ROCKPORT, Maine - I paddle from the boat launch and land my canoe at Beauchamp Point Preserve, 1,000 feet of rocky beach across from Indian Island in Rockport Harbor. The air on Penobscot Bay is warm and thick. It feels like summer twilight, but without a symphony of crickets and the birds because that season has slipped away, and this may be the last swim until spring.
I head out through the rockweed toward the open ocean. The water is still pleasant but getting colder fast, and looking back to the harbor and the hills, change is afoot. The leaves are turned or turning. Most of the yachts have been pulled; a few fishing boats remain. Most vacation houses are closed; today, daylight and darkness will be almost equal. The last wildflowers, the asters and goldenrod, have faded. The show is almost over, but before the snow falls there is the chance of one more song - Indian summer.
It’s not a season on the calendar. It may come once, or come and go and come again. It may last a day or a few, but when it arrives, it is carried on breezes from the south and southwest, mild and hazy. Indian summer is not anything you can plan for but something you should make the most of.
For me that entails making small excursions into the hills close to my home in midcoast Maine, down along the coast to New Hampshire and out to Cape Ann, and north all the way to the wilds of Maine near the Bay of Fundy. Sometimes on these stolen days of softness and sunshine, Indian Summer can feel like Endless Summer.
The hills On days when the sun rises red over Penobscot Bay, I take the dogs for a ramble up Maiden Cliff and Mount Megunticook in Camden Hills State Park. The trail may be wet from fall rains, strung with spider webs, dotted with mushrooms, and shaded by giant hemlocks - some of them hundreds of years old.
From Maiden Cliff you can look down to Megunticook Lake, a 1,300-acre squiggle of dark water broken up by small islands and the Fernald’s Neck peninsula, which just about splits the lake in two and is taken up mostly by a 328-acre nature conservancy preserve. The cliff is named for a 12-year-old farmer’s daughter, Elenora French, who according to a plaque on the boulders, fell to her death here in May 1864, when she went after her windblown hat during a Maying party.
From Maiden Cliff, the dogs and I will make our way into the hills, following the ridge trail through more groves of ancient hemlock and stands of stunted oak. From the summit, hikers see the town of Camden, and out to the outer islands of Penobscot and Muscongus bays.
By December the lake will be frozen and marked with ice fishing shacks and snowmobile tracks. The bay will be deep blue and on frigid mornings covered by a shroud of sea smoke. But for now - in the melancholy of October and November - the rusty foliage, the nervous chatter of resident birds, and the piquant rotting of fungus and fruit create a feeling in these high midcoast hills that is still more sensuous than it is austere. The ghost of summer lingers here a long time.
The beaches The heat may be gone but it’s still not too late for a walk on the sand. A day trip to Ipswich and Essex to explore the beaches and marshes and to eat fried seafood is still a treat. On my way there I will spend the morning at Crane Beach searching for striped bass and sand dollars. The beach is as good as it gets in New England, four miles of fine white sand, rolling dunes, and thick stands of maritime pitch pine all surrounded by Essex Bay, Ipswich Bay, and a lush network of tidal marshes. For lunch I will feast on fried cod cheeks and fried onion rings at JT Farnham’s in Essex, and then poke around for woven-seat ladderback chairs and scrimshaw in the town’s many antiques shops.
On the way home, I plan to stop around Portsmouth, N.H., to wander the brick sidewalks and body surf the beaches south of town. Much of Portsmouth burned in 1813 and was rebuilt all at once in stately brick and slate. Older, Colonial-style houses are on display at the Strawbery Banke Museum - named after the wild strawberries growing along the Piscataqua River. I will make my way around town, and for dinner duck into the Flatbread Company for wood-fired pizza. Afterward, I will spend the evening driving the coastal road looking at the surf. For breakfast, the Friendly Toast makes a top-notch egg sandwich, good fuel for a morning in the breakers around Rye Beach. For gear or lessons head over to Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Co., a well-stocked surf shop in Hampton.
The wilds Another fine day involves taking a ride up the coast to Washington County and the Cutler Bold Coast trails. Good food is scarce in these wilds, so I will stop at John Edward’s Market in Ellsworth for picnic provisions: kipper snacks, rye crackers, store cheese, gunpowder tea. The Cutler Coast Public Preserved Land is a 12,000-acre swath of spruce-fir forest, blueberry lands, peat bogs, and headland cliffs overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The road from Ellsworth runs along the granite backbone of Frenchman Bay, passes through the blueberry barrens and marshes of Cherryfield and Harrington, and narrows to pass through the outpost college town of Machias.
At the Bold Coast trailhead, you can park in the small dirt lot and step into the woods for an all-day tramp along the 9-mile Fairy Head Trail. It passes through a cedar swamp, and then follows the cliffs, coves, and cobble beaches for almost four miles before turning inland through a grass marsh, beaver pond, and moss kingdom. After a long stroll, I will relish a tin of fish and some tea before skipping smooth stones in the coves and scanning the horizon for migrating whales.
It is mid-October when some days feel like summer and others warn of winter. But unlike the hasty flush of spring, the fall hangs on and fades slowly. This season will be good for one more roll in the surf, one more fried clam, one more nap in the soft moss.
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jonathanlevitt.com.