In August 1996, students from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone set out on the schooner Bowdoin to retrace the voyage of an early explorer to the Maine coast.
Captured on video, their experience will be broadcast on Maine Public Television at 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 18.
Nearly 400 years ago, English explorer George Waymouth was the first European to sail directly from Europe to Maine. What he discovered here led to the development of what would become New England. Along with him came a chronicler named James Rosier who documented how the coast of Maine appeared in 1605 — the flora, fauna and fish.
When these chronicles fell into the hands of students from the MSSM, questions arose. How much has the coast of Maine changed in the ensuing centuries? Would it still be possible to see 3-foot-long codfish today? Are there any traces left of the Etchemin Indians encountered by Waymouth and his men?
There was only one way to find out: Retrace the coastal portions of Waymouth’s original voyage, using James Rosier’s chronicles as a guide.
“But how were we to do this?” asked Mark Tasker, MSSM anthropology instructor and expedition adviser along with instructors Dr. Debbie Grandy of Mapleton and Donna Young of Boston. “By kayak, by canoe or by vintage schooner similar in size to Waymouth’s own ship, the Archangel? A vintage schooner would do nicely, but they’re expensive to hire so we appealed to the Maine Maritime Academy for the use of the schooner Bowdoin for five days. They obliged.”
In addition to assembling research equipment to conduct experiments, collect samples and undertake an archaeological dig, it was important to document the expedition with photography and on film. That’s where my experience as video instructor for Caribou Votech and filmmaker for Maine Public Broadcasting proved worthwhile.
By the grace of Caribou Superintendent of Schools Arthur Benner, son of a Maine lobster fisherman, I was released from my duties along with my star video production student, Shawn Michaud, a Caribou High School junior, to film the expedition with the necessary equipment.
After months of planning and setbacks, 12 students and their advisers set sail from Tenants Harbor. Armed with borrowed research equipment, the budding biologists, amateur archaeologists and novice historians all had copies of James Rosier’s chronicles to help them plot their route as well as undertake their comparative studies. Under the watchful eye of Capt. Elliot Rappaport, a Maine Maritime Academy crew taught the students to sail and to navigate.
“We never had time to get bored,” said one of the students from MSSM, Tony Allen, from my hometown of Gardiner. His most thrilling moment was ascending 50 feet of rigging to the crow’s-nest to shoot the scenery in the distance and the bustle on the deck below.
While sailing up the St. George River into Thomaston to explore a salt marsh, Michaud got another million-dollar shot. From aboard a small rubber dinghy he circled directly under the bow of the schooner as it zipped along under full sail — a daring maneuver.
But the main aim of the filmmakers was to capture the activities of the expedition. Sailing around Matinicus and Monhegan islands, the students disembarked on Allen Island where they had permission from the Wyeth family to construct a primitive fishing weir as the Indians would have done 5,000 years ago. Disappointingly, no fish were caught.
They visited Waymouth Cross, a replica of the wooden cross Waymouth and his men erected on Allen Island in 1605.
During an archaeological dig on Hupper Island, the students and their instructors unearthed layers of charcoal and wood that led them to believe they may have discovered the remains of an Etchemin smokehouse, for smoking fish, or a bathhouse where Indians took steam baths.
Meanwhile, the biology students used nets to search for aquatic specimens along the shoreline. Sadly, barely any marine life was evident.
On the last day of the expedition, the students sailed in cold, thick fog to Castine, home of MMA. Several students were placed on permanent watch to warn of smaller vessels. By now, Capt. Rappaport knew that he could rely on the students for this responsible job.
Back on dry land, the students were ecstatic about the voyage and their discoveries.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” said Anders Pearson, a native of Dexter now studying at Bates College in Lewiston.
“I didn’t really know how we were going to get along,” said Kara Estey of New Sharon, “but we really wanted this expedition to happen and we were all united on the voyage.”
Once the expedition was over, work began in earnest for the film production crew. More than 10 hours’ worth of footage had to be logged, additional research had to be done, fund raising started and broadcast assistance sought.
A friend of mine from London, actor-editor Bernard Moss, flew to Maine to appear as chronicler James Rosier, with costumes supplied by the Theatre at Monmouth.
Champion International in Bucksport provided editing equipment and when that gave technical trouble, the University of Maine at Presque Isle saved the day by offering its equipment.
Bruce Boege of Limin Music in Belfast composed the music for the film and Tracy Lord of the Belfast Theater Company lent her voice as narrator. Maine Public Television in Lewiston offered online broadcast editing facilities, and Maine Video Systems of Portland conducted the sound mix. Washburn High School senior Matt Bechard drew the illustrations.
In addition to Allen, Pearson and Estey, other MSSM students on the Bowdoin expedition were Ethan Mitchell of Auburn, Thomas Leahy of Portland, Brent Chamberlain of Waterville, Nick Bergeron of Cutler, Abby Appleton of Etna, Robert Arritt of Harmony, Scott Stittson and Erik Pearson of Windham, and Noel Heim of Sanford.