The least-densely populated state east of the Mississippi, Maine has vast pockets of wilderness teeming with plant and animal life. This is a place of abundant rainfall and diverse ecosystems, encompassing peatlands, boreal forests, alpine tundra and biologically rich aquatic zones. Bear and moose are Maine's most famous four-legged residents, and there are 56 other mammal and over 450 bird species, not to mention numerous reptiles and amphibians. Off the coast, harbor seals, whales, dolphins and puffins add to the state's abundantly diverse fauna.
State wildlife managers estimate that there are over 35,000 bears inhabiting Maine – more than in any other state in the US apart from Alaska. Up to 6ft in length, and standing 3ft high at the shoulder, the American black bear is the state's most powerful predator – though thankfully deadly encounters with humans are rare (there hasn't been a fatal wild bear attack in the state since the 1830s). Males typically weigh around 250lb (females are smaller and weigh around 100lb), though bears weighing up to 600lb have also been found. Though they look like lumbering creatures when they walk, black bears can run fast, reaching speeds of up to 30mph (faster than 100m world-record holder Usain Bolt). Black bears are omnivores and subsist on wild berries, acorns, grasses, tree buds, flowers and roots, with plant materials providing about 85% of their diet. The other 15% comes from insects, animal carrion and other sources of protein.
Black bears have better eyesight and hearing than humans, though their strongest sense is smell, which is about seven times keener than a dog’s. They are most active in the early morning and late evening during the spring and summer. In the wild, bears live an average of 12 to 15 years.
Contrary to common belief, black bears are not true hibernators, but do enter long periods of sleep. They may emerge from their winter dens periodically during unusually warm spells or if they are disturbed. Female bears sometimes have a surprise waiting for them when they awaken in the springtime, as their offspring are born during their winter sleep. Females typically give birth to one to four cubs every other year. The cubs arrive in January or February. These tiny newborns weigh just 10oz (less than a can of soda) and will remain close to their mother for about 18 months, or until she mates again. Mating, incidentally, typically takes place in July. Both male and female bears have more than one mate during the summer.
The moose, Maine's official state animal, flourishes in the northern forests, and its population now numbers over 75,000 – higher than in any other state in 'the Lower 48.' Moose (which comes from the Algonquian word moosu, meaning 'bark stripper') subsist on browse – the twigs and leaves of woody plants (including birch, maple and aspen) – as well as aquatic plants. Boggy areas are often the best places to spot them as they gorge (eating up to 60lb per day), particularly around dawn or dusk.
Massive in size, adult moose average at least 800lb for cows (females) to over 1100lb for bulls (males). They stand 6ft tall at the shoulder, with a length of about 9ft from nose to tail. Only bulls have antlers, which are shed and regrown each year; these can span as wide as 5ft and weigh upward of 70lb.
Moose have made a remarkable comeback in the past century, having been nearly driven to extinction in Maine owing to overhunting in the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the moose population here had declined to around 2000. Successful wildlife management, and a total ban on moose hunting from 1936 to 1980 brought their numbers back from the brink.
Beavers & River Otters
Around lakes and rivers you might see beavers or, at the very least, their handiwork in the form of beaver lodges and dams. Beavers are the state's largest rodent, and can weigh up to 60lb. Beavers typically breed in late February, with up to four offspring ('kits') born in late May.
Streamlined river otters are harder to spot, though like beavers they are relatively common throughout the state. Weighing about 20lb to 28lb, and around 4ft in length, river otters are powerful swimmers, with well-adapted eyes for spying prey in murky waters.
Several species of whale pass through the waters off Maine's coastline. These include the massive finback whale, which can grow up to 80ft long, as well as humpback and minke whales. The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is extremely rare, with only about 300 left in the world.
More commonly spotted than whales, however, are harbor seals. These doe-eyed creatures are found all along Maine's Atlantic coast and islands, and down into Massachusetts. In spring, harbor seals give birth to their offspring. Pups are left alone on the coastline (for upward of 24 hours) and might appear to be abandoned, but in fact their mothers are usually feeding nearby. It is illegal to handle or disturb these animals.
Gray seals are making a comeback in Maine (and elsewhere in New England), with a population size of around 30,000. Up until 1972 there was a bounty on seals, as fishermen believed the seals would decimate valuable cod-fishing grounds, though there is little evidence that seals compete with fishermen. Hunters slaughtered the animals in huge numbers.
An astounding variety of avian life is found inside Maine's boundaries. Aquatic species flourish in the estuaries, mudflats and salt marshes, where wading birds such as the great blue heron, snowy egret and glossy ibis can be spotted. The state's 6000 lakes and ponds provide key habitats for some species, including the iconic common loon. These black-and-white plumed birds, with their distinctive red eyes, are known for their haunting calls. Though their numbers reached record lows by the 1970s, their population has stabilized in recent years, with an estimated 3000 birds inhabiting the state.
Several dozen species of raptor nest in Maine. The best known is the bald eagle, which has a population of around 2000 across the state. Peregrine falcons also nest in Maine, and, like bald eagles, have made a remarkable comeback since the 1970s. The world's fastest animal, peregrine falcons can reach speeds of up to 180mph when diving for prey from lofty heights.
Maine's ocean islands (including Machias Seal Island) provide nesting sites for an estimated 4000 Atlantic puffins; this is the only place where they're found in the US.
Sidebar: Stranded Seals
To report a stranded, injured or dead seal, call the Maine Marine Animal Reporting Hotline on 1-800-532-9551. Don't ever attempt to help the animal yourself, as this can lead to its rejection by the mother, and subsequent death.
Sidebar: The Lynx
One of Maine's rarest land mammals is the Canada lynx. This threatened species is found only in the remote woodlands in the northwest part of the state, and they prey almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare.
People of Maine
The true natives of Maine are the indigenous peoples, who've fished, hunted and worked the land for countless generations. Though they make up just 1% of the population today, Native American tribes continue to play a prominent role advocating for the protection of Maine's natural resources. The state is also a land of immigrants, and has attracted waves of settlers seeking jobs and greater opportunities on Maine's fertile soil.
The Wabanaki (People of the Dawn) have roots that date back thousands of years in Maine. Four distinct tribes comprise the Wabanaki: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet and the Micmac. Today, each group has a reservation near the headquarters of their tribal government. Maine was the first state to establish a Department of Indian Affairs back in 1965. Ongoing challenges between tribes and the state remain.
The Penobscot are based on Indian Island (population around 600) in the Penobscot River, about 13 miles northeast of Bangor, though the limits of the reservation follows the Penobscot River for many miles. Penobscots have a non-voting representative in the Maine legislature, and they have long been strong advocates for the environment – particularly in recent fights to hold the state accountable for industrial contamination of the Penobscot River by polluting paper mills.
Sadly, there are no fluent speakers of the Abenaki-Penobscot language, as the last native speaker died in the 1990s. However, the elementary school on the island teaches the language as part of the curriculum, in hopes of revitalizing their ancestral language.
The Penobscot are known for their traditional baskets made of sweet grass, brown ash and birchbark. Birchbark is the principal ingredient in their artfully made canoes, which were once the primary means of transportation for the tribe. These are made from white birch trees, and can be crafted in an entirely sustainable manner: if done correctly, the bark can be removed without killing the tree.
The Passamaquoddy tribe numbers just under 3400 members in Maine, with another 200 living in New Brunswick (the St Croix River, the ancestral homeland of the Passamaquoddy, is now part of the US–Canada border). The tribe owns around 200,000 acres of land, about half of which is spread between two reservations: the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation and the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation, both in southeastern Maine.
Like the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy have a nonvoting representative in the state senate. Success in solving longstanding conflicts through political channels has proved limited. The breakdown of tribal–state relations was most evident in 2015 when both the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot withdrew their representatives from the chamber. The problems relate to hunting and fishing rights, the state's lax enforcement of environmental standards and access to the elver fishery in Down East.
The Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik)
The name Maliseet (Malécite in French) is itself controversial, as it's actually a word in the language of the Micmac (a neighboring tribe) roughly meaning 'broken talkers.' The Maliseet traditionally called themselves the Wolastoqiyik ('people of the beautiful river'), though they have adopted the Maliseet name today. The administrative center for the Maliseet tribe is in Littleton, in the far eastern fringes of the state. The Maine branch of this tribe that extends across Québec and New Brunswick is known as the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians (HBMI), and is made up of around 1700 members. Like the Penobscot, Maliseet are known for their birchbark basketry and canoes; they also produced some of the finest beadwork among the eastern tribes.
The Micmac occupy only a tiny sliver of the northeastern piece of the state and are known as the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. The Maine population is around 1250 members, with another 60,000 Micmacs living across the border in Canada. Although the Aroostook tribe has no reservation, it owns around 1400 acres of land, with its headquarters near Presque Isle. Despite their small tribe size, Micmacs work tirelessly to keep their culture alive. In August each year they host the Mawiomi, or 'gathering,' welcoming other native tribes and visitors to share in traditional ceremonies, dancing and storytelling.
The people 'from away' didn't just come from Boston and Philadelphia. Immigrants from Canada, Sweden and other parts of the world settled in Maine in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although assimilation has been total, many of these communities still preserve customs from their ancestral homelands.
The first wave of French-speaking immigrants from the north came from Nova Scotia during Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval. In 1755, the British cruelly expelled the French from their homes during the French and Indian War. Known as the Acadians, this group was scattered far and wide, with some settling in northern Maine.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, larger numbers of immigrants from Canada came to Maine to escape the hardscrabble life toiling on small farms in Québec and New Brunswick. The growth in American industry provided jobs in mill towns like Lewiston, Auburn, Rumford and Waterville. These new immigrants were also drawn to rural communities in the north (leading to a 50% population increase in Aroostook County). Overwhelmingly, they were of French Canadian origin. Today Franco Americans make up more than 20% of Maine's population, though in towns like Lewiston it's closer to 70%.
In the years immediately following WWI, a rise in nationalism and anti-immigrant feelings put pressure on these French-speaking communities to assimilate. In 1919 the Maine legislature passed a law making it illegal to speak French in public schools, and employers made it clear that French speakers were not welcome. Over the following generations the descendants of these early French arrivistes lost the ability to speak French, though today some 28% of Maine's Franco Americans still speak fluent French.
In the second half of the 19th century, Swedes began immigrating to Maine, lured by promising opportunities. They came to Aroostook County in the north, thanks in large part to the efforts of William Widgery Thomas, who was one of 30 of Abraham Lincoln's appointees tasked with promoting immigration to the country in 1860. Thomas, a Portland-born diplomat and graduate of Bowdoin College, developed an early affinity for Scandinavians when he served as consul to Gothenburg, Sweden, at the age of 23. There he learned the language and became immersed in the culture, in the process deciding that hard-working Swedes would make the perfect immigrants.
The first groups of arrivals came in 1870 and 1871, and set up an agricultural community in northern Maine. They cleared land, built houses and roads, and put down roots. The center of this new settlement was called New Sweden, which by 1895 had been incorporated into a township, complete with churches, shingle mills, starch factories and over 70 miles of roads. New Sweden and other Swedish-settled areas in Maine remain today, including Westmanland and Stockholm.
Descendants in the area still keep old traditions alive, including a celebrated Midsommar Festival featuring Swedish costumes and dancing and Scandinavian fare.
Sidebar: Lewiston Diversity
The once-dying mill town of Lewiston has become one of Maine's most diverse areas since the turn of the 21st century. Since then, some 7500 refugees – mostly from Somalia – have come to live in this city of 36,000.
Sidebar: The Russians
In the early 20th century, hundreds of Russian families immigrated to Maine. They came to escape the rise of the totalitarian state and established a community in Richmond, opening Russian restaurants and shops and even building an onion-domed Orthodox church, which is still there today.
Sidebar: Molly Spotted Elk
Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot Indian in Paris (Bunny McBride; 1995) tells the incredible life story of Molly Spotted Elk (neé Mary Alice Nelson). From performing traditional Penobscot dances for tourists as a child, she joined the vaudeville circuit and cabaret shows, eventually relocating to Paris. Later in life, Spotted Elk published a collection of traditional Penobscot stories, Katahdin.
Writers of Maine
The people and landscapes of Maine have nurtured many talented writers over the years, including poets, essayists, children’s book authors and horror novelists. Reading works by Maine writers provides a historical window into the issues of the day, including the anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century and the ecological catastrophe that began unfolding a century later. The writers described here evoke a strong sense of Maine and its fishing villages, small towns and coastline – and the independent-minded people that inhabit these landscapes.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Born in Portland in 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow displayed early talents in the realm of language and literature. He became fluent in Latin while still in elementary school and published his first poem in the Portland Gazette at the age of 13. A few years later, he attended Bowdoin College, where he met the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a lifelong friend. He dedicated his life to letters, publishing some 40 poems before he graduated in 1822.
After college, he traveled extensively in Europe, learning German, Spanish, French and Portuguese. His gift with languages served him well upon his return, when he took up a teaching post at Bowdoin, and later at Harvard. He continued writing, while also translating other works of literature. He was the first American to translate Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. After retiring from teaching in 1854, Longfellow devoted himself full time to writing poetry, and he became the best-known poet of his day. Some of his most famous works are still widely known today, including 'Paul Revere’s Ride,' 'The Children’s Hour' and the 'The Christmas Bells.' His epic poem 'Evangeline – A Tale of Acadie' is a love story set during the time of the Great Upheaval, when the English expelled the French inhabitants from Canada.
Though Longfellow earned notable success, his life was full of sorrow. His first wife died at the age of 22 after a miscarriage, while his second wife died from burns following a tragic accident. He spent his final years translating the poetry of Michelangelo and died in 1882 at the age of 75.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
The American abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) lived for two years in Brunswick. While there she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), one of the most important and influential anti-slavery novels of the time. Her book became an overnight sensation, and was translated into 23 languages. With vivid depictions of the cruelty of slavery, the work recruited thousands to the anti-slavery cause. Stowe also wrote The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), which captures the landscapes and small-town life of coastal Maine.
One of Maine’s best-known writers has deep connections to the state. Although born in upstate New York, EB White spent boyhood summers coming to Maine with his family. In 1933 he bought an old farmhouse near Brooklin overlooking Blue Hill Bay and lived there during the summer with his wife, Katherine, a writer and fiction editor for the New Yorker magazine. After a few years he fell in love with the place and moved there permanently in 1937. It was here that White began writing children’s fiction, publishing Stuart Little in 1945.
A few years later, he wrote Charlotte’s Web (1952), which went on to become one of the best-loved children’s books of all time. White based his characters on the creatures living in the barn out back, including the sheep, geese, pigs, and undoubtedly a spider (and perhaps even a rat) lurking in the shadows. The barn still stands today, complete with a rope swing that Fern and her brother would have used to launch themselves from the loft. The Blue Hill Fair, inspiration for the fairground scenes in Charlotte’s Web, is still one of the most popular annual events on the peninsula for both locals and visitors ‘from away.' White died in his home in 1985 and is buried in the Brooklin cemetery next to his wife.
One of the environmental pioneers of the 20th century, Rachel Carson began spending summers in Maine in 1953. A marine biologist by trade, she lived in a cottage near Boothbay Harbor amid pine and spruce trees, with a view across the rocky shoreline. It was here that Carson wrote The Edge of the Sea, a poetic work that captures the teeming life along the shoreline. She also labored here for many years on Silent Spring, a book that would awaken the world to the grave environmental damages caused by pesticides. It was published in 1962, and inspire a whole generation of environmental writers and activists, and eventually lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (as well as the permanent ban on the use of DDT in agriculture).
Carson was a regular visitor to the Newagen Seaside Inn, where she would sit out on the terrace overlooking rocky forested ridges and islands jutting out into the sea. Nearby, a short trail leads down along the rugged shoreline. It was here that Carson’s ashes were scattered. A small plaque on a boulder near the water’s edge bears the inscription: ‘Rachel Carson, Writer, Ecologist, Champion of the Natural World (1907–1964)…Here at last returned to the sea.’
Marguerite Yourcenar found inspiration in Mount Desert Island’s peaceful landscapes. Born in Brussels in 1903, she came to the US to escape the outbreak of WWII and lived for many years in Northeast Harbor along with her longtime partner Grace Frick, who was also Yourcenar’s translator and researcher. Her best-known works deal with contemporary social issues in historical time periods, such as Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), about the Roman Emperor Hadrian. In 1980 she became the first female elected to the prestigious Académie Française.
Yourcenar, who died in 1987, is buried alongside Frick, just across the water from Northeast Harbor in Somesville. You can learn more about Yourcenar's life on a visit to the house where she lived, Petite Plaisance (by appointment only), in Northeast Harbor.
Maine’s best-selling living writer is Stephen King (b 1947), author of many successful horror novels including It and The Shining. Born in Portland, King and his older brother, David, were raised by their mother after his father abandoned the family when King was two. With his family, King bounced around the country, living in Indiana, Wisconsin and Connecticut before returning to Maine to live near Durham at the age of 11. He began writing while he was in high school at Lisbon Falls, and went on to study English at the University of Maine.
During and after college, King supported himself by holding a variety of jobs, including working at a gas station and as a janitor at a high school. He was working as a teacher and at an industrial laundry in Bangor when he wrote his first novel, Carrie. But the novel almost didn’t come to be. After starting the story, he crumpled up the pages and threw them in the garbage, but his wife Tabitha found the story and encouraged him to keep going. The book would transform the life of the 26-year-old King. Paperback rights for the novel sold for $400,000, and it launched the career of one of the most influential horror fiction writers of all time.
Many of King’s stories are set in Maine, and he still lives in Bangor (he also has a winter house in Sarasota, Florida). He and his wife Tabitha make substantial annual philanthropic contributions (Bangor has a beautiful library thanks to the Kings), and he even has a radio station: 100.3 WKIT, with studios and offices in Bangor. To date, King has published nearly 60 novels and has sold more than 350 million copies of his books.
Sidebar: Thoreau's Maine
The Maine Woods (1864) by Henry David Thoreau, relates the great American writer's three separate visits to largely untraveled parts of Maine. Thoreau takes readers on a journey walking through thick forests, paddling moonlit rivers and climbing mountain peaks, often with the help of indigenous guides.
Sidebar: Shy White
EB White shunned publicity, and once convinced a writer who was interviewing him to report that he lived 'in a New England coastal town, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Cuba.’
Sidebar: Robert McCloskey
A whole generation of children from Maine (and most other parts of the US) grew up reading the works of writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey, who spent his summers on Little Deer Isle. One of his best-known books is the award-winning Blueberries for Sal (1948), still widely sold across the state.
Maine's Fiery Fall Colors
Maine is better known for its coast than its mountains, but inland Maine offers its own array of superb colors. Peak leaf-turning time is usually from late September to mid-October. Check updates at www.mainefoliage.com.
The best leaf-peeping route follows US 2 between Bethel and Rangeley. The town of Bethel is a destination in and of itself and serves as a great base for hiking through the rainbow of colors in nearby Grafton Notch State Park. For the full experience, take a scenic drive along the Grofton Notch Scenic Byway. Though short, this drive follows the winding Bear River and offers mesmerizing views of the Technicolor forest, particularly if you take one of the hikes to the clifftop heights – Table Rock Overlook has a magnificent panorama.
Sunday River Ski Resort is primarily known as a winter ski resort, but also offers non-ski activities in the fall, such as chairlift rides, ATV tours, canoeing and mountain biking, which all boast fine views of the fall foliage. Nearby, the Shelburne birches (between Gilead and Shelburne) are also excellent for viewing vibrant colors.
Another great drive for autumn lovers is the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway, which lies about an hour north of Bethel. This winding road takes you past some pretty overlooks, with nothing quite comparing to the staggering view from the Height of Land. Here a whole vast expanse of western Maine unfolds before you, with massive Mooselookmeguntic Lake below, and mountains stretching off into the distance.