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Heat Wave in Maine? Hardly.

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

"It's 800 degrees," exclaimed Nate Cushman midway through an afternoon hike up Mount Battie. "Think there's a breeze up there?"

First of all, Nate, coastal Maine never has felt or will feel like 800 degrees. Camden, 85 miles northeast of Portland and home of the 800-foot rocky knob, rarely experiences summer temperatures above the mid-80s. Second (going back to Nate's question), of course there's a breeze: Cool winds from the Atlantic constantly drift over Penobscot Bay and into Camden's streets and parks, keeping the picturesque seaside town from overheating.

Yet the young Mainer, and other locals, have an entirely different perspective on heat from Washingtonians'. Last week, when I visited, the area was experiencing a "heat wave." On the radio, a DJ called the weather hotter than the devil's naughty bits. In shops, customers swapped sympathetic words with one another: "Hot enough for you?" "Don't I know it."

I stood by, amused.

As Washington nears its historically hottest day of the year -- tomorrow -- it seemed appropriate to escape to a town that seems geographically incapable of roasting. "It's rarely ever really hot," Del Lawrence, a Richmond native who works as assistant manager at the High Tide Inn, told me by phone. "I have lived here nine years, and it's been 90 only twice."

Lawrence advised taking along warmer garments, especially for nighttime, when temperatures can drop drastically. So the winter fleece was going on a summer vacation.

* * *

Camden residents can spend hours discussing wind, fog and other Weather Channel topics. But they can also chat at length about boats, lobsters, art, lighthouses, John Travolta and blueberry picking: the people, places and things in their immediate surroundings.

The town (population 4,000 winter, 12,000 summer) is fortunate in that it does not have to choose between mountain and sea; it is graced with both. (The area's motto is "Where the Mountains Meet the Sea.")

At the Public Landing, steps from town center, the bow-shape harbor was crammed with fishing vessels and sailboats grand and humble. Ducks and seagulls competed for crumbs. Along the dock, tour operators sat at umbrella-shaded tables with sign-up sheets. The first leisure windjammer cruise departed from here in the 1930s, and now several schooners, many weathered by time and sea spray, take visitors around the bay from morning to sunset.

I was told that out on the water, the temperature is 15 to 20 degrees cooler than onshore. However, I was not significantly hot enough to warrant a boat ride. (It was a delightful 84 degrees, after all.) So, I went "inland" to Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park, where I could work up a sweat.

I arrived around the same time as Nate Cushman and Deb McCusker, who was training for a hike up Maine's tallest mountain, the 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin. They invited me to join them and, right away, started to talk about the heat.

"I was sweatin' today," said Nate. "I had to spend the whole day at the beach."

In a conspiratorial tone, Deb, who is originally from Delaware, explained to me: "It gets really hot for them at 80 to 82 degrees. They die."

Luckily, the first half of the trek was shaded by towering evergreens that sliced the blue sky into thin ribbons. However, at the steeper rocky section, which required boulder-hopping and a bit of spider-crawling, our cover disappeared. Without the trees, we were naked to the sun. Nate started to melt.

We reached the peak in less than an hour, and in that short time I felt as if I had leapt to the top of the world. From my perch in the stone observation tower, I could clearly see the miniaturized town, the harbor and its toy boats, and a confetti toss of islands. A layer of fog created a pale gray backdrop against the deep blue of the bay, and many of the islands were blurry, like overexposed film.

While the fog obscured the long views, it had its advantages, too. Thanks to the bay breeze, the moist air was blown in our direction and provided little fan bursts that ruffled my hair and cooled my skin. I was now ready to descend and hail a windjammer.

* * *

Camden is very well-to-do, like the Hamptons but with Sperry Top-Siders instead of Gucci loafers -- and no pretensions. Most of the homes follow the Brahmin color scheme of white exterior with black shutters; look-at-me pastels and architectural flourishes are not the norm. And while it may be uncouth to talk about your annual bonus, it's not vulgar to talk about others' conspicuous consumption.

One of the most famous nearby homeowners is John Travolta. Word is, he flies his plane into Owl's Head airport, then drives to Lincolnville (one town north of Camden) to catch the 20-minute ferry to Islesboro, where he owns a spread.

The houses on the 12-mile-long island mainly belong to the wealthy (self-made or inherited), but the ferry fare of $7.50 round trip makes the island an egalitarian side trip. After the constant activity of Camden, Islesboro was a nice exhalation.

For such a small island, with one of everything but not much more, I was amazed at how easily I filled my hours: poking around tidal pools on Town Beach, pawing through $5 dresses at a church yard sale, viewing quilts at the historical society and watching the kids working at the Dark Harbor Shop eat spoonfuls of rainbow jimmies.

The last boat leaves at 4:30 p.m., and you want to be on it, as overnight lodging is limited. It's wise to plan ahead as well: I had attempted to take the 3:30, but it was full. (The guy driving the black Rolls-Royce didn't make it on either, so I felt better.)

Staying within eyeshot of my car, I wandered down to a small slice of beach, where a father and his two grown sons were prepping their day sailer. One of the sons, Dave de Grasse, pointed out Kirstie Alley's old house, an impressive sprawl on the water.

"Everyone treats each other equally, whether you have a mansion or a trailer," said de Grasse, whose family has owned a summer place here for several decades. "The island is laid-back and isolated. And after 4:30, it's like the bridge has gone up."

I made the crossing just in time.

* * *

A cold spell was forecast for my last day, and I awoke with an entertaining image in my head: a boat full of tourists buzzing around Penobscot Bay in blankets and fleece, dressed for December in July. The 50-foot Schooner Olad's earliest departure was at 9:45, before the sun could sufficiently warm up the brisk northern air. Perfect weather for a summer sail.

Aaron Lincoln, the captain and owner of the vessel, has logged nearly 100,000 miles on the bay and around its islands. After admiring the boat's sleek lines and polished wood, I turned my fascination to his beard, a burly red nest that would make a nice home for a family of bald eagles. Lincoln was a very easygoing commander as he steered the boat past a cruise ship and along the craggy coastline, rarely pausing in his anecdotes and descriptions.

Seals often sun on the rocks, porpoises skim the waves, and ospreys roost atop Curtis Lighthouse. But the wildlife was being coy this a.m., so Lincoln regaled us with tabloid-worthy stories. He showed us the largest house in Camden, which features a 72-car garage. A short distance later, we passed a mansion surrounded by sculptural rocks. Lincoln explained that the family's son had died in a boating accident and the mother had the stones aligned as therapy. Though the rows appeared haphazard, there was order to her invention: They all lead to a mermaid figure holding a star in the palm of her hand.

On the return sail, the conversation turned toward recipes. Lobster, of course, was the main ingredient: caramelized onion, asiago cheese and lobster omelet; asparagus and lobster quiche. Then it switched to the weather.

"We can all talk about the weather and get along," said Lincoln, as his first mate lowered the sails in Camden Harbor. Indeed, even when we have different definitions of hot, we certainly can.

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