First Light

by Jenny O’Connell

Photo by Andy Gagne

On Cow Island, we call it an alpine start. It’s a mountaineering term, but at Rippleffect, we use it for kayaking, too. You wake before sunrise, pack your boat quickly, and push off at first light. On one side of the sky the moon is sinking into blue. On the other, the sun steeps the horizon in fire. The transition feels vulnerable, almost like you should avert your eyes. But you watch. For just a few minutes you’re suspended, breathless, in between. And then you dip your paddle into the water and the day begins. 

The first time I realized I would live in Maine, I was only passing through. It was 2013 and I had flown in from California, where I worked as an outdoor guide, to lead a kayaking trip with teenagers from Boston. That first evening I sat on the grassy bank that slopes toward the ocean at the L.L. Bean paddling center in Freeport, and I felt like the ground was holding me up. We met, Maine and I, in that moment. 

I was 26—hungry for growth, impassioned and distracted, living in too many directions at once. “Hurricane Jenny” was what my family called me. My contemporaries were getting married, taking out mortgages, having kids. I’d spent my twenties leading expeditions in California and across the world, backpacking the Peruvian Andes, and guiding rafts down western rivers. I was a person who slept in too many airports; who cried when the sunset was too orange, or when the night janitor in Terminal B whistled a melody so beautiful it roused the sparrows from their nests behind the television monitors. On more than one occasion I crashed my bike looking at the stars, which were one of the few things that centered me. I’d lay there in the road and stare up at Orion with hot tears running into my hair, begging him to show me home. 

Home. What was home? I knew I wanted it, but I didn’t know what to look for. A child who grew up summers on a lake, I had always harbored a fear of the ocean. But that night with my toes in the grass, Maine felt like a start. 

My sister and I moved to a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up in Portland’s East End in 2015. It was what we could afford—I was in grad school for creative writing, and she had just quit her job in Boston to move with me. We took turns sleeping in the bedroom and in a single bed tucked in a nook off the kitchen, but we could watch the sunset over the Time and Temperature Building each night and that was enough for us. The apartments we’ve lived in since (though we have our own bedrooms now) have followed suit: shallow closets, creaky floors, radiators that clang all winter. Rent is rising and we could move off the peninsula, farther from the water, and live in a bigger, nicer place for less money, but we haven’t been able to do it yet. In the winter when the tree in front of our house drops its leaves, we can see the ocean from our front stairs. We live here so we can be out there.

The same year I moved to Maine, I became a wilderness guide with Rippleffect, Portland’s non-profit youth outdoor expeditionary learning program. Rippleffect headquarters are in Casco Bay on Cow Island, which served as a U.S. Army outpost in the early 1900s to defend Portland Harbor. Now the island boasts an organic garden, a solar-powered kitchen, composting toilets, canvas tents on platforms, and a zipline. All that remains of the military are cement bunkers repurposed to hold soggy boat shoes, sleeping bags, hula hoops, and camping gear. From the eaves of one of those bunkers hangs a faded banner painted with the words, COW ISLAND, FOREVER FOR ALL. On paper, my job was to teach outdoor skills: sea kayaking, rock climbing, camp craft, leadership. My real job was to nudge my students outside their comfort zones so they might access a part of themselves they didn’t yet see was there. When I clipped them into a zipline, when I talked them through the steps of getting back into a flipped boat, when I encouraged them to try one more move before they came down off the rock wall, I was really saying “Do you know that you are powerful?”

One evening I was paddling out to Jewell Island to catch the remainder of a Rippleffect guide training when the wind picked up. I was alone and the water was cold. A rogue wave knocked me sideways, almost capsizing my kayak. Terrified, I froze in the middle of the channel. In that moment, I felt so clearly on the other side of what I’d been asking of my students. I was the student, and the ocean was my guide. I did the only thing there was to do: I reached down into myself and I found her. And then I dug my paddle into the turbulent water and pulled myself forward. 

I have sliced the bow of a kayak through waves as high as my shoulder. I have drifted with friends outside a concert venue, brought to tears by moonlight and song. I have passed my feet through the shallows at night and seen phosphorescent plankton blink on and off like so many stars. 

Maybe home is as simple as this: a place that brings you alive. 

I’ve heard a saying in these parts. Quintessential Maine. That’s how people explain it when a bald eagle swoops into view (which, for me, never stops feeling absurd), or when a seal pops her head out of the water and stares at you with round, glassy eyes. It’s what they say when you watch the sun sink below the city from Fort Gorges, or hear a fog horn blast through the evening on a fall night. 

I’ve used that phrase, too. But my problem with it is that it classifies, and when you classify something, you stop wondering about it. A naturalist at my first outdoor job taught me this. When a kid asks what a plant is, instead of naming it straight away, every once in a while I was supposed to say, “If you were the first one to discover it, what would you name it?” And then ask why. And why again. Each time I did this the kid in question would bend down and look more closely. She’d notice the tendrils of green that curled from beneath the leaves; the sultry scent of tiny white flowers. 

What does it mean to be quintessential Maine? Long before I got here, there were different names for these places I love—names that are, in my opinion, more accurate than what we call them now. Names that keep you paying attention. I have read that the name for Casco Bay comes from the Mi’kmaq word aucocisco (“head of bay, mud”), or the Abenaki word kasqu’ (“Great Blue Heron”). Portland was called Machigonne, the Algonquian name for “great neck.” Chebeague Island, which still holds its name, means “isle of many springs.”  

Four hundred years ago from Maine to Eastern Canada, the Abenaki, Penobscot, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet formed the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanaki means “people of the first light.” 

In this home I have chosen, I will always be a visitor.

 This essay was published in Decor Maine, November 2020.

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