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A Canajun in Maine, eh? Love that place: northern, coastal, progressive, backwards, homespun, a perfect place to launch a ship and sail around the world. It doesn’t hurt that I go there to stay with my soul sister Cocky and her partner, my pal, Peter, who live in a quiet Maine Audubon wildlife sanctuary. They can swim just minutes from their home in the ocean at high tide and are protected by the peacefulness of a forest from the consumer insanity of the LL Bean shopping mecca of Freeport. It also doesn’t hurt that Maine is just a timber toss from Canada, so if all hell breaks loose in the good ol’ US of Eh, I can scoot north and cross the border to my homeland real quick like.
Cocky and I got out swimming every day but we had an even more important mission and that was to dance as much as possible in the time that we were together. Although perhaps we can never dance enough, we certainly managed to dance a lot in those two weeks to a variety of music provided by many local bands in numerous venues.
Portland, just south of Freeport, was just starting to get busy with summer tourists but it is a young town and at any time of the year there is live music on every corner and seafood on every table. The day I arrived, rolling off an all night bus run from Montreal, we feasted on crab cakes on the salty dog wharf at the Porthole Fountain, followed by amazing Mushroom Spring Rolls at Havana South in the Old Port. These were so delicious we had to have two orders, and although I swore I would get back there for another round, sadly it never happened.
Havana South provided the first of two opportunities to see a very smooth, tight band called Primo Cubano. As you can guess, they play sweet Cuban son, ready for dancing. They have a regular early evening gig at Havana South on Wednesdays – between the mushroom rolls and the band, I can’t recommend it enough.
We finished that first evening by catching Eric Bettencourt, a local hot songwriter/guitar player and gravelly-voiced singer who performs in various musical incarnations, one being Giraffe Attack. That first night he was with his trio on a relaxed patio on the water’s edge, and a couple of nights later he was rocking with the band Velourasaurus at Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport. I love a versatile musician who plays both original music and cool covers – and makes you wanna dance.
I have to take a moment to rant about bars and restaurants with big screen TVs on every wall. It’s an obvious draw for the television-addicted masses who like to go out but don’t want to miss a ball game, but it drives me mad when they don’t have the decency to turn the screens off when a live band is playing. On more than one occasion I’ve asked a bar to lose the TV so that it doesn’t disrespect the band. Televisions draw your eyes and attention even when you have no interest in what is on. In the case of Buck’s on this night, even the band was distracted by the baseball game playing on the various screens around them. Minimally, the TV screens closest to the stage or the dance floor could be blackened for the few hours that the boys and girls in the band are performing. Please. Most people live with televisions cackling constantly in their homes – it would be healthy and appropriate to take a break while a live band is giving you a musical alternative.
In Portland they hold First Friday Art Walk – similar to Hamilton’s 2nd Friday Art Crawl. The difference, from what I could tell, is money (well, and the salty sea air). Many of the galleries and restaurants that participate in Portland are well established and deal in sophisticated art. My hometown of the Hammer has been building its James Street North Art Crawl over the last few years and new edgy alternative galleries have been popping up like mushrooms but even though it is a wonderful showcase for emerging and established artists and a chance for local businesses to shine, I doubt that many make large sales during the festive artsy event – yet in the long run I expect that it is very good for the businesses. My friend Cat Schwenk is an artist and member of the Nine Hands Gallery on Congress Street in Portland and I know that they have made some significant sales during the Art Walk.
Each time I visit Maine, Cat has new projects on the go – from her finely mounted butterfly maps to concrete casts of babies and books (one beautifully reads: You may have tangible wealth untold, caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be…I had a mother who read to me). Check Cat’s work out at www.catschwenk.com.
This time she was working with her carpenter husband Jim to make adult toys – as in swings and teeter totters for full-sized bodies. The idea came to them as they thought of this stressful world in which adults, like children, need time to play. So now Jim and Cat come home at the end of a busy day and unwind together on the teeter totter that Jim built and continues to refine. It helps them find balance in their relationship, build communication and get a little outdoor exercise. Brilliant! I”m hoping they’ll build a push carousel by the next time I visit.
I was in Maine over the July 4th weekend. LL Bean presents free outdoor concerts on Saturdays and had a special one featuring Red Horse singer/songwriters for the holiday followed by fireworks. Cocky and I were there and I noticed a familiar looking couple walking through the crowd. The Monteverde-small-world-effect kicked in and it proved to be Nat Wheelwright and his wife Genie. He is a biology professor at nearby Bowdoin College who invited me to speak to his class about Wolf Guindon a couple of years ago. We had a chance to talk for awhile. He is now co-teaching a course with a professor in the Music Department called “Bird song, human song.” He described the course as “listening to bird songs and singing along in class”. It sounds magical to me.
While on the subject of Wolf, it was my great pleasure to drive down to Exeter, New Hampshire for a special reunion with the class from Lister Street Academy who had spent this last year in a course designed around our book Walking with Wolf. Back in April the group of seven high school students and their two teachers had visited us in Monteverde and described what has been a life-changing experience for them, reading about Wolf’s inspirational life while studying the many themes in the book – social justice, peace, pioneering, conservation and community. They had worked together to raise the money for the trip and I was amazed at how many adventures they had in the time they were in Costa Rica. Our meeting on Wolf’s farm had been a very moving experience for all of us and it was wonderful to see some of them again and hear how their trip had wrapped up. They have posted many of their class video projects on YouTube.com under ListerCostaRicaClass. One particularly stood out for me called “This is Sustainable Education” by Winston. If you have a chance, check out the work of these students.
I had dinner that night with the teachers Bryan Mascio and Jess Hebert and their partners as well as Wolf’s son Carlos and his wife Lidieth who also live in Exeter. It was a pleasure to see them all and more Monteverde-small-world connections were made. It turned out that Bryan and Lidieth, who also works in education, realized that they had taken a course together, years ago. It also happened that Bryan had started a course that very day and found himself eating lunch with another Monteverdian, Jenny Rowe, a former director of the Monteverde Friends School. I expect Jenny was as surprised as Bryan was to hear that he would be having dinner with Carlos, Lidieth and I that night.
Back in Maine, we did a lot of great eating but of course these days consuming seafood demands research into its sustainability, eating local is environmentally wise, and everything is political, often leaving a bitter taste. We shopped in local Bowstreet Market and at the Brunswick outdoor Farmers Market on Saturdays, and enjoyed the friendly mussel man and his edible bivalves as well as the local organic produce. What a great time of the year!
Maine’s lobster industry is a big one and they work at being sustainable. We found ourselves out one night with Cocky’s friend Ed, a Freeport fixture, retired lawyer and dancing fool like ourselves. The two of them have been suffering since their favorite local dancing spot, The Venue, shut down a year ago. A new restaurant opened up this July on the downtown corner of Freeport, owned by Linda Bean, a heiress in the famous outdoor gear family known for her lobster rolls and her chain of restaurants called Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine. We went to check the new place out, as Ed is hoping to convince her to bring in live bands suitable for dancing. The owner herself arrived and bought our round of drinks. However when we got home, Peter showed me an article about Ms Bean who has been buying up businesses in the tiny coastal communities of St. George and Port Clyde, and is building a monopoly in the lobster industry. She is very conservative, supporting anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-gun control, as well as anti-Canadian when it comes to competition in the lobster industry. Her policies have been dividing the communities that she is monopolizing, though she apparently feels that she is doing everything in her power to help the Maine lobsterman. As I said, food is political, and that will be the last drink I have at Ms Linda Bean’s and I will just have to forego her famous lobster rolls. I also really hope that Cocky and Ed find an alternative place for dancing.
There were other great nights of dancing to Maine bands – Outerspace at Gritty’s and Wiley Coyote at Ciana’s in Freeport, and The Mallet Brothers (great!) at Alive at 5 in Portland. My last night in Maine took Peter, Cocky and I south of Portland to a place called The Landing at Pine Point where that sweet Cuban band, Primo Cubano, had started a regular summertime Tuesday night gig in this big fancy dance hall with a super dance floor. If you find yourself in the Portland area, check them out. Cha cha cha!
When I wasn’t out dancing with Cocky, I was hanging out with Peter, on his boat or helping him around the yard. I put in the garden only to have a cute little family of groundhogs eat it up as fast as I could plant it.
About seven years ago, when a neighbor succumbed to cancer, Peter took over the parentage of her cat, Chad, and Alpha, one of the nicest German Shepherds I have ever known. The funny thing about Chad is that over the many visits I’ve had in Maine, I’ve barely seen this cat as he was very skitsy, disappearing as fast as he could. However now that he is older, 21 years, and showing his age, Chad barely left the house. His spot of choice was right in the middle of the living room rug in the room where I slept and so we were roommates and finally friends.
Alpha, on the other hand, has been a wonderful companion for Peter and Cocky but also a pal of mine. She has visited me in Hamilton, we’ve spent time at Peter’s island on beautiful Lake Temagami, and when I visit in Maine she and I have spent lots of time walking the trails or going into town while the others went to work. I have laughed as people made a wide circle around her on the sidewalk in Freeport, fearful of this large dog who is actually the gentlest of giants. When I arrived this time, Alpha came bounding out of the house to greet me but with less energy than normal. At thirteen years, she, like Chad, was showing her age with cataracts on her eyes and her hearing obviously impaired – only her nose for food still worked rather efficiently. I felt like I’d moved into a house for the aged.
Over the two weeks I was there, Alpha was breathing heavily and became more and more lethargic to the point that she was barely lifting her head when people arrived. Finally Peter took her to the vet who saw in an X-ray that she had a massive tumor on her spleen. Peter brought her home and the next day the vet came and with us all present at her side, Alpha went to sleep. She seemed almost grateful to be put out of her growing misery and went as graciously as she lived her life. It was a sad day for us, but as I have found in other moments such as these, it is a great privilege to spend their last days with the ones you love and to be at their side as they pass. It is nice to think that you helped ease them into the next life and caressed them with much love at the end of this one.
We will miss you Alpha.
The day after my return to Monteverde from the Caribbean, I was invited to go on a hike to Vera Cruz. This is land a little to the southwest of Monteverde, some owned by the Reserve as well as private farmlands – we would call this cattle range country in Canada. Luis Angel Obando, our friendly forest guard, was accompanying a group of youths, the Junior Rangers led by Dulce Wilson, to a mysterious place called the Casa de la Piedra – the House of Stone. The forest guards get out on regular patrols on trails all over the large expanse of Reserve land, looking for signs of squatters, hunters and tree poachers, and can often incorporate their trips with guiding groups to various destinations. Mercedes Diaz, who is Head of Environmental Education at the Reserve, decided to accompany the group and would lead them in an exercise about making environmentally-sound decisions. The last person in the group was Rosai, another forest guard, who would stay with the group once they were settled – and take care of the two characters who I think worked the hardest of all, the two pack horses. Although I had barely got my beach clothes out of my own pack, I didn’t want to miss the chance to go overnight into the forest.
The sad part of this for me was the fact that this was the first time that I was going on a trip into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve without Wolf Guindon. It has been several months since he decided not to go on long hikes. His knee is bothering him, he gets tired, and he has lost a bit of the spirit for the long treks, although he walks the couple of kilometers back and forth to the Reserve most days. He is good on flat stretches but there isn’t much of this land that stays flat for very long, and the long slogs up and down the hills are getting too difficult to be fun for him. So he didn’t want to join us and I felt the loss. Luis is now Head of Protection, the position that Wolf created and held for more than a couple of decades. Luis in many ways is just like Wolf – full of energy and strength and humor and patience – and his love for being in the forest is constantly apparent. But Wolf is a very unique man and nobody will truly follow exactly in his footsteps. The day before the hike, I did walk with Wolf to his farm to meet Lucky’s niece, Sylvia, and we made our way through the beautiful bullpen. This is the St. Augustine pasture carved out of the old forest by the Campbell family where huge trees were left standing to provide habitat and shade and felled ones were left laying to rot – one of my most favorite places in Monteverde, that alone the world.
So on Thursday morning, Luis and Rosai picked me up in the trusty Suzuki and after getting Mercedes, we drove down to the meeting spot in San Luis. There we met Edgar who had brought the two horses and we were to wait for Dulce’s group to arrive. The meeting time was ten a.m. but what with one thing and another, we didn’t get on the trail until one p.m. A group of twenty-one kids between the ages of nine and sixteen made up the pack. The horses had been employed to carry the bulk of the provisions – tents, food, stoves – well, those poor animals were wider than they were high by the time they were loaded down.
Better them than me I suppose. By the time we got to our camping spot, my respect for these creatures had grown immensely. The trail was part old roadway, part groomed trail, but much of it was cattle paths through old pastures. Although the sun was beating down on us as we were getting our equipment ready, we weren’t very long on the trail before the rain started and stayed with us until close to four hours later when we were settled for the night.
Of course Luis and Rosai were the only ones who knew where we were going and what to expect. I’ve put my faith in these men of the forest so many times and have always been rewarded for the experience, so I don’t question, I just follow. But adding a group of this size to the mix was even more challenging – I know that Luis has many years of experience assisting groups of foreign students as well as Costa Ricans in their travels in the forest. But we got started very late and the rain slowed us down – we were trekking through thick mud much of the time – and although the Casa de la Piedra was our destination, Luis kept reconsidering our possibilities of where we could spend the night. How far could we get before dark? How tired, wet and cold would these poor kids be? And where was there water safe for drinking, meaning a mountain stream, nearby? His concern was only apparent because his usually smiling face looked a little pensive, although I doubt that many in the group would have noticed. But I could tell he was always thinking about just how far this slow-moving group could reasonably get before nightfall, which here is roughly 6 o’clock.
The land we walked through was beautiful. We could see layers of ridges, some cleared for pasture, some covered in new growth forest, with deep forested valleys in between. The Reserve had bought a lot of this land fifteen years ago and so the forest has been regenerating but some of the ridges were so windswept and severe with a sandy soil that only bushes and grasses could grow. Other pockets were well into a new generation of forest. There were some working pastures still, with bright specks on the distant hillsides representing cows. In other places, we could stand on the ridge and look into down upon the huge cedros and higuerons, the big ol’ trees stretching above the rest of the forested valleys. Luis’ keen eyes and ears could pick out white-faced monkeys playing a kilometer away, so high up in trees that you had to wonder what happened if by chance they ever lost their grasp.
Around 5 o’clock we arrived at an abandoned homestead that used to belong to someone named Pipé. It was a small flat pasture of long grass with the remains of a cabin on it. The views stretched west to the Gulf of Nicoya and there was a stream a few minutes walk away. We were still about an hour and a half from the magical stone house and it was going to get dark fast, so the decision was made to stay. Well! I’ve never seen such a disciplined group of kids in my life, although I haven’t hung out with many armies before, although I did work for years at a canoe camp in northern Ontario.
Dulce had those kids in formation, taking care of the necessary tasks, so fast that I couldn’t believe it. It was decided that they would all stay on the wooden floor under the roof in the cabin which would also protect our gear and where we could cook and not get wet. They immediately set up a large tent outside one of the doorways to use as a changing room for this mixed crowd of boys and girls. Dulce set the rules of where people could walk with boots or not – since we had walked through so much mud, and would continue to be wet and dirty, it was imperative that once the plastic tarps were down for sleeping, nobody should walk there in boots.
Rosai unpacked those poor horses who had trogged through the mud, up the steep inclines, in the narrow hollows that defined the path, with hundreds of pounds of weight – how they keep their balance and their humor (I’m sure horses must have a sense of humor), I’ll never know. They were then tethered loosely to trees and left alone to lazily eat the lush grass of the pasture which I can attest they did all night long. Luis set up two tents that the guards and Mercedes and I would sleep in, to have a little space from the large pack of youths. Mercedes and Rosai went down to the stream with containers to get water. I set up the stove and started what water we had boiling to get some hot coffee into us as quick as possible. We were all soaked and tired and it was going to get dark fast. It wasn’t that cold by mountain standards but the wind was blowing and everyone was chilled. I set up the second stove in the middle of the cabin for the kids to gather around like a campfire. In this wet world, it isn’t as typical to have a bonfire outside as in Canada – between the wet wood and wind, it can be almost impossible to start sometimes. They did have plans to make one later and one of the boys chopped out a fire pit in the pasture. Those older boys never stopped working from the time they arrived – at least they stayed much warmer that way. The younger ones were tired and stood about shivering, waiting for the tent to be put up so they could get inside and change into dryer clothes. I gathered whatever water was left from personal water bottles and put a pot on to heat on the second stove so they could have hot chocolate. Beyond that, Dulce and her group were pretty much on their own, and we four adults took care of ourselves. We made a great supper of hot soup, rice, tuna, pejivalles I had cooked and brought along to eat with mayonnaise, and shared the organic avocado that my friend Roberto had given me from his land in Cahuita. It tasted really good up there on the mountainside.
After dinner, Mercedes did her exercise with the kids while Luis, Rosai and I spent the evening laying in the tent together, talking, staying warm. We were all asleep by 9:30 I would think, but awake long enough to see the waxing moon brighten up the sky and the sparks of the fireflies twinkling throughout the forest.
The next morning, after lots of coffee and a good breakfast, Luis took Mercedes and I ahead of the rest to go and see the infamous Casa de la Piedra. We hiked through the wet forest in bright sunshine, up and up, until we got to the top of a ridge where we had a full 360 degree view of the ridges all around us. It was pure sand that only supported a type of miniature pampas grass and alpine plants.
There was the remains of a recent landslide which would have taken us a couple of hundred feet down without stopping. The misty clouds hung low in the valleys and the sun kept us warm despite the strong wind. We then descended down, down, down into the forested valley of Rio La Nica (who knows how and why these rivers get their names – Luis imagined that somebody brought a Nicaraguan wife here and therefore this river got called La Nica).
The river was a beauty – huge rocks strewn about by mythical giants, white water tumbling down various channels only to meet up again in pools of clear water, tropical ferns and vines hanging down over the banks as if to drink.
Luis showed us the first “Casa de la Piedra” which was a huge triangular conglomeration of rocks, trees, and strangler fig roots – maybe forty feet high and immense. We continued down the river edge until we were walking beside a massive wall of rock – and this was the outside wall of the House of Stone. Around the corner and up a rocky ledge and we entered a cave – maybe twenty-five feet deep and twenty feet high but narrow enough to touch both walls with outstretched arms, light streaming in from breaks in the rock above – it was impressive.
Bats flew about as we disturbed their daytime slumber with our flashlights and camera flashes. Luis told us that people used to live amongst these rocks – in fact, one of the young employees at the Reserve apparently was born in the house of stone.
When Rosai, Dulce and the rest of the group arrived, we left and went down to a pool in the river. Mercedes put on her bathing suit but spent most of the time sitting on a rock in the sun, shivering. Luis wouldn’t even go near the water.
I, on the other hand, northern bush babe that I be, swam like a seal in the channel of rushing white water that came through the rocks, happy as a Canadian clam. The mountainous water was about the temperature that the northern lakes I swim in generally get to at the height of summer. I could have stayed there all day and I suspect I will take the opportunity to go back to this rocky spa again just for the chance to swim.
We quickly had to get dressed and start the long slog back up, up, up the trail – we stopped on the top of the ridge where Luis had cell phone reception so he could call his kids and check in. Cell phone in one hand, machete in the other, GPS receiver in his pocket – this is a modern day forest guard.
Luis, Mercedes and I quickly ate some lunch and packed up, leaving Rosai and the group to stay another night. We got on the trail around three in the afternoon and moved quickly as the afternoon rain came down on us. We had flashlights with us but didn’t really want to be walking in the dark. Luis took us on shortcuts – although Wolf wasn’t with us, I was reminded of him often. Luis would point out some piece of trail that Wolf had hacked out while short-cutting his way through the forest, or some tree where during a rest stop Wolf had told some funny story. Wolf’s spirit is so omnipresent in this forest that he will be felt here forever. Luis is very much like Wolf, but whereas Luis would say, as the night was closing in on us and he was deciding which animal trail to follow to cut down our travel time, “we might end up lost” – I know from experience that Wolf would never admit to being lost – he’d just say we may end up in a different place than we hoped to be.
The final bit of Luis’ shortcut took us through a cattle pasture of very rough walking in horrible mud churned by animal hooves – but with beautiful views of the sun setting beyond the ridges and the clouds settling down into the valleys as if to sleep for the night. We came over a ridge top and heard a mad-sounding cow ahead of us. As Mercedes and I caught up to Luis, he told us that it was a mother cow who had just delivered her baby – you could see the very young calf hidden down on the hillside in the grass – and the mother was acting mad to keep the rest of the cattle – and us – away from her newborn. Mercedes and I – non-farmers that we be – were a bit worried as we made our way past this angry large-horned mother but Luis just made jokes and said it was all show. The other cattle were more interested in us than the calf and in the end, we were all amused.
We made it back to Edgar and the jeep in San Luis right as darkness gathered around us. I was at home by 7, unpacked and showered by 7:30 and sound asleep by eight, accompanied by dreams of clouds floating by me, long grass wrapping around my ankles, and a bed of mud cushioning my sore body. It was all perfect, except for the missing Wolf.