I lock up the car, wincing when the horn toots. It’s shortly after five a.m., and I don’t imagine that the folks who live directly across the street appreciate my old Subaru’s salute to the morning. While I spray my hat and clothing with mosquito repellent, I note with satisfaction that there are no other cars parked here yet, so there aren’t any other early walkers, which makes it more likely that I’ll see any deer, foxes, or birds that may be around. Hefting the daypack with my breakfast and journal, I slip past the locked barrier that will keep vehicles out of the park until the ranger comes to open up in a couple of hours, and set off for the lighthouse and the Point.
It’s chilly at this hour, so I move along pretty briskly while still trying not to miss anything that may be in the woods to either side. As I round the first curve in the road, the scent of balsam fir wakes up my nose with the pure essence of forest. A little further on there is a stretch of maple and birch, and my steps slow as I come into it, listening for the distinctive fluting of thrushes. Sure enough, they’re back for the summer, just where they have always been. Bad luck for the pileated woodpeckers, though: one of the big old rotted spruces they were working on last year apparently came down across the road over the winter–the remnants of the sawn-up trunk and boughs are dragged just far enough into the woods to be out of the way of the mower that maintains the verge. It’s a policy of the Bureau of Parks and Lands not to haul away these brush piles, leaving them where they are to become wildlife habitat. A couple of years ago, I saw a fox come out of one, whether from its den or from hunting, I don’t know.
The access road measures a mile from the entrance gate to the parking lot, so it isn’t long before I’m walking up the little hill that leads to the neatly maintained park grounds. I haven’t seen a fox or deer this morning, but I did spot magnolia warblers and northern parulas, and heard a raptor of some sort screech overhead, though I wasn’t quick enough to see what it was.
The early morning sun is slanting through the trees, and Fort Point Light and its keeper’s cottage look trim and tidy. It’s not a very imposing structure as lighthouses go, not a tall cone, but a simple square tower not much taller than the story-and-a-half house. The height is deceptive, though, since the bluff on which the light is built drops sharply away behind the house. It actually stands sixty feet above the surface of the water. It is still a working navigational aid, and the light can be seen from ten miles out in Penobscot Bay. (Despite which, a freighter missed the mouth of the river one night and ran aground here about thirty-five years ago. My mother and I were awakened out of a sound sleep by the jolt. Having just come from Guam, where earthquakes were a routine occurrence, we both bounded out of bed, wedged ourselves into the nearest door frames, and then became aware of the awful screech of tortured metal. When there were no further jolts, no flames visible from a plane crash, no emergency vehicles, no lights in neighbors’ houses, no signs at all that anything untoward had happened, we went back to bed. The next day, like everybody else in town, we went down to see the immense ship towering over the narrow strip of shoreline. The local lobstermen were having a good laugh at the captain’s expense. “Musta been drunker ‘n a gawdamn skunk,” one of them said.)
I pass the tumbled brick walls, all that remains now of a luxury resort, the Fort Point Hotel, which was built here in 1872. It could accommodate up to 200 guests, most of whom were wealthy elite from Boston and New York City who came by steamboat to ‘rusticate’ for the summer. With its posh clientele and state-of-the-art amenities such as running water, gas lights, riding stables, bowling alley, and two dance pavilions, it must have been a lively place. Unfortunately, it burned down shortly before it was to open for the season in 1898.
There are also remains of the British fort that was built here in 1759 to guard the mouth of the Penobscot River and secure the area against the French. Fort Pownall never played an active part in any war, however, since Quebec fell to the English soon after the fort was built, and the British stripped the guns out of it in March of 1775 to keep them from falling into rebel hands.
There’s some fascinating history here, to be sure, but it isn’t the hotel or the fort or even the lighthouse that draws me to this place, not today, so I take the path through the trees that leads to the bluff over the river. When I come over the brow of the hill, the panorama opens up before me. To my right, beyond the lighthouse, I’m looking down Penobscot Bay. To my left, the prospect is upriver toward Bucksport, the tall suspension bridge there clearly visible. Across the river from my vantage is a shoreline of small farms between Orland and Castine. It is so magnificently quiet this morning I can hear a rooster crow over there.
I descend the slope toward the beach. Often there will be gulls and cormorants on the sandspit that curls out toward the green channel marker, but one morning when I came down I was thrilled to see eleven great blue herons meditating on the shore. There aren’t any herons this morning, but the gulls spot me and take off in a raucous chorus.
The bleached log that serves as a seat is still here, though the action of the winter ice has moved it to the opposite side of the sandspit from where it was last summer. I settle on it, pour a cup of coffee, unwrap the blueberry muffin I’ve brought for the occasion, and savor my breakfast, pausing from time to time to watch the seals, porpoises, and ospreys through my binoculars. The sea hawks have come back this year to nest atop the channel marker, and when one of the adults returns to the nest with a fish, I can see at least two nestlings reaching up for it.
This first pilgrimage to the Park is an annual tradition for me. I’ll be down here for breakfast many mornings this summer, but the first one of the year is special, a rite of continuity, I guess, and a celebration of summer’s freedom to enjoy the moment. I retired from teaching five years ago yesterday and made a beeline for this place the next morning. Some places knit you back together, enlarge your soul, feed you with their beauty. This place does that for me. I hope you have a special spot, too.