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A look into the lobstering life of
Maine's Cundy Harbor..
In the salt-flecked light of a sunrise off the coast of Cundy's Harbor, Maine, the Amanda-Elizabeth bobs in calm waters. Seagulls glide overhead as Gary Hawkes and a crewman pull up a cage by its attached buoy. Teeming lobsters emerge from the draining waters, their shells clinking together as the men sort them. They pick out a handful and sheath their claws in yellow bands before tossing them in a tub of water. The rest of the catch makes soft plunks in the water when thrown back to the sea.

The age-old art of lobster fishing in Maine seems as quaint and idyllic as ever, until you peel away the shell. The traps Hawkes uses are wire, not the old wooden kind that got bored by worms and buffeted by water currents. The boat is fiberglass, easier to maintain than Hawkes's beloved old wooden craft, the Marjorie-Jean. On-board computers track Hawkes's every move in the water and keep a log of everything he takes in and throws back - a record he's legally bound to keep. Maine law also dictates that fishermen return all lobsters larger than five inches from rear to eye socket and smaller than 3 1/4 inches. What's more, they must throw back any female clutching eggs to her carapace and clip "v-shaped" notch into her flipper, helping to assure that other fishermen will know to return her to the sea if they catch her, too.

Lobster fishing has changed since 57-year-old Hawkes got in the business, but not enough to shake his love for Maine's legendary industry. Fishing runs in Hawkes's family - on a part-time basis, at least. His father, who operated a nursery and fished on the side, passed on to his son a love of the sea. Gary started fishing at the age of 11 and never stopped. On settling down in Cundy's Harbor, a small harbor on mid-coast Maine at the mouth of the New Meadows River, Hawkes and his wife, Sue, set up shop, catching lobster for sale to distributors.

From top left: The Hawkes wharf, pulling fresh lobsters from the chilly waters to the waiting truck above, Gary and the crew heading back out for a second run.
"We're just a small, family-owned wharf," says Sue, as if a quayside business was as common as a garage.
They built the wharf down the road from their home over the course of a couple of years with lumber provided by a relative's sawmill. Gary arrives at the wharf every morning, getting up at 4:30 to fill his distributor's truck with the previous day's haul and then load 80-pound bushels of dead fish and catfood (otherwise known as bait) on the boat to catch more lobster.

Gary usually takes two men with him to harvest the traps that he places around the waters. He uses all 800 of the traps his lobster license allows, hauling 300 to 400 a day on a rotating basis. Each trap may capture two dozen lobsters, but only yield a few legal ones. He cites one instance when a trap yielded ten legal lobsters as a stand-out day.

Once he's emptied a trap, Gary slathers in new bait and throws it back into the water. Lobstermen leave their cages in rocky underwater spots with plenty of crevices, ledges, and other hiding places that lobsters prefer when they've shed their shells to grow new ones. Maine law dictates that the traps come with escape hatches to let out small lobsters and a biodegradable "ghost hatch" to let the other lobsters free in case the cages gets lost or can't be retrieved for some reason.

How it's done in under two minutes (starting top left): the buoy marks the start of pulling traps aboard, a trap is hauled to the side, the lobsters are measured, keepers go in the basket to have their claws banded, bait is loaded back into a trap, the trap is readied for launch, and the process continues every two minutes.
Much of his catch Gary sells to his distributor, but he puts some aside for Sue's lobster-shipping business. When she opened a gift store on the wharf in 1990, Sue also started mailing lobsters directly to customers through overnight delivery. Her orders span anywhere from two to 100 a customer. Sue says many customers tell her they prefer the lobsters from Maine and the Cundy's Harbor area in particular-somehow, they taste better. While she has no way of proving this theory, she says she's never grown tired of her own product. "It's kind of like the healthiest fast food in Maine," she says.
"You can take a lobster, cook it up in about 15 minutes, and it's the best meal on Earth."
It's that tastiness that has led to the over-fishing that threatens lobster and other species. Hence, Maine's strict lobster laws, some of which it started putting in place as early as 1872. But for all the extra hassle his home state imposes on his livelihood (he calls his shipboard tracking computer "Big Brother"), Gary doesn't pine for the less-restricted past.

"Lobsters are probably one of the best-regulated natural resources in the world because we protect the female egg-bearers. The regulations are absolutely necessary."

He even takes biologists on harvests twice a year to help them with their research and to get a picture of how the species he relies upon for his livelihood is holding up. In Gary's view, the trouble is other New England states that don't have a v-notch law. Given the nomadic lifestyles of lobsters, a female Gary releases could well end up in a boiling pot in New Hampshire a week later. Maine has pushed to make the v-notch law universal throughout the United States, but it hasn't caught on yet. Gary says politics are getting in the way of conservation.

"When you get environmentalists, politicians, and fishermen together, it's not good."
Above right: Fresh lobster bisque from a local restaurant. Above: O.K. - so I brought back a few from the shoot. Who could resist?
Gary tackles the other challenges of his profession without complaint. Though lobstering season lasts all year in Maine, Gary must take the boat out as far as 30 miles to capture the lobsters as they move to warmer water in December through May. When the lobsters get really scarce, Gary uses his various licenses to catch other creatures of the deep, from halibut to shrimp and scallops. He's always careful to stick to his assigned lobstering zone (Maine has seven) so as not to infringe on another fisherman's turf.
"Each zone has its own little set of rules. You try not to step on toes, but every once in a while, stuff happens. No one's been shot yet, at least," he adds with a laugh.
A local competitor heading out to sea.
Daily, he's exposed to the whims of the ocean and the weather. But he shrugs that off, too. "Mother Nature is the boss, and you have to respect that," he says. "But you're dealing with her every day in some of its best aspects. It's very rewarding that way."

And then there's the work. Gary has endured 12-hour days on the water in all sorts of conditions since high school and doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. Now that he's older, it helps when he's greeted by some of his grandchildren (nine total) when he pulls into the wharf. The children, who learned to swim at this spot, often wait for Gary and his two sons - also fishermen with their own boats. Their presence makes for a nice end to a hard day.

Starting above left: Holbrook's General Store - throw back to the past, Fresh, local potatos,a memorial to Maine's Fishermen.
"It's a good life," he says. "You have your uncertainties, but I guess you have that in anything. I wouldn't be anywhere else. As long as it's a viable industry - and I think that it will be - and as long as I can walk down a ramp and into the boat, I'll keep doing it."
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Taking a day and discovering what this charming area has to offer.
A couple boating on the waters of Cundy's Harbor, Maine, dock at an ancient gray clapboard shanty on a small wharf. "Watson's General Store" reads a sign under the cedar-shingled roof. Inside, the worn floors creak comfortably, the windows warp the view as only old glass can, and local lobstermen and lobsterwomen sit around telling stories to one another instead of speaking into cell phones. "We never knew you were here," the excited visitors tell the man behind the counter. "Well," says the man with a smile, "we've only been here 150 years."

Watson's General Store hasn't changed much since the Watson family of fishermen (driven ashore here by a storm) opened it in 1850. That's what keeps locals coming back and visitors discovering it again and again. "People will drive miles to get fresh lobster out of the ocean," says Tom Watson, a 50-year-old lobsterman who runs the store with his brother when he's not checking his traps. They're the sixth generation of Watsons to sell lobster. "It's the novelty of seeing people unloading boats, and the lobsters being right there. You don't get that at the market."

"People will drive miles to get fresh lobster out of the ocean...it's the novelty of seeing people unloading boats, and the lobsters being right there. You don't get that at the market."
In many ways, Watson's store and Cundy's Harbor capture the essence of mid-coast Maine, a collection of finger peninsulas filled with villages right out of a sea story. The region preserves a way of life lost to much of America, yet it's no museum piece-it's a living, thriving place that churns along as regularly as the sea to which it's intimately bound.

Cundy's Harbor is just one of the villages that make up Harpswell, a town spanning more than 150 miles of coastline, including a ten-mile peninsula and three big islands-Sebascodegan (Native American for "Great Island"), Orr's and Bailey-as well as 200 smaller ones. Coves, inlets, beaches, and craggy bluffs paint a backdrop for the fishermen as they unload their crafts; lobster traps sit in messy piles outside Revolutionary War-era homes; the salty wind blows the smell of cooking sea life over rocky, rumpled-bed-cover land.

But human construction here is as impressive as what nature has made. The Cribstone Bridge, built in 1928 with no mortar or cement, resists powerful waters by letting them pass through its honeycomb design. The Old Meeting House in Harpswell Center goes back to 1759, a National Historic Landmark (to say the least) with a 10-foot high pulpit and sounding board and other unique features, like a cemetery in the back that serves as the final resting place of the "witch of Harpswell." And the Captain's Watch Bed and Breakfast-one of the standouts among the many fine B&Bs in historic homes here-started life in 1862 as Union Hotel, giving it more rooms than your average B&B, including two that connect to an enclosed cupola with a dramatic 360° view of the harbor.

Fishermen and witches haven't been Harpswell's only residents. Indians called this place "Merriconeag," or "Quick Carrying Place," because they could easily haul their canoes over the thin peninsula to reach the next bay. A number of writers have also made their home here, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who based The Pearl of Orr's Island on her summer spent there; Edna St. Vincent Millay, who summered on Ragged Island; 19th-century young adult author Elijah Kellogg; and memoirist Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Composer Irving Berlin also spent summers here, and the Arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary owned a home on Eagle Island that's open for tours. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung even gave his first seminar in America, on dreams, at Library Hall on Bailey Island.

A 20-minute drive brings you to Bath, a shipbuilding town on the Kennebec River. The past lives and breathes here through the Civil War-era Fort Popham and well-preserved homes from the 1700s and 1800s done in a variety of styles (Cape, Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate). The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated downtown-with its narrow tree-lined downtown avenues and old brick buildings filled with shops and restaurants (like Kristina's Restaurant on High Street)-one of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations in the United States. Even so, this is a working town very much ensconced in the present. The Iron Works shipyard here still builds naval vessels, a fact to which the cranes on the skyline can attest.

The Maine Maritime Museum.
The Maine Maritime Museum preserves this heritage, which goes back to the days when massive wooden schooners went up at Percy and Small Shipyard. The Virginia, the first ship built by English-speaking settlers in the New World, launched 12 miles downriver from Bath, and the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built, The Wyoming, originated here in 1909. The museum commissioned a steel sculptural recreation of The Wyoming that towers over the surviving original shipyard buildings. If Bath offers a visceral way to see the past in action, Wiscasset provides a way to buy it

Red's Eats - famous for their lobster rolls.
The town that makes a claim rightful as any for "Maine's Prettiest Village" sports several antique shops, like American Antiques and Folk Art, as well as art and fine furniture galleries and lots of historic homes. Two of these houses, Castle Tucker, a recreation of a Scottish manor, and Nickels-Sortwell House, a Federal-style masterpiece, have been turned into museums. Another long-time resident of Wiscasset, Red's Eats, sells one of the most storied lobster rolls in the state from a simple stand set up in front of the tidal Sheepscot River. All the meat from a one-pound lobster, bread, and melted butter or mayo on the side equal heaven.

Everywhere you turn there's another interesting shop to explore.
Through these sites and a well-regulated lobster and fishing industry, the area has managed to keep the old ways relevant without retreating from the present. As Watson himself says of the lobstering tradition he's pursued since the age of eight, "I don't know anything else, and I don't really want to." His son would agree-Thomas Jr. recently obtained his lobster license and his own boat to harvest the seas on his own. Someday, he or one of his relatives will assume management of the family store.

At times the odds seem stacked against this way of life, but like Watson's General Store, it endures, even despite encroaching modern life and the whims of nature. Watson recalls a particularly bad hurricane that hit his store in 1978. "The place was jumping up and down," he says. "It took a lot of damage, but it made it."

Captain's Watch Bed and Breakfast
Cundy's Harbor 207-725-0979
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Captained Sailing / Symbion II
Harpswell 207-725-0979
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The Maine Maritime Museum
Bath 207-443-1316
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Castle Tucker
Wiscasset 207-882-7169
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Nickels-Sortwell House
Wiscasset 207-882-7169
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Hawkes Lobster & Gifts
Cundy Harbor 207-721-0472
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Red's Eats
Wiscasset 207-882-6128
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Watson's General Store
Cundys Harbor 207-725-7794
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Treats
Wiscasset 207-882-6192
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North of the Border
Wiscasset 207-882-5432
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Sea Dog Brewing Co.
Topsham 207-725-0162
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Bayview Gallery
Brunswick 800-244-3007
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Cook's Lobster House
Bailey Island 207-833-2818
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(Check out the Cribstone Bridge on the way.)
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