This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.
A hot summer afternoon in my shop with a fly or two buzzing around my head makes me look yearningly at the lazy fluffs of clouds in the sky and wish I were out there somewhere on the sparkling sea, waves lapping at the hull of my boat, nothing more to do than stand at the helm and allow my senses to inhale the essence of our amazing coastal waters.
“Vacationland,” they call our state. For amusement, I turn on my scanner to eavesdrop on what’s going on beyond my limited horizon of trees. The Camden Marine telephone channel, alive with yacht traffic, provides ample evidence that “vacationland” is certainly no misnomer, not for the great number of people who managed to realize their expectations of spending sacred days or weeks of summer relaxation in Maine. I hear them planning their picnics and parties, arranging to pick up friends at some town landing, even calling the office in New York or Boston to check up on things and to rub in the fact that wherever it is they are, it is like being in heaven and “Oh, you wouldn’t believe the string of fine days we’ve been having; we’re never coming back!”
Me? I’m having a grand time digging the old glue out of the joint of a chair I’m repairing. I remember carefree days like that though, a long time ago, but then in my teenage years a summer job became an essential part of my calendar of seasonal occupations, and I bowed to the convention that money, at least pocket money, made the world go ‘round.
It started with odd jobs here and there, mowing lawns, painting someone’s porch. Haying season was always pretty good for me; I liked the excitement of driving tractors and riding through town on top of mile-high loads of green bailed hay, sweet smelling and swelling my and my friends’ heads with the notion that we were doing “man’s work” – all that prickly heat, the sweat, the mountainous bounty reaped from the land – it felt good.
My first official summer job was the best. I was the “hired boy” on an island in Muscongus Bay in the summers of 1959 through 1962. It meant, to me: boats, idyllic seclusion, mackerel fishing, swimming, exploring and a tremendously good time; all of which were realized and interspersed with a good amount of house painting, wood cutting, trail clearing, lawn mowing, clam digging and running errands to the mainland – not such unpleasant chores, especially under the circumstances, since I knew I was in the most beautiful place on Earth.
My favorite task was clearing trails. That meant long hours by myself, chopping through the blown-down, moss-covered trunks of spruce trees where they lay across the path, and cutting through thickets of new growth, eating raspberries and, best of all, discovering the nests of hermit and wood thrushes and oven birds, low down near the ground where I could peer into them, and the myriad secret lives of the creatures and plants all over that island. It was those summer experiences, more than almost anything else in my youth, that made me aware of who and what I am and what I care most about in this life.
Contrast that with my last summer job while at the University of Maine. I was studying forestry and wildlife biology then and was employed, off and on, with the old Maine Fish and Game department. Most of the work was with whitetail deer where I helped to build the now well-known game pens that not so long-ago harbored some of the animals for the recent, ill-fated caribou reintroduction project. On occasion, we were tasked with capturing wild deer for different studies, using drug darts and CO2 guns, and let me tell you, a drugged whitetail can run a hell of a long way before it drops, and even in a partial stupor can be a damned tough animal to wrestle into a crate you just dragged a quarter-mile. They’re very strong and quick, and when cornered won’t hesitate to charge and leap clear over your head (which happened to me several times) or even over an 8-foot fence. Their flailing hooves are pretty hazardous too, and to my great surprise, I learned that a desperate deer will even try to bite. Not to get off track though, suffice it to say that last summer job was a far more taxing business than my first.
The guy I worked for was a big game research doctor named Fred, and he had me and one assistant trekking all over the state of Maine in an effort to census the deer herd in various localities. By airplane, he would get a preliminary look at known “winter yard” areas (where deer hole-up in the worst weather), and then he would hand me a topographic map, a compass and the keys to a university vehicle. On the map would be drawn a large triangle, one of whose corners might land on a logging road where we could find our survey starting point. Each leg of the triangle was two or three miles long. “All” we had to do was traverse the triangle, using the compass and a surveyor’s chain tape, a chain being 66 feet. Every third chain, we were to count and record any groups of deer droppings we found within something like two-feet of the tape. Knowing the decomposition rate of the droppings and the average number of times a deer “goes number two” in a day, Fred expected to derive a pretty good idea of how many deer might be in that particular neighborhood. It seemed a simple enough plan, but we soon found ourselves referring to Fred as “Doctor Mission Impossible.”
In drawing his triangles, Fred completely ignored the fact that my assistant and I were not hauling a canoe with us, had no suction cups on our feet and that we had red blood, a finite supply of it, that would be entirely sucked out of us in minutes by the hordes of insects we were to encounter. Each sampling survey took a long day, during which we had absolutely to follow a beeline compass bearing and count the droppings, every third chain, no matter what. This was science.
We tore through waist-high blackberry brambles. We waded through chest deep beaver ponds. We labored up mountains, scaling cliffs sometimes. There were alder-choked streams, vast blowdown areas so filled with ferns and raspberry thickets we couldn’t see the ground. The mosquitoes and deer flies would have killed a horse. But we stuck with it, even did a good job, and because I was well-practiced with a compass and maps, we actually were able to land at the car again, right on target, at the end of each exhausting day.
I saw a lot of backcountry that summer and a lot of wildlife, including a fair number of moose and bear. On one occasion up in Jackman, we were just coming over the top of a small mountain when we were nearly overcome by the horrendous smell of rotting flesh, and by the stench of it, a lot of rotting flesh. About 30 yards ahead, directly in our path, a good-sized black bear was groveling with its head inside the belly of a dead moose. Our compass bearing would take us exactly through them. What do you do? We called a whispering halt to our transect and thought it out.
Ordinarily, a black bear is fairly timid, but this guy appeared to be luxuriating in his wonderful, smelly, spicy moose feast, and we weren’t just sure how he would receive us if we were to step politely over him, holding our noses. So, we just watched for a while. I’ve got to say, it was a pretty disgusting performance, and though the flies were bad for us, the swarm around that dead moose and the bear was hellacious.
Finally, we just started swatting flies with branches and our clipboards, creating as much commotion as possible, whooping and hollering and making like murderers. In one surprised motion, our bear tore his head out of the moose’s belly, lurched for the bushes nearby and hustled out of earshot on down the mountain. We, too, moved right along, not in any way slowed down by that reeking carcass. And so it went.
It was quite a job that summer, one my family laughingly refers to as “the summer Barnaby counted deer turds.” I did also eat a lot of berries, catch a trout or two with my bare hands and swim in some of the most secret spots in the state of Maine. They opened my eyes, those summer jobs; gave me a real taste of wildness, of the ongoing struggles that are the reality of “peace and quiet.” I liked what I was learning, but I was also learning that very few of us can ever, truly, take it easy for very long.
Now, my son, Elijah, has a summer job working in aquaculture – oysters and mussels mostly. It’s his third year. I’m glad he’s outdoors and on the water every day; it’s healthy, hard work, and he’s learning things fast. He had a week or so to lie around after school let out, and he’ll have another week before he goes back, but meanwhile, vacationland or not, he’s got a summer job to apply his youthful energies to. They’re some of the best years of our lives, the years of summer jobs, and it’s about the best chance any of us gets to try oneself out on the world while the gates are still wide open.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.
Images courtesy of Barnaby Porter.