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Time turning at the edge

Idle ideas looking out to sea…

The turbines sit on a bluff up above the ever-shifting sea. The blue tarp – what's that? Some kind of protection against time? But that keeps turning. So the tarp is tired and torn, the turbines exposed at rest. // The company that put them in the ocean to try to harness the power of the tides learned a lot. But they needed more work. Not quite the right materials. Not ready to mass produce. So, more tinkering with new ideas. And the old turbines sit on shore, almost forgotten, like lobster traps pulled for the season, or a boat up on stilts, its engine uncovered. Who knows if the turbines, or others after them, will descend again into the currents. // This place at the edge of America is quiet, and it can feel like nothing is happening here. That idleness can be a tonic. But of course even Eastport is moving forward, and it needs energy, and we need energy. Clean energy. So we look out at the tides, those big swings of 18 to 24 vertical feet of water, two times a day, everyday, in and out – unbridled energy doing its thing. And you think, wow, it's a dream, right, those turbines, if we just put them back down there, if we just found the right mix of materials, the right performance, the right price per kilowatt… That's what it is, right? We want to replace what we've got. It will take big solutions and lots of little ideas. But how do you compete with oil, coal, and gas – oof – with the whole big superstructure all around the world, always digging, digging, and everyone – everyone – already paying for that constant comfort. //So we look out at the tides and think, 'that's just a dream.' Oh, but to dream is the idea, to gaze out and wonder if that wouldn't work one day, if that couldn't be just one thing, moving us closer to natural rhythms. #maine #tides #energy #fuel #travel #journalism #future #instaessay

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Piloting the tides

Going out to sea to help a ship come in to port. A serendipitous encounter while walking the tidal coves of Eastport.

It was 8:08 a.m. and Captain Bob Peacock and four other men were untying Zeporah, a pilot boat, at the dock in Deep Cove, on the back side of the island. The men were there precisely at that time because it was four hours before 12:08 p.m., the ideal target time at which Peacock, who has piloted more than a thousand ships into Eastport, hoped to maneuver Star Lima, a 670-foot-long ship flying the Norwegian flag, alongside the port. The ship would pick up thousands of pounds of wood pulp and sail the next day for Savona, Italy. // I didn't know any of this at 8:08 a.m. when I happened out to Deep Cove to look at the sea and saw the crew climbing aboard Zeporah. I had been in touch with Peacock before arriving in town and when I walked down the steps to the dock and introduced myself, he said, "want to go for a ride?" // Soon we were motoring around the south end of Eastport toward Campobello Island. James Smith, at the wheel, picked up the radio: "Fundy Traffic. This is Eastport pilot boat. We are entering Canadian waters." Peacock, who would be climbing aboard the Star Lima with two cadets, sat behind Smith. He looked at the ebb tide rushing past Windmill Point. It travels 4 knots per hour in one direction and then, just past the point, 3 kph in the other. That morning, as the tide rushed out to sea, the water level around Eastport would drop more than 18 feet. "We plan everything by the tides," Peacock told me. Smith steered Zeporah past East Quoddy Lighthouse and into the open water of the Bay of Fundy. A mile or two away, Star Lima was steaming at 12 knots per hour toward the rendez-vous point. Peacock grabbed the radio and told the Star Lima captain to hold his course. "We are dead ahead of you," Peacock said. Star Lima slowed to 8.5 knots and Smith swung Zeporah around to come parallel to the ship. The current coming off the hull of Star Lima danced on the surface and deep below. Smith worked the throttles as Peacock and the cadets went to the starboard side, where they would climb onto the Jacob's Ladder hanging down Star Lima's hull. "When I first started doing this," Smith said, "my knees would shake." #maine #tides #travel #journalism #fuelwalk

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On moving along

An encounter on the trail …

"Oh, I'd love to do what you're doing right now." That's what Frank said when he saw me walking past his yard with my pack and walking stick. "I've got a canoe, and I've always wanted to go, just me and my dog, and paddle." "Where to," I asked. "Everywhere." But before that reverie, Frank told me it was his birthday. "How old?" I asked. "Guess," he said. I looked at his lean and nimble frame, the sparkle in his eyes, and said, "81." He smiled: "83. Born November 18, 1932. When I was a kid, we didn't even have electricity. Just kerosene lamps, and an outhouse. So we've come pretty far, I guess." When I passed by his yard, Frank was out raking some soil into a ditch to smooth out his lawn, which was tidily mowed. "You're on the reservation now," he said, referring to the tribal land on Pleasant Point. Frank's lawn has an intimate view down a tidal creek, a tempting place to linger. But Frank has done a lot of going himself, from six years in the service, to 44 years at a chemical company in Massachusetts, and a lot of walking of his own along the way. He hiked Zion National Park from the back end, and trails all through Colorado's Rockies. "A lot of people move along so fast they don't know where they are," Frank told me. "I try to look around." His favorite place, one that has drawn him back six times, is the Grand Canyon. "I celebrated my 80th birthday there." He talked about camping on the open ground down in the canyon, "looking up at the stars turning." Frank has gout in his legs now, and his wandering days are winding down. He just gave away his three pairs of cross country skies. "It was either that or look at them all winter." So he talked more about another trip out to the desert, when the cacti burst into bloom one morning. "I got lucky," Frank said, his voice quieting at the memory. "I stood there and looked out at all that beauty." #travel #journalism #maine #instaessay #fuelwalk

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Between the tides

A short version of a very long story, as seen from the river’s edge…

It's kind of a disorienting picture, two sides meeting suddenly. On the right, brochures for the St. Croix Island visitor's center. On the left, in the distant middle of the river: the island. // One lens on the history of humans is the continual quest for resources. Always seeking more, to keep things alive for now, and expanding in the future. In 1604 – before Jamestown, before Plymouth – French explorers sailed up the river. They met the local Passamaquoddy people and decided to winter on the island. // It turned out to be an epically hard season, with the river frozen over in October. Trapped with dwindling supplies, 35 of 79 men died. The Passamaquoddy, sheltered at inland winter camps along rivers and lakes, returned in spring with game and more. The explorers moved on. But they had seen the woods and waterways and decided they held a bounty too tempting not to consume. What happened after they and others returned, of course, is history. #fuelwalk #travel #journalism #maine #tides #energy #maybe

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To the sea we go?

A moment moving downstream…

There's a cycle, of course. It evaporates. Falls from the sky. Then makes its way to the sea to do it all over again. It's good sometimes to stop and stare at just a moment in the journey. Energy in action. // That's one reason harnessing river currents has made hydro power such an important source of energy for centuries. New England rivers are riddled with dams – some working, others in ruins – that powered mills and the early days of electricity. And out west, the Hoover, Grand Coulee and other dams tower in proportion. But damming river currents can cause problems – from cutting off fish migration routes to altering the wider ecosystem. Not a lot of talk about expanding river dams anytime soon. // But what about harnessing the water's power as it stalls in the cycle, lingering in the ocean? There, at land's edge, the ebb and flow moves currents that are clean. Energy untapped. Not a lot of talk about tidal power, either. But it seems something worth considering in a world that needs to cut its use of oil, gas, and coal, and fast. There are a few big efforts at damming bays, but those too come with big impacts. The question is how to tap the tides more deftly. That means caring again about the natural cycle. And stopping to study that rise and fall that happens twice a day, as reliable as the moon in the sky above. #water #power #travel #journalism #energy #maybe #tides

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Spinning in time

A small story of the past and future from a forgotten bit of riverbank in Calais, Maine.

Alex's earliest memory as a boy in Germany: his great-grandfather asked him to sit on a board and hold it still for cutting. Then his great-grandfather taught him how to sharpen the saw. And it's been like that ever since, Alex figuring out how things work: as a sculptor, designer, teacher. // On the day that I met him at the eastern edge of Maine, I heard him tell friends about fixing his truck, and patching his roof, and hauling out his 25-foot sailboat, which he often sails alone for days at a time on the ceaseless currents where the St. Croix River runs into Passamaquoddy Bay, for the winter. That afternoon, I followed Alex down a steep hillside thick with brown bushes. Alex turned around and descended the rockiest part of the hillside backwards. His balance isn't so good anymore. We crossed some train tracks along the river and wandered toward the ruins of an old power-generating station. Alex was marveling about the differential pressure that the water-driven turbines used to create energy in the 1930s. // Now the hulking iron turbines have rusted in the earth and leaves around the dam building. When Alex stopped to show me one, he said that a lot of the old metal – turbines and shafts and supports – had been removed since his last visit to the ruins three years ago. He suspected that people motivated by higher scrap prices had hauled it off. // I asked Alex what he thought about modern efforts to harness the power of Passamaquoddy Bay, downstream from the abandoned turbines. "There is an enormous energy – 24 feet of tide twice a day," Alex said. He thought that recent efforts were a bit before their time. Speculative, but with the potential to lead to something more. "Theoretically," Alex said, "it should work." #fuelwalk #maine #energy #tidalpower #travel #journalism #maybe

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Next steps

Sometimes, to find a new way forward, it helps to go to the edge. A quiet place. Where things move slow and, it can seem, little is happening. Slow down, too. That’s the idea now, as I walk along the eastern edge of Maine in November.

It’s known as Down East, and a lot of time it’s the coastline that people think about. But follow the St. Croix River upstream, and it’s a watery world, too. Forests are thick with lakes and bogs, streams and puddles. The St. Croix itself is a force, currents rushing toward the sea, where they meet, twic a day, the incoming tides — some of the highest and most powerful in the world. So during the days ahead I will pick up the old stick that I’ve had as a companion since North Dakota, and I’ll walk along the water’s edge, following the flow.