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.