Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, October 6, 2008

Corea Harbor, Gull Watch


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The ravages of time are everywhere in these old Maine fishing villages. To those who know, the history of each lobstering family can be read in the lobster docks and shacks that line these fishing harbors. As soon as I saw it, I was drawn to the stranded shack in this photo. The dock is long since gone, a bit of the dock hangs onto the remains of the shack as if it were a front porch. A box of rocks seems about to tumble into the harbor. I don't know where the fishermen have gone, but a hole in the side reveals that the wood stove has been removed. My editorial review board urged me to post this photo rather than the previous one, but I took too much pleasure in the many details of the shack to leave that close-up unpublished, and I thought it better represented Corea's life on the edge. In contrast, this image is about safe harbor.

I arrived in Corea in the early afternoon, well ahead of the storm. What there is of the town sits at the back of a well-protected cove where lobster boats can weather the storm surge and winds. There is little left of Maine's fishing industry except for lobstering. The closing of the sardine canneries along the coast was a serious blow to the economy some years back. Even much of the bait for lobster traps is shipped up from Chesapeake Bay.

Each town has its own lobstering territory in which the color-coded buoys distinguish every lobsterman's pots. Everybody knows everybody else's colors, and woe to the lobsterman whose pots are placed in neighboring turf or to a newcomer who wants to add his colors to an established community of lobstermen. Becoming part of the lobstermen's society in any town is more difficult than joining an exclusive country club. The lobstermen generally start heading out to check traps just after sunrise. It's a social occasion where men and a few women share the days gossip. By 8 AM the boats will be out, and the retired lobstermen and those who are not heading out that day will slowly wander off, filled with the day's gossip.

The pots must be checked and emptied every few days. A good lobsterman also knows when and where to move his pots to maximize his catch through the season. Some lobstermen have their own docks and lobster shacks, but there is often a commercial pier where, starting around noon, lobster wholesalers can pull their trucks up to weigh and purchase the day's catch. In some of the most active fishing towns there are also permanent commercial wholesalers with their own piers, warehouses, and sometimes their own restaurants where lobsters can be purchased at near wholesale prices. Many lobstermen sell to them.

Arrive in a lobster town in June or early July and the docks are piled high with waiting pots. That's the beginning of the season for many of the lobstermen. By mid-July the docks will be nearly clear of pots. Then as September approaches, the pots begin coming in for winter maintenance and storage. That's when the most rugged of the lobstermen begin moving their pots further and further off shore. To continue through the winter they must travel further out to sea, through rougher waters, and in freezing cold - not a line of work for the timid. Most lobstermen close down for the winter.

Unlike previous trips to Maine, this time I wanted to catch something of the workings of the industry. Alas, when I arrived in Corea most of the boats were secured against the coming storm. After taking a room in a local B&B on the road into Corea, I explored the town. After dinner I went out to Schoodic Point where I expected the storm surge would make stunning breakers. The rains began sometime around midnight. My intent was to return to Corea and Schoodic Point the next morning before heading back to route 1 and down the coast to Southwest Harbor.

When I woke the next morning the rain was ending, but the driveway into my B&B was under two feet of water - no way to move a car in or out. Nothing for it but to enjoy the free breakfast and hope the water would recede. A maid at the B&B told a horror story of roads washed away and power lines down on her way to the inn that morning. Sometime during breakfast a culvert suddenly opened, and the water quickly drained from the driveway, but when I left the road into Corea was closed. I resigned myself to shooting breakers at Schoodic Point, but half way there a large section of road had washed away. Passage through was impossible. I drove 30 miles ast washouts and downed lines to get around that break, but arriving on the other side, the road to the point was still closed. Hanna had taken her toll. I gave up and hoped I would find open roads to get me to Southwest Harbor.

Lobster Shack, Corea


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: If there was a culmination to the Olson House workshop, it was a small gathering for farewells at Tillman Crane's house in Camden, Maine, on Friday evening. The house is also his gallery and studio/darkroom. We toured the darkroom and enjoyed the many beautiful original prints on display. Beautifully restored wood floors and trim complement Tillman's carefully printed, monochrome images. Seeing them so displayed was a privilege. The gathering was a warm harbor before heading off into the promised aftermath of Hurricane Hanna which was scheduled to roar up the Maine coast over the weekend. I was headed for Corea, farther north on the coast than I had ever been and out near Schoodic Point. There, the storm was bound to be a jolly mess.

In this, my fourth photo trip to Maine in three years, I'm just getting it. An article given me by a colleague at the workshop explained what I was beginning to understand. If you want to explore what's left of the fishing industry, the secret is visiting the points. It's not for the lighthouses that one seeks the points, though they can be a nice bonus, but because the fishing towns out at the ends of Maine's great mid-coast peninsulas were at the edge; the fishermen could get to the big catch quicker, especially in winter when the catch retreats to deeper waters.

Back inside the great bays, Penobscot, Blue Hill, Frenchman's, are well-sheltered cove towns that big tides never touch where boats can be put safely. There one mostly finds trophy yachts and sport, sailing vessels: cutters, and schooners, and sloops. Route 1 runs through or close to most of these towns; they are an easy reach for tourists, and any further south than Wiscasset commercialization and suburbanization for the tourists is rampant. Without a boat one has to drive far to get out on the edge.

At the end of the first great peninsula above Wiscasset is Port Clyde. I had made a return trip there two days earlier. One sees a good bit of nowhere to get to Port Clyde. I went there to catch sunrise light on the old lighthouse. Well, it mostly missed the lighthouse, and by the time I got into Port Clyde the lobstermen were gone for the day. When I finally wanted to get back to Olson House in Cushing, my GPS told me it was just 3.5 miles away. Wyeth lived in Port Clyde and traveled easily back and forth to Cushing. Unfortunately, by car it is 45 minutes away, put asunder by long, narrow Muscongus Bay.

And so, as I headed up the coast just ahead of Hanna, I was aware I was heading for one of the most remote and exposed spots on coastal Maine. At the end of the next peninsula, above Port Clyde is Stonington. I would get there on my way home a few days later. Next comes the twin headlands of Mt. Dessert Isle. I'd fully explored Bass Harber and Bernard, the point towns there. I would head back there on Monday for a few more days of shooting. Above Mt. Dessert Isle and Frenchman's Bay lies the Schoodic Peninsula, the tip, a severed part of Acadia National Park. Just slightly around the back from Schoodic Point, like a little toe, sits Corea, the end of a winding road, lobster piers clustered around a sheltered harbor out on the edge. It was the farthest off the coastal beaten track I'd been.