After my longest and most successful season of training and racing to date, I made my way from Denver International Airport, on August 10th, 2018, to a faraway island, many miles from the mainland, to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Penobscot Bay, Maine, where I spent a few days with old and new friends, including many Atlantic Puffins. My idea for this autumn adventure was to reunite with old friends from my days working as an education intern (1993-1994), a seabird conservation biologist (1995-2001), and graduate student (2000-2005) in the Gulf of Maine and also to add a bit of my latest passion to the trip: some sort of bicycle tour, length and exactly where I would go to be negotiated and perhaps finalized as I sipped coffee, socialized, scanned the land and sea for birds, and otherwise decelerated ...
... on Seal Island for a delicious week of living at a casual pace. I want to thank my friend Christina Maranto for encouraging me, inviting me actually, to join her on Seal Island with her 5-yr old son, Chase. Part of the season's research crew, to our surprise, stayed on the island and overlapped with us, it was a pleasure to exist for most of a week on far flung Seal Island in their company.
During the summer of 1992, I was not only attending, I graduated in 1994 with a Bachelors degree in Biology, but also working for North Adams State College (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) as a laborer, cutting grass, spreading paint, and otherwise getting first-hand knowledge of how a few state workers maximized their pay and benefits without doing much as far as work. My co-workers literally had places that they knew they could hide from view and sleep away hours on the clock. And when it came to the real sweaty work, the work that had to be done because it was in full-view of the higher-ups, such as cutting grass all day under a hot sun, my supervisors were quick to allocate those tasks to me. Eventually I would develop a strong disapproval of the fairness and honesty of the environment that I was working in. But in hindsight, I can easily see that my lowered emotional state actually provided a critical motivation that would inspire me to raise my voice and in doing so launch my adult life, a life apart from the loving, supervision of one or both of my parents, a life that continues to unfold today.
During the same summer, I signed-up for a one-credit course, Hiking in the Berkshires. As a child, I was very fond of the outdoors, curious, adventurous, often wandering wide-eyed into swamps and marshes by foot or a combination of foot and bicycle. Behind the department of public works in my hometown of Franklin, Massachusetts, I can easily recall a friend, Charlie Bean, and I innocently swiping nearby scaffolding planks and dropping these, long axis, one board at a time farther and farther out into the cattails of what was, in our universe, a massive marsh. At one point during the construction of our bridge into Wonderland, I slipped off the plank where I was standing and immediately plunged completely underwater.
I was not a large kid, actually the smallest in my class until my sophomore year in High School when I graduated to second smallest. Fortunately, Charlie was robust relative to most kids, for this reason he was able to pull me out of the water with one hand and place me back onto our, clearly, unreliable foundation. Another time, in a "swamp", our term in those days for any wetland, across from Charlie's childhood home on the corner of McCarthy and Fisher Streets, I stepped onto a grassy hummock that, turned-out, had a hollow middle that was full of yellow jackets. The hive was not impressed, but I was, once it was all over, because I nearly skimmed the surface of the water as I bolted with childhood energy away from the swarming hornets. Adventures abounded in those days, some, like the last one, left a bit of a sting which was no doubt the source of the flash point that allowed me to never forget.
Return to the summer of 1992, I was somewhere on a class hike in the Berkshire Hills, where exactly, minus any hornets, I have no flash point to help me recall. However, because of nervous energy, a feeling that I might describe now as a symptom of going outside of ones comfort zone, I vividly recall a conversation, my response to it, and the outcome many months later. Walking along, single file, surrounded by forest and bird song, between peaks that were formerly, at their maximum thrust, possibly as impressive as the Himalayan's, I recall one of my instructors relaying her experience at the National Audubon Ecology Camp on Hog Island, Maine.
My classmate, a senior, was clearly uninterested and no intervention she attempted, within interludes of a vocalizing hermit thrush, seemed to make any difference. This built to a crescendo in my mind, my guess is he was thinking about what he would do later that day, far from the dull recollections of an aged contemporary. During a moment of silence and no doubt depleted of oxygen because I'd stopped breathing in anticipation of creating a different sort of bridge, I spoke. What I said was simple, "I'm interested in knowing more about this place that you visited". Paraphrased here, of course. I'd always been exceptionally shy, and that didn't change when I reached second tallest my sophomore year in high school. Shyness would continue to be a limiting factor in my life, affecting interactions, education, and more, for many more years with a few notable exceptions, this moment whilst hiking in the Berkshire Hills among them.
Because of her exceptional kindness, patience, and generosity, not because of my ultimate success, it makes me sad that I cannot recall the instructors name to whom I stated "I'm interested ... " on that exceptional day from my brief sojourn here on Planet Earth. In the meantime, I'll focus on what transpired next. She immediately and without prejudice or doubt took me on as her project, her apprentice, and to my credit I made no objection to full acceptance of her as my mentor. Our task, guided by this lovely person, was to convince the director of the National Audubon Society's outdoor education facility on Hog Island to give me a chance.
I was, after all, a middle class kid attending the lowest ranked state college in Massachusetts. Consistent with this reality, my undergraduate SAT scores were abysmal, and no surprise my writing and communication skills were also well below average. Add exceptional shyness to the mix and you see the challenges my mentor was willing, excited in fact, to take on. We began with a letter to Dr. Don Burgess, camp director, followed by an official application and then a phone interview. Again, likely because when we are super nervous we remember, I vividly recall one part of that interview, the moment when I stated, likely with far too much enthusiasm, that "I happily would dig holes in his back yard for an entire summer for a chance to work for the National Audubon Society." I remain embarrassed to this day for that well intended, lengthy bit, of naivety. Evolution of the mind and related acquisition of experience is replete with sub-optimal decisions.
My naivete, poor writing and communication skills withstanding, I was nonetheless successful; or perhaps it's more accurate to say my mentor and instructor did an exceptional job of convincing the director to give an ambitious kid, without much more to offer, a chance. Fast forwarding, I would later learn that my three kitchen equivalents, each of us pot scrubbers, dishwashers, food servers, etc, were attending schools of exceptional quality and reputation relative to North Adams State College. And worse, they were advanced, in leaps and bounds, relative to my experience and education. To my credit, I settled into the space with inspired motivation, my curiosity reached a new pinnacle, above my swamp exploration days, amidst a multitude of outdoor educators, from geologists to ecologists to ornithologists, that taught at the "camp", where people actually slept in beds and ate in a dining hall (still do) despite the popular name for the facility then and now, the Audubon Ecology Camp on Hog Island.
My world expanded and with it the first hints of a personal library. When I wasn't exploring the ecology of Maine's coastline and islands, I was often devouring books on related topics such as Glaciers and Granite, Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, and Silent Spring. The latter was significant for an inspired kitchen boy on Hog Island for more than one reason. Of particular spatial relevance, it turns-out that the famous author, Rachel Carson, visited the island in 1960. Rachel was friends with Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel Loomis (Emily Dickinson's first editor) and David Peck Todd (Amherst College Astronomer) whom gifted the island to the Audubon Society to be preserved in perpetuity as the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary. In fact, the camp was a gathering ground for many famous natural historians, writers, etc, including Roger Tory Petersen, illustrator, ornithologist, and educator extraordinaire.
I want to take a small step back now, in time, to the moment when I arrived to initiate my first summer, of two, as a kitchen boy (aka, an education intern) on Hog Island. Sometime in the opening two weeks of May, 1993, I turned right off of Waldoboro Road (Route 32) on to Keene Neck Road with my father. We'd driven together that morning from my childhood home in Massachusetts, a 3.5 hour journey, in his red, 1984, ford, F-150 pick-up truck. Keene Neck Road ends at a dock overlooking some of the islands found within Muscongus Bay, including the "Hog Island", of which there are many on the Maine coast, that's hosted the Audubon camp since 1936. Close the end of the road is the former residence, including a barn and two houses, one never winterized, of Charlie Nash. Below the homes is a field of less than four acres dissected by a dirt track that leads to a boat house and a dock. Part way down the hill, on the left side, is a small pond, a universe only for Yurtle and other turtles that live modest lives (humans should take note). The field is cut once annually, otherwise it's part of the wildlife sanctuary that includes Hog Island itself. Song sparrows and their kin can, within or along the shrubby edges of the field, safely raise their young amidst the golden rod and other native perennials. Each evening, in the summer, fire flies turn the few meters of ether above the field into a biochemical extravaganza of on and off again points of light.
Everyone's first arrival, my father and I not being exceptions, to the view just beyond the Nash House is special beyond words, a moment forever burned into their memory with such meticulous care and clarity that even Gustave Courbet, one of the founders of the art movement known as Realism, would be impressed. There are many views on the Maine coast, named for it's association with the "main" land versus the 5000 or so islands peppered along Maine's coastline, and so it makes no sense that this one in particular would have such an impact relative to so many others, equally scenic. For this reason and without compelling scientific evidence, I can only speculate that there is something more here, more than an intertwined land- and sea-scape, more than the boreal forest that wraps the island and the field on the adjacent mainland, across the narrows, more than the old Nash house and barn, cedar shingles stained red for decades, there must be more to this picturesque scene at the end of Keene Neck.
My guess is that there is something deeply emotional about the experience, something about how the lines intersect and the mind interprets. I was not a pilgrim when I arrived that day with my father, concluding a pilgrimage to an anticipated Holy site such as the Camino de Santiago across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. However, the emotional conclusion of my arrival must have been similar, and ever since I've been looking forward to my next opportunity to come back to the view above the narrows, a part of Muscongus Bay, to pay homage to my deity, whomever or whatever that deity is.
Getting back to my experience on Hog Island, for the next two summers, as a kitchen boy then a maintenance assistant, I evolved. That evolution wasn't always smooth, or pleasant, but change I did. To my credit via intensive, dedicated, inspired study, I learned in leaps and bounds, I began to understand and embed into the adult, awake, dreamscape, including responsibility, career, planning, relationships and much more. At the conclusion of those two summers, with another year of university, my third, between them, I transitioned my professional obligations from the island to the mainland, back across the narrows from which I'd come, back up the hill to the Nash compound, where I started the second chapter of my life on Keene Neck, seven (mostly) summers with National Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program, aka, Project Puffin.
The idea of the Project was visualized in the earliest years of the 1970s by Steve Kress whilst an instructor at the Audubon Ecology Camp. His visualization of a project followed his realization that seabirds were missing from former nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine, esp. former colonies of a noteworthy component of Planet Earth's charismatic mini-fauna, the Atlantic Puffin. These seabirds, including puffins, had literally been "eaten off" their former nesting islands, both adults and eggs were collected to feed growing coastal and some (larger) island communities such as the community on nearby Vinalhaven. Steve launched the project in 1973 with a goal to return puffins to former nesting islands in Maine, including Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay. It was a modest beginning, involving puffin eggs collected on Great Island, Witless Bay, Newfoundland that were incubated on Hog Island and attacked by raccoons along the way; a few hatched and were released when they were a few weeks old on Eastern Egg Rock and never heard from again. Eventually, eggs were replaced by young chicks, less than two weeks old, also collected and flown to Maine from Newfoundland. Hundreds of chicks were raised and released on Eastern Egg Rock, and later on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Eventually, after a decade of patient waiting, both translocation projects were successful and there are now hundreds of puffins nesting on both islands. Eventually the Project expanded to other species and became known as the Seabird Restoration Program which has had great success aiding seabirds in both hemispheres working with many collaborators.
My time commitment as a field biologist with Project Puffin encapsulates seven summers (primarily) as an intern, 1995, then an island supervisor, 1996-2001, intertwined with graduate school, which I entered in 2000 when I was 28 years old, a late start that has been and remains my normal. As with other challenges in my professional development, I entered the University of New Brunswick with considerable naivete. By now, I'd lived and learned in the adult dreamscape for many years but those lessons would only provide a preliminary, superficial, preparedness for graduate school. Yet, through primarily an inexhaustible curiosity and an unwillingness to quit, skills I began to recognize and refine as an education intern on Hog Island, I persisted. A master's degree began in 2000 transformed within two years into a PhD in Biology, with a focus on ecology and statistics. I successfully defended my these in the summer of 2005, with my parents and a favorite aunt in attendance, each of them within hearing distance when my supervisor, Antony Diamond, reached out to shake my hand and said "congratulations Dr Breton". A fabulous memory that my mother recently described as the best memory from her life, a generous observation but that's not unusual for my mother, her heart is available to everyone, openly, to a fault, but no more so than to her three sons.
Those celebrations and bonds aside, throughout my graduate school education I commuted south to north and back again, north to south, across the long axis of the State of Maine many times to reach my graduate school location in Fredericton, New Brunswick, or commitments in Maine, Massachusetts, and nearby New England states such as New Hampshire. During this time, my friends and experiences in Maine expanded not quite exponentially but quite a lot, Concurrently, I established and expanded on a new network of friendships and experiences in the Canadian Maritimes, Quebec, Newfoundland, and elsewhere in Canada.
So when I was invited by my friend, Chirstina Maranto, to return to Maine, to the coast, to Keene Neck and the islands, for reasons now revealed, above, to any reader, my heart warmed with desire to go there: to see my friends, to touch places from beloved, youthful, memories; to relive that beautiful part of my personal dream. Shortly after Christina made her offer, I saw the opportunity in my schedule to say "yes" and began making plans.
I arrived to the Portland, Maine, Jetport on 10 August 2018. Christina very generously sent a car service to pick-me-up. Within two hours, I was turning right, with my chauffeur, on to Keene Neck Road where so many fond memories, my friends, and my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel bicycle, shipped using Bike Flights, were awaiting my arrival. The next morning, there would be more time to visit on the mainland a few days later, I was on a boat at a dock in Rockland, Maine. A few hours later, I was on a much smaller boat, pulled by an oarsman, powered by Norwegian steam if your ancestry allows the metaphor. A moment later, I was within the sanctuary, land and mind, of Seal Island, which lay about 28 miles east of Rockland at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, namesake stemming from Atlas, son of Iapetus in Greek mythology. To get a sense of just how far flung Seal Island is relative to most places people live, due east of my location, weeks later, a sailor would make landfall somewhere in Portugal with no land between to replenish their stores.
Following introductions to two Project Puffin interns that would be staying with us, we unpacked our grocery bags, each one a perfect, dry bag envelope for a banana box, the preferred method for moving food and other gear to the islands (the Project oversees seabird management on about seven islands in the Gulf of Maine). The following morning, whilst sipping coffee amidst those boxes which we'd not yet burned, feet comfortably enclosed in Jonesport sneakers (despite the local name, mine were purchased in Fairbanks, Alaska), I captured a moment, on digital media, of my transition back to normal speed. I can easily visualize that moment now, where I was sitting on the deck of the 12 ft x 12 ft research cabin built in 1983, amidst the ancient granite bedrock, sounds of a tern colony nearby, a few human voices, the sea gently washing the greased bowling balls (slippery stones covered in algae) where I'd come ashore the day before.
For the next few days, four in total, I relived my Seal Island experience (four summers, 1998-2001) with patience and gratitude, before returning by boat(s) then car back to the project's base camp, aka, the Nash compound. More fellowship followed, meals, walks, etc, my friends from long-ago that live or have returned to this part of Maine came out of their little part of the forest that sustains them to celebrate my return. It was a fabulous four days or so. During which time, despite the quality and quantity of coffee sipped and, in other ways, worshiped on Seal Island the days before, I was still trying to conclude on the details of my next, a forthcoming, imminent, autumn bicycle tour, to somewhere.
My motivation to ride-on, to somewhere, was inspired by the success of my previous bicycle tours, in 2016 and 2017, in Europe and North America. Many details, including images, are available on my blog page - scroll down the page or use the Archives option on the right to jump around. Each of these tours ranged from ca. 1100 to 1400 miles. For example, in the autumn of 2017, I rode from Hamburg, Germany to Edinburgh, Scotland in thirteen days, a distance of 1300 miles; and then hopped a train to the Isle of Skye where I continued the tour from there and south to Glasgow International Airport, for another week. From Glasgow, I flew to Boston, Massachusetts, where I rode-on for two more weeks, a distance of about 1300 miles through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire visiting friends and family along the way. Although these relationships have always been my primary inspiration to crisscross New England, the region's beautiful, historic, and surprisingly remote country roads, such as the network of gravel roads found throughout Southern New Hampshire, offer an exceptional environment to explore by bicycle.
As I prepared my gear and bicycle at Project Puffin's Base Camp and continued to visit a multitude of friends along the mid-Maine coast, I was contemplating all of the following possibilities for my autumn 2018 tour: (1) a shortish tour in the State of Maine; (2) a tour through Maine heading north and east, eventually over the border into New Brunswick to Fredericton, then back to Portland, Maine; (3) the same but add Nova Scotia, including Halifax and perhaps a dip (up, north) into Cape Breton then back to Portland; (4) all of that, but then roll on to an overnight ferry in North Sydney, Cape Breton to Argentia, Newfoundland, a journey that would cross the Cabot Straits, then back to Portland of course to catch a flight / return to Colorado; (5) once in Argentia, the province of Labrador would be in reach though still many hundreds of miles away across a remote, seemingly Arctic, wilderness (despite being below the Arctic Circle); nonetheless I contemplated this as a possibility; (6) if I could make it to Labrador, then why not, clearly no response from my "swamp" inspired mind, make the journey a loop instead of an out-n-back (options 1-5)?
Among other challenges, logistic and otherwise, for the ambitious idea #6, I'd have to book onto a cargo ship that would carry me from a remote point on the Quebec / Labrador border to Rimouski, Quebec, an over-water journey of four days with occasional stops in isolated villages, accessible only by boat or bush plane. From Rimouski, I could add to ambitious #6 by making a loop through New England. Then again, alternatively, I could ride south from the port in Rimouski, back into Maine, and eventually to Portland. Six options, each one a bigger commitment, miles and time. The last, a massive loop, would more than double the physical challenges, distance and climbing, of any of my bicycle tours to date.
Among it's numerous influences, the universe can be recognized as a clever adversary, always, it seems, negotiating with you with it's infinite repertoire of options to keep you guessing, as if your fate is intertwined with something like an Oz operating his buttons and levers, manufactured by Willy Wonka, behind a golden curtain. And sometimes the message, it's influence, is so subtle that it only caresses the surface, a gentle touch that takes your conscious mind (about 5% of the whole by the way) some time to notice that a decision, an outcome, a transition, has been manipulated, directed by the whim of the absurd, by the mysterious and quirky realm of quantum physics. This was the case when the answer to my, by now, pressing questions - how far, how long, and where to go - began to take form, during a moment that seemed insignificant at the time, other than how will I transfer this kind gift back to Colorado when my friend Sue Schubel handed me a book: Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy.
Susan is a wild character, perhaps a portal into an adjacent universe; she would be thrilled to discover, and maybe it's true, that a worm hole resides in her gaze. Despite her preference for quantum and other unanticipated conclusions, she is patient with most observers, extraordinarily, famously perhaps, and full of knowledge. Her kin are all around her, in this world and others. She is cared for, I believe, by a community of forest pixies where she lives with her beloved pug, Pipsi Ruby Rhubarb, and her husband, Anthony Liss, equally clever, creative, and colorful - more on Anthony elsewhere in this story, a forthcoming blog. On the same property, above Poorhouse Cove on Maine's Pemaquid Peninsula, she built her first home with sticks, a one room (not so) palatial palace with a wood stove. The woods around her are wet, a haven for mosses, liverworts, and lichens, a canopy of spruce, fur, and birch provide ample perches for birds to sing without much competition from the otherwise status quo, these days, man's obsessions with some form of extreme noise most notable. How Susan came across Full Tilt, first published in 1965, is just part of her inevitable, but nonetheless complicated, story. She is a tinkerer, a curiosity among the same, you'll find her almost anywhere, you'll smile when your eyes meet for the first time and on each subsequent reunion.
By the age of ten, Dervla Murphy was gifted, by her family, a bicycle and an atlas. Naturally, for her anyway, she assembled both into a dream, which she, because of family obligations, nurtured in her heart for twenty years. The whole, fascinating story is recalled by Dervla in her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels: The Making of a Traveler. On the eave of her departure, twenty years later, the worst winter to visit Europe in many decades was beginning to make itself known in the form of cold, wet, and snowy conditions, especially in Europe's mountainous regions. Undeterred and riding alone, Dervla nonetheless set-off from her childhood home, by this point both of her parents had passed, in Linsmore, County Waterford, Ireland with her goal, her dream, to ride to Delhi, India on her Armstrong Cadet, single speed, bicycle which she nicknamed "Roz." Before she reached Turkey, she had already fired her gun, a pistol always carried in her right pocket, in self-defense, three times! Twice for fools, otherwise known as men, and once for what was either an attacking pack of wolves or stray dogs. And the weather was a constant terror, her recollection of, eg, crossing many mountain passes found within the Balkan peninsula is nothing less than frightening. Yet, somehow, others are not so fortunate, she survived and what an adventure she collected as a prize for her courage to dream and then set that dream in motion.
A few nights passed before I opened the cover of Full Tilt, I read through each opening page, publisher, etc, with care, my habit ever since I met Jason Demers in the dorms at North Adams State College (1990), and then began to read into the main body of the text. By the thirteenth page, my heart, mind, and body were filled with the sort of emotion that follows the realization of a great accomplishment. The same emotion that brings us together, in anticipation, to watch NASA astronauts land on the moon; to witness, if we could, Shackleton and his men board their life boats and days later arrive to the modest security of Elephant Island; to be with Sir Edmund Hillary when he stepped, just ahead of Tenzing Norgay, onto the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. At page thirteen, I carefully closed the book, picked up my head and immediately thought to myself, I'm going to Labrador.
At the same time, I committed, mentally to boarding a cargo ship to Rimouski, Quebec. All that remained to decide was whether, from Rimouski, I'd ride into Vermont, etc, or turn south to Portland, Maine. With Rimouski so far away and so many possibilities in between, I easily set this last decision aside, favoring instead. and sensibly. checking-in with my body and desire when I approached the dock in Rimouski many weeks later.
By this circuitous route, involving chance - imagine, e.g., the journey of that copy of Full Tilt, published in 1965, how it came to land in my library - and many people, my adventures by bicycle to and from Labrador began on August 20th. In the final analysis, I think it's fair to say, given the northward extent of the trip and the proximity of winter (fitting given Dervla's experiences in the Balkans) that on this trip I'd be going full tilt to Newfoundland and Labrador!
In my next blog entry, I'll pick-up the story of my journey as it unfolded. Part 1 will cover the section of the trip in Maine. Followed by Part 2, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; Part 3, Newfoundland and Labrador; Part 4, Quebec including a 4-day journey via cargo ship to Rimouski; Part 5, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and back to Maine where I closed the most ambitious tour, a loop, of my cycling history to date.