Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Maine Squeeze

"Now, if we catch a female with a carapace longer than this little gal here," says Captain John Nicolai, ambiguously brandishing a small measuring instrument in one hand and a live two-pound lobster, claws snapping angrily, in the other, "What do we do? We throw her back. There you go, little lady,” he murmurs, gently lobbing the thrashing crustacean over the side of the little boat, Lulu. “In less sustainable fisheries than Maine, you catch a five, six – heck, once I caught a twelve pounder – you sell it on the market for a good sum, but you’re killing your cash cow.” He goes on to explain that a larger lobster lays exponentially more eggs than a small one, and that large lobsters keep populations up in heavily fished places like Bar Harbor. “Now, what do we do if we catch a great big male? Any guesses?” (A little boy, the youngest of Lulu’s fifteen or so passengers, shouts “eat it!”) “Nope! We throw ‘em back. Why? Because a great big female can only pair up with a great big male. Every lady lobster’s got to find her perfect match.”

I imagine the lucky demonstration female, briefly and bizarrely airborne before sinking slowly down to her murky bed, perhaps to seek her perfect match. (Then I imagine the tender, salty-sweet lobster meat on a toasty, butter-saturated bun that I gleefully consumed on the roadside in Wiscasset the previous day, and admit that both images fill me with a similar warm-and-fuzzy contentment.)

Captain John brings the boat up alongside Egg Rock, a tiny islet harboring an old-fashioned lighthouse and a colony of seals, lounging in the low tide like absurd, great-eyed lumps. J squeezes my hand, and I feel the gentle pressure of his too-big engagement ring between my fingers.

Indeed. This lady lobster’s found her perfect match. Let me tell you how it went.

Bar Harbor, Maine, got its name from a sand bar connecting the mainland village to Bar Island, a small forested hilltop rising out of the sea no more than half a mile offshore. The bar itself, however, is only exposed at low tide, when it becomes a sandy path some forty feet across, lined with mussel beds that bubble and wheeze when the tide goes out.

We crossed the bar around three in the afternoon, collecting seashells and prodding at tidal pools as we went; by three-thirty we mounted Bar Island’s little slope and followed a dirt track through glades of apple trees to a field of long, sweet-smelling grass. We lounged there and talked softy and seriously, eating bruised sour fruits and watching a heron cross the wide blue sky. We laughed for a long time and then lay quietly, watching the autumn leaves turn to fire as the light changed.

Finally, we made our way back down to the beach. At first we thought that we had come out the wrong side and that the expanse of unbroken ocean before us was a mistake, but no – the bar was gone, the tide was coming in.

I started unlacing my boots. “Come on!” I shouted.

“What?” he asked me.

“We have to cross!”

What?” he asked again.

“The tide just started coming in, right? So it can’t be too deep – we’ll just walk across like Moses! What, do you really want to call the Bar Harbor police station and have them send the coast guard? Or should we just wait here until this time tomorrow?”

My sense of tides, it turns out, was woefully wide of the mark – tides go in and out not once but twice a day, and this far north of the equator, it’s a nine-foot difference between high and low. But J, though not an aquatically-inclined person, was no better informed than I – and, after successfully suppressing mild panic, he took off his boots and began to roll up his trousers.

I didn’t even hitch up my skirt - we anticipated no more than knee-deep. I should add that we were dressed for a romantic day of lobster-eating and window-shopping, not beachcombing and certainly not ocean-fording. But we resolutely tied our boots together, slung them around our necks, perched purse and camera bag on our shoulders, and felt the icy bite of the North Atlantic.

In no time we were up to our waists, and a half-mile of indeterminate sea stretched out before us. And it was really, really, really cold. By this time, a small crowd of tourist onlookers had congregated on the far shore and were waving and snapping photographs. J was beginning to panic – but we gripped hands, breathed in resolve against the cold, the current and the rising tide, and crossed the sea like Moses.

We emerged to applause, dripping wet and relief. After stripping down to our wet underwear, we climbed into our rental car, cranked up the heat, and laughed until we were warm again.

That night, under a sky filled with more stars than I have ever seen – and meteors streaking across them like a code only we could decipher – J asked me to marry him.

That was two weeks ago – and even after we left that land of vanishing islands, lobster love and autumnal fire, my life continues to be more vibrant, more delicious. My heart is full of gratitude, and I’m so looking forward to this season of celebrating – the harvest, the spooks, the fire in the hearth, and all our love for one another. Thank you all, as we reach for each other across these ephemeral high-wires, for being here to celebrate with me.