far from the only ones. We held hands, as the sunlight faded, keeping our heads down with eyes on the uneven sidewalk pavement. The large droplets hitting us from the tree branches above finally forced us to use our hoods and it was then that I realized I hadn’t put in my hearing aid. Without it my one-way conversations with Patti quickly wear thin. I felt around in my pocket and to my great relief found it. As I pushed the tiny apparatus into my ear a range of ambient sounds seemed to fill the air including, faintly, something musical, like a wind instrument. I thought of my old clarinet. The one from my youth that my grandson decided to take apart and then reassemble, minus the mouthpiece. Someday I will find a repair shop for it. There were only a few pieces in my repertoire anyway since I could never remember all the finger positions. Moon River was my favorite, and I can still play it in my head. As I walked and mulled over the fate of my clarinet, the music grew louder and more distinctive. At last we spied the unlikely source: the Sunoco gas station at Cooper’s Corner.
The garage bay door of the station was wide open and inside, illuminated with bright, fluorescent lighting, was a live band with a half dozen musicians—a group of older fellows– on horns, clarinet, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and drums, playing a fabulous jazzy number to the great delight of the crowd gathered outside. The stage back drop was a raised car lift. In front, the musicians were in a semi-circle, some standing, some seated on wooden folding chairs. Somehow the acoustics worked, as the music carried out of the garage to the tarmac with the gas pumps and the appreciative audience – a mix of young and old, tourist and local. Patti and I worked our way in closer for a better position. A garage band in Kennebunk gives whole new meaning to the term. These were no kids goofing around with some instruments in their parents’ two-car garage, but accomplished musicians who performed together with the ease of having known each other for a long time. They seemed to appear out of nowhere and played for an hour, after which the crowd mingled with the players and shared bottles of local beer out of an ice-filled washbasin. I found out they go by the name Johnny and the Sunocos and that Johnny, a founding member of the band, was a mechanic there for many years. Now he and his band give weekly concerts there during the summer.
I reminded Patti that only last weekend Tanglewood had reopened for its first concert post Covid. This may not be Tanglewood, but it was a match for it in terms of the effect that only live music played well can have on the listener. An evening concert, in the heavy night air pungent with oil and beer and the ocean nearby, and the warmth and energy of everyone there combined to make its own kind of magic that is Johnny and the Sunocos. I will be back next week for another concert. If the weather’s clear, we’ll bring chairs and a bottle of wine and find our place on the tarmac.
For most businesses in Danforth, Maine, July 4th weekend is the peak of the season. However, this July 4th, not only is the weather gloomy, but the economy is under the weather too, so to speak. Over years past, Mainers have seen the decline of the forestry industry and the lobster franchise, due to trade tariffs and climate warming, and now the tourist bump has been levelled by Covid 19. Earlier today, a mourning dove was cooing, in a minor key it seemed, appropriate to the overcast atmosphere. Soon the wind from the northwest picked up and pushed the lake water over the dock. Heavy droplets of rain pounded out an uneven symphony on the Gruman aluminum canoe. No fishing with Greg today. It is not just the discomfort of being out in the rain, but the bass can be “unfriendly” – maybe they can’t distinguish the bait from the rain on the surface of the water. It is a quiet day, and the pandemic has limited us from inviting company for the weekend. The fire in the hearth has been roaring since early morning, not only for warmth but for comfort.
The Fourth of July will be a day of watercolor painting and reading. I keep a portfolio of cut-out images for inspiration and recently graduated from painting fish and brilliantly colored flies to fishermen in canoes. I just finished reading a book by Carl Marlantes entitled Big River, about the history of the immigration of the Finns to Oregon and the establishment of the lumber industry. I also brought with me to camp a few books about the early settlement in the Sierras and the area around Downieville. Interestingly, my little community in Danforth, Maine, has many similarities. Logging could have been a major industry in the Sierras but for the discovery of gold. Maine had farming and dug potatoes out of the soil instead of gold nuggets. It all came to an end years ago—the logging and the prospecting and Danforth like Downieville has downsized. The last remaining gold nugget in Downieville is the Mountain Messenger. What is left here in Danforth is the camping and fishing tourism. Danforth no longer has a newspaper. The local population here cannot support it. The school has only a handful of students and the gas station survives as part of the local deli and café. This year the tourist traffic is minimal and for most businesses in Danforth, Maine, July 4th weekend is the peak of the season. However, some of it headed north to Canada. Route 1 to Machias is quiet except for the occasional truck carrying logs to the pulp mill. There are fewer RVs camped out at the park across the lake this year, and fewer boats on the water, which means fewer cabins have been rented. Not a lot of out of state plates. The mandatory two-week quarantine was lifted yesterday. Maybe it will be an incentive for people to come visit. I hope so. My friends in Maine are open for business and welcoming to all.
Camp doesn’t feel the same this year. The pandemic has spread its wings all the way north to the Canadian border with Maine, and of course beyond. But here in this remote outpost, where the feeling of escape from civilization has always been a welcome relief, the desolation seems especially stark. The RV camp across the lake has no lights at night. There are no boats on the water at daybreak trolling for lake trout. The public ramp at East Grand Lake is empty of boat trailers. Renee’s doesn’t have the early morning crowd for coffee and homemade donuts—just a new hand-written sign in the window saying “open for take-out.” There is no wait at the sole gas station in town, but the small country deli—the only food store within a 40-minute drive- has customers. I stand behind a woman in line to pay and notice her SNAP card. The people here are dependent on the spring and summer fishing crowds, now almost nonexistent. There are no kids playing in the old, lower school ball field. Camping and fishing seem unlikely to spread the virus but people have to travel to get here, whether from Boston, Bangor or like me, from New York.
The rest stops are off limits and closed for the most part. The motels en route are closed. No Hortons or McDonalds, except for drive thru. It is a long trip from the Long Island ferry—some ten hours from Old Saybrook to Danforth. I drive non-stop followed by two weeks of self-isolation in my cabin. The fish and wildlife are blissfully unaware of the raging storm we humans are forced to seek shelter from. The ducks in the cove have returned. The loons coo away night and day. The romance of nature sustains me through the solitude, along with the shelves full of the books I have been working my way through on rainy days. The comfort of a hearth fire puts me to sleep at night. Going out on my ancient Gruman aluminum canoe in the early morning hours transports me literally and figuratively, far away from the waves of a virus. There are no wakes from motorboats. The water is calm, lapping gently at the side of the canoe. I will stay for a while.
Last night I decided to sleep in my tent escape—a canvas shelter with room for two situated at the lake’s stony edge. In the past I have used it for company when the indoor beds are all claimed. During the day, I paint there for afternoon light. After self-quarantining for two weeks in the cabin it was inevitable that I would come down with a case of cabin fever, the only antidote for which is the outdoors. So, I skipped my evening Macallan and headed out. The half-moon lit the path through the wood down to the water. When I peeled back the tent door, I was relieved to see there was no evidence of prior guests– the wild, four-legged kind—just a couple of spiders to evict. The tent has a mattress and comforter and after giving them a good shake I fell into bed and the deepest sleep, awaking this morning to the high orange glow of the sun piercing every gap in the tent canvas, and to a sound I hadn’t heard in a while around here: the rumble of trucks. Early morning construction vehicles on the camp road? We are in a different time now. Beethoven couldn’t have composed a more joyful sound in that moment. Danforth was coming back to life.
I put on my fleece slippers and padded back up to the cabin to fire up the old black, crusted kettle, to prepare coffee for the first cup on the dock. I took in the distant sounds of diesel engines mingled with nature’s crazy harmonies. Even the birds’ chirping seemed more adamant and excited with the activity. Next what sounded like a noisy RV passed by, then another truck and another. Yes, they are back. The world is awakening from the pandemic slumber. The RV travelers are either homebound or coming to camp out. If they are inbound, Maine still has a two-week quarantine law in effect for out- of-staters– but there is no enforcement. I know they must be here, but I haven’t seen a police car in years. Campers and RVs coming and going mean summer is not locked out. The loons and mallards will welcome the travelers back and the bass somehow know they must escape into deeper water. The gates will open. The storage barns will empty of the ATVs that ramble the woods. The old canoes will go back in the water. Minor repairs will commence. Chopping wood for the fireplace. I will reassemble the trampoline for my grandkids. Fire up the old barbeque. Now it’s time for that second cup of coffee.
“Open For Business” – that’s the call from the fishing outfitter at Wheaton’s Lodge. Patrick has been chomping at the bit to open up and start fishing and frying. The Lodge has lost half their season so far from the pandemic and need the bass fishermen back on the water. Wheaton’s is one of the oldest camps on East Grand Lake. It has been in the same family for years and only recently was taken over by a young, adventurous couple who cater to an avid angling clientele. Fishermen come from both coasts and in between for the small-mouth bass—the best water in the Northeast. The accommodations are modest, uninsulated wood frame cabins with stoves for warmth. The old-fashioned, heavy wool blankets on the beds are like a flashback to childhood. Breakfast in the rustic dining room starts before daybreak and the early risers are treated to heavenly homemade pancakes followed by coffee on the dock, where it tastes best. Wheaton’s was my savior when I first went north in 2017 to open my new camp, after my wife passed away. Patrick and his wife, Sandy, the new proprietors, were welcoming, home-grown people preparing home-grown food for their guests. They soon felt like family. I was alone but never felt that way, meeting interesting fellow fishermen from around the country, one a widower like me, still grieving and seeking solace in nature.
My mind was soon off the sadness and on the water with the Lodge fishing guide, Andy, in his native East Grand canoe. It was the first of many outings with Andy, who has good fishing instincts and extensive knowledge of the local waters. Andy and I fish various lakes in the area, none of which have more than a few boats within earshot. Since the Lodge is only a short boat ride from my camp, I have the best of both worlds. So today I answer Patrick’s call and make my way to Wheaton’s to do some fishing with Andy—the first outing of the season since the shutdown. We quickly fall back into our old routine. Andy pulls the canoe off his trailer, and it drops into the water with a delicate splash. We slide into the make-shift upholstered seats– fashioned from the discards of Andy’s retired ’88 Camry–and push off into the waveless East Grand Lake. A lone eagle circles above and stress evaporates like the morning fog. There is no cell service out on the water, which is somehow more freeing than just turning off the phone. I put away my watch, so other than the sun’s position, I am purposely oblivious to my time on the water. We have the most luck on the Canadian side of the lake and spend most of the day there. Seems the bass prefer the Canadian accent. I stand with my fly rod, looking for large, submerged boulders where the bass congregate. Fishing for bass is for me a lot like trout fishing, stripping the line back and forth until I feel a strong tug. The ensuing tussle with the fish is what it’s all about. Sometimes I use a 3-weight rod to get more play time. The jump out of the water is the next thrill. I release before the fish reaches the net to avoid damaging the fins. Catch and release is my motto. I only bring into the canoe the fish that are wounded from inhaling the fly.
Midday, lunch on shore is bass filets fried in cornmeal over an open fire –my gosh– boiled potatoes, coffee made from lake water with an egg in the kettle to keep the grounds down, and homemade berry pie. A meal fit for a king fisherman. The ride home is anticlimactic. Returning to an empty cabin isn’t too much fun but I always have a book to fall into and my jazz cds. Tomorrow my old pal Greg is taking me to his new secret spot for brook trout. We will drive deep into the wilderness carrying a light canoe to a small pond filled with 16-inch mammoths. I feel fortunate. I am 80-years young, and though it seems the decades have flown, I now measure time by the length of the fish on the end of my line.
I am writing from sunny, balmy Palm Beach, Florida, though my thoughts are 1700 miles north. Today is camp opening in Maine. This year will be different than my camp openings in the past. I am doing the work remotely. Greg, a local caretaker and handyman who has been helping me for years, will have all the fun, doing the things I would be doing if I could be there. There is still ice on the lake–the Canadian side of the lake is frozen over, but my side of East Grand Lake is melting away. Being some 100 plus miles north of Bangor and on the New Brunswick Canadian border delays the meltdown a bit. This is the best time at camp, to experience the joy of sunup over the lake on that first morning, when the insects wake up and commence their buzzy choruses, buds everywhere are blooming, and the local cove ducks are back looking for a handout. The small creatures who have been hibernating all winter pop up and start scrounging around the cabin grounds.
Out at the dock the water level is high. It is truly a Spring Awakening. Indoors, the first job at hand is to release all the mice who have been enjoying my sofa and chairs all winter. Then, the pipes need to be blown out before the water is turned on. The kerosene heater is primed and tested to make it through another year—always a big relief when it turns on as there is no one left in the area who can repair it. The fireplace is opened to expose a few more mice who have spent their winter cozied up in the ashes and wood chips of the last fire from last season. On day two of camp opening, we usually go to the storage barn to retrieve the camp chairs and the canoe and start up the old Rover. Camp opening holds so much promise for a joyful summer outdoors. The Corona virus has kept me in Florida this year, but I will be back soon, I hope.