Peter Shelton

Rowing Uphill

Posted in Gas Pains, Watch columns by pshelton on September 23, 2010

The red canoe out in the middle of West Passage was not making headway. It had an outboard motor – we could hear it buzzing away – but the little craft and its single occupant struggled mightily against the incoming tide. At times, it looked as if he was actually going backward.

Adam and I had come to this street end in the down-and-out fishing town of Eastport, Maine, to see if we could get a glimpse of the Old Sow, the biggest tidal whirlpool in the western hemisphere. (The world’s largest whirlpool forms at a narrow gap between islands in Norway’s far north.)

The Old Sow appears now and again in the West Passage between Eastport and the tip of Canada’s Deer Island as tidal waters either rush into or flow out of Passamaquoddy Bay. The tides here regularly fluctuate 20 feet or more. When Adam and I drove in for breakfast, the vast clam flats inland of Eastport were uncovered for miles. Now, the water was surging back in, at about 7 mph (an estimated 40 billion gallons of water move through every six hours), and our hapless canoeist was paying the price for his bad timing or bad route finding, or both.

He didn’t appear to be in serious danger; this day the Old Sow failed to form its small-craft swallowing funnel. We did see lots of “piglets” and gyrating eddies and wild-looking currents, but nothing like the watery funnel that has swamped and drowned about a dozen seafarers since Eastport’s founding in 1780. Nowadays locals mostly see the humor in their Sow. Every other gift card in town is printed with the words of an (apocryphal?) downeast fisherman in his dinghy: “I didn’t mind so much gettin’ caught in it. What I resented was havin’ to row uphill to get out!”

Even though his father is from nearby Perry, Maine, Adam knew nothing about the various attempts going back to the 1930s to harness this tidal energy for electric generation. We stumbled on the story when we glimpsed a room-sized scale model of the area inside a Water Street gift shop. The model was built in 1935 to illustrate a Depression-era project that would have dammed several passages to impound the incoming tide and then generate electricity by running the water through turbines when the tide receeded.

It was called the Quoddy Project. Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed it. On the wall was a photograph of the president standing right where we were, looking at this same model. FDR knew these tides well; his family vacationed on Campobello Island, which dominates the horizon northeast of Eastport. You can visit the Roosevelt Cottage via car ferry from Eastport. Or you can drive over the Lubec bridge, which is clearly visible a couple of miles to the south. So complicated is the coastal geography here, though, it will take you a good 45 minutes to drive from Eastport to Lubec around Cobscook Bay.

The Quoddy Project would have cost $36 million, a staggering amount in those days. And Congress killed it in 1936, but not before a village for 1,000 workers had been built along with the causeways connecting the island city of Eastport to the mainland.

Since then, Eastport has seen the “self-inflicted” demise of the cod and sardine fisheries and fallen on serious hard times. Dairy farming has collapsed; timber is way down; and about the only ships pulling in to the deep-water wharf are loading paper pulp from mills in the interior.

But now a New England startup called Ocean Renewable Power Company has reenergized the old tidal generating possibilities. ORPC has been testing their proprietary cross-flow turbines in the passages around Eastport, and they’re ready to start contributing electricity to the grid. The turbines look like push lawn mowers. The 20-foot long blades spin no matter which direction the tide is flowing. They are suspended beneath barges moored in the passages. It is the largest commercial tidal generating project in the U.S. Similar efforts in the U.K. and elsewhere have been pumping out electricity for nearly a decade.

With $10 million in matching funds from the Department of Energy (out of $37 million to be spent on ocean-current projects from Alaska to the Gulf Stream), ORPC hopes in five years to contribute enough electricity to power all of Washington County. Locals we talked with are not about to drop their anti-government, anti-tax mindset in appreciation of the stimulus funds. But they should.

It’s the kind of smart, infinitely renewable, obvious thing that – along with Ridgway’s new solar farm – might give you hope that our fossil-fueled mess is not completely intractable. The Old Sow is about to do some real good.

2 Responses

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  1. Nancy Asante said, on September 29, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I enjoyed most of your “Rowing Uphill” column, but I have to ask you how much time you spent in Eastport, and how many people you talked to.

    Very few visitors now describe the city as a “down-and-out fishing town.” Those who do are either relying on 10-year-old comedy routines from Tim Sample, or didn’t notice the vibrant collection of art galleries, shops and restaurants along Water Street.

    Your friend Adam appears to be ill-informed about the history of the area. I too live in Perry, and I could have told you a lot about Roosevelt’s Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project and why it failed.

    Obviously you went into the Quoddy Crafts store to see the dam model, but did you venture farther south on Water Street to Port O’ Call or The Commons or The Tides Institute or The Pickled Herring? Like the blind men and the elephant, you have captured a very small portion of Eastport’s thriving cultural and alternative-energy scene and published it as the whole story. It’s not just about a fishing industry that isn’t what it was.

    I sincerely hope that you will come again to Eastport and spend more time getting to know its depths. The calendar of events is busy even in the winter; in the summer one must choose among several offerings on any given night: films, gallery openings, musical concerts in many different genres, poetry “slams,” hikes, church suppers, fine restaurant meals and much more.

    It saddens me to see the Eastport I know given such short shrift in your article. I wonder how many people will read of your experience and decide to “give Eastport a pass,” thereby missing out on everything authentic and exciting about this up-and-coming community.

    Yours for an accurate picture of “trendy*” Eastport,

    * one of the words used by the Portland Press-Herald recently to describe Eastport.

    • pshelton said, on September 30, 2010 at 12:08 am

      Nancy, you are of course right. Down-and-out is too strong a descriptor for Eastport, and I regretted it as soon as I sent it in. In Adam’s defense (he is my son-in-law), it was his father who spent time in Perry as a boy. Adam grew up in Massachusetts and had only recently traveled to Maine to build a camp on some property nearby. That’s how I came to visit, too. To help in the construction of camp. There are some cousins, who have in fact been gravely beset by the (near) end to scallop and other fishing stocks. They used to be dairy farmers, too. But no more. I wish Eastport and its people the best, and hope to get to know them better on future trips. Thanks for writing, -Peter

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