Monday, April 05, 2010

Living and Climbing in Maine

I've been away for too long, and yet it sometimes feels as if it isn't long enough. My roots are firmly planted in Downeast Maine, but I haven't watered them for years. When I decided to go halfway home - to the Midcoast instead of Downeast - I walked away from the young, dynamic, and fast atmosphere in Boston to the slow, easy-going pace that settles one's soul into a peaceful lullabye of Sunday drives and careless lives.

Camden is a coastal town more often know as the first part of Camden-Rockport. We used to play these guys in high school, and despite the fact that they had some pretty good teams, for some reason we always had their number. I like Camden, though. It's small, but it has a big-feeling harbor and the community is as strong as any along the coast. Schooners and lobsterboats dance on the ocean with kayaks, sailboats, and harbor seals and ospreys. The air is salty and, my, have I ever missed the awakening smell of mudflats. I only smelled the ocean a handful of times while in Boston. I smell it every day here and I'm so much better for it, too.

But there are also hills in Camden and along the sheer edges of those hills are cliffs. They aren't the most spectacular cliffs in the world, but they're more than adequate for climbing and offer both serenity and fantastic views. The climbing is fantastic and, just as it is with Maine, there's no one who comes here because there's no one who lives here. We call this place "vacationland" for a reason, and it isn't because of our out-of-whack real estate market. 

I went to Camden for the first time in years a couple of weeks ago with "Epoch" and "RadTech" with the hopes of finding good local climbing that wasn't more than a couple of hours away, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

We first went to Barrett's Cove on the tip of Lake Megunticook, that wild "G" of lake with 500 square-foot cabins on 600 square foot islands, and made the easy, ten-minute hike to the base. Most climbs of the climbs were wet that first day, but there were a few that we scoped out that we felt were good options considering the conditions. It was cold, too, and my history with the cold is checkered with bad memories. I wasn't sure how I'd do, but I took the first lead on a 5.6R that basically had me soloing in my approach shoes for the first thirty feet or so. I got up it OK, however, despite the fact that I couldn't trust my hands to feel the rock well enough to be convinced that I was actually holding on.

But then a funny thing happened: it started to hail. It didn't hail very much at first, and it only came down in spurts, oddly only when "Epoch" was climbing. We joked about it for a bit, but I was concerned because I knew I didn't have much control over my fingers and hail meant a cold front was nearby.

We then toproped a nearby climb and decided to move over to the first pitch of one of the classic climbs on the wall. Then it started to hail more. I told "Epoch" that I shouldn't be leading anything because there was no guarantee I'd be doing it safely. We talked a bit about doing the route before "Epoch" decided he was OK to lead it. He went up, the hail came down, "RadTech" and I shivered at the base until it was our turn to climb, and then we went up the first pitch.

We found the second pitch wet, however, so we bailed, got in the car, and drove to what "Epoch" promised would be a warmer location just down the road. The Rampart, a broken body of rock hidden off the hiking trail that winds past the climbing area, was warmer and "Epoch" felt more comfortable leading routes here in the sun than in the hail less than a mile away at Barrett's Cove. And yes, I did say that correctly. In Maine, the weather is both local and temporary. While I didn't lead anything, my fingers had enough sensation to TR three routes, two of which were over 5.10 with one being either a soft 11a or solid mid-ten. The grades aren't so important, however, without knowing that a 5.3 n the 'Gunks once nearly caused me to leave all the gear behind on a particularly cold day because it hurt too much to pull the gear out (that link, BTW, has one of the best stories I've ever told in there, too). So to be able to climb that hard in such cool conditions was good because I had taken the blood pressure drug nifedipine the night before to allow for better circulation to my fingers. The doctors weren't sure if this would work, but it seemed to work on a recent trip to Red Rocks and it was seemingly working this day, too.

We left with the thought that we'd return the following weekend depending on the weather, and when we saw it was going to be in the mid-forties we decided to go anyway, mainly because we had met a group of climbers who wanted to know the area and we wanted to add to our own small group.

But it was cold, too cold. It was so cold that I could barely belay without fleece gloves. I got up half of a 5.8 that I had done the previous weekend and had to bail. It was too painful to continue, and that's all I did all day except belay. I wore three shirts and two down jackets and was still cold, though one of the jackets was sometimes a primaloft jacket from LL Bean and that was actually pretty warm. The rest of the crew climbed heartily despite the shivers. We were there from about 8am to 4pm, and I was really glad when we finally decided to head home. But the conversation didn't stop once the climbing did, because we all grew excited when it was revealed that the next weekend's weather was forecasting to be in the 80s. Hooray for me!

Then the weekend came and we grew excited about the opportunity to finally get on warm rock. "Epoch" and I met the crew from Camp Chewonki at Barret's and we all swung leads around each other, with me comfortably feeling my fingers all the way up run-out, grainy slab and snapping pics of everyone else. A breeze dampened the the sun when it tried to burn the back of my neck, and the brown landscape around us starting singing the sounds of spring, particularly when we whistled our own birdsongs back at the chickadees who were in search of a springtime mate. 

Many of the routes may still have been wet from the winter runoff and the rain that had come down in torrents a few days before, but we climbed what was dry, and if it turned out wet then we climbed that, too. Of course we took it slow; that's what we do in Maine. When the sun hits, we enjoy it, and we take our time enjoying it, too.

That day ended, but the next day was just as peaceful. "Epoch" and I headed back to the Rampart where we knocked off route after route after route, with the exception of one whipper he took on his project and me consistently finding the crux on my project. Still, we were the only ones there for the bulk of the day, and that allowed us to climb whatever we wanted whenever we wanted; and we did. And we ate lunch in the sun and felt the breeze filter through the leaveless trees, and we left when we were tired because we knew all those climbs would still be there when we wanted to come back, and we knew they'd be as empty as they were today.

But life in Maine isn't always so simple. Sure, the roads tend to be open and free, and the speed limit is as casual as one wants it be, but the wildlife is ever present. It was Easter Day when the turkey flew out from the other side of the road and smashed my windshield and crumpled my roof. I kept driving and "Epoch" waited patiently for the tantrum. It never came, though. This is Maine. It's not that we don't get mad, it's that we don't get mad at the things we can't help. So instead of posting the picture of the damage to my car, I'm going to leave you with our casual motto: Maine, the way life should be.


Adayak said...

"we don't get mad at the things we can't help" ---- can you please help me bring that philosophy to people living in Florida!

Greg said...

Heh. Trust me, if we could export it then we would. =)

Andy Mooers said...

Had a fraternity brother from CT who loved to climb around the Bangor Maine area. He told me to Little/Big Chick and even thought I hike a lot, love taking Baxter's hills up and down one at a time, the technical climbing out over an outcropping with the special sneakers, ropes, harness, etc made me a little queasy and wondering about heading to class the next day. Great imagery, information.

Greg said...

Thanks for the nice words, Andy. Climbing in this area certainly is nice, but if I were in CT then I'd be in the 'Gunks all the time.