The ‘Old Sow’ and Thanksgiving


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



If you check out an old Rand-McNally Road Atlas, you will see many, many things that I find intriguing.

There are points of interest that don’t show up on computerized GPS maps. I loved pouring over the grid lines, roads (large and small), mileage charts, cities and states on those big, old Rand-McNally maps.

But some of my favorite things were the numerous notations, written in red, scattered all over the pages. These red-letter notations indicate points of interest that are usually off the beaten path — but deserve a closer look.

In 1997, my daughter, Jessi, and I were planning a driving trip to New England. We decided to make our way to Niagara Falls, followed by a trek through the Saranac Lake region of upstate New York. From there, we took an auto ferry across Lake Champlain into Vermont and continued east across New Hampshire.

We planned on camping overnight in a campground near Bangor, Maine and then, the next day… onward to Eastport, Maine.

Why Eastport?

We had checked out the Rand-McNally before leaving home. Just off the coast of Eastport, near Passamaquoddy Bay, we saw written (in small red print), “The largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere.” That could not be ignored. The whirlpool even had its own name, “The Old Sow.”

According to a brochure we found along the way, “The Old Sow” was a tidal whirlpool that would swirl and spin vigorously when the 20-foot-plus tides in the Bay of Fundy changed. These tidal changes in the Bay of Fundy are the largest in the world. As the tidal flow of water bends around Deer Island, a huge whirlpool is formed.

The Old Sow is indeed the largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere and the second largest whirlpool in the entire world. On a quiet night, as the whirlpool whirls, it makes gurgling and grunting sounds… like an old sow. We decided we had to see it.

We found an excellent campground near Eastport. There we found a brochure for a sightseeing trip from Eastport that included the Old Sow and a whale watching excursion. We booked passage. It was great. We saw whales, bald eagles, seals, and the amazing “Old Sow” whirlpool.

The next day we stopped at the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, the farthest-east point of land in the entire United States. From there, we were off to Bar Harbor.

Bar Harbor sits on the east side of Mount Desert Island, just off the Maine coast. Cadillac Mountain towers over Bar Harbor. The rugged coast of Maine stretches from Eastport to Kennebunkport, but Cadillac Mountain is the highest point of land on the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

The tiptop of Cadillac Mountain is the first spot in the United States that glows with the morning sun.

I woke Jessi up in the darkness of our last day in Maine. We drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain. I backed into a mountaintop parking space that faced east. From the predawn night, when I first roused Jessi out of her sleeping bag, until the early Sunday morning sun slowly peeked over the eastern horizon, Jessi complained about how stupid the whole idea was.

Then, as we sat atop the mountain and the sunlight started warming the blankets that Jessi had gathered around her shoulders, she snuggled up against me and said, “This really is pretty cool.”

I told her, “Honey, this is our day. Let’s get going.” We returned to our campsite and threw everything into the back of my little red Ford Ranger.

We were quickly on the road. Our journey home took us along the old Maine coast. We decided to stay away from interstates and to keep as close to the water as possible. We visited a church, a restaurant, and a few stores as we journeyed toward Boston.

The old Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord brought our Revolutionary War history to life. We whispered in reverence as we stood on the recreation of the bridge, where the shot-heard-‘round-the-world was fired. I noticed that most visitors spoke in hushed tones as they visited the area.

After visiting the town of Plymouth, the Plymouth Rock, and the replica of the Mayflower, we dropped back in time to 1627, as we visited a recreation of a Pilgrim village where the first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated. Everyone at the village recreated the life and personality of an old Pilgrim who lived in the original Plymouth Village.

The guides stayed in their pilgrim personality the entire time we were at the village. I could not imagine a more accurate recreation of old Pilgrim life.

From there, we visited Washington, D.C. and made the speed-of-light jump from the Pilgrim colony to the madness of our modern government.

The beauty and history of our nation cannot be condensed into a single column in the newspaper, nor an entire library of scholarly books. The New England area must be visited and explored to be appreciated.

You will find that it is a great trip and time very well spent. Happy Thanksgiving.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist