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North by Northeast

The next morning a drizzle descends. I'm now staying at the Grey Rock Inn, a summer cottage turned B&B near the center of town. It feels like a family house, with magazines piled around the living room armchairs. One can easily imagine a century's worth of days like this, cold and damp, suitable only for playing cards or chess, or leafing through yellowing volumes of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Restless, I take the tourist route and sign up for a kayaking excursion in nearby Southwest Harbor. Guides drive the 10 of us—the others in my group are staying in Bar Harbor—to Seal Cove, on the west coast. One by one we climb into our little boats, then paddle off together across the waves, cutting a course for a distant headland. The smell of brine fills our nostrils as we splash, splash, splash. Seaweed and bits of froth float past, but the motion doesn't seem to translate into visible progress. The sky darkens, and rain begins to fall more steadily. Ben, our guide, tells us that on previous trips they've spotted lots of seals, porpoises, ospreys, and even bald eagles. But this time, nothing. Just wheeling seagulls and the slap of waves against our plastic hulls.

I start to ruminate on how Maine gets under your skin. There's a profound comfort in the unchangingness of people and places and habits. It creates a bond that is ever-present yet hard to explain.

Sometimes that bond can hold a little too tightly. On Macmahan Island my parents have a neighbor named Franny, a reclusive, soft-spoken woman whose most notable trait is an enthusiasm for chainsawing down trees. On a visit to the island some years ago, soon after I started doing some travel writing, I ran into Franny outside her house. "If you ever write an article about this island," she warned, chain saw purring in her hands, "I'll kill you."

I never did write about the island, at least until now, which may go some way toward explaining why I'm still alive and paddling a kayak into an uninhabited cove on the south side of Bartlett Island. The rain has stopped. We're resting in our boats, getting ready for the next crossing of open water, when a dark gray whiskered head materializes.

It's gigantic, the size of a horse's head. It looks at me, and I look at it. Its expression seems to register neither surprise nor irritation, nor indeed any emotion at all, except a faint curiosity that is almost instantly dispelled. I stare back. This is as close as I'll get, I think, to uncovering a secret on Mount Desert. I float for a moment, very still. The giant gray seal, as inscrutable as a Rockefeller or a Ford, bobs tentatively on the surface between my world and a place that I can barely begin to understand. The seal blinks, then slides downward silently, back into its murky world, leaving me staring openmouthed at the spreading ripple.

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