An historic herring brining shed sits on pilings near the shore in Lubec a few years before it was dislodged by a fierce winter storm in January 2018 and drifted across the border into Canada. Credit: Courtesy of RJ Heller

The storm was fierce. She tries to hold fast to the pilings that moored her all these years, but her brittle bones snap from that last bite of a January storm. Her scream was horrific, though no one heard it. In that moment, wind howling, surf pounding in unforgiving punches amidst darkness cloaked in white, she lets go and floats away. Looking back on Lubec — a place she watched grow, almost die and now in the midst of rebirth — her home for 110 years waves goodbye. She treads water, and then her light goes out.

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Down East is special. To drive along its coastline is a treat, but the real jewels in this place, where whispers of story reside, are its small coastal towns. Each town I visit is like opening a wrapped package, a gift. I carefully peel back the paper, with respect, unraveling a trove of uniqueness wrapped in beauty.

Lubec is a town where the wind resides and whispers of its past can be found around every corner. It is a place that sits on the edge of America where the sun is seen first every morning before sweeping the rest of the land. In the beginning it was a fishing town. It still is today, though time has changed it and its people have, too. The sardine industry made the town and then gave up, yet fishermen survive here today and carry on the story. Originally named after a city in Germany, Lubec authored stories of smokehouses, herring and sardines, gold from seawater, and celebrated a man named Hopley Yeaton, who retired to the town after serving as the first commissioned officer in what became the U.S. Coast Guard.

One thing that is a constant Down East is change. Change is everywhere, offering glimpses of past and present to anyone coming into a coastal town. Its embrace is saturated with salt air and friendly waves from people eager to sit and chat about where they live. Lubec is no different.   

The wind pushes change down Water Street, past the wharf, shops, the harbor, and over to the Canadian island of Campobello, once summer home to FDR. It is a circular route, one constant in a sea of change that surprises me every time I visit. This easternmost town in the U.S. is also home to a famous lighthouse that sits atop West Quoddy Head.

In the spring, the town receives travellers with an unblemished touch of the hand while it shirks off the cold after a long winter. Fresh paint flies and neatly stitched “Open” flags are at the ready. A frosty pint from the Lubec Brewing Company awaits those parched from their journey back to the edge of this nation’s most northeastern point.

Memories of that old brining shed lost in that 2018 January northeaster linger. Its pilings of wood peek over low tide. Moss laden and black with time, it is a snapshot of old days, old ways. Downeasters pulling line, herring weirs full then empty, fish racked to dry, then processed and canned. Women, children and men living side-by-side, working long hours amidst ocean, tides and time, their stories now held within the McCurdy Museum.

People gather along Lubec Narrows to see the remains of the herring brining shed of McCurdy’s Smokehouse. The building went about 100 yards out to sea before becoming hung up on pylons. Credit: Courtesy of Craig McCaslin

Fog, a tolerable companion, is like a canvas floating in mid-air across the town. When fog visits, residents make room for it, place setting and all, “Why fight it,” they say. “Sit a spell, friend, in front of the fire and let’s pull up the covers together.” When the fog lifts change is everywhere, because residents made do by creating keepsake moments to placate themselves and, of course, inspire summer guests. This place harbors painters, potters, poets, musicians, writers and photographers, and hosts an international marathon while providing a shoreline vista that takes your breath away — all while waving to its Canadian brethren across the water.

On a walk about town you will find hints of music and art, surrounded by the history of a small fishing village still clinging to bygone days. SummerKeys offers workshops in everything musical plus writing and photography; Down East souls lost on the water are now found on a fishermen’s memorial where their names rest in granite, forever; fishermen wave from boats as they head out in a morning haze of briny soup; gulls defy gravity, and a waft of air rattles the herring racks in the museum up the street. On uneven sidewalks prodded by time, you’re guided by whispers down streets surrounded by water just in time to see the tide’s return. You may say, “Is this it?” But then you realize how rugged and resourceful these people are to make something from nothing. Everything is here, if one pauses to feel the wind and listen. 

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The soul of a place will speak to you if you listen carefully. In Lubec, it comes from rooftops and windows glazed in memory, houses old and new, from voices young and old. Their stories will greet you, wish you well and provide comfort as you stop. The town’s artistry will guide your walk from one end of town to the other. And, just maybe, a faint whisper will rise and touch your ear, a child from yesterday’s January storm, her voice still carried on the wind.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.