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Whaleback Shell Midden, Damariscotta, ME

Just off Route 1 in Damariscotta, Maine, where the road crosses the river, the remains of prehistoric shell piles are visible.  A quiet little place named Whaleback Shell Midden State Historic Site awaits visitors on any day of the year.  A five minute walk from the parking lot to the river side brings a visitor to what remains of a giant pile of mostly oyster shells left by prehistoric Mainers.  The pile was created between 2200-1000 years ago.  At its extreme, the mound was once up to thirty feet deep and extended over 400 feet up from the river.  All these shells are the evidence of more than a thousand years of Native American feasts.

The photo above is from the State of Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands website, showing the Whaleback Midden in 1886 after mining had begun.  The pile got its name from the striking resemblance to the back of a whale, probably a humpback.  Once Europeans arrived in the late 1500s, the huge shell pile became a resource.  Settlers ground the shell up to make lime and to create roadbeds.  Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, full scale mining of the site commenced.  The huge pile of shells was ground up for chicken feed supplement.  What remains today was preserved beneath the mining buildings.

There are still a lot of shells in the area!  I picked up pieces of oyster shell and considered that the last person to touch this before me may have been a prehistoric native.  When the shell pile was mined, an historian did his best to record what was discovered during excavations.  The remains of fourteen humans were found and several dogs.  Artifacts such as painted pottery, stone tools and weapons, and many animal bones were turned up.  The natives apparently also consumed various mammals, fish and birds in addition to oysters by the canoe-load.  Some of the oyster shells were over a foot long!  It has been determined that most of the shellfish feasting took place in the winter and early spring.  

The Damariscotta River in this area is brackish and tidal.  During the midden period the river was less saline and  home to what seems a massive oyster bed.  Today the water has a higher salt content and no longer supports oysters.  It is still a beautiful waterbody rich in aquatic life.

Directly across the river from Whaleback Midden is another huge pile of oyster shells that is untouched since the days of the native mollusk eaters.  Glidden Midden (I kid you not!) is on private land and so far unsullied.  The bright white of the shells sets up a blinding glare in the sunlight.  Most of the pile is overgrown with trees.

 

 

 

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Dodge Point Reserve, Newcastle, ME

Recently, we celebrated our wedding anniversary with an afternoon strolling the lovely trails of Dodge Point Public Reserved Land on the tidal Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine.  We visited near low tide so much of the river banks were exposed.

The reserve incorporates 521 acres of mostly wooded land with over 8000 ft of river frontage.  The land was once a tree farm and is circled by an easily hiked two-mile long roadway once used for the farm.  It is aptly named Old Farm Road.  Several trails branch from the road to access the interior of the property.  Below, my husband Tim invites us to step into the woods.

The trail quickly leaves the hot summer sun for the deep, quiet shade of fairly thick forest with many huge, old growth oaks that somehow escaped the chainsaws.  A passage beneath the trees in late August involves the sound of periodic disturbances as acorns drop from the high limbs.  I think of Chicken Little and hope no acorn happens to fall on my head.  In many places the forest floor is thick with tiny oak trees about 8-12″ tall, the result of last year’s acorns sprouting.  One in a thousand may survive to become a huge tree some day.

Ice Pond

This land was once divided into several farms in the 1800s.  Old rock walls run through woods that at one time were most likely pasture.  A few minutes hiking brings us to Ice Pond.  The fresh water feature created by damming a small stream provided ice for local residents before the advent of electricity and refrigerators.  Today the pond supports a thriving community of water life and affords a clear swimming hole.  Three painted turtles sunned themselves on a log as we passed by.

After Ice Pond the roadway slowly drops to the river.  In places plantations of tall red pine provide a park-like atmosphere.  Beneath the pines flourishes a healthy growth of ground nut.  This wild relative of the peanut was a food source for native populations millenia ago.  Beyond the pines, a trail leads to the shore.  The Damariscotta River is deep enough for good sized craft to navigate.  At the north end of the shoreline are the remains of a brickworks.  The only evidence of that industry to be found now are the thousands of broken bricks littering the riverside.  In the 18th and 19th centuries red bricks were made here and shipped downstream.

Much of the shoreline is ocean-like due to the brackish water and tidal flows.  The long, gently sloped banks are sand and gravel interspersed by large rocks and the bodies of giant trees felled by the slow erosion.  Tim discovered a gigantic “bouncy tree” his name for tree trunks that spring up and down when jumped upon.

The banks and mudflats support a healthy population of clams as evidenced by the many empty shells.  In places sandy spurs jut into the clear, slow current providing enticing swimming areas for hot days.  We followed the river for several hundred feet before returning to the woods.  Completing the circumnavigation of the preserve brought us back to the parking area.

The beautiful and easily accessed Dodge Point afforded us a delightful escape for our romantic matrimonial celebration.  I think some day soon I will bring the grandchildren to enjoy this place.  Here is a link to a website for the preserve:  http://www.damariscottariver.org/trail/dodge-point-public-reserved-land/

Hiking to the Bowl at Acadia National Park

The Bowl from the top of Enoch Mountain

Spring is right around the corner, (and through 2 feet of snow here in Maine) bringing with it dreams of hiking the many beautiful trails of Acadia.  A special little gem well worth the walk is The Bowl, a small pond near The Beehive on the east side of the Park.  The Beehive is a round, rocky little mountain that can be viewed to the north from Sand Beach.

Memorizing the trail to The Bowl (it’s a straight line)

The trailhead for The Beehive and The Bowl starts almost across the road from the entrance to Sand Beach.  On any hot day, one lane of the one-way road will be choked with overflow parking for the beach.  On a quiet day, you can park in the beach lot and walk up to the trailhead.  The entire hike is about one-and-a-half miles, maybe two.  Unfortunately, at the beginning it is rather rough and steep going.  The woods is filled with piles of granite boulders that tumbled off The Beehive.  The trail leads over and through the boulder field.  After a way the trek becomes less challenging, more like a quiet walk in the woods.  It is all uphill, but not at too difficult an incline.

Rough beginning to the Beehive/Bowl trail

A few hundred feet along the path, there is an intersection, take the left trail to The Bowl.  The thick woods filled with shadows, quiet rustling in the undergrowth, birdsong and the whispering of leaves in the sea breeze is a welcome cool spot on a summer day.  Just about the time you wonder how long a half-mile can be, you come out at the prettiest little pond.  On the northeast it is steeply flanked by the low Enoch Mountain.

Enoch Mountain seen across The Bowl

The water is pure, cool, clean and transparent.  The bottom of the pond is lined with sand, large rocks and some mucky mud.  Little fish dart in the shallows.  Out in the center, rippling rings spread from spots where larger fish have broken the surface to nab a fly for lunch.  The trail passes along the southern and eastern side of the pond then up Enoch Mountain.  From the top, the view is spectacular.  What else could it be at Acadia?

After returning to the pond, it is all right to slip off your shoes and dip your hot feet in the water.  The Bowl is not a public water supply protected from contact with humans.  The adventurous hiker might prefer to swing back from The Bowl along the Beehive trail, across the back ridge of the mountain, then down the steep face to return to the trailhead.  I prefer retracing the path I followed in.  It’s all downhill to the road.  My knees are not as fond of mountains as they were in their youth.

Cueva de Nerja–Nerja Cave on the Sun Coast of Spain

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As I contemplate another gray, chilly day in Maine and gaze out across the snow-covered fields, my thoughts wander to the sunny coast of Spain.  In February of 2011, my mother and I traveled to Torrox on the Spanish Sun Coast to escape England’s dreary winter for a week.  While there we took a local bus to Nerja, (pronounced Nair-ha) just up the coast, to visit a natural wonder of the Andalusia region, the Caves of Nerja.  This underground formation hosts over 450,000 visitors per year.  The photo above was taken from the Balcon de Europa, a vantage point in Nerja, toward the Sierra Almijara, the mountain housing the cave system.c3The mountain range consists primarily of dolomite marble formed on the floor of the Mediterranean during the Triassic period.  Tectonic forces drove the rock seabed into the sky, creating mountains.  Calcium carbonate is a porous stone subject to being dissolved by the corrosive effects of acidic rainwater.  Since the formation of the mountains about 5 million years ago, rainwater has been seeping into cracks in the marble.  Slowly, the water eats away at the rock until great caverns result.  The drip formations (called speleothems) began to take shape in Nerja Cave about 800,000 years ago.

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Performing stage erected within the cave

The cave system is comprised of three main galleries that run nearly horizontally for about one-half mile within the southern side of  Almijara Mountain.  The tourist entrance is located 518 feet above sea level.  The interior hollows are between 627-404 f.a.s.l.  One gallery is open to tourists and the drop from the entrance to the lowest floor is about 115 ft.  The ambient air temperature inside the caves averages 64F.  The constant flow of water makes the environment humid.  The cave even boasts a World Record:  the widest naturally formed column, a speleothem 105 ft high and 42.6 ft x 23 ft at the base, and getting bigger every day!  The caves are currently situated well above the water table so there are no lakes inside.  The galleries are divided into halls.  Some of the halls are impressively huge with soaring cathedral ceilings.  One hall has been fitted with stadium seating and a stage where a music and dance festival is held every year.  The hall provides great acoustics.

The caves were discovered in 1959 by five boys who were trying to observe bats.  They had seen the bats exit from a sinkhole, so they crawled inside.  The sinkhole was one of two natural openings into the caves.  The kids explored a bit until they stumbled across two skeletons.  Frightened, they rushed home to tell the rest of the town about the find.  Since then, Nerja Cave has been extensively studied.

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View of the Mediterranean Sea from Nerja Caves parking lot

Excavations showed humans began to inhabit the caves about 25,000 years ago.  At first they were part-time residents during the fall and winter.  They subsisted on locally hunted prey such as wild horses, cattle and goats.  When humans were not present, hyenas, lynx, birds and bats lived in the caves.  Paintings on some of the walls have been dated to as far back as 20,000 years.  They were etched or painted mostly in black and red and depict the fauna of the times and also geometric designs and symbols that likely had great significance to the artists.  About 21,000 years ago, humans took up permanent residence.  Since the caves are located within two-thirds of a mile of the sea, much of the cave dwellers’ diet consisted of fish and seafood.  They supplemented their meals with rabbit and plants.

Around 4500 BC pottery production began in the caves.  Later, the unique shelter was used to house cattle and as a necropolis.  Neolithic burials, such as the bodies found by the boys, have provided DNA that allows researchers to trace some individuals to an African origin.  The skeletal remains are considered a rich funeral record of Andalusian prehistory.  Many other artifacts such as beads, arrows, fish hooks, other tools, loom weights and pottery have been recovered from the living spaces of the cave.  Around 4000 years ago, the cave was sealed by rocks and sediment, likely from flooding.  All its treasures were conserved until modern times.c7

My mother and I visited on what was for Spain a sunny, warm early spring day.  There were plenty of other tourists around, although the place was not crowded.  The administrators limit the number of people allowed in the caves at any one time.  Because people produce CO2 and moisture as they breathe, their numbers must be within the capacity of the air conditioning system installed in the caves, or their simple breathing would damage the caverns.

There was a soft flow of air at all times when we were inside.  The sound of dripping water was constant.  Flash photography is not allowed in the cave, but lighting has been set up to showcase the lovely colors and forms of the rock flows.  The formation shapes are given names such as macaroni, pineapple, cauliflower, nails, flag or pearls in addition to stalagmites, stalactites and columns.  A substance called moonmilk forms from the detritus carried in the dripping water.  This material builds up in sheltered pockets into a whitish powder deposit that has a pudding consistency when saturated.  Moonmilk has sometimes been used in cosmetics.  Tiny rivulets flow alongside and beneath the walkways in many places.  In several areas, my mom and I both noticed significant changes in air pressure causing popping in the ears and heaviness in the sinuses.  There were many staircases to climb and descend, giving us a thorough workout.

As I reviewed the photos for this article, I noticed several orbs present in some shots.  My understanding of these photographic artifacts is that they occur when a bit of dust is caught in the camera flash, causing a circular burst of light to be recorded.  What I don’t understand is why there are orbs in my photos since I did not use a flash, it was prohibited.  I have enhanced most of the pictures here by lightening them to simulate the flash.  Here is an example of a before-editing and after-editing picture.  The editing program brightened the scene and emphasized the colors present in the rock.c10
c8Here is a photo with several orbs evident.  In the brightest one I can almost imagine a face, with the eyes and nose.  It looks a bit intimidating.  Are these artifacts merely a reflection in a low-light environment somehow generated off specks of dust or are they something different?  Are there energy orbs present?  Only a psychic would know if the spirits of the ancients linger in the caves.  Would it be surprising to find such presences in a place inhabited by so many generations of humans; an underground repository for the dead, no less?  After all, we modern visitors are tramping through their cemetery.  No wonder the orb looks angry!c6

All psychic phenomena aside, the caves truly are an amazing, even spectacular, sight.  They and the nearby town of Nerja with the Balcon de Europa, and the narrow streets lined with quaint shops and tiny eateries are well worth a day trip for any visitor to the Sun Coast.  Here is one last shot, the delicious lunch I enjoyed with my mum after touring the caves.  My meal was a toasted sandwich made with the prized regional dry-cured Iberian ham, olive oil, fresh roasted asparagus, herbs, and tiny quail eggs, with a glass of local rose.  Mums had a fresh tomato and melted cheese sandwich with mango juice.  Delicious!c12

Links to information about Nerja Cave:

http://www.cuevadenerja.es/index.php

http://cuevadenerja.es/blog

 

Asticou Azalea Garden

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A tiny island of serenity is set amidst the bustle of Northeast Harbor on Mt. Desert, home of Acadia National Park in Maine.  While it is known and loved for the beauty and variety of its blooming rhododendrons, Asticou Garden is a refuge any time of the year.  During the depths of January ice, my thoughts escape to a July garden visit.g10

Built in 1956 and styled after a Japanese stroll garden, the Asticou features paths meandering through shade and sun, hill and pond, flower bed and lawn.  Tiny shrines nestle in woodland or water settings, stone paeans to the beauty of nature.g5g8g1g3g2a
Many of the rhododendrons and azaleas are quite old, having been transplanted from an estate garden in 1956. The shade loving shrubs and small trees shelter beneath towering pines. Red Japanese maples splash color, as do late blooming rhododendrons.g9

Tranquility may be achieved during contemplation of the sand garden, designed to invoke rocks among the ripples of a lake.  The pure white sand is carefully tended.g4

Birds sing and flit about the branches.  Ducks and insects lead their busy lives along the waterways.  Sounds of the outside world mute to be replaced by warm breezes sighing through pine boughs, cricket song or silence.  Visitors tread quietly here, speaking in whispers.g7

g11A bounty of bloom, the garden remains the same, yet ever changing, year after year.  Sanctuary for a body in the height of midsummer, or a mind in the gray grip of winter’s freeze, Asticou continues as a gem of the coast of Maine.

 

Blue Hill Region Maine

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View of Blue Hill harbor from near the summit of Blue Hill Mountain

This past September my husband and I rented a primitive forest cabin and  spent a weekend Down East exploring the Blue Hill region.  This area encompasses the small monadnock mountain of Blue Hill (elevation 934 ft) and the surrounding large peninsula jutting into the Atlantic sandwiched between Penobscot Bay and Mt. Desert Island.
There are several small towns on this peninsula including Blue Hill, Surry and Castine.  Crossing the impressive old bridge over Eggemoggin Reach takes you to Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle, two very beautiful islands, and the towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.  There is also Cape Rosier, on the Castine side of the peninsula, where we stayed near the hamlet of Harborside.

Little cabin in the woods

Little cabin in the woods

Solar boat shower and secluded luxury outhouse (hidden in the trees in the background)

Solar boat shower and secluded luxury outhouse (hidden in the trees in the background)

This part of Maine lies just off the major byways of Rtes 1 and 3 that each year carry millions of tourists to Acadia National Park and points farther east.  The turn-off to the peninsula flashes by quickly at 65 mph.  As a result, the area around Blue Hill remains more like the old-time country Maine increasingly vanishing from the Maine coast.  So much of the seaside region has been taken over by the tourist trade with traffic, seafood restaurants, strip businesses, fast food, endless motels and big box stores.  Mainers tend to avoid these congested areas, especially in summer.  Maybe I shouldn’t even let people in on the quaint charm of the Blue Hill region for fear of development!

Tim and I enjoy a roughing-it vacation occasionally.  This cottage was not as rough as our usual tent accommodation.  There was no cell phone signal, electricity or running water, yet we were quite cozy.  We had propane for cooking and heating water, fresh drinking water hauled in five gallon jugs, a solar boat shower which we made more comfortable with added hot water, a real bed and a commodious outhouse just a short walk away among the trees.  Not bad at all.  And early to bed means early to rise.  With all that morning time, we had plenty of chances for exploration.

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View from the top of Backwoods Mt.

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Steep trail up Backwoods Mt.

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Luxuriant beds of moss in Holbrook Island Preserve

Directly across the road from the driveway to our cottage lay Holbrook Island Wildlife Sanctuary, more than 1200 acres of pristine forest, ponds, marsh, small mountains and sea shore maintained by the State of Maine.  Threaded with walking trails, and featuring extinct volcano mountains for challenging climbs to gorgeous views, the Sanctuary teems with animals.  We even saw a bobcat, standing right beside the road.  Maybe it was the official park bobcat earning its living, who knows?  We climbed Backwoods Mt, one of the old volcanoes, and spotted plenty of obsidian-like lava spit out when the site was a bubbling cauldron of molten rock.  The paths were quite steep in places.

This section of the Maine coast abounds in reversing falls.  The phenomenon of a reversing fall occurs when the incoming tide pushes the water level higher than the body of water emptying into the ocean.  The rocky stream that drops brackish water to the sea during most of the day suddenly become inundated.  The strong flow of the tide pushing against the almost-as-strong stream creates whirlpools and standing waves.  The sound of rushing water tells of the violent struggle of the currents.  We watched three of the falls:  Goose Falls, Bagaduce Falls and an unnamed falls on the shore near our cabin.  We were able to walk to this last falls and enjoy a close-up of the tumultuous waters.

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Bagaduce Reversing Falls

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Reversing falls near our cabin, the water is flowing backward, up the channel of the brackish stream

b15We took a walk along the shore of the Sanctuary near a spot named Indian Bar.  This area was once inhabited by Penobscots of the Abanaki Nation.  They are gone, yet the name lingers.  A small schooner slipped through the still waters of the harbor in the early mist.

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Summit of Blue Hill Mt from a highland field

b11b6After all this fun, the climb up Blue Hill Mt might have seemed a little anti-climactic, but not at all.  We saved this hike for the last day of vacation.  There are several paths up the mountain.  We chose a moderately difficult climb that was a shorter route than easier ways.b9  The mountain trails are maintained by a community-based trust for the enjoyment of all.  A cell tower has been installed at the summit, detracting from the beauty, but helping the locals stay connected.  Getting a signal in this region is challenging, even with the tower.

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Blue Hill Fairgrounds

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Mountains of Acadia

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Blue Hill harbor

The climb was steep and littered with rocks.  As we neared the top, vistas would suddenly open.  There is a nice view of Blue Hill harbor and the mountains of Acadia National Park.  The Blue Hill Fair was just wrapping up for the year.  The emptying fairgrounds far below brought a fleeting nostalgia for cotton candy and agricultural exhibits.

b5At the summit, wide sheets of bare rock reveal the geologic formation of the hill.  Tortuously folded layers of seabed were turned to metamorphic rock by volcanic action as they were thrust up to form the elevation.  The maintenance trail is used by technicians on ATVs to service the cell tower.  It makes an easy, gradual descent for old knees.b12
Our time in the Blue Hill region was fleeting. Going off-grid is so relaxing, once you get over the urge to check your email and social media messages. Soft candle-lit evenings, the bliss of a warm outdoor shower, enjoying a camp stove-cooked dinner eaten to the sound of crickets and night birds reminds one that the best joys in life are simple and quiet.

Botany Bay Kent UK

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Along the coast of Kent between Margate and Broadstairs is Botany Bay.  This bay has a long, yellow sand beach, chalk reef and towering chalk cliffs with some sea stacks.  Today I visited the bay with my mum as I enjoy a UK vacation.

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My mum’s dog, Archie the Westie, patrolling the cliffs

Infamous as a landing place for smugglers in the 18th century, the beach was actually the site of a clash between smugglers and Revenuers in 1769 that resulted in several deaths.  The encounter has come to be known as the Battle of Botany Bay.  It involved Joss Snelling and his considerable band of smuggling cohorts known as the Callis Court Gang.  The Revenue Patrol ambushed the gang as they unloaded their goods and shooting ensued.

Smugglers cut caves and tunnels into the soft chalk cliffs to use as storage places for the contraband and as escape routes.  The closed-up remains of these caves and tunnels can still be seen today.  The most well-known features of Botany Bay are the impressive chalk sea stacks.  These free-standing towers are the remains of cliffs that have been cut away by the endless wash of the sea.a8

Newly eroded chalk is pure, blinding white in the sun.  It quickly weathers to a gray-white and is often colonized by algae.a9

If you move up close to the seaward side of a cliff you will find the rock is riddled with holes.  Limpets creep into the holes for safety during low tide.  It is remarkable how well they fit the holes.a6

a7This part of the English coast looks out across the Channel toward France.  There is a huge windfarm off-shore.  Cargo ships often shelter on this side of the channel when it is too choppy for crossing.  It is not uncommon to see several large ships close to shore.a4

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Skate or ray egg case and whelk egg cases

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Whelk shell

Strolling the beach revealed a healthy population of whelk and some type of skate or ray as evidenced by the plethora of eggs.  The strangely shaped black ray eggs are also called mermaids purses.  There were numerous egg cases to be found, along with shells of the large sea snails.

With the great expanse of fine sand, the impressive cliffs and the safe waters with a mild current, it is easy to see why this beach is popular in the summer.  And also why smugglers found it a convenient spot to ply their lucrative trade.

This article contains interesting information about the Battle of Botany Bay:  http://www.thanet-ghostwatch.co.uk/history/smug1.htm