Thursday, October 29, 2009

Maine's autumn, Day 4 | Blueberry fields, apple orchards of Washington County

Day 4 was yet another overcast one. Somewhere near Meddybemps, though, the red blueberry fields caught my eye.

On Day 4 of my Maine fall vacation, a Thursday, my family and I drove through Calais and some area towns that are known for their blueberry production and not much of anything else.

At about 3,500 people, Calais itself is the largest city in Washington County. It's a border town with New Brunswick, Canada, and contains the bigger shopping complexes in the area, including Walmart and Dunkin' Donuts, both longtime favorites of my family when I was a child.

Most people I know in Florida take having a large supermarket within a mile or four CVS pharmacies to choose from for granted. But those in rural parts of Washington County - heck, it's all rural, actually - are used to traveling two hours to buy goods that aren't available at the local general store. It's a different life, a simple one. But being so far removed from "civilization" isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Mainers find ways to cope with the lives the live. They're happy with less material stuff, a quality I deeply miss and completely despise in some Floridians. They hunt and fish, not necessarily for sport, but for sustenance. And most importantly, Mainers are aware of the natural beauty that surrounds them, and they appreciate the spectacular vistas that not having shopping malls and sports stadiums can afford.

Taken in Calais, high above the St. Croix River, this photo shows the United States to the left and Canada to the right.

A truck drove by on the Charlotte Road, somewhere south of Calais, adding more red to an already red-filled scene.

Closer to Charlotte, still on the Charlotte Road, the terrain becomes hillier.

I got so used to two-lane roads - which were primary routes, too - while I was learning to drive that moving off to college and driving on the highway made me nervous at times. Of course, I'm used to it now because nearly every major road in Florida has at least four lanes.

Stopping to shoot a mangy bovine critter.

The high blueberry fields in Meddybemps offer views of Meddybemps Lake below.

Some blueberries were left on the low bushes, which were harvested in late August. Maine, of course, is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. They're much smaller than the cultivated California varieties, but they're also much sweeter and more flavorful. I spent many a summer in Maine bending over and raking them from the bushes for a quick buck or two.

The sun broke through the clouds a few times, spotlighting the colorful foliage.

I think this is looking down at Pleasant Lake in the Cooper area.

Mainers refer to their roads as simply "Route," then the number. They don't distinguish county roads from state roads or U.S. highways. The photo above is taken of the hills along Route 9, an east-west roadway that connects Calais with the greater Bangor area, where much of the serious shopping was done by those from Washington County. It's about a two-hour drive.

When I returned home in the afternoon, my parents and I packed up the van and headed over to the "farm," my grandparent's place where there's a small garden and a few apple trees. The apples produced by these trees, which don't need species categorization, could basically be considered wild. They aren't often sprayed with pesticides, and they're perfect for regular eating, pies and, of course, apple cider.

For this photo, my father was in the tree, shaking the branches. That's why you see one airborne apple just below the shed in the background. Plucking them off the ground is much easier than picking them from the trees.

The apples are washed in a wheelbarrow.

They're ground to bits and pieces.

Once the container on the press is full, a board is placed on top of the chunks, offering a pressure point for the giant screw that presses them.

As the chunks are pressed, the cider starts to flow.

This cider comes out more tart than most people are accustomed to, but it's my favorite.

We got nine gallons out of a quick afternoon of pressing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

'Go Ares! Go Constellation! Go NASA! Go! Go! Go!'

At liftoff, haze makes it difficult to make out the Ares I-X rocket.

"Are YOU giving up?" a woman asked me as I got up from my chair at Space View Park, after several hours of waiting for the weather to clear for the Ares I-X test launch.

"I never give up," I said.

It was hot and humid Wednesday morning in Titusville. Again. It's Florida, after all. And the weather over Kennedy Space Center was not cooperating again, as the Ares launch team required nearly clear conditions to avoid static electricity from impeding signals to and from the rocket.

I waited until the liftoff got scrubbed because of poor weather Tuesday, and I wasn't about to throw in the towel as I got out of my chair to stretch my legs and get some shade. Heck, I never miss a launch, and to skip this one would have been heinous. Ares very well could be NASA's future and the craft that launches astronauts on a trip to another planet.

Some day. But first thing's first.

The clouds finally broke apart around 11:20 a.m., and the range went "green" for weather for the first time in the entire morning. When the countdown started, it was announced by a spectator at the park. Most people clapped and cheered. I readied my camera. I don't show my emotions when it comes to such things, but inside, I had butterflies. And if you were there and looked closely, my hands were shaking, as they usually do just before a launch. That's how much of a nerd I am when it comes to such spectacles.

For space shuttle launches, a group at the park pipes the NASA Launch Control broadcast through speakers. For this Ares launch, which attracted a few hundred people to the shore of the Indian River (many of whom left after the weather continued to push back the launch), the spectators yelled their own countdown. From 10, the people started counting down. "Three ... two ... one," they said. Ignition. The crowd's countdown was timed perfectly.

Visible through my 500mm lens, the ground beneath the rocket glowed, and smoke started to shoot from the sides of the launch tower. The rocket lifted off, quickly climbed and, from my vantage point, appeared to weave in and out of the clouds. As the craft rose above an initial cloud deck, the visibility improved, as the low-level haze prevented clear viewing at liftoff - a condition that is apparent in the top photo.

"Go Ares! Go Constellation! Go NASA!" a woman yelled. "Go! Go! Go!"

The rocket thundered into the eastern sky, heading directly away from Space View Park and over the Atlantic Ocean. Enthusiasts watched as a large shock wave formed around the upper section of the rocket. Within a minute or two, it reached its apogee and began to arc downward. Out of view, the rocket separated and plunged into the water for a waiting Navy ship to recover.

The test appears to have been successful, and for the people who dared to wait through the heat - especially the younger ones - the reward was the knowledge that they just witnessed an event that could mean more to science and technology than anything in their lifetime.

A large shock wave.

Emerging from a cloud.

Curling and arcing downward.

Just for a little context: Not many people gathered at Space View Park in Titusville.

More than five minutes after the launch.

Before the launch, a helicopter flies over Titusville, as a group of pelicans chose the lower airspace.

The chopper that flew over the park was similar to those in the presidential fleet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Long wait gets longer for Ares I-X rocket test

Taken by my iPhone as I waited for the Ares I-X launch.

The clouds were scarcest at sunrise, and I was thinking that if the 8 a.m. launch time wasn't acceptable weather-wise, the rocket likely would be grounded for the day. In the end, I was right, but, of course, I had to stay until noon to make sure the thing didn't go up without me looking.

With the space shuttles scheduled to be retired within the next two years, NASA is developing a new rocket to send its astronauts to the International Space Station and perhaps beyond - to the moon or even mars. For the past few years, the space agency's ingenuity and elbow grease have gone into Project Constellation and its Ares I rocket, designed to carry people. A bigger rocket, an Ares V, would carry the cargo, and it's still undeveloped.

After it had been delayed for months, the test of the rocket, called Ares I-X, was set for 8 a.m. Tuesday. There had been much speculation as to whether the test of the rocket's first stage would even happen, especially with a presidential review panel all but suggesting that Barack Obama should abandon Constellation altogether, hire private companies for "taxi rides" to the space station and develop a different rocket - aside from Ares - for deep-space destinations such as Mars or one of its moons - or maybe even an asteroid.

NASA modified launch pad 39B for the purpose of this flight, specifically so it would accommodate the absolutely towering 327-foot rocket. The Ares I is smaller than the 363-foot Saturn V, which launched the first men to the moon, but many of its critics say the system isn't much of an advancement over past technologies. It's also gotten barraged by concerns that the rocket would shake violently and possibly drift off course shortly after liftoff.

But more importantly to me, there are weather stipulations for this test flight that are even stricter than those for shuttle launches. NASA needs clear weather in order to cut down on the possibility that the craft would create static electricity as it cut through the clouds and to communicate clearly with it. For this test, the rocket was set to lift off, arc over the Atlantic Ocean and eventually splash down, parachutes deployed.

In a not-so-unexpected occurrence for a launch, I was awake and at Titusville's Space View Park before the sun even showed itself Tuesday. Pad 39B is just north of the primary shuttle pad, 39A. Titusville is still the best public, unpaid viewing area for 39B because it's directly across the Intracoastal Waterway from Kennedy Space Center, about 13 miles from the pad. But it's still a healthy distance, and the view is often worsened by the haze caused by Florida's signature heat and humidity.

The hazy air was in top form Tuesday morning, too. The forecast hadn't been good all along, but I decided to risk the trip to Titusville for the historic launch. After all, if Obama decides to scrap the rocket, Ares I-X will be the only of its kind to see liftoff. I had to be around for that. As the 8 a.m. launch time rolled around, the weather was unacceptable because of heavy cloud cover within 30 miles of KSC. The launch window extended until noon, though, so there was hope that NASA could get the thing off the ground Tuesday.

While waiting for launches at Space View Park, I always manage to meet nice people who are sitting nearby. Last time, I ran into two brothers who happened to be good photographers. I've greeted people from England, Australia, France and South America. This time, it was a couple from Volusia County, Fla., who graced me with conversation and graciously bought me and a FLORIDA TODAY co-worker some much-needed water to beat the heat. Chatting with them, occasional glances to my iPhone to check for launch updates and frequent sips from the water bottle helped me get through a morning of scheduling, rescheduling and the eventual scrub of the first Ares I-X launch attempt.

Round 2 is scheduled for Wednesday morning. Same time. Same place. I'll be there, of course.

The spectators weren't the only ones waiting around. Various members of the media - press outlets frequently gather at Space View Park because of the view and the crowds it attracts - were milling around, looking for something to do, people to interview. This reporter was filming a bit and looked behind himself to see if he was missing anything.

The wait was long enough for me (I can be a very impatient person). So, I cannot imagine what it was like for this child, especially considering he didn't have an iPhone to keep himself amused during the wait.

A television cameraman rests on a concrete divider as a younger spectator sneaks up.

And of course, I was waiting, too. But I made myself comfortable. I arrived in Titusville about 90 minutes before the schedule launch time, a time at which the park would have been crowded for a space shuttle launch. Instead, there probably only 50 people in attendance. But that was a bonus for me, as I got a fine photographing spot on the edge of the river.

The sun continued to shine, but the clouds were relentless, too. For shuttle launches, this pier is always blocked off from spectators. With such large shuttle crowds, the city of Titusville doesn't want people accidentally falling into the river in spots where the pier does not have a railing.

There's always some sort of bird flying overhead at Space View Park. They were mostly crows and seagulls Tuesday, but an occasional pelican passed, too. After seeing a pink bird flying in the distance, I thought I had made a rare Florida sighting of a flamingo. Upon further inspection and enlargement of the photo, however, I determined that it was just a roseate spoonball, which are common in Central Florida.

Alas, high-reaching cumulonimbus clouds and high wind put a damper on the launch prospects Thursday.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maine's autumn, Day 3 | Here comes the rain

The rainy, overcast weather began in earnest on the Wednesday of my Maine vacation, and it didn't let up much after that. Without the prospect of good conditions for photography, I relegated my day to driving around town, retracing some of my former stomping grounds in Baileyville, the town next to my hometown where I went to high school. Along the St. Croix River, which forms Maine's southeastern border with New Brunswick, Canada, I stopped to shoot a light fog lifting off the water. This location is just below the Domtar paper mill, a large employer in Washington County, so the water is quite filthy.

Despite the foliage level being considered "low" on this day, some of the marshy areas or shorelines were more brilliant than drier forests. If it weren't for the dreary sky, the colorful foliage would have been brighter.

What's better on a depressing day than an old home as a reminder of the poverty that tends to beset much of Washington County, especially during this recession? Some stores and restaurants in Princeton, my hometown, and in Baileyville have been forced out of commission, too.

Driving around the school I attended for four fun years, Woodland High School (I mostly just miss playing sports), I stopped on the bridge across this small stream that runs near the campus. It was raining when this was taken, so my camera was wrapped in plastic.

I headed back home and shot the welcome sign on the southern end of Princeton, a town of about 850 people, one of the larger ones in the area.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Maine's autumn, Day 2 | Grand Lake Stream and Moosehorn wildlife refuge

On Day 2 of my Maine vacation - after a morning visit to talk journalism with a class at Princeton Elementary School, which I attended as a child - my father and I drove to the nearby fishing-tourism town of Grand Lake Stream. This dirt road was just off the main route into town.

A close-up of some of the maple leaves during the first stop of the afternoon near Grand Lake Stream.

Grand Lake Stream is a town of only 150 people, but during the warmer months, people - many from more populous parts of southern New England - come in, occupy a cabin and take advantage of West Grand Lake's superior boating and canoeing conditions and go fishing in the various lakes, streams and rivers in the region.

Grand Lake Stream is renowned as a haven for fly fishermen. Red Sox great Ted Williams was a regular. Visitors often have luck hooking salmon in the stream, just below where the dam controls the flow of West Grand Lake.

A Maine guide nets a landlocked salmon for his customer.

A small canal paralleling the stream was filled with fallen leaves. My father and I stood on a small concrete dam in order to get shots over the middle of the canal.

There isn't much fall foliage in this scene, just some rapids farther downstream from where the above photos were taken.

On the road out of Grand Lake Stream, I asked my father to pull to the side of the road so I could take a photo of the deer-crossing sign. If I didn't see a deer, I at least wanted to photograph something indicating that there are supposed to be deer in the area.

Twenty miles to the south at the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Calais, there wasn't much wildlife, just many foliage scenes along a road that loops through the refuge.

The leaves were like gold coins scattered across the wilderness floor.

At this point, while I was trying to shoot the maple leaves with the sun filtering through the trees, I heard a horn being honked repeatedly. Turns out that it was father, from whom I separated myself while taking photos. He thought I had gotten lost in the woods or had fallen and hit my head.

Many of the maple trees were bare or in their late-stage red color.

A close-up of a maple leaf.

After stopping to shoot a scene in front of the car, I turned around and saw the clouds behind me.

Late Tuesday was the clearest weather I saw during my entire stay. Unfortunately, the foliage on this lake in the refuge wasn't nearly as brilliant as what I photographed a day earlier in Lincoln.

The good thing about traipsing through the woods or along the shore of a small Maine lake such as this one is that the reptiles I have to be on the lookout for in Florida aren't present. No alligators to chomp off your feet. No lizards to climb into your boots.

Many of the maples were ahead of their hardwood counterparts in the leaf-dropping department.