November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Chris Mackowski/Creative Nonfiction

Chris Mackowski photos

Mount Desert Island across Frenchmen’s Bay

My Coastline


By Chris Mackowski

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Introduction:  In “My Coastline,” Chris Mackowski perfectly blends human affect with the meaning of place.  Place, quite simply, is where you live, where human neurology, memory, and meaning is shaped by the landscape and the people you interact with there.   As Mackowski shows, as much as we now like to live inside with our technology in hand, our most powerful experiences take place in the natural world, providing one of the few contemporary contexts in which we are connected to our evolutionary roots and a much longer history than that of our lifespans.  Mackowski’s Maine coast is the source of his deepest emotional currents, and his piece brings us into them, lets readers experience their specificity and source that resonates with the specificity of our own.

— Leslie Heywood, CNF Editor

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I’ve come here because it’s the time of year when no one else does. In the high months of summer, in July and August, hundreds of thousands of visitors will flood Mount Desert Island and most of them will make their way through Bar Harbor along the Park Loop Road, through the tollbooth and into the parking lot where granite-block steps will lead them down here, to Sand Beach.

 

As empty as I've ever seen Sand Beach!

But it’s early March. Those throngs of visitors are months away. Memorial Day Weekend typically opens the floodgates and then the visitors will come and come and come. And they’ll come through those high months of summer. They’ll come into September and well into October, the leafpeepers who will want to see the blazes of color splashed in among the dark stands of evergreens.

In 2009, 2.5 million visitors came to Acadia National Park. But even in the harsh heart of winter, for which Maine is so legendary, “no one” still means around ten thousand people a month. Most of the Park’s roads, unplowed, remain closed. Most of the Park’s hiking trails, iced over, remain inaccessible. Most of the Park’s seasonal programming, suspended, remain unavailable. And still some ten thousand people visit.

I’m here not as a tourist but because I consider Maine “The Homeland.” My family moved to the state when I was three, and I’ve lived here, on and off, ever since — nearly forty years. My mom left; my father stayed. Growing up, I spent summers and holidays here. I attended two years of high school here. I attended graduate school here. My daughter was born here.

But that’s not why I think of Maine as “The Homeland” — not really. Rather, the pink-granite cliffs and gnarled spruce forests of the coastline are, literally and spiritually, my touchstone, and I return as often as I can.

I didn’t make it to my father’s for Christmas this year as I usually do. The resultant yearning grew strong enough that I decided to take time for a visit over Spring Break. So here I am in early March.

And here I am on this coast on a day that could not do more to cast itself in desolation. A thick cloudcover, sweeping in ahead of a low-pressure system, has grayed the late-afternoon sky. Temperatures hunker down in the mid-twenties, but a wind blows in from the sea, adding a dash of nip and salt. The landscape exists in a pallet of shadowy browns and grainy blacks and cold, cold whites. Vast dunes of snow top the beach and cluster on the sides of the nearby hills.

Sand Beach runs in a shallow east-west crescent for 290 yards, with steep cliffs at either end. Spruce trees rise spire-like from nooks and crevices along the cliff faces. In today’s dim light, it looks like fire swept through them and left everything black, but I can still see the full branches, which needle away the illusion.

One January after I was married, two of my fraternity brothers came to Maine to visit, and the three of us decided to climb the western cliff. “Swing the car around from the parking lot and meet us up along the Park Loop Road,” I told Heidi, who stayed at the foot of the cliff with one of my brothers’ girlfriends. I didn’t know at the time that the number-one cause of death at the Park came from falls while people are hiking and climbing. We knew only what our young testosterone-fueled bravado was telling us: Icy slopes be damned! We’re young, fit, and invincible!

We somehow made it to the top without dying, even Dorfman, as roundly out of shape as he was. From the beach, Heidi captured our invincibility in a photo: my brothers and me standing at the top of the cliff, side by side, arms crossed, silhouetted against a white sky. “Yeah,” it says. “You got business to take care of? Talk to us.”

 

* * * * *

View atop of Cadillic Mountain

Normally when I return to The Homeland, I pilgrimage to the top of Cadillac Mountain, named for the same man who founded Detroit, Antoine Laumet, who had given himself the title Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac shortly after coming to the Maine coast from France in the late 1680s. At 1,530 feet above sea level, Cadillac stands as the highest spot on the island, and it’s one of the first places in America you can see the sunrise. From the sea, Cadillac looks bald, a pink-granite desert of a mountain from which the island, Mount Desert Island, gets its name.

For four years, I worked as news director at a radio station in nearby Ellsworth. On slow news days, I’d drive down to Cadillac over my lunch hour. I’d find a spot at one of the pullovers and eat my salad. Sometimes Heidi would add a bowl of Jell-O. I could watch the streams of cars, sunlight glinting off their windshields, snake up and down the mountain road, three and a half miles from the spruce and cedar forest at the foot of the mountain through the Krummholz zone of stunted shrubs and gnarled bushes that stretches to the top.

At Cadillac’s summit, I can watch the boat traffic leave little white wakes across Frenchman’s Bay. As the tide goes out, I can watch the sandbar materialize between Bar Harbor and Bar Island just a few hundred yards off MDI’s northeastern corner. On summer afternoons, I can watch the thick cotton fogbank come in from the ocean. Long tendrils on the fog’s leading edge leap up and over the islands in the bay, pulling the rest of the fogbank behind them until it blankets each island out of existence, rolling northward over everything. From above, it looks like virgin snowfall.

Another favorite spot along the Acadia coastline is Schoodic Point, a peninsula some four miles across Frenchman’s Bay as the seagull flies. By car from Bar Harbor, it’s a circuitous forty-five-mile drive. Because of its relative remoteness, Schoodic gets far fewer visitors than the parts of the Park on MDI. The tip of the peninsula faces the open sea, so it affords one of the best spots for watching storm waves pound in from the open ocean, wild, spectacular, raw.

 

Schoodic Point.

My dad and stepmother got married at Schoodic — a wedding my brother Matt and I were not allowed to attend because my mother still harbored storm-powerful bitterness toward my father following their divorce. My dad still loves Schoodic, and on days when he ventures from the farm in the direction of the coast, he makes his way to the peninsula.

Heidi and I used to escape there, too. We’d sit and watch the waves crash in, sometimes moving close enough to feel the sea spray on our cheeks. In the parking lot one day, we fed part of a loaf of stale bread to the gulls. They plucked scraps from my hand until I ran out of bread, then turned all Alfred Hitchcock on me. While the birds dive-bombed me, Heidi laughed and took pictures. We threw ourselves into the car for safety and, together, laughed loud enough to drown out the sea.

On the forest-covered edge of one of Schoodic’s cliffs, we made love one afternoon. On a later trip, I went back and took a photo of the sunset from that spot. I had it enlarged into a poster and framed, and I gave it to her for a birthday present. For years, it hung in her office at work until she changed jobs, and then she hung it in our kitchen. I don’t know where she has it now.

 

* * * * *

Sometimes I go Downeast — that stretch of Maine coast that runs northeastward from MDI to Lubec at the state’s easternmost tip. It was my dad’s adventureland when my brother and I were kids. We camped on the beach at Pembroke and dug clams at Marlboro. We watched the reversing falls at Dennysville and watched whales off Eastport. After Heidi and I got married, we went on many of those same adventures; after Stephanie was born, she came with us.

I particularly like Jasper Beach south of Bucks Harbor, a half-mile beach consisting not of sand but of tumbled stone. There are a million million stones at Jasper Beach piled in a great crescent-shaped dune. The rocks, bigger than fists and potatoes near the top of the dune, and smaller than a thumbnail near the low-tide mark, have all been worn smooth by the sea. When a wave rushes through the stones, the water hisses as it withdraws. Heidi and I used to spend hours walking the beach, studying the stones, each a self-contained galaxy of color and pattern. We collected those that struck us, only a handful or two, and kept them in a tabletop fountain at home.

Quoddy Head light.

Sometimes I’ll go to the very tip of the country, to Quoddy Head State Park, the easternmost point in America, where I like to watch the sun rise. It lifts itself, face flushed red with the effort, up out of the sea. The granite bluffs at Quoddy Head rise straight up out of the sea, too, tall and lonely.

I don’t have the time on this Spring Break trip to venture Downeast, and even Schoodic is too far for me to go this late in the day. The road to the top of Cadillac is closed at this time of year. Sand Beach will do. I’m overdue for a visit.

The Park Service normally collects a $20 entrance fee, good for a week’s worth of access—but when I make it to The Homeland, I can only ever visit Acadia for half a day at most, so the access fee rankles. As someone who works for the NPS, I believe in its mission, and in particular I believe in preserving this park, but I don’t believe in price gouging. But at this time of day, at this point in the season, I knew the tollbooth along Park Loop Road would be closed.

I’ve never had Sand Beach to myself before. Today I share it only with a wind-eroded snowman who sits just above the high-tide line. He has dried seaweed for hair and driftwood twigs for arms, outstretched wide to embrace, to defy, the winter wind blowing straight in off the sea.

In the second year I was married, Heidi and I came down to the beach on a March day much different than this one. It was a Saturday, so we were both off work. Temperatures flared into the upper seventies. We bundled up our five-month-old daughter, grabbed my acoustic guitar, and drove to Sand Beach. We walked through shin-deep snow to get from the parking lot to the granite stairs and down onto the sand.

The beach itself was clear that day, and the breeze hardly noticeable. We shed our shoes to feel the warm sand as we walked to the beach’s far end. There, we made a little camp for ourselves and I got out the guitar and played the three songs I knew over and over. Our daughter, Steph, sucked her binky and wondered what to make of us, young and foolish in love and sitting on the beach in March. In photos from that day, she’s all bundle and blankie and big eyes and binky. It was her first time there.

Heidi and I had a tradition when we visited Sand Beach: I would walk, barefoot, a few feet into the surf and face her, arms outstretched to say, “Here I am!” and she would take my picture. For years, a collage of those photos hung in our bathroom.

Waves crashing.

Today, my photo goes untaken. I briefly consider peeling off my shoes and wading into the water and striking my pose, just for old times’ sake — but decide not to. It’s too cold, I convince myself, although I know the real reason is that it will depress me. I know this because seeing the snowman in that same pose of outstretched arms has already stirred feelings I’d rather not feel. If I stood in the surf, I might melt away as surely as the snowman would if he stood there instead.

* * * * *

While I have the beach to myself right now, bootprints in the sand indicate someone had been here not long before me. The boots made deeper impressions than mine. A dog’s tracks wind back and forth across them. Like me, the person walked in more or less a straight line from the granite steps down to the water. The way the rising tide erases the bootprints, it looks like their owner simply walked in an unbroken stride down the beach and into the surf. The return set of tracks tells otherwise, but I wonder what it would take for a man to walk out into that surf and never return. On a day like today, on a beach as desolate as this, who would ever even know?

The water is far enough down the beach, away from the high-tide mark where the snowman stands vigil, that I know the tide has only just turned. It rises and falls as much as twenty feet along this stretch of coast, taking about ten hours to rise or fall.

Rather than follow the bootprints back up the beach, I decide to walk along the crescent to the beach’s far end. In the dim light, the sand looks the color of stained parchment. I stay within fifteen feet of the water’s edge, where the wet sand remains packed down and paper smooth, awaiting the writing of my footprints. Further up the beach, where the sand is dry, my steps would leave indeterminate craters, but here each footfall leaves a firm, distinct impression. Yet when the tide rises, the clearest record of my passing will wash away.

There are few sand beaches like this north of the midcoast region. That’s because, in geological terms, the coast of Maine is so young. As recently as ten or twelve thousand years ago, what’s now the Maine coast had been an interior range of hills. Then a downward shift in the earth’s crust submerged the edge of the continent. In a way, then, the old weathered rocks that look like Time itself actually represent the fresh face of the planet. In ten thousand years, the surf has simply not had enough time to pound the rocks into stones and the stones into sand. Erosion happens on a tinier scale than that: a chip here, a chip there, ground together into smoothness under the tumbling waves. Sea currents then move that sand around, up and down the coast, in and out from shore, tumbling, tumbling, smoothing, smoothing.

View from Otter Cliffs, looking toward Sand Beach.

The protection offered by the cliffs on either side of the cove makes this an ideal, if rare, location for that particulate to come to rest. The waves constantly deposit sand and scoop it back up again. The churning water is alive with sand.

That metaphor’s not much of a stretch, I realize. It’s hard to see now in the late afternoon gloom, but a handful of sand contains a million traces of life. Mixed among the tiny crumbs of granite and quartz are purple flecks of mussel shell and greenish flecks of crab shell, pieces of urchin spines and crab carapaces, and miniscule chips of bone.

The sea has heaped the sand into a dune that stretches yards beyond the normal high tide mark, clearly identified by the necklace of dried kelp and rockweed that’s been pushed as absolutely far up as any wave can reach. The string of aquatic jetsam runs the length of the beach. On a warmer, friendlier day, I might walk its length to see if I might find any treasures: a crab shell, a mermaid’s purse, a strand of welk’s egg casing, although I might be more apt to find a plastic soda bottle, a six-pack ring, or a chunk of Styrofoam lobster buoy.

Behind the dunes, alive in the summer with beach grass and wild peas, a freshwater pond stretches out to the north. There’s always beaver lodge or two, great mounds of sticks that poke out of the water like heads, and at times I’ve caught glimpses of the beavers V’ing across the water. The pond freezes over in winter, but during the summer, the sun warms it like a cup of tea, an illusion made complete by the tannin from the surrounding evergreens, which stains the water amber.

Water drains from the pond through a shallow stream that cuts a course through the sand at the beach’s far eastern end near the base of the eastern cliff. One afternoon, as Heidi and I approached the stream, we came across a father and his two young sons playing along its edge. The water cut into the bank and a hunk of sand, like a miniature shard of glacier, broke away and crumbled into the stream. “Erosion!” shrieked one of the boys. “I see erosion happening!”

Heidi and I waded into the stream, which came up past our shins. Nothing lives in the stream this close to the sea because so many people tramp through it in the summer, so we didn’t have to worry about crabs biting our toes or anything like that. We sloshed upstream, past the boys and around the bend toward the pond. “Hey!” the shrieker called after us. “Do you know beavers pee in that water?”

We didn’t have to travel too far upstream before we felt like the only people on earth. We might’ve heard the shrill cry of kids playing on the beach beyond the dune, but the wind and the waves suppressed most of that ambient noise. Instead, we could hear—if such a thing is possible—the sunlight reflecting off the pond. We could hear the green of the marsh grass and the wide blue of the sky. We could hear our own breathing and the beating of our hearts as we stood there holding hands.

* * * * *

I must at least touch the sea. If the coastline is my touchstone, I must also touch sea.

Coastline is, by definition, the demarcation of land and sea. But the boundary remains in constant motion, shifting as the tide rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls. In that zone, land and sea exist together, never apart.

I walk into that zone, gauging my approach carefully, reading the sea, studying the height and strength of the waves as they roll in. I study the beach, too, to see where the water comes up farthest and where it hangs back. Finally, when I feel the sea’s same rhythm, I move down to the water’s edge as it moves up to meet me. I bend over and we touch, the sea and I. We touch.

Even in the summer, the water here seldom warms beyond fifty-five degrees, but that’s not what sends a chill through me. It’s an unknowable mystery allowing me to get close, for just an instant of an instant.

I say, “Thank you.”

I take a step back, then another, so I don’t get caught by any especially ambitious waves. A wet foot now would ruin what’s left of my day. But I don’t want to retreat too far. I feel too much awe to ever just run away. The ocean is so much.

What’s one little touch but everything and nothing at all?

* * * * *

The snow on the cliffsides glows translucent blue in the twilight. It’s time to go. I take one last look upstream in the direction of the frozen beaver pond, then one last look downstream toward the sea. Where the stream drains into the ocean, a cluster of rocks, like a colony of craggy-shelled turtles, hunkers in the waves. The rockweed that beards each rock flagellates in the currents that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re coming or going.

I know the feeling. It’s time to go, but I want to stay. Even though I shall again take part of this place with me, part of me wants to stays. Part of me always stays.

I wonder how much I’ve left behind.

About the author:

Chris Mackowski is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University. He blogs for Scholars & Rogues <www.scholarsandrogues.com> and writes Civil War history for the National Park Service. His latest book, “Chancellorsville: The Battle and the Battlefield”, will be out later this spring.