UNION, Maine - The history of the early settlement of this state is the story of people who traveled mainly by boat.
Maine was, and in many ways still is, a watery maze of marshes, inlets, isles, estuaries, reaches, points, and coves, with more than 5,100 rivers and streams, and 6,000 lakes and ponds. Until well into the 19th century, the territory (which was part of Massachusetts until 1820) had few roads, and these were poorly drained and impassable much of the year. According to historian and novelist Ben Ames Williams, a traveler who wanted to go from mid-coastal Maine to Boston on horseback had to secure passage on at least eight ferries.
PADDLE THROUGH AN OLD TALE OF MAINE
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Williams tells the stories of some settlers in his 1940 novel "Come Spring," based on real people and actual events. The book has attained a cult status in Union, where most of these characters lived, although the community went by other names at the time. Today there's a Come Spring School, Come Spring Café, Come Spring Way, Come Spring Farm, and some locals sport Come Spring T-shirts.
Lyle Cramer, a Maine guide who was raised here, offers a Come Spring Canoe Tour that tries to convey what that water-bound life was all about. At this time of year, it's a way for visitors to learn about Maine history while also enjoying the spectacular foliage.
On a sunny Sunday a few weeks ago, a photographer friend and I decided to give the tour a try. We found Cramer and his wife, Jan, at their summer home on Seven Tree Pond, where much of the action in the book occurs. With them were neighbor Anita Brown, a distant relative of some characters in the novel, and Dorothy Davis, curator and former president of the Union Historical Society. Union is unusual, they agreed, because so much is known about its early settlers and because this was captured so vividly in "Come Spring," which is a compelling romance as much as a historical narrative.
It's the story of Mima Robbins, a young woman who arrives with her family from England, via Boston, in 1776. She falls in love with Joel Adams, a handsome hell-raiser. Mima thinks he has "a golden way of speaking," Williams writes, "and when he smiled, his left eyebrow had a way of lifting, teasingly, as though there were jest in everything he said."
The book reveals how Mima snares Joel - a love story set against the privations of Colonial life and hostilities with the British who occupied the Castine peninsula not far away. Although it is a novel, Williams, who summered in nearby Searsmont, "had a very good sense of the area," Davis says. "To most people around here, the places in the book and the characters ring true."
After a brief orientation from Cramer, we headed off in canoes. Soon we passed the site where the Robbins family first lived: a rudimentary cabin "built of round logs notched together at the corners and caulked with moss," Williams writes. It had a floor with loose boards and no glass in its one small window, which was "open, admitting light, or it was closed and dark."
Said Cramer: "The cabin was 18 by 20 feet, with 11 people living there and no facilities."
Seven Tree Pond is named for an uninhabited island near its center where seven trees once grew. This was the most conspicuous landmark in the Robbins' lives, "confronting them whenever they came out of the cabin door," Williams writes. "Some geese raised their brood there, and eagles had a nest in one of the tall pines," but no one went there much, and they still don't.
As we passed the little isle, we noted that only three or four of its trees still stand. Brown said the Ladies' Garden Club wanted to plant more trees to make the name accurate, but government officials objected. Cramer explained that the women would have had to transport soil to support more trees, and the earth inevitably would have washed away during storms, potentially changing the chemistry of the pond.
We reached the opposite bank and were paddling along the shore when we spotted an enormous blue heron standing perfectly still in some reeds and grasses at the pond's edge. The elegant bird didn't seem concerned as we approached for a closer look.
Then in one deft movement, the heron bent down and scooped up a fish, where the heron's thin legs must have looked like reeds. This was a fairly big fish, bigger than the heron's head. The bird then flew off to eat in privacy on the island.
Unknown to us, a bald eagle in the treetops also had been watching. When the heron took off, the eagle followed, looking to take the fish away. The heron had just enough head start to reach the island, and when it landed there with its fish, the eagle gave up and flew away. But it soared back over us to its treetop perch, giving us another look at this spectacular bird.
After lunch, we paddled up the St. George River toward Round Pond. The book relates how Joel and two male buddies decided to homestead together here. They called their cabin the Royal Mess, and it was. Mima came periodically to clean it.
As we rowed, we struggled against the wind. For many months and in all kinds of weather, Mima made this trip at least twice a day. "Can you imagine how badly she wanted to see Joel?" Cramer asked.
We reached the site of the Royal Mess in a clearing overlooking the pond. Nothing remained but a spring that Mima found nearby. Eventually, she moved into the Mess and made herself so indispensable that all the men wanted to marry her. But she had eyes only for Joel. We passed the pool where he taught her to swim and the site where they built a home, married, and had 10 children.
Throughout the book, Mima expresses her philosophy about their relationship to the land: "Here's new country everywhere, and it's not the king's anymore. We have to use it before it's ours; clear the land and make it bear, and bear children to live on it." And in a hundred or even a thousand years, it will still be theirs, because their spirit remains in it. "The life in us goes on living," she says.
Cramer's tour makes sure that it does.
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.