Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 2 - Northern New England

Dreary sky greeted us for the second day. We drove away with our windshield wipers on.  Cars swished by us enveloped in sprays of mist.  The aquifers were being filled to capacity.  That should keep the springs flowing all summer long.

Our plan was to drive south through Maine’s lake district, northeast into the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, then south to Northwood, New Hampshire, where we have a reservation at the Meadow Farm Bed & Breakfast, an 18th century historic home. We wanted to wake up within easy striking distance of Walden Pond, yet avoid the busy corridors near the Atlantic shore or and along the Nashua-Merrimack River system northeast of Boston.


Bottled Water

Poland Spring was founded in 1895 as a Victorian era resort in Poland, Maine. What drew urban residents to the place was a flowing bedrock spring alleged to have had restorative properties. The original spring is still there on the flank of the hill. It’s identified as “The Source” and housed within a beautiful cut-stone building called the “Spring House.” At that time, this may have been the Holy Grail of freshwater in the northeast.



Springhouse at Poland Spring Preservation Park, labeled "The Source." 

Even today, Poland Spring water remains world famous. But something very curious is going on. On the way to The Source, we passed a large bottling plant for Poland Spring water, tucked off the highway behind the trees. If the water from the spring were indeed the water being bottled at the plant, then one would expect to see either a pipeline (which didn’t exist) or a steady stream of trucks moving between the two. We saw nothing of the sort when we staked out the scene. Instead, and as a matter of public record, the water being  bottled there and in other plants is pumped from aquifers similar to those of most municipal water supply systems. In other words, Poland Spring Water doesn’t come from the spring. Instead, it’s a wonderful brand name for what is otherwise ordinary clean water coming from a variety of industrial-scale pumping stations.

If a company as large as Poland Spring were actually run out of its original location, then its corporate headquarters building would be much larger than the tiny steel frame building found near the source today.  The reality is that this water company is run by Nestle, a multi-national conglomerate operatingi for the benefit of stockholders, most of whom have probably never seen the namesake spring.  Effectively, Poland Springs water is very much like Coca Cola without the added ingredients, a brand name rather than a local substance.

In the case of Poland Spring, a good idea became a bad idea. Drinking water from the original trickle of a bedrock spring and bottling it for small-scale distribution was a great idea in 1895 before automobiles and plastics were in widespread use and before adequate urban sanitation. Today, petroleum products are used: to pump not-so-special water from unrelated aquifers around the state: to make the plastic for the bottles that are used; to ship those full bottles around the world to retail stores; and to have that water hauled back home in personal automobiles. On top of this is the traffic congestion caused by the delivery trucks, the air pollution caused by their exhaust, the energy used to recycle the bottles, and the space they take up in landfills.

One hour earlier, my brother in law -- who’s an attorney -- told me about a 1986 court order allowing this multinational corporation to draw millions of gallons of water each year from nearby Range Pond (pronounced Rang) to rinse its newly manufactured bottles before returning the effluent back to the Maine environment.


Sebago Lake Country

After Poland Spring, we headed west toward Sebago Lake, one of Maine’s most visited lakes.  Its shape is oddly circular for a region with so many elongated coastal bays and inland lakes like Moosehead and Rangeley.  It turns out the shape is due to the presence of an enormous round dome of fractured granite, the blocks of which were quarried out the glacier, leaving a deep, cold, and unusually pure lake.


Sebago Lake, looking west from Standish, Maine.

Looking down on the northeastern corner of the lake is the town of  Raymond, This is where Nathaniel Hawthorne, famous transcendentalist author and friend of Thoreau, summered as a child. Crossing the gauntlet of the massively developed strip of North Windham, we arrived at a state boat launch on the lake shore in Standish.  While framing a photograph, I noticed a piece of plastic litter that I removed from this otherwise beautiful scene. It was a spent shotgun cartridge, dotted with black makings on the inside, where the heavy shot had been held.  Though lead shot is now outlawed, much of it remains as a contaminant that bioaccumulates u the food chain.

Our next stop was Cumberland County YMCA Wilderness Day Camp at Otter Ponds. 

Otter Ponds Camp, Standish, Maine.

Here, kids are dropped off by parents and bussed out from the city where they can experience life in the woods and be immersed in the purest pond water I have ever seen except for rocky tarns in high mountains.

Sebago is known as a very clean lake, largely because of its great volume relative to its surface area and the limited pollution potential along its shore and in its watershed. The Otter Ponds are a cluster of small, water-filled kettle holes located on a ridge of sand called a moraine, responsible for damming Sebago to its present level. Luckily for the kids, the clean water from Sebago drains through the moraine as groundwater, which acts as a sand filter. Thus, every kid who goes to camp at Otter Ponds experiences the ultimate in pure pond water.  I hope they don’t get spoiled in the process.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

After reaching the southeast corner of the lake, we headed west into New Hampshire through the lovely village of Cornish. There, we found three antique stores, three ice cream shops, and three boutiques, all within one city block -- the only one in town.



Main Street (U.S. Route 25) in Cornish, Maine.

Continuing west along the Ossipee River on Route 25, we turned north at Freedom, New Hampshire and then north toward Conway.


Ossipe River near Freedom, New Hampshire

The rivers run clean around here for all the typical reasons. They have forested watershed with low human populations, are fed by aquifers charged with snowmelt, and drain soils derived from resistant metamorphic and igneous rocks that release few dissolved compounds.


Purity Springs, New Hampshire

Author Richard Louv would probably like Purity Springs, based on what I read from  his “Last Child Left in the Woods.” I recommend his book and this family resort to those who are concerned that kids are spending too much time indoors. He documents that when children have limited access to nature, they become more prone to physical, neurological, and psychic harm. They also become desensitized to non-human organisms and environments. This is not a good thing.

As luck would have it, Kristine and I drove by just as two adults and two middle school boys were crossing the road, carrying fishing poles and a tackle box. We decided that this  would make a great photo if we could convince them to stand beneath the sign.  Luckily, they consented. 



Family fishing at Purity Spring Resort, Purity, New Hampshire.

The pair of dads, each with a son, was returning from time spent catching and releasing eight pickerel and one perch. It turns out that one of the dads has vacationed at the resort for 43 years. I extend my congratulations to these dads for teaching their children well, to their granddads for teaching their fathers, and to the owners/operators of this low-key family resort who provide such wholesome outdoor family fun.  Water, of course, is the key. The resort would not be there without it.

Eaton, New Hampshire

Consider the charmingly unpretentious Eaton Village Store shown below, which someone told me was the only commercial property in town. 

Eaton Village Store, Eaton, New Hampshire.

It’s tucked away along the edge of Route 153, in the pleasant, but un-majestic hillsides and forests near the eastern edge of the state. This is a place with stone walls, tiny cemeteries, and overgrows orchards so typical of forested land that formerly was cleared for a rural civilization based on agriculture. On the porch of the store was a chair painted as an American flag. 


Chair at Eaton Village Store, Eaton, New Hampshire.

Inside were the post office, a selection of essential items, a few curios, and a folksy café run by a matronly cook helped by a teenager . Across the street were some dilapidated tourist cabins fronting the lake that had attracted our attention enough to stop. We wanted to know the water story behind cabins abandoned in such a beautiful place.

It turns out that the village store became caught between a rock and hard place in terms of community wishes. The story I heard was that local folk wanted the café-post-office-general store to stay in business to meet their needs, but also wanted the lake to remain crystal clear, and free of excessive algal growth. The pivot point for this dilemma was the septic system of the present café. It was polluting the lake with excess nutrient because it was too small to meet the needs of those who stopped by.

The solution appeared in the form of a purchase of the property with the dilapidated cabins by a couple from Virginia related to someone in town.  They granted an easement to the store for wastewater disposal, while reserving the right to build a shoreline home appropriate for the property.  The town and state governments stepped up to the plate to do what they could.  It was if the community had waved a magic wand, saving both the store and this part of the lake watershed at the same time.

Let the story of the Eaton Village store stand as a symbolic victory in the tussle between commercial development and environmental regulation. With local interest, creativity, government cooperation, and good will, those of us who love America’s lakes can have our cake and eat it too.


Madison, New Hampshire

Lee Pollack is a retired zoology professor who lives on the shore of Pea Porridge Pond. 


Professor Pollack in  his closet-office-lab, Madison, New Hampshire.

I could write a magazine article based on the conversation the two of us had that day about what he and several of my geological colleagues are doing in their spare time. Within the last few years, they somewhat accidentlly created the Madison Lakes Paleoecology Project. One of its goals is to reconstruct the entire history of Pea Porridge Pond, a history that began with a  block of glacial ice that melted to create the present  pond, on which no motorized watercraft is allowed


Pea Porridge Pond, Madison, New Hampshire. 

Lee’s job as a volunteer science-citizen is to identify the microfauna and other invertebrate critters (mostly zooplankton) that have been living in the pond since it was created about 13,000 years ago. Their physical remains were extracted from a deep sediment core taken through the ice from the center of the lake.

Based on the pollen records, the land surrounding the pond was first tundra, then a spruce-pine parkland foraged by Paleo-Indian groups, then pine forest with Archaic native Americans, then the mixed northern hardwood forest of the Woodland Indians and early Europeans. Based on the diatoms and invertebrate fossils, the water began ultra clear, and then has shifted back and forth ever since, with a trend toward slight -- but recent-- pollution in the last century or two. In 1765 the 2000-acre block of land, originally known as McNeal’s Location, was given to one of the Rodgers Rangers in lieu of pay for their military service in the French and Indian War. Now the tract is mostly divided up private land, held as a series of lakeshore properties around a lake. The origin of the name Pea Porridge Pond remains a mystery.

Currently, there is no lakeshore association. I suspect that one will come sooner, rather than later, perhaps because of the lake community’s shared interest in the deep history of this place.  Professor Pollock put it well when he said that the most amazing thing about his pond is that “people are so involved in the puddle in their front yard.”

On the more general question of what he likes best about fresh water, it’s that the water landscape is so rich in history. On the down side, and on the short term, he’s most concerned about the high water, which “washed the loons away.”  Beaver dams have been a problem in raising the water, but so has the heavy recent rains. 


Heading South

We headed south toward Northwood, our evening destination.  We passed through the historic resort town of Moultonboro, on Lake Winnipesauke, New Hampshire’s largest body of fresh water.  With no time to spare, we didn’t even bother to stop.  Nearing Northwood, we became adventurous enough to take some roads marked with the thinnest ink on my atlas maps, which turned out to be dirt and gravel.  Owing to the heavy rainfalls of the past month, they also turned out to be impassable.

After three failed attempts to find a shortcut, we took the long way around to Meadow Farm for what turned out to be a sandwich dinner, eaten on a screened porch while sitting on twig furniture and listening to the steady drizzle.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 1 - Bear Pond, Maine

We awoke in the rain.  Earth’s most precious substance was dripping out of the gray sky, an auspicious beginning for a road trip devoted to fresh water.  Parked above us was a dense bank of low stratus clouds that hadn’t thinned or moved since we arrived the previous evening. 

When doing laundry, the first wash cycle is always dirtier than the final rinse, even if you forget to put I the soap.  It’s the same when planet Earth is washing the sky.   The first few hours clean the dust, grime and other contaminants out of the local atmosphere. After that, the rain is clean enough to drink, something that kids do all over the world.  On every continent, they open their mouths to the sky and let the warm rain fall in.  They find that it’s got a slight tang, a mild acidity imparted by carbon dioxide in the air.  

We the People

 “We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” 

With hands held gently over our hearts, Kristine and I recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Never have I heard it given with such an even combination of sincerity and folksiness.  


James Adams, 2009 President of the Bear Pond Improvement Association

About seventy people were gathered in the Boofy Quimby Memorial Center in North Turner, Maine. Resembling a warehouse on the outside but decorated in the style of a gymnasium, this all-purpose building was built in 1976 to honor a local boy named Lester Quimby, Jr. who died when he was only eleven years old, the perfect age to pass a Maine winter by playing basketball, and the summer by swimming, fishing, and boating at Bear Pond.  I remember being Lester’s age,  the chapter in my life coming after the limitations of childhood, but before the awkwardness of adolescence.

Gentle rain drummed the metal roof of the building.  Inside, we sat on metal folding chairs like those found in church basements everywhere.


The Meeting of June 28, 2009

The chairs were spray-painted that bland shade of institutional brown, and stenciled with BMC.  Straight ahead was a basketball hoop.  To the left was a giant American flag, protected from lost dribbles, bad passes, and blocked shots by a rigid sheet of Plexiglas. To the right was a folding table with two half-empty boxes of donut holes and cardboard containers full of "Joe," otherwise known as coffee.

This was a meeting of the Bear Pond Improvement Association, one of thousands of independent, non-profit lake associations in the United States.  Each is devoted to protecting its own little slice of heaven.  Though Bear Pond is technically a lake, residents here in New England (a.k.a. "greater Lake Walden") insist on calling it a pond.   They also insist on calling every waterfront domicile a “camp,” regardless of construction technique or grandiosity.  In the Upper Midwest (a.k.a. “greater Lake Wobegon,") all such structures would be called either cottages or cabins, depending on their rusticity.

Just before the meeting, Kristine, a Maine native, asked those behind her if they’d ever seen a bear around here.  “Nevah,” came the reply in an unmistakably thick Maine accent.  These are local folks, some of whom have been summering here for generations, perhaps since the town was founded in the late 18th century.  This place is so old that local lore is divided over how the name Bear Pond originated.

Presiding over the meeting was James Adams, a local realtor about my age wearing a duck-boat-drab colored T-shirt, and who had driven to the meeting in his shiny black pickup. Next  was a moment of silence held for loyal members who had “passed on during the winter.”  In one case, the family of a recently deceased  matriarch, asked that donations be given to the lake association in lieu of flowers and gifts to help protect her favorite spot in the world. That $535 brought the treasurer's balance to $10,930, some of which will be used to buy the water-quality testing equipment now required by the state.  

The balance of common loons (Gavia immer), however, was only five, consisting of two mated pairs and an old bachelor male who is allegedly as old as the hills.  The chairman of the loon committee, a silver-haired guy named Pete, bore the sad news that their new mother loon had inexplicably left the nest, perhaps due to rising water or molestation by curious teenagers.  They also reported that wildlife officials from throughout the state had sent approximately 200 loon carcasses that year to a veterinarian at Tuft’s University for autopsies.  Half of these iconic creatures, the doctor reported, died of lead poisoning, either from shotgun pellets or lead sinkers left years ago.  Fifteen percent died from entangled monofilament line. 

On other environmental issues, the water-testing committee presented positive results, especially with respect to the visual clarity, which was nearly 20 feet using a standard method known as the Secchi Disk.   The dissolved oxygen level was good, and the samples for phosphorous had been sent off to the lab. Surveys for invasive species had confirmed that the lake remained free.  Finally, the Lesley Wright committee, which “kinda formed yesterday,” reported a plan to keep a patch of donated land “forever wild.”

Bear Pond straddles two sovereign entities, the town of Hartford, which claims 149 house lots, and the town of Turner, which claims 62.  Accordingly, regulations are different on their respective sides.  Tax assessments are different.  Demography is different.  But here at the meeting,  the only community that matters is the circle of people united by a common love of the lake.  Though Maine considers itself a saltwater state, one would never know it from the conversations I heard that day in North Turner. 

In terms of development, water quality, and wildlife habitat, the residents of Bear Pond and most New England lakes are lucky, respect to the nation’s lakes, as reported by the recent  National Lake Assessment.  More importantly, their lake association is in even better shape.  Its members neither want nor expect the federal, state or town governments to do their work for them.  They give me hope that, one lake at a time, America will return its recreational lakes back to the standard they deserve.

I did have one concern from the meeting.   I saw nobody under forty, and most attendees were at least sixty. There was more than enough adult wisdom to go around.  But what happens when these folks are gone?



The Boofy Quimby Center was the geographic start of our journey, its most northeasterly point. We didn’t travel very far on our first day.  In fact, the net distance was no more than two miles: west across Maine Route #4 to the home of Rob and Liz Hoy, my brother in law and his wife.  From there, we learned it was a long way to Reserve, Montana, the most northwesterly point of our trip, where some wheat fields are nearly the size of some New England towns. 

I asked them to hold up the map I was using to guide our journey: Glacial Map of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, published by the Geological Society of America in 1959.  It remains a remarkably good resource.


Rob and Liz Hoy standing on their deck in front of  a small kettle pond and holding up our glacial travel guide in North Turner, Maine.

After the meeting, I asked my grand nephew Calvin what he liked best about fresh water.  “Getting wet,” is what he said.  It was raining so hard that we could have easily gotten wet just by standing outside.  Nevertheless, I had already decided that taking a swim in “greater Lake Walden,”’ would complement the one I plan to take in “greater Lake Wobegon.”

Robert Thorson emerging from Bear Pond, in North Turner Maine.

The water was surprisingly warm for this time of year.  Given the high humidity and small size of the drops, the temperature of the rain falling on the lake surface was similar to that of the air itself, in the high sixties.  And given he calmness of the wind, this warm water could simply float upon the colder stuff down below. A lake may consist of nothing but water, but that water is usually layered.  By late summer, and in deep lakeks, a thick layer of warm, wind-stirred water known as the epilimnion usually floats above much colder water sent down during early spring melt.


Solid Water

Taking in the association meeting on a Sunday morning and leaving early Monday required that we spend two  nights up north.  Having been fed by my in-laws the first night, I volunteered to cook dinner on the second.  This required a round trip of several miles to the nearest grocery store in Turner.

The most exotic place I passed on the way was an antique snowmobile museum. Not only were machines inside antiques, but the museum itself looked like an antique, perhaps not longer visited, or even maintained.  Seeing the museum helped me imagine the previous winter. A fluffy mantle of white snow lay upon the ground, its billions of crystals tangled together.  

To most people water is something you can drink. Ice is something you can’t.   But to scientists, ice, snow, and rain are simply different manifestations of the same molecule. H2O resembles a Mickey Mouse cap, having a pair of hydrogen atoms for ears on one end, and the much larger oxygen atom for a head.  On earth, this compound occurs naturally as solid, liquid, and vapor, none of which is more or less watery than the other.  In fact, the most common chemical phase of fresh water on earth is not liquid, but ice locked up within the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets.  The same is likely true on the Moon.  The search for life on Mars is really a search for water, which is really a search for ice.  In fact, the word “ice,” from ancient Greek, originally referred to any crystal, even quartz. Ice is indeed a crystal, which makes water in that phase a mineral.  This makes ice sheets giant piles of rock soft enough to flow slowly

Snow, of course, is nothing but a fluffy or granular form of ice. soft enough to give way physically, but firm enough  to provide some resistance.   This explains why the snowmobilers of winter can cavort upon it as do the jet skiers of summer cavort on the surface of a lake.

The sales of snowmobile sales are way down across the nation.  Those of jet skis are also in delcline, but holding much steadier. Could this be a harbinger of climate change?   Will snowmobiles of the glaciated fringe eventually go the way of typewriters?

Water Businesses

 Before reaching the grocery store, I passed two well drilling companies, a construction-excavation company, and at least three sand-gravel quarries.  All are connected by the water cycle.

Throughout the glaciated fringe, we can turn on the tap and clean water appears as if by magic. Flush a toilet, and the dirty water disappears. Out of sight, and out of mind. Because most Americans live in metropolitan areas and small cities, few know where it actually comes from and where it goes when they’re done with it.  But along Maine Route 4 north of Auburn, the chances are that at least one person in every household I drove by knows about these comings and goings because each  is responsible for its own water supply and wastewater disposal. Getting that water requires hiring a drilling contractor, which explains their presence along the road. And in spite of the local competition, they don’t come cheap, which explains why there is competition. A homeowner can easily spend up to ten thousand dollars to drill a household well, and with no guarantees regarding the quantity or quality of the water. 

Getting rid of that water is usually even more expensive.  Beneath every non-chemical and non-composting toilet in the nation is a drain carrying that which none of us want to see.  In cities and towns, those drains merge underground, forming a complex tributary network of bigger and bigger sewers that flow into a wastewater treatment plant. But in Turner, Maine, those individual drains usually head to an underground tank where the solids settle out.  The liquid overflow moves out to a series of porous pipes that let the wastewater trickle through permeable soil in what’s known as a septic system.

This is where the sand and gravel quarries come in. If your soil is too clay rich or too dense, a homeowner can solve the problem by importing and spreading sand on the drain field, through which the wastewater can filter and be acted upon by bacteria. The sand  there is permeable because it had been rinsed free of mud by flowing glacial meltwater before ending up in flat-topped deltas and on the sand bars of ice-age streams. (consult the Maine Geological Survey for details).  Unfortunately, the wastewater is not always rendered pure.  In fact, I suspect that a fair proportion of the pollution that reaches Bear Pond arrives from the camps of perfectly nice people who are unaware that their wastewater facility is mal-functioning.

The first night of our trip passed uneventfully. The food was fine, the company pleasant, and the sleep deep.