Pierced By The Cold In Portland, Maine

Day 1

A fresh fall of snow overnight had the locals out shovelling the streets as I made my way up Munjoy Hill to breakfast this morning. Thank you Hilltop Coffee Shop for a fine, friendly place to start the day.

There was a neighbourly cheerfulness about them as they worked, or made their way about their starts to the day. I met a man on an icy footpath who laughed at me as we enjoyed some banter about the pleasant springlike turn the weather had taken.

Which was true of course, the bar was hovering just over zero degrees while we spoke. When I’d arrived the day before it was minus twenty degrees centigrade. I had taken a walking track by the beach and been amazed to see ice packed up along the waterline, out to about fifty meters from the shore!

That smooth water surface close in its ice… in the sea!

On the other side track water had flowed over the edge of some rocks, and frozen in place. What was this place I had followed my intuition to visit?

I stood shivering, wondering what to do next. I had forgotten to bring any gloves with me… bare fingers and minus twenty are not a winning combination…. but after an hour and a half of walking around making sure I understood that lesson I found a shop that sold me some warm gloves… and from there on, Portland just seemed to get better and better.

I found these stencilled onto the covers of some kind of electrical boxes down by the shore. The crisp black and white images in the stark snowy surroundings just seemed so… alive. He’s looking right at you, isn’t he?

Downtown Portland had banks of snow piled down the middle of the roads by snowploughs clearing a path for the traffic. A long way from summer on Waiheke Island, New Zealand. A day later, all of this snow was gone, melted back into the sea.

For my first diner here I had something I’d promised myself for a long time but never had before, a whole Maine lobster, caught fresh in Casco Bay just out from the city.

While it certainly was tasty, I’m still not convinced that lobster is really the delicacy it’s made out to be… there is a lot of shell-cracking effort that goes in to getting some of the lobster meat out. Perhaps I will have to have a west of Ireland lobster when I get home, surely the greatest lobsters in the world, to decide if I will persist with them or not.

Even on such a bitterly cold Monday night as it was, there was a lot of life and colour on the streets, and plenty of people hustling about to get into the warmth of one of the many bars, breweries and restaurants in the Old Port part of town. Funny being in amongst all of that in this month that I’ve stopped drinking alcohol.

Day 2

After my aforementioned breakfast at Hilltop Coffee in Munjoy Hill, I walked down to the port in the melting, slushy snow and caught a small passenger and car ferry out to Peaks Island, a short fifteen ride from downtown. Like a crazy tourist person I stood outside in the wind for the whole trip, feeling the lazy swells gently rolling the boat up through the soles my feet.

Fun(ny) fact for boaties — in the Americas green and red channel markers are swapped over, that is to say that red markers are on the starboard side of the channel as you approach from the sea, and green markers are on the port side of the channel. I spent some time examining the markers I saw in the channels of from the island and figuring out how they should be passed, and also what the catastrophic results would be if they were passed according to the international rather than the local system of thinking!

Once ashore I took two hours to leisurely stroll around the small island, and even in the cold, wild weather conditions of winter it was a beautiful place to be. I’d arrived around low tide, and when I walked out to the Atlantic facing coast there was a roaring surge of water as the water returned between Peaks Island and it’s close neighbour a few hundred meters away.

The further I walked up the east coast of the island, the louder the rolling, thundering song of the waves smashing energetically against the shore. I found it exhilarating. Maybe being on this other side of the Atlantic reminded me that I am getting closer to home.

I laughed out loud when I saw these two seats in a garden, perfectly positioned out in the elements to experience the full richness of the symphony of the sea. There were no footprints in the snow around them though… I was sorely tempted!

The last thing of note from the island was the kindness of the owner of Peaks Cafe, located beside the ferry pier. I arrived a few minutes after Ellen had closed for the day, but she was happy to sell me some food to take away. As she prepared the food we spoke a little, and it emerged that she had an Irish husband and had lived in Dublin for years. We got into a good old chat after that, and I spent my time time waiting for the ferry inside in the warmth and out of the wind and the rain that had started up outside. Small enough world, we agreed. Its amazing the people you find living in little offshore communities dotted around the world!

Enthused as I was by my day out by the water, I did what any self respecting writer would do and rushed to the nearest bookshop as soon as the ferry docked back in town. The staff at Longfellow Books were super friendly, and very knowledgeable — I asked for novel set in the area, or by a local author, and it turned out the guy I was chatting to was a local sailor who knew the islands well and knew all about the books that had been writer in and about the area. After a neat conversation about boats and sailing, and a pile of recommendations to sort through, I left with a collection of short stories by a local writer, and a novel set in Portland in Victorian times. “This is why it is so much better to go to a bookshop than to fiddle about online”, I told him, and I believe it is true.

Weather permitting, tomorrow’s adventure will be a three hour mailboat trip around many of the islands scattered across Casco Bay… more on that if it happens.

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