(from a column by Bob Bernstein previously published in Offshore magazine. Photo courtesy of Steven W. Kress)
It happened about 20 or so years ago. I was firmly ensconced in a New York City 9 to 5 grind when a friend telephoned me and spoke the words that would forever change my life: "Bob, I found some shipwrecks in Penobscot Bay. Come up and help me salvage them." Two months later, I had everything from my apartment loaded onto the deck of a 30' Sisu bound for the coast of Maine.
Having gained a few gray hairs and lost a few thousand dollars in the process, I think I can say with absolute certainty that treasure hunting is more about sinking money into the ocean than it is about finding what has been sunk. In fact, if indeed a boat is a hole in the water in which one throws money, treasure hunting is a bottomless pit.
But I was not then and am not now discouraged, because the waters of Maine are chock full of interesting finds. Whether they be buried under the silt of the state's rivers, or out in the open for all to behold, this coast holds some of the world's great treasures.
One of the state's most curious finds was discovered off the shores of Castine in 1971. Two large jars brought to the surface by divers and sent to the University of Maine were later identified as amphorae by Dr. Barry Fell, a Harvard University Professor.
Dr. Fell, and the Director of the Early Sites Research Center, James Whittall, claimed the jars had originated from the Southern Iberian Peninsula. They further postulated that Phoenician traders or Iberian-Celtic merchants -- while bartering with the Indians of the region -- freighted supplies and goods to the area many hundreds of years before Columbus discovered America. Moreover, a substantiating piece of evidence to this theory was found on Monhegan Island, where ancient Celtic writing, carved into the rock and translated by Dr. Fell, reads: "Cargo Platforms for Ships from Phoenicia."
Surely it must have been a trick to navigate the waters of Maine in a ship built circa 7th century BC. I can picture trying to maneuver around the nearby ledge, Roaring Bull, with wind and tide in opposition, and nothing for backup but a galley full of fur-clothed men on oars. The very idea of it makes me wonder: What did the Phoenicians or Iberian-Celts come here for? Were they here as explorers and adventurers? Did they get blown off course during one of their circumnavigations of Africa, or were they here for something special?
We might not ever know what brought the Indo-Europeans to Maine, but we can be sure that while they were here, they enjoyed the seafood. Ever hear of a shell midden? Maine has quite a few of them. They're ancient garbage heaps of clam, oyster and other types of seafood shells. Although no one really knows how many middens there are along the coast (hundreds, maybe even thousands) one thing's for certain: Native Mainers knew how to throw a clam bake.
Scientists have determined that the remains of these shore-dinners are between one thousand and five thousand years old, which predates them to a time when lobsters crawled around the intertidal zone like green grabs do today. In fact, not far from where I live, clams and oysters were once so plentiful they inspired the locals to name a tributary of the St. George River after them: Beginning as a trickle out of the Rockland Bog, the Oyster River empties into the St. George in Thomaston, less than a mile north of the Thomaston bridge on Route 1.
Clearly, native tribes took full advantage of Maine's inshore treasures. For example, we know that the Etchimins (translation: The Men) and the Passamaquoddy (from Pestumokadyik, meaning, "People Who Spear Pollock") paddled their canoes up and down the coast in search of food. But where else did they go? How far out to sea did they travel? Did they venture to the outer Islands of Maine and Canada?
Sure. Why not? In 1992, I captained a motor escort for a modern day explorer who, while traveling by ocean kayak, traced the migration route of the now extinct Great Auk, a flightless bird whose bone fragments can be found from Funk Island, Newfoundland to Narragansett, RI. The explorer, Richard Wheeler, a schoolteacher from Massachusetts, proved that the distant islands of Maine and Canada were not beyond the reach of adventurous souls in kayaks and canoes. Undoubtedly, native tribes hunted The Great Auk and other sea birds for meat and eggs, as did the people who later colonized Northern New England and the Maritimes.
Alas, the Great Auk is gone, as are many of the shell and fin fish. But much remains, and much is being restored.
At one time, 100 to 200 years ago, Atlantic puffins and other arctic sea birds nested on Maine's outer islands in great numbers. They came in the spring and stayed just long enough to mate and raise their young, then it was back out to sea for the remainder of the year. But heavy harvesting for meat, eggs and feathers virtually wiped these birds off the Maine map. By 1901, only one pair could be found in the United States. That pair was on Matinicus Rock at the outer reaches of Penobscot Bay.
The effort to restore these birds to their rightful nesting grounds began with a Matinicus Rock lighthouse keeper.
William G. Grant was hired to keep the hunters at bay and as a result became one of America's first wildlife wardens. Despite the heroic efforts, protecting the birds on the local level was not enough, so in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty act, making it illegal to kill most kinds of wild birds.
The puffins thrived on Matinicus Rock under the protection of the U.S. Government and concerned wildlife groups like National Audubon, but it wasn't until Stephen W. Kress got into the act that things began to change dramatically.
Dr. Kress dreamed that one day Maine's outer islands would be covered in nesting sea birds. In 1973, he embarked on a wildlife project that has since become a model for restoration efforts around the world. Over a span of eight years, Kress and his colleagues brought 954 puffin chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine. The chicks were given hand dug burrows to live in and vitamin-fortified fish to eat. Decoys were set up on the rocks to make them feel more welcome. Finally, in 1977, the first of the Great Island emigrants appeared over Eastern Egg Rock. Why? Because puffins of breeding age return to their place of birth year after year after year.
Today, puffins can be found on Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Petit Manan Island National Wildlife Refuge. These are the only places in the United States where you can see these birds. Tour boat operators (including myself) run people to the islands on regularly scheduled trips, but anyone with a stout boat and solid navigational skills can find their own way; just remember, no landings; these are protected nesting sites.
OK, so what if all I have to show for my treasure hunting efforts are a half dozen portholes and an equal number of old anchors and bottles? Who cares? With or without the pieces of eight and silver specie, I'm walking where the Phoenicians walked, eating where the Etchimins ate . . . and sunbathing beyond the shadow of the puffin's wing.
Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved