He sees seasmoke by the seashore

FRIENDSHIP HAH-B'H was a gaggle of seasmoke when I drove around the point this morning. I don't need to drive around the point, as I have no errands there, but I do after each trip to the post office, and if I ever come straight home it will be the first time. I consider the almost-daily visit my official no-charge inspection as a community service, and also an obligation to myself in the manner of Housman's going forth to see the cherries hung with snow.

A short lifetime may be well lived, but it takes longer to do our harbor justice. Tidy at moorings is our lobster fleet, except for boats now ``out to haul,'' and except for a few that may be coming in or going out. In the winter no ``summer mahogany'' interferes. The point has a loop road, so I can go either way and come home again, and with caution I can ride and look without maiming more than a few folks at a time (in the summer, people are in shorts and the middle of the road), and many's the day I don't run over anybody. Today was cold, sunny-bright.

Seasmoke is the vapor that rises when the water is warmer than the air, and this happens rarely at Friendship. Today was a beauty for it. Yesterday afternoon our air temperature was over 40 degrees F., and Sim Simmons asked me what I thought of the heat wave. I told him I thought ha-ha, and at just about that moment the air stirred and what had been SSE veered enough so Sim waggled his head as if dislodging a moosefly from his ear. Sim said, ``Seasmoke tomorrow.''

That was a forecast from an expert. During the night the thermometer did a slam-dunk in the style of a dull thud, and at breakfast time it was down to minus 20 degrees - the coldest here in many a year. So I knew what to look for after I dropped my letters off and started around the point. The ``chill factor'' has come into our language since I first started bragging about Maine weather. We always felt that -20 degrees was good enough and no need to improve on it. But then the weathermen began computing the wind chill, and we learned that -20 degrees is a variable from -20 degrees in flat calm to maybe -80 degrees if the Montreal Express is clipping off 35 knots.

So besides the dull thud, we were having a wind sharp and keen, and in front of the post office two men were holding on one man's hat. Some of the wind had subsided with daybreak, but we were still getting enough so a couple of boys at the shore were tossing snowballs on Monhegan Island, 10 miles to sea. The harbor was spectacular. The hulls of the lobster fleet were ghostly in the seasmoke, their houses and masts in the clear. The wind was dancing the vapor toward Long Island and toward Garrison Island, and then through the cut toward the open sea.

Seasmoke can be a menace. The vapor will freeze on hulls and rigging of boats until they'll capsize. On the bank, men need to chip the ice or hose it down with steam. Our lobstercatchers, who do day-trip fishing, may not go down the bay in seasmoke, but they'll need to keep an eye on their moored boats to check the ice. And today would cause anxiety on that score.

Wisps and waves, like steam from a million teakettles, made Garrison Island truly enchanted, as if in a mystic moor where the Lady of the Lake might hand up some swords. Seasmoke is eerie, suggesting vapors from Virgil's Avernus or the dread fumes escaping at the gate as Dante led Aeneas through. At -20 degrees, it's hard to picture a murky morning along the mire of the Slough of Despond, but you get the idea. Fuzzy; elusive. Ground fog asea, cottony and feather-floaty, wiggly and writhing.

Friendship Hah-b'h does freeze over, but not every winter. If a cold snap sustains itself, ice can form clear down amongst the islands, but some years we get just a skim that seals in the boats for a few days, often not secure enough so a man can walk out to check his boat. My friend, Harold Jameson, found that out one winter - when his teeth stopped chattering in August, he said it was sure some old cold down under.

This morning the cold snap promised to sustain itself, and I thought to myself that the harbor would probably ice over. The thermometer didn't rise above zero, and some of the weatherwise lobstermen said that the seasmoke would not linger into tomorrow - it doesn't rise from ice. But they also said that things would break in a day or so and the ice wouldn't stay long. ``Come Tuesday,'' said Sim, ``prolly rain.'' For the moment, we had a beautiful seasmoke day at Friendship Hah-b'h, and it's a shame so many good folks missed it.

News flash, next day: Ice did form. Enough so somebody, now being sought by the police, came over it in stealth and ``touched up'' (stole) 10 crates of lobsters from Bernie's wharf. A crate goes for about $5,000, dockside. In the eyes of the beholder....

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