The second Maine thing

The Ramble Report


My second trail season with the Maine Conservation Corps (MCC) began, as the locals say, “way down East” in Washington County. Our assignment there was to do heavy duty maintenance on a ten-mile section of the Cutler Coast Public Lands. These paths were a little more trafficked than the deep-woods locations I’d been sent to in my first three months, but we could still work for several consecutive days without seeing any hikers.

This was especially true of the inland half of the 10-mile figure eight carved out by the trail. Here, our work was (sadly) rarely interrupted by visitors to the park, most of whom went straight from the parking lot to the seaside bluffs. In doing so, they missed out on some of the quieter pleasures the reserve has to offer, as well as some of our more innovative fixes to problem sections of the trail.

A big part of our job in Cutler was replacing rotted (or nonexistent) bog-bridging - those heavy timber half-logs you find oh-so-conveniently placed to walk on in the muddier sections of trails. Cutler had large swathes of sweetly fragrant cedar swamps and many peat bogs, so bog bridging was essential to making these areas accessible.

It was at Cutler that I learned installing bog bridges requires almost as much patience, dedication and craftiness as setting a stone staircase. It also required lugging hefty cedar half-logs and dimensional lumber miles up and down hills and through swamps. Luckily, there were wild blueberries to snack on. Also, in that abandoned corner of the park, it’s unlikely anyone heard us cursing.

Of course, “quieter pleasures” not withstanding, the main attraction to the Cutler Coast is not the tranquility of the beaver pond or the sweet, fecund aroma of the cedar swamp. People come to Cutler to experience the Gulf of Fundy in its most raw, majestic and powerful form. I can’t imagine many leave disappointed.

Four of the 10 miles of trail we revamped lay along the coastline, and while working this section we hiked in our gear and set up camp at one of the primitive campsites. The other time we spent working at Cutler we camped at a more crowded drive-in campsite with running water and other pleasant modern amenities 20 miles away.

Those nine days on the coast were bliss. I positioned my tent as far out onto a rocky promontory as I dared so that the first thing I saw each morning when I opened my tent flap was a 60-foot dropoff into thundering surf and the Atlantic stretching endlessly away. During lunch breaks we poked around tide pools or sat on cliffs 150 feet above the ocean, scanning the horizon for whales.

When it wasn’t my turn to cook, I’d spend the 90 minutes or two hours before dinner bouldering my way across the miles of rockfields and bluffs going up and down the coast. Exhausted as I was from work, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to explore a climber’s playground of mammoth proportions.

With dinner eaten and dishes washed, I’d carefully make my way back to my tent. There, I read Hemingway and Heller for hours before allowing the rhythm of the waves, the distant bellow of a fog horn and the demands of my labor-weary body to drag me down into slumber.

Fittingly, my last assignment with the MCC took me back to where all this began months prior–Scraggly Lake.

Autumn there was somber and pensive for me as I tried to figure out my next step in life and also soak in these last special moments working in spectacular, isolated beauty. Every morning in September and October, thick fog rolled off the lake like smoke coming from the fiery transitioning birch leaves. Digging into frozen soil while snow slowly spiraled down past my sweat-steaming arms, or waking up to numb toes and a water bottle half filled with ice were worth breaking my dawns in such a blessed cathedral.

Half a decade separates me from these memories today, and smart money wouldn’t have bet on me making it this long. Before I close this out though, there are some people to thank, now that the places have been remembered.

First and foremost, there’s my friend Andy Federman. Federman drove my carless butt up, down and across the whole state and let me sleep in his house countless times when I was lost and rambling in my five days off between nine-day work hitches. A hot shower, washing machine, electricity, a few episodes of “Trailer Park Boys,” a few too many beers and a big gruff bear hug would be waiting for me at his little riverside rental in Old Town. Unless he had a girl over. Then it was back to the woods for me, but you can’t blame a man for that.

Brenda Webber, support staff extraordinaire for the MCC, also deserves my gratitude. My buddy Federman, who had been an MCCer years before, once told me “Brenda’s one of those women working behind the scenes to make sure everything doesn’t fall apart. She’s always juggling 12 chainsaws at the same time, and none of them ever fall. She’s going to help you out a lot.” Truer words were never spoken. I’m a bit of a disorganized mess, and without the kind and patient assistance of people like Brenda, I would be in a sorry state indeed. Also, she had a deep, sincere Mainer laugh I will never forget.

Dustin Guertz, the team leader of my second crew in the autumn and second in command of my first crew in spring was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Stronger and more persistent than almost anyone I’ve ever met, Dustin wouldn’t let us quit a job ’til it was done right and done strong. A mule of a man, he would burden himself with comically large loads while hiking in supplies. And he never, ever gave up.

Dustin was also quite technically gifted when it came to rock work. I’ve never seen anybody stare at a pile of boulders the way he used to, instantly flipping and twisting them in his mind until he arrived at the right solution, the perfect fit for whatever space was confounding the rest of us. I think my proudest moment in the MCC came when he finally trusted me to set a stone staircase on my own and declared my work rock solid when I was done. With his blessing, I knew I’d be able to go back to that staircase as an old man and still see it standing proud. Dustin never would have taken anything less.

Thanks for joining me on this ramble, we’ll be back cruising down memory lane together August 24.


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