Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lobsters and Lighthouses

June 16, 2010

Portland, Maine

In our most fun adventure of the trip so far, we went lobstering today aboard the Lucky Catch. Donning our rubber aprons and gloves, about a dozen of us motored around Portland Bay in a lobster boat, learning hands-on how to do what lobstermen do. We hauled eight traps, emptied them, measured the lobsters (none turned out to be big enough to keep), emptied the old bait sacks (attracting lots of gulls), refilled them with fresh fish, and reset the traps.

Along the way we learned lots of interesting information, like how to tell male lobsters from females, and how Maine lobstermen practice more sustainable fishing practices than their New Hampshire rivals. In Maine, if a female with eggs ends up in a trap (females carry their eggs outside their shell in a black tarry mass), the lobsterman cuts a notch in her tail and throws her back in. Any lobster with a notch in its tail is released, maintaining fertile females in the wild to keep breeding. New Hampshire lobstermen don't respect notched tails—at least according to the Maine lobstermen.

To get a lobstering license in Maine, you have to apprentice first, then go on a wait list for a license. Five people have to give up their licenses for each one added, and the wait is three or more years. The first year, you are licensed for 350 traps, then you get to add 100 each year, to a maximum of 800. Our boat captain runs 100 traps every morning before he starts his first tourist run of the day at 10 a.m. There are no official territories, but there are informal understandings about where people set their traps. Misunderstandings can get ugly—one lobsterman recently shot another in the throat over a territorial dispute, and they were related by marriage.

According to our lobsterman guide, a mind-boggling 75 million pounds of lobster were harvested in Maine last year.

While tooling around the bay, we also enjoyed a maritime view of lots of lighthouses. We stopped at one spot where there are more lighthouses visible than from any other point in the country—a total of six lights, seven if you count twin lights in Cape Elizabeth separately, although they are a dual aid to navigation.

The most noteworthy of the lights is the Portland Head Light, commissioned by George Washington in 1787. It is the second oldest light in the country, and reputed to be the most photographed. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, and frequently visited this light in his youth, so some critics (especially those in Portland) believe the Portland Head Light was the inspiration for his poem "The Lighthouse." Captain Joshua Strout, a former sea captain, was its keeper beginning in 1869, and his wife Mary was Assistant Keeper. Their son Joseph took over from 1904 until 1928—a 59 year tenure for the family and their parrot Billy, who would say when a storm was coming, "Joe, let's start the horn. It's foggy!"

The Portland Breakwater Light is popularly known as "Bug Light," due to its diminutive 24 foot height. Built at the end of a 1,990 foot breakwater in 1875, it is modeled after a monument in Athens built in the 4th Century BC, and features six fluted columns around its cylinder base. Although it is gone now, there used to be a keeper's house beside the light, with a kitchen and two additional rooms on the first floor, and two bedrooms upstairs. We can only imagine how crowded that house must have seemed when William Holbrook was the keeper, from 1910 through 1919. He lived there with his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and their three children. One of those children recalls that they used a two-seater outhouse which emptied into the ocean below--"A draft of wind blew up through the shaft at high tide. We were very careful to check the wind and tide before going out there."

We can't end with that vision, can we? Let's close with a few lines from Longfellow's poem:

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same

Year after year, through all the silent night

Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,

Shines on that inextinguishable light.

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