Maine is the largest state in New England, and many say that its old New England spirit shines through the brightest. The people are hardworking, honest, thrifty, and upright. In many ways, the very soul of New England is embodied in Maine, whereas other New England states have “sold out”, becoming more modern, money-oriented and “softer”. At least this is how Maine residents see it, and who could blame them? Having to endure long and bitterly cold winters, Maine and its people have become hardened New Englanders. With this sense of distinction, it may come as no surprise that outsiders – that is, anyone whose family has not lived in the state for several generations – sometimes feel excluded by native Mainers. This, of course, shouldn’t discourage you from visiting, as they are always welcoming of tourists and their wallets.
Maine is an absolute beauty of a state. Visitors are constantly struck by the grandeur and majesty of this wonderful land – its stunning scenery, idyllic villages, colonial architecture, and largely undeveloped back country. Maine’s landscape features 10,000 offshore islands and lakes. Maine’s coastline juts northeast into the stormy, cold Atlantic Ocean. In the north, it is bounded by the Canadian firs and spruce forests of New Brunswick and Quebec. Only on its western front does Maine connect with the continental United States, linking up with New Hampshire.
Henry David Thoreau described the state of Maine as the last wilderness that remained east of the Mississippi. At the time he wrote this in his journal of exploration, the Maine Woods, however, much of the state’s towering white pines had already been cut down to build the masts of ships. Today, almost 90 percent of Maine remains an uninhabited wilderness of pines, firs, and spruce. Everyday, however, these forests continue to be logged by the paper and furniture industry, producing as one conservationist noted “half of America’s toilet paper”.
Maine’s coastline is wild and rugged, stretching 3,500 miles from the Piscatqua River, which divides Maine from New Hampshire, to the Passamaquoddy Bay in New Brunswick. It is a “panoply” of peninsulas, bays, inlets, islands, reefs, and stony headlands hammered incessantly by winter storms, white surf, and the cobalt sea. Numerous legends and tragedies of the north Atlantic involving young fishermen and sailors stem from incidents off the Maine coast.
The back woods of Maine, meanwhile, have given way to a different kind of legend. As the largest undeveloped forest area in the U.S. east of Montana, generations of woodsmen, lumberjacks, trappers, and hunters have ventured into this wilderness, creating their own experiences and adventures.
Maine also has an extensive river system in the north that offers the best long-distance canoeing playground in the continental U.S. Travelers can canoe by day and camp overnight, falling asleep to undimmed stars and the laughter of loons from the other side of vast lakes.
While many people associate Maine with coastal storms and vast forests, few people are actually aware of the state’s major agricultural role in the U.S. Long ago, Maine provided the northeast with all of its sheep and cattle – that was before the country took over the Indian lands west of the Mississippi. The state also grew much of the nation’s potatoes until federally-subsidized irrigation projects turned arid lands in the west into fertile potato-growing tracts. Today, Maine potatoes are still considered the nation’s finest.
Unfortunately, Maine suffers from a number of clichés. When they think of Maine, they think of salty lobster fishermen, wandering mooses and howling wolves, L.L. Bean stores, rough-and-tumble lumberjacks living in the forest in log cabins, and natives whittling wood on the porches of their century-old general stores.
Lumberjacks, however, are long gone, replaced by belching combines that uproot trees, snipping off roots and tips and grinding their way through north woods. The natives are more likely inside watching television like most of their fellow countrymen rather than outside whittling wood. True though, the age-old general stores are still around, but they are filled with trinkets sold to tourists. While moose still wander, wolves have not howled for nearly a hundred years, their ecological niche having been taken over by the much wilier and bolder coyote. And sadly, L.L. Bean are no longer purveyors of authentic outdoor gear for real hunters and fishermen. Today, this trendy retail chain sells catalogs of high-priced goods mostly to consumers who have never set foot in the deep back woods.
Maine and its 33,200 square miles of land offers vacationers unique experiences year-round. In the summer, you can fish or swim in the unpolluted crystalline lakes and river streams, or go sailing off the coast or swimming in the ocean. You can also canoe the rivers, hike the mountains, or stroll the lovely colonial towns. In the fall, Maine brims the most beautiful autumn colors in the entire country, a perfect setting for fishing, hunting, and hiking. In the winter, Maine becomes a winter playground where ice fishing, skating, and skiing, whether downhill or cross-country, are enjoyed. In the spring, the blossoms and flowers bloom and once again hikers strap on their boots to wander the forests and sport fishers dig out their hooks and rods.
Maine is cold most of the year. Warm-season vacationers should visit in the summer, which begins some time in late June and lasts until August. During this short period, temperatures are warm during the day and cool at night. For much of the rest of the year, Maine is cold. Its winters bring heavy snowfall, which is a tremendous blessing for skiers. Most of the state’s ski retreats are in the west where mountains are lushly surrounded by forests, creating a stunning wilderness setting amidst the slopes.
Maine was first inhabited by Algonquin Indians and Paleo tribes at least 10,000 years ago. They probably wandered along the St. Lawrence River from Canada and the western United States and settled in Maine once they realized the Atlantic prevented them from going any further. These Indians were known as “the dawn people” because they traveled east as far as they could toward the dawn. They were divided into three groups, Micmacs who lived along the coasts in the north, Penobscots who lived in the interior, and Algonquins who settled in the south. These natives spent their winters fishing along the coast while venturing inland in the spring, summer, and fall to hunt and gather. The Penobscots, whose name describes the bouldered rocks that lie numerously along the Penobscots river rapids, spent their winters along Penobscot Bay, subsisting on fish, shellfish, and shore animals. In the warmer months, they gathered in small hunting groups and ventured inland into the upper Penobscot and Allagash watersheds, returning with deer, caribou, nad moose. The tribes in Maine lived in peace among themselves, but were perpetually threatened by the fierce Mohawk Indians based out of upstate New York. Later on, Maine tribes were massacred by the American colonists with the efficiency befitting their ruthlessness.
The first Europeans to set foot on Maine’s shores were probably 10th century Norsemen. Explorer John Cabot was the second European to pass by, which he did in 1497. The region, however, was ignored until the 1600s when some of the colonists from Massachusetts moved north, and some of the French from Acadia traveled south. Inevitably, the British and French clashed, engaging in a number of skirmishes until the British eventually gained ultimate victory in 1763.
In 1677, the colony of Massachusetts purchased Maine for $6,000. The area was part of Massachusetts until 1820 when the Missouri Compromise was signed. Under the agreement, Maine was separated and admitted into the Union as a free state. Maine quickly distinguished itself as an opponent of slavery. It made significant contributions commercially and through its brave regiments in several major Civil War battles. Maine also led in other moral categories. In 1851, it became the first state to prohibit the sale and manufacturing of alcohol, a law that lasted until 1934. In 1949, Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate when Maine voted her into the Senate.
Maine is divided into four regions: the south coast, the upper north coast, the north, and southern offshore island, highlighted by Mount Desert Island.
Maine’s south coast is the most popular among tourists, attracting many visitors with its vast beaches and sparkling surf. The coast is beautiful, but the water is cold, more so as one moves northeast. The most famous strip is the 10-mile Old Orchard Beach, a traditional refuge for Canadian families from Quebec. This beach claims the smoothest and hardest sands in all of Maine.
The northeast portion of Maine is known as “Downeast”. This coastal area is north of Brunswick. If you love eating lobsters, Downeast Maine is a must. The lobsters caught off the frigid waters in this rocky coastal area are the most delicious. Restaurants in the Downeast region prepare this delicacy in as many ways imaginable. Most popularly, the lobster is steamed perfectly and then dipped in melted butter. Surprisingly, though, Mainers don’t consumer lobsters as much as tourists. They prefer baked beans, bread, fish, corn, and other traditional New England fare.
The larger part of the state, Maine’s north half, is a land most travelers never see. It is a vast wilderness of trout-filled streams, sandy-bottomed lakes, and endless forests of balsam firs, birch, pines, and spruce swamps.
Mount Desert Island off the southern coast of Maine is a land of incredible natural beauty, so much so that its name “Mount Desert” must have been a purposeful joke. 16th century French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, was among the island’s first admirers. Noticing the mountain peaks were devoid of trees, he gave the island its name. But the island itself, on the contrary, is abound with quiet bays and inlets and dense tracts of forests. Mount Desert also has the Atlantic Coast’s highest mountain.
Bond, Richard. The Insider’s Guide to New England. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1992. ISBN: 1556504551.
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