Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Lobster Rolls

Red's Eats

I know I've said I don't understand why people are willing to stand in line for so long just for a lobster roll.  I've been resolved to avoid at all costs joining the sheep on the corner in Wiscasset.  But who's to stop Damon when he's hungry and we come across Red's on an October night, sans crowd?

Despite resolving to leave for Castine earlier Friday, we didn't get underway until well after five, and we were a mite peckish.  (Sadly, the dog didn't accompany us.)  As we cruised through a quiet Wiscasset, Damon suddenly pulled into a parking spot and cried "No line!"  As in, no line at Red's.  Not only was there no line, but it was the perfect fall Maine evening -- warm, with a full moon shining down over the Sheepscot River.  And on top of that, we had exactly $20 in our pockets -- enough for a lobster roll and a drink, with change to spare.  It was a sign.  Get a lobster roll.

We slipped across US 1 and got in line walked right up to the counter.  It was Red's final weekend for the season, and the the staff seemed cheery -- like they were feeling the way a marathoner feels when mile 26 has been reached, and only 0.2 miles are left.  Their finish line was in sight. 

They were still pumping out some food though.  A small crowd sat behind the shack at the picnic tables, and we sat ourselves down at a table and took a look at our line-free prize.  It was big, with over a lobster's worth of meat.  There seemed to be no dressing at all, and the bun was nicely toasted with butter.  The roll was lettuce-free -- nothing but bun and arthropod.  Damon eats very little meat or saturated fat, so he was happy to gobble his half down, and I ate mine joyfully as well.  There's nothing like the first stop on a trip you've been looking forward to. 

It was a great roll -- large, very fresh, with a lovely contrast between the cold lobster and the warm bun.  It set us back $17; a bit high, but worth it. 

Castine Variety

Even in season, there's not much in Castine.  As the season drew to a close, we watched most of the inns and restaurants in town close their doors for a long winter's rest.  Our dinner Saturday night was the last served at the Pentagoet Inn, and although it was good, they were offering a limited menu as they tried to use up their larder. 

I love Castine, but I can't quite picture living there in winter.  (This from someone who's lived in Woods Hole MA and Beaufort NC, where they pretty much roll up the streets in winter.)  There's not much going on.  Castine Variety though, opens it's doors year round, and offers a mean lobster roll for the hearty few who show up.  I love the fact that the owner is Hawaiian, and wonder what drew her from a tropical island to this remote corner of Penobscot Bay.  Castine Variety itself is amazing; located in an old pharmacy and located right on the main drag, you can look out the windows and watch the happenings at the MMA docks.

Their lobster roll was lovely.  A bit on the small side, not big enough to share; but not as pricey as some ($14).  There was lettuce -- often a turn off for me, but in this case it was a crisp, cool complement to the lobster, which was dressed with mayo.  It was the perfect size for lunch, although I know some will compare it to rolls that are extra large.  I really liked this roll; it was one of the dining highlights of Castine.

As winter rolls our way, and more and more lobster shacks close up shop, I'm thinking my rolls my get fewer and farther between.  That's okay, as snow falls and winds blow, I'll sit by the wood stove dreaming about the rolls I'll eat next year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Weekend in Castine

Last weekend, we put the dog in the doggie spa and headed up to Castine so Damon could do some continuing ed for his Captain's license.  Here's what we saw:

Some history:

Dyce Head Light

It's Maine.  We *do* the Civil War.

The Congregational Church on a fall day

Amazing wildlife on the docks:

There were hundreds of Asterias seastars.  No joke.

Damon says I am overdressed for the occasion.

My quarry:  Dendronotus frondosus.  Frilled nudibranch.
The Maine Maritime Academy dock stays in year-round, so has an amazing fouling community on it.

 A lovely walk in the woods:

Last of the raspberries.

That's a porcupine!

Penobscot Bay

Maine Maritime Academy and the waterfront:

Some of the MMA's training ships.

That looks like Maine!

You're not going out without me?

Our quarters at MMA.  Very nice.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Rockland Breakwater

If there were seven wonders of Maine, the Rockland Breakwater surely would be one of them.  Last weekend, I dragged my folks out the end of it for a look at Autumn in Penobscot Bay.  And what a view it was.

My parents, who never bargained on raising a nature lover.  Their fatal mistake? Sending me to summer camp.
Of course, it took me a long time to get to the end.  With so much to look at, I had to stop and check out the happenings along the way.  Biologically, the Breakwater is fascinating.  We were there just before low tide (always the choice time to visit the coast).  There was distinct zonation on the Breakwater, as I would expect -- a nice wreath of barnacles around the top, then Fucus and Ascophyllum, then red algae.  The barnacles on the more exposed east side rose higher than those on the protected side -- a result of greater splashing from Penobscot Bay; which cools the substrate and reduces desiccation.  

More interesting was the relationship between the gulls and the seastars and sea urchins.  All along the protected side of the Breakwater, gulls were foraging.  Their quarry:  seastars.  I can't imagine there's much to enjoy about eating a seastar, but obviously they're worth the effort, or the gulls would have moved on.  Seastar after seastar was plucked from the rocks, turned over and over in a beak (it's hard to swallow something that's all arms), and gulped down.  

Bon appetite!
Lucky for the seastars, it seems sea urchins are the tastier of the two.  As we turned back and headed for shore (and lunch) the gulls got busy on the green sea urchins we saw earlier in the subtidal zone.  I guess for seastars and urchins it's a fine line between moving as far up as you can to forage, while avoiding desiccation and predation.

This guy was still moving his spines.  Apparently he didn't know he'd been eaten.

Removing the hook carefully, to try to get the bait back from this hapless cunner.

Gulls weren't the only ones foraging.  A family was busily gigging for cunner amongst the boulders on the Bay side of the Breakwater.  Cunner specialize in intertidal life; their big, sharp, nasty, pointy teeth are used to pluck barnacles, mussels, small arthropods, and any number of sessile organisms off rocks and pilings.  They're quite the delicacy it seems, and this family was going to have a feast from the looks of it -- in five minutes they'd pulled in three small cunner.

I'd  never been to the Breakwater before, and just about hit myself on the forehead and yelled "doh!" when I saw what I've been missing.  I mean, what more could an ocean lover want?  An easy stroll out into the heart of Rockland Harbor; spectacular wildlife all around you; and great people watching to boot.  Plus, there's the Breakwater itself.  For its time, this must have been a true marvel of construction.  This thing is massive -- 7/8 of a mile long, sixty feet wide at the base, with massive blocks of granite fitted into an amazing puzzle of a walkway. Thinking of the labor that went into building the Breakwater -- especially in the 1800's -- is mind boggling.

So go the Breakwater.  Walk to the end.  Spend some time watching the ocean world around you.  And let me know what you see -- you know I'll be interested!

Oh yeah, the dog stayed home.  Someone had to keep the couch warm.

To get there:  From Rockland, take US 1 north.  Turn right onto Waldo Avenue, go 1/2 mile and turn right onto Samoset.  Drive to the end; there is parking there.  Wear good walking shoes and bring some water.

For more information:

Friday, October 11, 2013

Micro and macro climate change in the Gulf of Maine

What's wrong with this photo:

A) I am carrying all the supplies while Damon strolls along on his merry way.
B) I went hiking instead of watching the Pats game, causing them to lose their first game so far.
C) It's mid-October and I'm comfortable wearing just a t-shirt.  In Maine.
D) All of the above.

The answer?  D of course.  Sunday we packed some snacks and headed over to Ovens Mouth in Boothbay.  It was lovely, and warm, just like the rest of the fall has been. Too warm and lovely, it might seem.  Weather, of course, shouldn't be confused with climate.  Weather is the exact condition at a particular moment, whereas climate is more like the average weather, or weather trend.  So having one nice day in October (in Maine) doesn't mean that climate is changing and things are getting warmer.  (Of course, neither does a blizzard in March mean climate is not changing.)  But the trends show that warmer days are more common; the Gulf of Maine is getting warmer; and atmospheric carbon has reached frightening levels. This suggests that maybe the weather last weekend wasn't an unusual warm day, but was part of a warming climate in Maine.

Climate change in the Gulf of Maine isn't an abstraction -- it's real, and it affects real people and organisms in the ecosystem. Last week I went to the RARGOM (Regional Association for Research in the Gulf of Maine) Annual Science Meeting, which asked the question "The 2012 Gulf of Maine heatwave: anomalous year or the new normal?"

Short answer?  Maybe, especially in the long run.

Long answer?

Consider:  The Gulf of Maine was ~3° C warmer than usual, the most intense heat wave in at least the past 30 years.  High temps were around for a long time, and spread over a large geographic extent.  This may have been the result of warm, humid air; the jet stream pattern; or larger systems like the North Atlantic Oscillation and ocean circulation.

Consider:  The phytoplankton bloom was very early.  The bloom may have occurred too early for the energy stored in plankton to be shifted up the food chain.

Consider:  Many southern fish were found in the Gulf of Maine.  Butterfish and blue runner, normally a rarity in the Gulf of Maine, were common.  Apparently the trend continues into 2013 (mahi mahi in Rhode Island?  Surely not.)

Consider:  Lobsters.  In 2012, lobsters responded to warm temperatures by migrating shoreward and molting ~3 weeks early.  That might seem like a good thing for lobstermen, as these processes are linked with higher catches.  In June and July, catches rose by 15 million pounds -- but the price fishermen got dropped 40%, to just $2.63 a pound.  It was the great lobster stampede, as too much product came ashore; swamping processing plants in Maine and in Canada (where Canadian fishermen tried to blockade plants).  

Consider:  Puffins bring their chicks any small fish in the water column, which in 2013 wasn't the white hake and herring they usually rely on, but were things like butterfish and other southern species.  Butterfish are to fat to fit down a chick's beak, and they died in large numbers, surrounded by piles of small fish they just couldn't eat.  Apparently this year moon fish are being brought in by seabirds, another mismatch between forage fish and beak size.

Consider:  Razorbills, a relative of the puffin, were found in large numbers in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico following the 2012 summer.  They were probably displaced by lingering warm waters (and a resulting lack of bait fish) in their normal winter grounds.  Many of these birds seemed to die on their way back to Maine for the breeding season, perhaps from storms they could not weather given poor body condition.  In Cape Cod alone, 264 were found dead (many emaciated) on the beaches, and since they are an offshore bird, any showing up on a beach represent many more dying offshore. 

All this leaves the ocean lover with a lot to think about.  Even if 2012 was simply a hot year and an anomaly there is good evidence that the Gulf of Maine is warming at ~0.01° a year, or even more recently.  By 2050, Calanus finmarchicus, the base of the pelagic food chain, is expected to be excluded from the area. (In fact, there are reports of very low Calanus densities this year, along with very low numbers of right whales, which feed on Calanus exclusively.)  What the future holds is a mystery that at times keeps me awake at night.  Maine is the last outpost of cold northern waters, and we are likely to see great change come our way -- soon.

I know what some of you are saying:  Bring back the lobster roll posts!  Show me a nice coastal hike!  How about a picture of a whale?  Unfortunately, loving the ocean means dealing with the impacts of humans.  Climate change can make all the other problems the oceans face moot, so it's something we all need to talk about and connect ourselves to.  We live now, when the impacts of climate change are hitting us over the head, and ignoring them does us no good.  So if you don't like to think about climate change; drive less, be efficient in your use of electricity, eat less meat, and buy less crap.  That way you can know you're reducing your own contribution to the problem.

Now about that hike:

BBRT makes a great point here.  Land trusts are worth joining.

It's hard to see here, but the tidal currents were causing standing waves out there.

A quiet place for contemplation

Ovens Mouth is another terrific Boothbay Region Land Trust property.  It's dog friendly with some spectacular views of the tidal Ovens Mouth River.  The hike takes you on two peninsulas, connected by a beautifully crafted bridge (the perfect place for a picnic).  Cedar forests, salt marshes, and upland forest all string along the trail.  Pair your hike with a trip in to Boothbay for a bite to eat and you've got a great day trip.  We like to go on to Newcastle or Damariscotta for lunch when we go -- the Newcastle Publick House and the King Eider Pub both are favorites.

The bridge
Thinking deep thoughts?
To Get There:  Drive south on Rt 27 (from US1).  Just past the campground and train museum you'll turn right onto Adams Pond Road (turn at the Cottage Connection).  Go 0.1 miles and turn right onto Dover Road.  Go ~2.5 miles (a beautiful drive) and you'll see a sign for the preserve; I like to park at the eastern lot.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Not Red's Eats

Red's Eats and its line; Sprague's in the background.
Wiscasset has a few claims to fame.  First off, it calls itself the prettiest town in Maine.  That's debatable, especially if you're from Camden or Castine.  What's not debatable is Wiscasset's famous traffic.  Anyone knows if you're going to the Midcoast, and it's a summer day, you'd better be prepared to sit in an epic traffic jam from about the time you get to Big Al's until you hit the bridge over the Sheepscot River.  There's no obvious reason for this traffic jam, but a prime suspect is Red's Eats.  Now this is a subject of discussion by the good citizens of the Wiscasset; the people sitting in the traffic jam (especially them), and the state government.  Either way, I've never quite figured Red's out.  Could it possibly be so good it's worth waiting in a line that stretches to the end of your vacation, all the while sucking in the exhaust from Route 1 traffic?  And isn't there a perfectly good lobster shack within lobster-cracker throwing distance?  Is there something wrong with Sprague's?

When it comes to food, there's nothing I like more than investigative reporting -- by me.  On my way home from my trip to Bar Harbor, I decided to stop in Wiscasset and check out Sprague's.  I must have been due some good karma because I got a parking spot right away, and off I went, past the line snaking around the corner of Water and Main at Red's Eats, across Route 1, and down to the waterfront.  There was a line at Sprague's but not an unreasonable one; just a line long enough for me to catch some of the late September sun and debate on whether I wanted fries with the lobster roll or not.  Once I ordered (sans fries) I wandered around the picnic-table strewn deck to check things out.  Sprague's is set back from Route 1 (ie, reduced traffic noise and smell) but is right on the train tracks.  The Wiscasset, Waterville, and Farmington Railway Museum is right there -- a small restored rail car with photos, timetables, and artifacts from days gone by. 

"Eighty-five, eighty-five please."  That was me.  I picked up the lobster roll and a diet Coke (much needed; the sun was beating down and Sprague's was pumping out heat from the fryers) and found an umbrella to sit under.  The lobster roll looked as good as any I can remember having (surely as good as one from Red's) and was positively stuffed -- clearly at least a whole lobster was in there.  It was very lightly dressed in mayo -- just the way I like it -- and the roll was buttered and grilled to a lovely golden brown. 

I can't compare this roll to Red's, since I'd never have the patience to join the crowd waiting for a roll there, but I can't imagine my lobster roll at Sprague's was sub-par to any other roll in Maine.  The filling was cool and delicious; the bun hot and buttery.  And thank god I didn't get those fries -- that roll filled me right up. 

Sprague's was great.  A big porch right on the river, plenty of spots to sit down and eat, a great view, and great lobster shack food.  A parking lot.  The crowd seemed satisfied, especially since they spent their time eating and not standing in line (I did catch a bit of smugness in the air).  There was even a dog wandering around the porch; calmly looking for a handout (wouldn't Dory have liked that?)