Tornadoes and Hurricanes in Maine?

On a Maine Island, there are 3 kinds of weather; two that matter anyway.

1. You can leave.    2. You can’t leave.”  Eva Murray, Matinicus Island

On Peaks Island our severe weather events trend towards snow and ice, not hurricanes or tornados. That is, usually. Shortly after our family moved to Peaks in the summer of 1985, I stopped at The Gull for a cup of coffee and noticed a big bear of a man gobbling down a stack of blueberry pancakes at a nearby table. On his head was a grimy captain’s cap, his unkempt beard flowing over a bulky red Mackinaw shirt. Above him, a framed weather-beaten photo hung on the wall.

Under the caption: Taking a Stroll on Casco Bay, the Casco Bay lines ferry, Emita, rested against the ice several hundred yards from the Peaks Island wharf. A line of passengers snaked their way down the gangplank, trudging across the ice towards shore. A heavy-set figure wearing a captain’s cap, his bulky Mackinaw flung open to the weather was circled in red crayon. My eye toggled between the photo and the man eating his pancakes; they were one and the same. It was Bud Perry, a merchant mariner who bridged the icy 1930’s and a warming Casco Bay.

Bud Perry was not my only connection to colder, more brutal Maine winters. Spindly legged Albion Miller, from Chebeague Island, remembered being bundled up in the family sleigh for a special Christmas trip to Portland…six miles over the ice. Or imagine if you will, a team of horses dragging a cottage across the frozen bay from Portland to Peaks Island, giving the phrase, “We moved to Peaks Island,” a whole new meaning.

The cashier handed me my coffee and change. “Doc, hurricane’s on the way. Better board up your windows.” And as surreal as it sounded, Hurricane Gloria, packing 120 mile an hour winds, was slowly churning north from the Outer Banks of North Carolina towards Maine. That evening our family clustered around the television for the evening news. A cameraman and reporter on the Portland side updated viewers on the impending storm. “We’re here tonight at the Casco Bay Lines,” the newscaster began. “The City of Portland has recommended evacuation of the city islands and we’ll be interviewing residents from Peaks Island coming off the ferry presently.”

We munched on popcorn as two crewmen wrestled the gangplank over the side of the Island Romance as it docked in Portland. The camera scanned the deck, then down the gangplank. Not a single person off-loaded. Instead, the camera followed a long line of islanders waiting to board the ferry to Peaks. Carts were piled high with sheets of plastic, two by fours, lanterns, bedding and tools, and oddly, suitcases, and fishing poles. A sober faced man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lugging an immense potted plant was asked by the reporter, “What in the world are you thinking, heading out to Peaks Island when city officials have recommended evacuation?”

“Hurricane party.”

The next morning, as the storm passed over the cool waters of southern New England it rapidly lost strength. Even so, its 75 mph winds caused considerable damage throughout Casco Bay. Later that afternoon we ventured out into the aftermath of the storm in our truck, picking our way through downed trees and wind-blown debris. The open ocean of the back shore was a spectacular sight with crashing waves flowing over the perimeter road. But we were not alone. It seemed that every man, woman, and child on the island was outside, leaning into the wind, playing frisbee and screaming to be heard above the raging surf. It was, after all, a hurricane party.

In our early years on the island, thunderstorms would also lose power as they tracked across the cool waters of Casco Bay. Mid-summer water temperatures rarely cracked 62 degrees and if someone ventured into the water it was a mad dash in, a breathless scream, and a mad dash out. Over several decades, the water off the beach has steadily risen to a tepid 70 degrees. One sultry summer afternoon, I watched from our kitchen window as thunderclouds built over Portland three miles distant. Minutes later, a massive gray wall of water raced across the inner bay and the storm hit like a sledgehammer. It bore down so quickly, a novice sailboat class was caught off-shore, dumping their crew of 10-year-olds into the bay.

A call went out to our local police station and two patrolmen jumped into the jeep and raced towards the marina. In front of our house a deer bolted across the road and collided with the jeep, cartwheeling through the air and knocking a young boy off his bicycle traveling in the opposite direction. I heard the brakes screech and ran up to the top of the road. Miraculously, the boy suffered only a scraped knee, the police were unhurt, and the deer, well, the deer was mortally wounded. The police radio relayed welcome news: the children had all been retrieved safely from the water. Thank goodness. But what to do about the deer?

The police were no longer in a hurry, but the unfortunate deer would need to be dispatched. One policeman instructed the crowd to pull back as the other drew his service revolver and approached the writhing deer on the side of the road. It was not reassuring to the crowd when the nervous patrolman “missed” and his partner finished the job. But we digress.

Air conditioners? Here are three words which not so long ago were never found in the same sentence.  Maine. Air. Conditioners. When my wife Sandi bought our first window air conditioner ten years ago and placed it in our bedroom window, I declared it was unnecessary and noisy to boot. That was a losing argument. Now we have a heat pump which delivers inexpensive heat in the winter and a cool, pleasant breeze to our living room in July and August.

Global warming is not a straight line. As Sandi tells me, it’s not all global warming; it’s global weirding. We continue to experience the occasional deep freeze, but it is viewed with wonder rather than accepted as the usual. I travel in my boat year-round but tie it off to a finger pier on the Portland side when it’s unsafe to keep on Peaks Island. “Unsafe” usually means February and high winds. A few years back, February was a throw-back month. Day after day my boat sat in Portland as the thermometer never cracked 20 degrees. Ice formed around the docks and car-sized ice burgs floated down the Fore River with each tide.

The old-timers commented at the coffee shop: Yes, it’s cold but seawater freezes at 28.6 degrees, not 32, and what’s more, the bay will never freeze while it’s windy. The following day, a front blew in from the south and a winter thunderstorm dropped three inches of rain before switching over to hail, then snow. A polar front flowed in from Canada and it dropped to -3 degrees. Sea smoke drifted over the bay. The flag at the Post Office drooped in the icy stillness.

The next morning, I boarded the ferry to Portland and walked over to where my boat was tied off. In one hand was a hammer to break up the frozen ice on my deck. In the other hand was a shovel to clear off the ice and return it to the harbor. A thick sheet of ice locked in not only my boat, but the Sea Tow water taxi, Grebe, a 30-foot sailboat, and Good Times, a wide-beamed lobster boat. I set to work with my hammer on the floor decking. There is something disconcerting about breaking up ice with a hammer on the inner hull of a boat; disconcerting and perhaps, dumb. But I kept at it, alternating between hammering off 4-inch-thick slabs of ice and shoveling them overboard onto the ice. When I was done, my boat was still floating and the pile of ice and snow off my starboard was the size of a small snowman.

There is a saying in a Seinfeld comedy skit in which Jerry is asked by a female friend, “What are guys thinking?” and Jerry replied, “Absolutely nothing.” That may explain why I looked around to see if anyone was watching and cautiously stepped onto the ice and walked around the boat like a brainless teenager.

That, as it turns out, was the last time the inner bay froze.

In our changing ecosystem, there are winners and losers. Our lobsters are migrating gradually north towards the cooler waters of Canada. Chesapeake Bay blue crabs have been discovered in nearby Scarborough marsh. Whether they supplant the iconic Maine rock crab is anybody’s guess, but I’m rooting for the blue crabs; they’re delicious. Years ago, we were at the northern range of striped bass; now they’re a reliable and valuable sport fishery. At a recent community lecture, a speaker from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute flicked on a slide showing how high the waters of Casco Bay will rise in the next 50 years. If estimates hold true, we will be able to fish from our bedroom.

Two summers ago, I watched from our living room as another massive thunderstorm blew in from the west. Coal-black clouds rose upward over Portland, and I ran downstairs to close the windows as thunderclaps shook the house. A light drizzle began to fall, but thankfully, the storm tracked towards the northeast, barely missing Peaks Island. The sun peaked through the clouds and a spectacular double rainbow magically appeared in the west.

I laced up my running shoes and headed out to the back shore. As I turned the corner towards the open ocean, I stopped to watch as the storm passed over Inner and Outer Green Islands on the distant horizon. Lightning flickered like fireflies on a hot summer night within the coal-black clouds. Suddenly two funnels appeared and hanging like black malicious ropes swept back and forth across the water. As quickly as they dropped, an unseen hand drew them back. In another minute, the massive storm faded over the horizon.

Tornadoes in Maine? Can you say, Global weirding?

13 thoughts on “Tornadoes and Hurricanes in Maine?

  1. It was so nice to receive your story of climate change from your island perspective. I particularly appreciate the picture you presented of the six-mile crossing from Portland on the bay’s ice in winter in earlier times. Your stories are unique, interesting, sometimes deeply touching and always colorful in vivid description. Keep them coming!

    • Hi Judith,
      Thanks for your encouraging words. I’m excited that a 3rd book of mine is being published by Down East Books this spring: John Jenkins: The Mayor of Maine. John was a classmate of mine at Bates College in the 70’s and went on to become Maine’s first Black State Senator. He also was mayor of Lewiston, Mayor of Auburn, ran for governor, and won 5 world championships in karate. Not bad for a guy who grew up in Newark, New Jersey amid the Newark race riots. Maine was fortunate to have him (he passed away during Covid). Chuck

    • Thanks Theo.
      I went to Long Beach Island for a bird count recently and met up with Rick for the day. A long drive for a few birds…but he’s doing well and that was a treat. Chuck

  2. Another great read, Chuck. So interesting to consider storms and climate change from the island perspective. The recent Dec. 23rd storm must have been wild out there. Keep writing.

  3. Great story brings me back to my Brother telling my Mother that he and his friends just walked from Portland to Peaks and back.The year was 1969 or 70 as I am not sure.
    A year later my brother and I played in the Thanksgiving day snow bowl Portland vs Deering game that was going to be call off due to the storm but 5,000 people were already in the Stadium before 10:30am kick off. So wasn’t a foot of blizzard snow and freezing temps ( I sat on the bench or stood in front of it.)
    My son played in the 2000-1-2-3 games and sunny and 40 to 50 degrees abounded.

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for writing. I’ve heard stories about the bay freezing into the early 70’s.
      Your brother was just as reckless as I was. In 1971 I walked onto the ice in Brunswick and fell through up to my armpits. My feet hit the mud but there was nothing between the ice and my armpits…. the tide was out. VERY SCARY!

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