Wonderland

On the Downeast coast of Maine is Wonderland, a lovely little peninsula that juts out into the ocean. It is well named. The shore is lined with pink granite bedrock, broken up by the power of tides and wave and strewn about in a jumble of blocks the size of sofas. In the interior of the peninsula tall dark spruce trees, covered with lichens and festooned with Old Man’s Beard, survive within a tangle of dead branches and fallen trunks. Some big trees have been uprooted by the wind. Their tops rest against their fellow trees, and their widespread roots, now exposed to the air, still clutch a thin layer of what passes for soil in this northern forest. In a few places where the granite bedrock lies exposed there are no trees. There, reindeer moss and other mosses grow in profusion, surrounded by masses of blueberry bushes that in autumn glow a spectacular shade of red.

One day, when strong gusty winds discouraged us from hiking one of the high mountains of the area, we went to Wonderland hoping to find a place in the lee of the peninsula where we could have our picnic lunch. We followed the path through the spruce forest, stopping along the way to admire the variety and colors of trees, mosses, and blueberry bushes, and soon we came to a small clearing that led out to the water. The tide had turned and was on the way out, leaving behind shallow saltwater pools among the rocks. It was midday and the late October air was cool, but the sun warmed our backs as we perched on a large smooth chunk of pink granite to eat our sandwiches.

Looking to our left, we could see a small cove where light gray rocks and bright green seaweed bordered a backdrop of tall slender spruce trees. At the edge of the sea, wind and tide had washed up a collection of debris, pieces of driftwood bleached by sun and salt, and a dark line of wrack. Marsh grasses grew in the shallow water, and a great blue heron stood in the shallows with its neck pulled in and its long bill held out to the side.

Directly in front of us a rocky ledge was gradually being uncovered by the receding tide, and in the distance were the mountains, massive mounds of rock whose lower slopes were dark green with trees. To our right was open ocean, where a few large, dark, low-lying islands broke up the seemingly endless expanse of blue. We munched our sandwiches, admired the view and watched birds coming and going around the rock ledges. Three double-crested cormorants, their heads held slightly higher than their bodies, flew in single file. A flurry of herring gulls settled down on a dry part of the ledge. Great black-backed gulls occupied a ledge farther out. The air smelled of salt and drying kelp, and the only sounds were the cries of gulls and the movement of waves washing against the rocks.

Three common eiders, large sea ducks, swam around the ledge. They were diving for food, probably mussels and other mollusks, and must have been successful because before long they attracted the attention of one of the herring gulls. The gull flew above one eider duck, waiting for it to dive and then to surface. As the duck came up the gull pounced on it from the air, landing on the duck’s back and shoving it underwater. We watched this happen over and over, at least a dozen times, but sometimes the eider managed to dodge the gull and sink below the surface before the gull could pounce. Although we could not see exactly what was happening, it appeared that the gull was trying to steal the eider’s prey, trying to get it to drop or regurgitate its food. Finally, the three eiders lost patience with the thief, and they began to submerge and pop up to the surface in quick succession, as if to confuse the gull. Then they all swam away. The gull flew over them for a minute, but soon gave up and flew away.

A chattering sound alerted us to a red squirrel perched a few feet away, eyeing our chocolate cookies. Unwilling to share one of our favorite foods with another would-be food thief, we ate our cookies and then moseyed off to explore the tide pools.

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