Note to self: don’t go to Mid-coast Maine during 4th of July week unless armed with a bucket of money, a mask, a self-driving car and a high tolerance for touristic behaviour. If you do, take it all in stride in service to the Quest.
The Quest: I’ve always been a dabbler in myth; a sort-of romantic about knights and castles and stones and the sea…and every Quest needs a grail of some sort. So the Holy Grail of this expedition was the Atlantic Puffin. A bowling pin of an endangered waterbird that spends its time (precariously) in the cooler seas. Puffins fly back, in the summer months, to the islands from which they fledged to socialize and mate and breed new pufflings (YES, that’s what they are called!). I had never seen a puffin (or a puffling) in the (feathery) flesh, and the days I took off this week were well-earned, so I took advantage of the holiday and the season, consulted the birding bibles, and loosely stitched together a plan.
I’ve been a hermit these past few months, with work eating up my waking hours, and stress about the current climate consuming the remaining twilight before crashing after such long days… Then came the COVID. And while my case was relatively mild (it only kicked my butt for a week, but even 2 weeks recovered I’m still feeling lethargic!), I can’t imagine what it would or could have been without my being vaccinated. I’m grateful for modern medicine. Shameless plug: get vaccinated already please!
Medieval knights and castles or non, I set out to Mid-Coast Maine to see if I could at least find some puffins.
Maine. First stop on the micro-adventure was a visit with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. When miles and life and a pandemic all conspire to get in the way of an otherwise great friendship, it’s nice to know that there are certain humans on this planet with whom you can just pick up again as if all the intervening circumstance didn’t matter. It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’d had in ages.💖
By the time I arrived at the little hotel I’d booked, I realised my plan to ride my bike along the seacoast the next day wasn’t in the cards. The windy, narrow, hilly roads were made only slightly more treacherous by the smattering of tourists driving too haphazardly, alternately too fast and too erratically, for me to feel safe on my bike on these streets. Time to consider a Plan B. Plan C, actually, since the following morning’s weather looked unfavorable, and I had already moved the puffin expedition out a day.
But first, the fireworks. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it doesn’t quite feel like the year to be celebrating this country’s independence. But as a tourist in a sea of red (white and blue), it felt like there were two options: watch the spectacle or go to bed. It was 4th of July after all, and the fireworks would go on regardless of whether I felt like celebrating. I used it as an opportunity to play with light.
The next morning’s Plan turned out to be quite lovely actually: I went down to Ocean Point, apparently the east-most point in these already quite eastern parts, and I recharged amongst the rocks as I gazed out at the Ram Island lighthouse and watched boats (and a small pod of porpoises) navigate the harbour. The hazy summer air commingling with the ocean breeze and its seaweed-y bouquet helped clear out some of the chatter in my brain as I meditated to the sounds of the waves on the rocks and the ospreys calling from the little island just offshore.
What this Quest lacked in knights and castles was recompensated in seabirds and rocky outcroppings. Fingers crossed that the Holy Grail of Puffinage would come through.
It was something of a lazy day after the rock-hopping. I napped during the rain showers in the afternoon. I started reading a new novel. I walked amongst the tourists in town and indulged: saltwater taffy and a lobster roll (when in Rome…); and readied myself for the puffin adventure the next morn!
An aside about why we need to protect the puffins and terns and other arctic waterbirds in this part of the world (they are still prolific, apparently, in Iceland, Newfoundland and the UK, and they are even a delicacy in Iceland. Tastes like chicken?). It turns out that fashionistas in the late 1800s needed feathers for hats. In fact, the Victorian-era fancy ladies wore WHOLE STUFFED BIRDS (I sh*t you not!) on their hats, fast-forwarding the decline of these species. By the early 1900s, the entire colony of puffins and terns were all but wiped out in New England. Thanks to some of the fancy ladies, Audubon was started as a grass roots effort, and the anti-bird-hat contingent was born, aka, what the crap were we thinking?
As gulls began to repopulate the offshore islands, it was a concerted effort to bring back the terns and puffins to the area, success being only as recent as the 1970s and 80s. Read more about Audubon’s Project Puffin here.
Waiting in line to board the boat, I was hoping for less Disney and more nature, so I channelled my intention on a preponderance of Puffins rather than the annoying boatmates. The fancy ladies from Florida, arguing with the boat lady about why their short shorts and tank tops would be just fine on the open ocean and why she was crazy to suggest they bring along sweatshirts. The guy in the Yankees shirt and thick Long Island accent challenging anyone who would listen about baseball (apparently a Yankees/Red Sox series was in progress). The couple with the Giant Barking Poodle (On an Audubon boat? Really?) I wended my way to the bow: fewer seats, I thought. Fewer annoyances.
I grew up around boats and the sea and I’ve been on quite a few whale watches, so I had come prepared: sweatshirt and windbreaker, towels, binoculars, and, of course, cameras. It was a relatively calm and warm enough morning as we left the harbour. I was cautiously optimistic, but certainly aware that there was a chance we wouldn’t see any puffins. But it felt like a promising day, and I even caught a glimpse of a minke or pilot whale as we got farther into the sea on our way out to the destination.
The fortress, if you will, protecting the Holy Grail: Eastern Egg Rock. This little island sits about 6 miles east of Pemaquid Point and is home to roughly 150 nesting pairs of puffins, as well as a host of other seabirds like terns and gulls. It was about an hour from our departure point in Boothbay Harbor. The “Hilton” on the island is a research station, where teams of hardy scientists spend the summer studying the puffins and their offspring.
So as we approach, our tour guide (Audubon Lady) starts spotting birds: Puffin, 3 o’clock. Tern, 9 o’clock. Puffins flying, 11 o’clock. Puffins diving, 10 o’clock. And so on… Much to my delight, it was quite the puffin-palooza out there. A plethora of puffins. A preponderance even. And like that we spent roughly 30 minutes circling the little island, getting a glimpse of terns (arctic and otherwise), gulls (laughing and not so much), and of course our fill of the enchanting little stars of the day.
In our glee, what we passengers conveniently overlooked was the shift in the wind and the less-than-swell swells that we now had to motor back through to reach the dock. So, just as the captain announced, “the winds have shifted slightly and you may experience some light spray…” we did, and spent the next 40 minutes battening down hatches and bracing for the swells and spray (read: deluges), soaking deck and passengers indiscriminately. The sweatshirt and windbreaker came in very handy. The towels, not so much.
Cameras safely stowed inside, I remembered what my dad taught me about rough seas: breathe fresh air, watch the horizon, and for fucks sake hang onto something! I was wet enough that the saltwater shower didn’t matter by a certain point, so I enjoyed the sunshine, counseled a very green-looking teenager to get as much fresh air into her lungs as possible, and enjoyed the ride. It wasn’t that bumpy after all.
Being on the ocean always brings back warm memories, and this one, paired with the prolific puffin party, did not disappoint. The seas calmed as we were embraced by the harbor, and the warm sun dried salt crystals over my legs and face.
I’d drive home from this adventure salty but satiated; pleasantly puffinated if you will.