Thursday, October 22, 2015

Transportation and Taking Up 2015


This morning, at around 7:00, I was driving down Carrie's Hill toward Matinicus Harbor. Since it was blowing 21, gusting to 23 knots from the southeast, I had doubts. As I was doing the algebra of southeast wind, 26 foot boat, traps on the northwest shore needing to be pulled out for the year, getting out and back without dumping them off the boat, the sleepy voice of Maine Public Radio morning host Irwin Gratz advised me that my adopted community of Matinicus Plantation was incorporated on this day in 1840. Funny thing is how he's in a radio studio someplace and knows this, and I'm driving down the gravel road in ignorance. Today is the 175th birthday of the municipality. The community is a bit older.

I worry a great deal about whether we'll stay incorporated. Because of the apparently overpowering allure of the bland mainland life, fewer and fewer people want to live here year-round.

The power company had to recently drive up its already very high rates due in part to insufficient demand; insufficient year round households to spread costs over. This could either drive down consumption and exacerbate the problem, make an island household unaffordable, or move those of means to go off-grid. 10th grade economics says you can't solve a lack of demand by increasing price.

I see two choices. First is that the island goes Criehaven, becoming an outpost with no utilities, postal service, school, church or other institutions. Second is an active approach to livability issues. On this I feel some qualification for my otherwise eyeroll-inducing opinions.

My family and I were some of the last new arrivals to try and make a year-round life here. Energy costs, isolation, housing and grocery access are all hardships. The deal-breaker to me, though, is transportation; year-round, affordable, reliable, semiweekly access to the mainland; something akin to what the sparsely populated unorganized territories with roads that cost x many hundreds of thousands per mile per year enjoy.

The historical society has published a wealth of pictures from several decades ago. I see two things: a community of people and the Mary A. I don't think it is a coincidence.

My personal life has undergone a great deal of evolution. Work-wise, I've gotten back into legal practice by necessity. I'd much rather be stuffing bait bags, going all spiral-eyed from the fog and waking up sore, but the legal work is good for wretched days or months fit not for man, beast or lobster harvester. I can do almost everything in this line of work from the island. Knowing there was a ferry run a couple of times a week in the crappy months would make all the difference.

Unrealistic? Hmmm... Rutherford Island in South Bristol hosts 40 year round households. They are getting an $11M bridge upgrade. That's in addition to whatever annual plowing and maintenance costs are. Those investments don't just serve the residents, but as well all of the goods and service providers that do commerce over those routes. Is a water based transport system so different?

Taking Up 2015

Back to the boat. The north shore and Burgess Cove were swimming pool flat and easy places to take up fishing gear for the year. The morning was designed by Ansel Adams with infinite gradations of gray, my favorite being the rolling garden furrows of clouds to the west. I was thoroughly content to coil rope, pick out the few lobsters who didn't get the scheduling memo and stack traps in their places on the boat.

Although there is no obvious change in the underwater topography between Black Rocks and the southwest shore, there are funny water patterns. By funny I mean that even with no wind or chop, just as soon as the boat was full, a couple of eccentric waves came a hair's breadth from snatching a bunch of traps overboard. The row of gear slid and oozed, but didn't actually take the plunge. I credit my Uncle Malcolm for teaching me to cinch down on a rope in good shape and secure things that wanted to go astray such as haybales or large, iron-toothed farm equipment. Candidly, if I could've just picked which traps went overboard, I'd have shed no tears.

The remaining problem was that although the northwest shore was relatively tranquil, I could predict what was waiting around No'theast Point. Almost, because I am perpetually naive and optimistic. Not yet knowing what I didn't know, I still had to stabilize the load of traps before going 'round the corner. This meant climbing up the pile and tugging things back into some semblance of geometry, while remaining respectful of being alone on the water on a scowling gray day.

I had expectations fulfilled as I came around the point and was then forced to idle all the way in to the harbor holding my breath. I had expected a few good sized gray waves at the point and right outside the harbor, but didn't really think about everyplace in between. For the first time I can recall, I had to tack my way in to avoid being side-to which would have taken both the wicked and virtuous members of my trap collection.

When I got home, my list started with "dry pants" and "fire." After that,  I had a big stack of legal work waiting, but once the obvious email fires were doused and the paper mail checked, I just could not sit down to do it. Instead, I went for a walk that, which, for the latter half was quite wet. I was completely happy with evergreens and the red and orange of fall shrubbery and the wild waves and wind that I no longer had to contend with.

Now at dusk there are fat, warm raindrops and even a couple of lightning and thunder moments. It's October 22, 2015.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Backwards Told Story A

This one is best recounted in reverse order. Once the weather starts to change in October, working on a lobster boat changes with it. It's colder, bouncier, stays dark late and gets dark early. My brain still thinks July, August and September will last forever. Long hypnotic days of calm seas, though, must give way to a sense of urgency and a nervous (for me) eye on the weather. Maybe I treasure the experience a little more when it's a little tougher.

The fire is taking hold in the stove. It just started raining. Seamus, the cat appears at the door.

We're walking across the yard. I have an armload of firewood and Megan has our boat lunchbox and beverages. Even with the dark gray chill and wind, the yard and house are a womb of peace and comfort.

The boat is tied up, turned off. I've made a messy dismount from my skiff onto Robert's to get to the ladder, and we've stepped onto the concrete wharf, which moves under us as though bobbing slowly in the swell.

Since Clayton's and my boats moor very close, I am on edge coming up to the mooring in 30 knots of clammy southeasterly. As I'm pondering how to get tied up and deal with a lobster crate that's tangled ass-backwards with my skiff, the boat is shoved over the whole mess, threatening to sink the skiff, get tangled in my wheel and send me into Clayton's boat. Second time is the charm.

Coming up to the lobster car to sell our catch takes a couple of tries. I aim just like I always do, but slide quickly away from the tie up lines. After lurching my way in, we fasten onto the Matinicus Island Lobster car, commerce hub and gossipatorium. Not that we didn't earn it, but we did well for a day cut 40 traps short.

On the way in, the wind takes another healthy jump upward. The sea is pretty much either black or whitecaps and I'm glad I decided to bag the rest of the day. Close Enough rolls up and over, up and over and surfs into the harbor. 

I'm thinking maybe we should finish another day. But then, maybe we could do a couple more. As I'm thinking this, my hands are putting things away, so I've obviously made a decision. We are done.

The last couple of strings of gear are very sloppy and nerve-wracking. I spend a lot of attention wrestling the boat into the waves, rather than laying side-to and sloshing about. When a wave hits side-to, I'm letting my knees buckle so as to stay on the boat, much the same way as a wily toddler knows how to fold their arms quickly to slip down, out and away from parental control. It's an old reflex.

Along the north shore, the capillary waves come, telling of larger, gruffer conditions to follow. On the way out from shore for the deeper water traps, the wind jumps up abruptly, and with it, the waves.

Throughout most of the morning, enjoying the beautiful day is easy along any of 180 compass points. The other 180 don't look so nice- they are dark bordering on dusk. I figure the darkness will be on us in 15 or 20 minutes, but after a while, I realize the storm clouds are moving more up along the coast than out toward us. They'll find us, but not so quickly as I thought.

Megan and I know the forecast is calling for deteriorating conditions; wind and rain in quantities prohibitive of fishing in a 26 foot vessel. Right now, though, it's sunny and flat-ass calm, as they say. So we go.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Faugust and Learning to be a Fisherman

August is not known for fog. It's been a pasty murky clammy mess for two weeks. 

Lesson 28, sub 3. When bilge is full of oil, and no amount of consultation with experts, contortional stuffing upside down into small spaces, automotive/dental mirrors, profanity or reasoning produces an explanation, AND the engine is running smooth as the brush of a cat on your leg, you, the proper fisherman, go hauling. You do. I, on the other hand, fume and stew and worry and then eventually decide to go hauling anyway. I got to the point where I was perfectly willing to keep pouring in engine oil in exchange for being able to work and pay for whatever repair is in my future.

It came on gradually, then suddenly, with that deep adrenal defibrillation whereupon I decide (again) that I am stupid to be in this business. This business where the ancestral GPS of lobster cycles and migration is absorbed by 12 year olds, not 50 year olds. The gradual part was that oil inched ever so slightly down the dipstick over a couple of weeks. Not generally a big deal especially because it always does that when it's time for an oil change, which it was. After I paddled out on a Sunday morning to change the oil, fuel and hydraulic filters and set about my business, there was a stomach lurching moment when the oil pump stopped after about 9 quarts. It should have been 11 or 12.

A reluctant peek into the bilge showed two things. First, the bilge pump was not working. Wires that ended in mid air probably had something to do with it. Second, and much uglier than a recalcitrant bilge pump was the copious, odious, obscene and altogether appalling amount of oil in the bilge, glaring up at me in black, grinning, leering clots, maliciously swaying to and fro in the beautiful Sunday morning sunshine.

After swabbing up as much as I could of the oil, I began untangling and tracing wires associated with the pump and float switch. After reconnecting the works, I expected action. I pulled up on the float and got only silence. Hmmph.

I ripped everything apart and grabbed the multimeter, a very handy tool in learned hands like Paul's. In mine, as we'll see, it's a mixed blessing. Monsieur Multimeter said there was only something like 1.28 to 3.69 volts coming from the source, depending on how well I gouged the pointy thing into the wire.

I figured that even with my limited and patchy nollidge of wiring, I could find the problem. After scratching the fuse cap at the battery end with a rusty bait knife, I had a nice strong 12.48 volts and the pump hummed cheerfully when I got the wires touching correctly.

Not so good with the switch, as in silence again. After a trip to town and couple of days' office work, I came back to Matinicus after closing a commercial transaction, rushing to Rockland, hopping the lobster smack and falling asleep, bringing with me a nice clean new float switch and a bunch of handy heat-shrink splice connectors. By 8:00 or so, I had put everything back together in mild drizzle and not so mild amounts of mosquito bites and then flipped the switch. Nothing. What tha F, for F's sake?!!

I checked the wires with the multimeter: 12.49 volts DC. I hot-wired the pump to the source with no switch at all. Nothing. Rechecked the volts. 12.48. Silence. Must be a bad pump, right?

After another trip to town and another few days of office work, I returned with a new bilge pump. Now I had new connectors, switch and pump and the multimeter said there was 12 volts and change. All new connections, shrink wrapped for waterproofing. Flipped the switch. Nothing. F'ing stupid F'ing M'f-er!!! What am I doing wrong?!

I went back to the errant fuse cap at the battery end of the wiring chain and saw nothing wrong. A few inches aft of there, however, was splice connector, and not the handy heat shrink water proof kind. A friendly shake showed the connection was sloppy-loose. In the meantime, I'd brought my oil drenched old bilge pump and hand hotwired it to the battery, at which time it abruptly buzzed and spewed oil, indignantly proclaiming there had never been anything wrong with it in the first place, dumbass.

The rest was routine. New connections, new pump, new switch, and a new knowledge that 12.48 volts on the multimeter is not a guarantee of wiring integrity.

The big problem of a significant oil leak is still with me. The lobsters, however, are also present. As a result, I go out, knowing that above the deck, all is well while below, the oil trolls are laughing, dancing and procreating in my boat, the slimy bastards.

Now after several hard but productive days, there is only the pale gold to dark blue corona in the west. I want for nothing. Except Megan.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Getting Home From (And To) Work

Loading groceries in the Hannaford parking lot, it was 5 or 10 degrees below sweltering and in all other ways a beautiful late July day. Wrapping up office business late Thursday morning, I was, without much conscious thought, looking forward to getting spots with Megan on the afternoon mail flight back to Matinicus.  It did not occur to me that the warm humid air of summer was turning into chilly opaque paste as it moved across cold ocean water, making the climate very different a few miles off shore such that no planes were going anywhere near the island.  These small drops of water run the show in summer as much as wind and tide do year round.

So it was that I was caught off guard when Sally told me it probably wasn't going to happen.

Megan and I have learned that uncertain travel prospects are best met by going to the departure point and being ready to jump instead of hanging back. Even with this force of optimism, we arrived at the Penobscot Island Air den of office cabins and got the same answer about flying conditions.

Curiously, loitering at the air service produced not the slightest improvement in the weather. I called Fiona, who told me it was bright and clear at home in the middle of the island. She biked to the airstrip and reported that it was clear right to the shore but not beyond.

After some stewing and a low-grade tantrum about missing a hauling day with lobsters on the verge of hitting and a big block of next week lost to a trial, we called Marty the lobster dealer, who put us in touch with Jeb on the Bajupa (named for Barbara, June and Pat), the lobster smack. Jeb was just coming into Rockland and thought he'd be heading back out in a couple of hours, but also might be helping work on another boat.

After thinking through how to get from Owls Head to the fish pier, what to do with cars, and how much of an obstacle was presented by the Lobster Festival being in full swing, we decided again to try and get to the departure point and be ready.

Traffic was pretty manageable and we picked our way around trucks, a forklift and stenchy puddles of fish goo to where Jeb was finishing loading bait into Bajupa's hold. He thought he'd be heading out around 4:00, giving us time to deal with the car and cool it with a beer.

Having a pretty sure ride lined up was a huge relief. It would mean a late arrival, to be followed by pumping oil into a 50 gallon barrel at the wharf, lugging it to the side of my barn and pumping it into the tank so there would be hot water in the house.

I also had to assemble the new hand cranked pump that represented energy independence to me. [Moving oil is a hassle here. One needs a pump, a truck and an oil supply- sometimes from a fuel boat that shows up every 6 weeks or so, sometimes off a truck from the ferry, sometimes from the wharf. It's always a messy pain in the ass. Having my own pump was one big step in smoothing that process]

It was probably more like 5:00 by the time we left along with a collection of other fishermen and a Dachshund named Isla who spent the voyage in the bunk, snugged against her sleeping fisherman. They both looked pretty comfortable.

We got to Harbor Point on Matinicus at dusk and had our groceries and supplies winched up onto the wharf. Our truck, however was at the airport. Jeb loaned us his truck, an early 80's Silverado with an approximately one by two foot opening in the driver's side floor where my left foot would normally rest. By the time the trucks had been swapped around and returned, the oil pumped onto my pickup, the pump assembled and put to use, the burner bled and hot water reestablished, it was close to 10:00.

The mail flight would have been on island at 1:15 PM.

That was our commute. Big thanks to Marty and Jeb. Because of them, we were able to haul the next day. Fair to middlin' catch but a catch nonetheless.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Matinicus 4th of July and Bygone America

The Fourth celebration started a day early for us. Stretching my back and seized joints, I looked upside down out the door into neon green foliage and the starkest of blue summer skies- the perfect day to break the barrier I put up after last August's little scare on the water. It was time to make a crossing from Rockland to Matinicus. The financial incentive was strong as well where we had a half ton of supplies, a new lawnmower, shingles, soap and sound gear.

Megan and I loaded 2 station wagon loads of stuff onto Close Enough at the municipal fish pier and tossed the tie-up lines at 10:38 a.m..

Penobscot Bay had only inches of chop, gentle off shore swells and perfect visibility. We arrived in the harbor at high tide, making for an easy off-load at the dock.

Morgan hosted a large contingent of family friends at the south end for a weekend of island adventures, seafood and music. Most Fourth of July weekend parties do NOT start this way: shooting a raccoon, hanging and skinning her from the apple tree in the Wyeth-worthy seaside front yard.

My real focus, though, is the piece of America I saw a few days earlier on the mainland. I met a client at his home off a sleepy side road in the interior of Lincoln County.

Chatting in the kitchen of his farm house, I noted that all of the appliances and fixtures appeared to be about my age. Worn and a little filmed over, but impeccably neat. So it was with his outbuildings and machinery which included haying equipment, tractors and a 1967 dodge pickup still in operation. His wife passed away years ago and he has cared for his place and carved out houselots for his 4 children from the many acres of rolling woodland and fields of timothy grass.

I'll call him Bob. Bob bought the place in 1955 and never had a mortgage on it. He's added barns and storage buildings and raised black angus cattle until fairly recently.

Bob had only a high school education, but a lot of mechanical skill and the archetypal New England work ethic. He maintained and overhauled all of his machinery himself. Bob made things a little better every year by the way it looked to me.

Bob was a career employee at GTE in Waldoboro. I think Sylvania closed the place in the late 1980's. Before that, the plant actually made things in Waldoboro. Not buckboards or harnesses for oxen, but relatively modern items like lighting components.

What that company also provided was a way for working individuals to make a living, buy and improve a home and raise a family. Hard work and dedication were rewarded with a decent wage and some security.

Bob's accent is a very localized dialect from a different age. His life as well seems a well preserved and isolated remnant of that different age. Even though I recognize Bob's world from my own past, my own is very different.

I cannot even count the number of part and full time jobs I've had. It feels to me like the world now requires constant hustling, tap-dancing, being available by electronic media 24 by 7 and jumping from ice berg to ice berg trying not to slip into the cold river.

It was piercingly nostalgic for me to walk through a barn with the smells of hay mow and cows still hanging. I spent every summer and more than a few school year weekends and afternoons in just this sort of environment.

I'm able to write and share this story because of the same technology that I would not miss if I lived in Bob's world. It was a nice couple of hours.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Slow Spell or Disappearing Honeybee Colony?

I'm not a 'the sky is falling' type individual most of the time. Running down the lane and spreading alarm has come in most circumstances to mean little. Usually, the things we worry about don't happen. Sometimes, however, the sky may actually be falling, but we don't see it.

As for island transportation, my views come from being one of the few who have recently come to Matinicus to try and stay year round- recently meaning about a decade ago. I didn't really make it for a bunch of reasons. I hope to get back to year round living some day.

Matinicus has a vibrant if smallish community. There is housing stock. There are work opportunities. 

What do not exist are meaningful transportation options for people and goods. Even the biggest lobster boats get hauled out at the end of the season. The ferry goes to once or twice a month in the darker months.

I don't think we can compare Matinicus' lack of real transportation with rusty bridges or other infrastructure needing repairs and prioritize ourselves downward as a result. It is more akin to a small remote township where the state just decided not to build a bridge or a road at all, and then expect people to fly, canoe, mush or skidder themselves into town for groceries and then back home.

It's hard to know what might happen if families could actually get back and forth to the mainland a couple of times a week instead of monthly in the winter. Would Matinicus turn into Martha's Vineyard on Monhegan in the summer? I doubt it. Would families be able to relocate and find housing, make a life and educate their kids, at least through 8th grade? I bet they could. If the kids come, the rest of the community takes on a life that is missing otherwise. Or it could just be my self-centered perspective.

If there continue to be no real transportation options, there may be a point at which colony collapse occurs due to insufficient personnel, and insufficient utility or air service customers to spread costs over.

We aren't necessarily headed the way of Metinic or Ragged Islands, but it might be worth imagining what it would take to not go there.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Banks and Local Real Estate

After spending a good portion of the last two days dealing with various aspects of what the modern banking and title insurance world has done to land transactions, I need to get these thoughts down while they're fresh. The cast includes glib and corporate-speak fluent title insurance folks giving powerpoint presentations on new lending disclosure rules and big multi-state banks, employees of which probably weren't born when I started searching titles.

Yesterday's presentation on new rules on real estate settlement forms exposed Congress' assumption that 5 pages of gobbledegook out of any comprehensible order is easier to understand than 2 pages, and will make for better informed borrowers.

Then all day today I was trying to get ready for a sale while seeing all sorts of new numbers getting dropped in by the distant bank a day before closing. It was about onion layers of electronic security, electronic auditing meaning that this or that item can only go on such and such a line of a settlement statement, verifying addresses because you're several time zones away, recharacterizing this or that number. To them, land transactions are about software, drop-down menus, bureaucracy and micromanaging every business partner in a world where the system has become fragmented such that no one person has any real sense of what a land sale means. The gatekeepers in this particular deal have no insight into our community- it could be Fairbanks or Vicksburg and it would make no difference.

Having the tail end of one simple sale generate inbox entries that fill an entire screen, and so many steps that don't bear much relevance to the sale of a house and land, I cannot guess why the system isn't collapsing under its own bulk.

Real estate in essence is about ground, buildings, trees, stone walls, threads of streams, road frontage, granite monuments, houses, bits of barbed wire stuck in pine trees, 5/8" rebar set by surveyors. It is about what we do when we walk outside. It is about work and dirt, hills and hollows, lots in subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sac. Land sales are about mortgages-  documents pledging land and buildings as collateral for loans to buy same. How this most basic part of our social fabric has turned into such a clumsy and inefficient, aggravating mess I do not know.

Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were supposed to help with the bad stuff, the really bad stuff that happened as a result of ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets), credit default swaps (a Ponzi scheme) and bond rating practices that rubber-stamped the whole works as top choice grade A real estate investments. The problems were caused by big financial institutions. The regulatory and legislative responses seem to cater to the same players, setting up the next meltdown.

Love your land. Work with a community bank or credit union. There's no place like home.