A foliage alternative
CHERRYFIELD, Maine - In mid to late September, weeks after Maine’s wild blueberries have been raked, feted in festivals, packaged, frozen, and sent countrywide, the vast barrens of sandy, acidic soil left by glaciers, where the berries grow semi-wild, turn to broad swaths of crimson. This transformation happens after the first hard frost.
While leaf peepers head to the mountains, coastal Washington County, far down east, offers a different seasonal experience. This rugged and vast stretch of Maine beyond Bar Harbor, where half of Maine’s 85 million pounds of commercially harvested wild blueberries grow, is hardscrabble, quiet, and thinly populated. Fields of the low-bush blueberry plants that weren’t raked and harvested, which is about half of them, transform into a brilliant red. The raked fields turn a browner red. Bordering forests of deciduous and evergreen trees provide color contrast and texture to undulating fields of ankle- and knee-high bushes so expansive that the landscape sometimes feels like the Midwestern plains.
In June you hear the loud hum of millions of imported bees pollinating the fields. In the fall, to keep the plants healthy, some of the fields are mowed or burned on a rotating basis. It’s a view few tourists see, because not many venture this far north and east.
If you’re game for this unusual fall excursion, get an up-to-date Maine Atlas and Gazetteer published by DeLorme. It’s essential for navigating the back roads through the fields. And gas up early, as services are sparse.
Maine is the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries. The state and parts of eastern Canada are the only places where the naturally growing fruit is commercially harvested. Find Cherryfield on the map. Despite its name, which some say derives from wild cherries that once grew here, the town proclaims itself the “wild blueberry capital of the world.’’ It’s home to Jasper Wyman & Sons and Cherryfield Foods, the world’s largest wild blueberry growers and processors. It’s also central to the state’s largest stretches of blueberry barrens. Find Machias, northeast along Route One. This is the region you’ll be traversing.
From Bangor take Route 9 east - Mainers call it the Airline Road - a two-lane, scenic, and well-maintained thoroughfare of rolling hills, for about 40 miles to Route 193, where you turn southeast (right) towards Cherryfield. About 12 miles farther, turn left onto the gravel but easily motored Baseline Road. Head up towards Pineo Ridge (geology lovers take note: This area is a world-class example of a “washboard’’ glacial delta) before looping back to Cherryfield via Ridge Road. You’ll drive through thousands of acres of blueberry fields extending for several football fields in all directions, boulders and small tree stands interspersed. And you will likely be alone.
There is no reason to feel like an interloper. You are welcome to visit, walk, and enjoy the landscape, as long as you don’t head into the private company fields, off the public way.
For those who crave pavement, these fascinating carpets of rosy low bushes can be viewed in smaller sections along the 25-mile stretch of Route 193. You will also pass a collection of blue cabins for the migrant workers who rake blueberries in late summer. In the fall, this campus is a ghost town.
When you get to Cherryfield, you will feel as if you have hit civilization, even though it’s a burg of only about 1,100 residents. Stately Victorian-era homes built by lumber barons, a couple of antiques shops, and a general store nestle here. Dining is scarce. If you didn’t pack a picnic ahead of time, grab some basics at the Downeast Convenience and Hungry Bear Lunch Counter and settle at an outdoor table along the Narraguagus River.
The riverside Englishman’s B and B is run by archeologists who serve and sell their own brand of tea. Don’t miss the quirky general store that Royal Montana opened a little over a year ago, selling penny candy, local crafts and produce, fishing flies, antiques, jams, and what have you.
Heading northeast along Route 1 you will come to a giant orb, a blue geodesic dome. Welcome to Blueberry World, established in 2001 by Dell and Marie Emerson, he a blueberry researcher and she a culinary arts instructor. Stop in this kitschy roadside attraction for homemade scones, muffins, and all manner of nonedible blueberry items. Or play the blueberry-themed miniature golf course.
Smaller swaths of blueberry fields pop up frequently along Route 1, which can sometimes feel like a country road in this region. If you have your clubs along, you can tee up at Barren View Golf Course in Jonesboro to get more vistas - or to sink your ball into one of Maine’s largest sand traps.
Picturesque Columbia Falls is worth a stop. Tour the Ruggles House, a Federal- style mansion built in 1818-1820 for Thomas Ruggles, a judge and timber baron. Its stunning woodwork and a gorgeous flying staircase make it one of Maine’s most notable historic houses. April Adams of Columbia Falls Pottery next door sells her iris and lupine inspired designs.
Reservations are essential for an upscale country dinner at the small Riverside Inn and Restaurant set along the East Machias River in East Machias. From the dining porch you can watch nesting pairs of bald eagles squabble for fishing rights. The new, 85-mile Sunrise Trail, a path created from an old railroad bed, runs right behind the inn. If you stay overnight, take a morning walk to work off your blueberry-stuffed French toast that chef Rocky Rakoczy offers on his breakfast menu.
Be sure to put pie on your blueberry must-do list; it’s now the official state dessert. Get a warmed up, a la mode slice at Helen’s restaurant in Machias. The cinnamony triangle comes oozing with wild blueberries inside a thick and crunchy crust.
Coastal views and walks are easily accessed in this area, too. Great spots to explore include Jasper Beach in Machiasport and Great Wass Island, in Jonesport, a tract maintained by the Nature Conservancy.
Nancy E. Heiser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.