Life in a Northern Town? Tell Me about Calais ME. and the surround areas...
August 6, 2009 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone fill me in on Calais, Maine (or the surrounding towns)?

I was recently offered an opportunity to interview in Calais, Maine. Before I head up to check it out in person, I was wondering if any AskMeFi regulars are from there or round about Calais and could shed some light on your impression of the town. Bonus points for any info on weather, things to do, nice places to stay (apartments etc.).

My google-fu turns up basic info, but mainly tourist-style stuff. Just curious what life is like in super northern Maine.

posted by MeetCleaverTheatre to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In high school, I once had a summer camp friend from Calais. (I thought it was interesting that the town's name is pronounced like callus, not like the town in France.) The main thing I took away from my conversations with him is that it is tiny tiny tiny, and that there isn't very much to do there.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:52 PM on August 6, 2009

My wife, who is from the Lewiston/Auburn area in Maine, has a friend who is from Calais. Whenever I make fun of Lewiston/Auburn for being in the sticks (my first trip up I saw at least two deer hanging from trees being drained), she says "I'm not from the sticks! (My friend from Calais) is from the sticks!"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:03 PM on August 6, 2009

I live in Maine, but I've never been to Calais. The one thing I do know is that it's pronounced more like "Callus" and less like "Cal-ay". The latter pronunciation will get you mocked.

Every rural town in Maine is a little different, but I would expect extremely white neighbors, trending somewhat older. Also, there will be very little to do, and even some "basic" things (groceries, restaurants) may be subpar.

All that said, I personally would move somewhere like that in a heartbeat if I could get a decent job. I want to be down a dirt road with a sign on it that says, "Beware of Nazgul."
posted by selfnoise at 7:20 PM on August 6, 2009

My impression of Calais the one time I've been there was that it was a nice little town. And St. Stephen, N.B. is right across the river.
posted by Gridlock Joe at 7:26 PM on August 6, 2009

It would be more descriptive to say that Calais is in Down East Maine, as opposed to [super] Northern Maine. Down East is the coast, and the culture is somewhat different than Northern Maine, which is the woods. Hard to put the difference into words...the accent is decidedly different...but in both areas you'll find people who are practical and self-reliant, with dry senses of humor. You probably won't find many wealthy people.

Of course, one cool thing about Calais, though, especially if you are into the outdoors at all, is that you'll be fairly convenient to both the ocean, and the inland, with its woods, hills, lakes and rivers.

I mean, just, absolutely astounding natural beauty, with very few tourists, even in the height of summer. Also, do you like seafood?

Winters would be rough. For me, the toughest part would probably be how early it gets dark in the winter. They call it Down East because it is so Eastern. But it's still in the same time zone as the rest of the East coast. Gosh, it must get dark before 3PM there in late December and early January.
posted by lampoil at 8:15 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

It'll be pretty much dark at 4pm in the winter, and it's a long haul from anywhere.. but it's relatively beautiful there and quaint in an older, run-down sort of way. However, Washington County is very poverty stricken. I believe the per-household income averages around $16,000 or so. If you don't like the idea of living in the country or having little to do outside of outdoor activities I would recommend not even making the trip to visit. If you're open to something new, why not give it a shot?

I wish I could comment a bit more about the nearby parts of New Brunswick, but I've never been across that bit of border.
posted by mbatch at 8:41 PM on August 6, 2009

I've been to Machias and Eastport, which are just a bit south of Calais.

Machias is a major blueberry town.

Eastport (like many towns on the Maine, NB and NS coasts) was a thriving town when the fish stocks were good, but has been on hard times since the fishing industry more or less collapsed. So - a lot of handsome civic buildings from the turn of the 19th-20th century, which then have been cannibalized or fallen into disrepair in later years. Some of these areas are having a little renaissance with some fixing up of old downtowns - Eastport is an example - but I got the strong sense that it's a tenuous thing, dependent on luring tourists, and yuppies who want to retire from New York to paint and that sort of thing.

City Data shows Calais being a major paper-producing city. (My experience with paper-producing cities is that paper production reeeeeks, it smells terrrrible. Worth finding out while you're there if there's active paper plants in town.) That site also shows lots of other data worth skimming, it's not always the most accurate, but it might give you some things to ask about or check out during your interview. (They have a forum with Q+A about Calais - in my experience, these forums tend to be fairly boosterish "our town is great, everyone is very friendly" - but if you are non-white or gay or Jewish etc, you may have a different experience in these towns - totally depends, and you should check it out when you visit.)

My experience of downeast Maine is pretty close to the stereotype - people are very practical (great conversation opportunities involve fishing, sailing, motorboating, home construction projects, gardens, church supper, etc), typically not chatty, dry humor, may see people from elsewhere as being permanently "other". So, a bit like moving to any small town, you'll always be the new person. This can be fine, people will still be friendly. And there are a lot of up-sides to living in a small town. Chance to get involved in lots of things you might not in a larger town.

If you're a single person considering moving there, you will want to think about what this kind of geographic isolation will mean for your dating life. (There are happy surprises everywhere, definitely - I'm just saying, if for example you're moving from a university town it can be jarring to find that everybody who's 30 is married with three kids, or with no formal education, etc - the pool is a lot narrower than you might think coming from a university town where there are a lot of educated single 30-somethings.)

The cost of living is probably rock-bottom, and it really is gorgeous up there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:31 PM on August 6, 2009

I've never quite made it there myself (been to Machias), although I have friends and knew people from out that way when I was living in Maine. The economy and job market in a lot of northern towns is pretty shot (I'm kind of curious what's hiring—the hospital? Calais has a fairly big medical center), and most of the people I knew who were from towns up in that area had pretty much resigned themselves to looking south for work.

Personally I loved living in Maine (central, near Lewiston-Auburn) and never would have left except that I found it impossible to find a decent job. The winters are long and not for everybody; I'm exactly sure how Calais would compare to inland central ME in terms of precipitation, but even if the snow is less owing to the coastal location, it's still going to feel cold. Although it's not impossible for a warm-weather person to get used to and even come to enjoy cold weather, I'd say just from my anecdotal experience that it's rare. I grew up in New England and even I found central Maine to be a different kind of cold than the winters I was used to (by about 15 to 20 degrees); people I knew from further south just seemed to complain incessantly about it and take years to acclimate, if they ever did at all. YMMV, of course.

In terms of entertainment, my gut feeling is that if you're not into outdoor activities, you may find yourself without a whole lot to do, besides watching Netflix and drinking. I think you need to really think about what kinds of things you enjoy doing; if it's going out to fine restaurants and soaking up diverse urban culture, well, I'll be blunt: you may find anyplace north of Portland to be a bit of a cramp to your style. But if you enjoy the outdoors and are looking for a rural or small-city lifestyle and don't mind cold weather or the idea of something called "mud season," you might find that it's a good match.

Also on preview: the dating scene definitely might be something to think about if you're single. The nearest big university town would probably be Orono, and it's a serious (guessing 2+ hours, longer in the winter) haul. You can meet people anywhere, of course, but you might find it more challenging if you're used to a big-city dating scene.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 PM on August 6, 2009

A few years ago, despairing of the inflated coastal southern maine real estate climate, my wife and I took a trip up to Eastport to look around, with a view toward maybe picking up a rambling old New England farmhouse for cheap. We, perhaps wisely and perhaps not, went in I think February. It was cold, snowy, and dark is mainly what I remember. Gloomy in the way that places are gloomy when they were once prosperous and remote, but now are merely remote.

Calais isn't Eastport, mind you. Calais is actually sort of the population and commercial center of the general region. If you live in Eastport, or Lubec, or anywhere around there, and you need to buy something other than maybe breakfast, you're probably taking a drive to Calais, which we did one day. The river was pretty, I seem to remember, and it's a bustling metropolis compared to Eastport. Compared to anywhere else, it's a small town. I can't say much else about it from experience, having only been there a few hours.

Washington County is the poorest county in Maine, and it mostly shows. Drug problems up there are fairly epic, but I don't think it extends to much crime. My best advice is not to accept anything until you've gone and visited. It's impossible to say whether anyone would like it, I think. It's the sort of place that you'll either love or run screaming from.
posted by rusty at 10:02 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Calais and the surrounding areas are pretty darn quiet. I haven't spent a ton of time in Calais but my parents have a place in Pembroke, near Eastport, about 30 miles from there. I've crossed the border there a bunch of times.

NB is cool in its own right and literally a stones throw away. You are in the sticks in Maine but you cross the border and you are in the populated stretch of Canada.

If you like cultural events, movies, intellectual thought, you are going to have a hard time up there, initially, anyway. Those things happen but a lot of times they happen in people's houses. If you stay for a while, you'll find pockets of really interesting people, but they are hiding out in the sticks. You don't just go to the local intellectual bookstore and find them.

I met some really interesting people in NB. There are a lot of draft dodger hippies there who are doing cool stuff.

There's a huge drug problem up there, to my understanding. Our neighbor says that everyone ends up getting involved. May have implications for theft and stuff. So far, knock on wood, my parents place has been safe.

There are basically no jobs to be had there, except maybe for medicine. It's a very depressed area. So I would be leary about moving there, because if you bought a house and got laid off, you would be screwed. However, houses are pretty darn cheap. You can buy a nice old house pretty reasonably.

Realize that you are a long drive from just about anywhere stimulating. Bangor (a not that great town) is I think 3 hours. Ellsworth is maybe 2 (good for fancy groceries). Portland Maine, 5-6 I think. Boston is 9 I believe. A beautiful ride but still.

The cool things about coastal Maine (to me) boatbuilding, sailing, people, they are mostly further south, starting in Belfast. What you have in Washington County is tons of space, wildlife, and no people. My parents absolutely love it but they are not needing much stimulation.

You can email me for any more info. If you go I can point you in the direction of some cultural stuff I know about.
posted by sully75 at 2:59 AM on August 7, 2009

Pretty much what everyone else said. I have a couple of friends from Calais, as well as a bit of family up there. The job situation is grim, and if you like doing city stuff, you are out of luck. I really don't think there's much in the way of "things to do in Calais"- there's a movie theater and there's a Walmart.

It is a loooooong drive to get anywhere, sully75's distances to the big Maine cities seems accurate (I believe it took about 5 hours to get there from Lewiston, and Lewiston is not exactly funtimes center). And in the winter some stretches of road are going to be hella treacherous.

Of course, in college the big draw for visiting Calais was that we could walk across the bridge to Canada and drink legally. St. Stephen NB is pretty much Calais but in Canada (dim recollection from about 10 years ago).

International Paper does have some operations up there, but it does not smell like a paper town, so that's good.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 3:17 AM on August 7, 2009

I just wanted to thank everyone for their input and info! It's really great to hear from people who have been around the area. I am in my mid-30s with a wife (no kids).
both of us hold post-grad degrees. I would be interviewing with a community college in that town. (if any of this info assists in further "you'd love it/hate it advice")

We'd be coming from the it's a major geographical change for us.... just hoping to get some more wisdom and input from others before making such a big decision. We've been to Portland and loved it...but I realize this is quite a bit different.

You guys rock! If anyone else has info or advice, please continue to share!

Thanks again!
posted by MeetCleaverTheatre at 5:28 AM on August 7, 2009

I was just there two weeks ago. Down East Maine and SW NB is fantastic. My wife's family were Loyalists who received a farm in NB and I have been trying to convince my wife to move to St. John for a while now.

Calais is two hours (summer) from Bangor and an hour from St. John, so there is some culture available within striking distance, but Down East comes with it's own culture that is amazing and friendly like small town North America used to be. By way of example, my wife was looking for some particular trinket from a store in Eastport but all the stores that sold it were closed. A passing local stopped and asked what she was looking for. When we told him, he rattled off all the places it was available, as they were all closed, he said, "follow me!" Up the street we went and around the corner to a tidy little house. He proceded to bang on the door and peer in the windows, shouting, "Rosie, are you in there?" When Rosie appeared, in a housecoat, she said she was just sweeping up in the back. He told her, "these folks are looking for (the trinkets) that you make, but (the shopkeepers) are out of town." We were invited in, served coffee and my wife got to view Rosie's full collection of trinkets and bobbles right in the artist's workshop. No one seemed to think that this was odd in the least, except my big city wife.

Down East and SW NB is all like that. Friendly, practical folks. Fantastic summers. More wild berries than you could ever possibly eat. You can hear the border at then end of each sentence, whether the listener responds with an up-toned "oh-yeah" or an inhaled, hiccuped "yeah, yeah, yeah" gives away which side of the St. Croix they're from. You'll need to learn to talk about boats and porcupines. For me, I'd do it in a second, but it's certainly not for everyone.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:49 AM on August 7, 2009

The pronunciation is actually more like "ka-LIS".

Coming from the midwest, you may have a difficult time making connections there. Mainers are a bit insular, a bit standoffish, and the humor tends to be very dry and sarcastic. Not to say there aren't some very friendly people there as well, but overall people are quite reserved.

If you like fishing, hiking, drinking, reading, enjoying the quiet, church suppers, hunting, and bingo, then you'll have a blast. For more intellectually stimulating activities, you'll probably have to drive to Portland now and again. There probably isn't any high-speed internet service, so bear in mind the internets will be slower, much like the overall pace there.

Winters are brutal and beautiful. Summers hot and sticky, lots of biting insects and roadwork. Spring, mud. Fall, beautiful foliage, depending on how much rain there's been.

I would recommend it, if you like peace and quiet and beautiful nature. It's really gorgeous there.
posted by Koko at 7:14 AM on August 7, 2009

For the record, there is high speed internet available. My parents have it, out in the sticks. So I'm almost 100% sure that it's available in Calais.
posted by sully75 at 7:45 AM on August 7, 2009

The pronunciation is actually more like "ka-LIS".

Stress on the wrong syllable. "KA-lis" with the A like the A in "cat."

I grew up in Maine, but in the southern portion. However, I've been to Calais a few times, stopping on trips to the Maritimes. And I know people from Northern Maine and have visited a lot of Northern Maine. I'm going to be blunt, because this is a big decision. Some people from the region might take exception to this, but I want you to know what I think.

You'll have to enjoy solitude. The closest city is St. John, New Brunswick which is about an hour away. Bangor's about 90 minutes. St John is neat city, Bangor is serviceable.

As mentioned, winters will be dark, cold and even more isolating than the rest of the year.

If you're used to having lots of friends nearby, I would worry that the strong isolation you'd experience would put a strain on your marriage. Your world is going to be small so topics of conversation with your wife may become stagnant and you're probably going to spend much more time together than you're used to.

This is because many of the people with whom you interact are going to be very insular and will not have traveled any further than Bangor and it will be hard to have conversations with them beyond small talk. Most of the people you meet will have little knowledge of anything outside of their profession and their hobbies. The bulk of them will not be bad people-- quite the opposite. Most of them will be earnest, pleasant people that haven't had their souls stretched by city commuting and defensive urban attitudes and will be kind and helpful in the best possible way. However, some will be awful, hard-bitten, mean people in the unique way that rural poverty can shape people badly.

The summers will be glorious and liberating, but they'll be short.

You'll never be at a loss for new places to fish, hike or nordic ski/snowshoe, but the rest of your entertainment is going to be at home. In the middle of winter, cabin fever sets in and families can get into brawls over cribbage matches and TV programs.

You might find entertainment and day-to-day satisfaction in different ways than I do, but if for some reason I HAD to live in Calais, I would contemplate taking my own life.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:59 AM on August 7, 2009

I didn't stress this point enough, in the interest of being fair:

I have also met people who were wordly and knowledgeable about many things in rural Maine. Not everyone is as described in my previous comment.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:04 AM on August 7, 2009

Copied from a private message I sent:

My basic take is that it could be good or it could be really bad. You are going to be your art scene, you and your wife. Maybe you can stir up a kids art group, but there aren't a ton of kids, and they tend to be snow mobile kinda kids, mostly. So if you are into doing what you like, and having time and space to do it, it could be awesome. But if you are needing daily people stimulation and stimulating conversation about, say, Degas, or Wilco, or The Ukraine, or something like that, it's going to be tougher. Not impossible, but tough. That's not to say that people are stupid or not friendly. Not at all. It's just a different set of interests. Most of the people I've met have been really charming in one way or another. Not huggy people but friendly and helpful and interesting.

Once I stayed by myself at my parents place and in the middle of the night I heard about 10 gunshots, which scared the crap out of me. I asked the next door neighbor the next day and he says "oh that's just R, he does that when he gets drunk". That sums up some of it anyway.

You might find yourself liking the outdoors stuff, and it's plentiful. My dad likes to go mackerel fishing and there's a lot of that. Hunting and shooting and things like that...they might grow on you, just saying.

One gem is the film series in Eastport. There's an old hippy, and he got a grant to get a digital projector and he plays insanely arty films at the Eastport High School Band room. I've seen some out, out stuff there. 2 movies produced in Iraq, one was an all Kurd cast. But really interesting stuff in general. He gets maybe 20-30 people to show up. Mostly old folks. There's an interesting little newspaper out of Eastport, run by an old eastport family. And a kind of weird art museum thing too. Lots of kind of mediocre decorative art comes out of Maine and Eastport is fairly big for that. There's a somewhat famous mystery writer who lives in town with her guitar making husband, they were featured in the NY times, I believe.

Winters...well. I don't know. I wouldn't particularly relish it. I've lived in Maine in the winter, with no heat (!) and I enjoyed it, but it was further down the coast and in a community situation. Calais is more of a town though, so you can expect your roads to be plowed and things like that. I'll give you this anequdote: I was hitchhiking in Newfoundland last summer, which makes Calais look like Manhattan. And everyone there was like, holy shit!!! we can't wait for winter. Snowmobiling, staying in their special isolated winter cabins. So people can get into it. Also there is NB right next door and cultural stuff going on there to some extent.

I wouldn't hold out that St. Johns is going to be a cultural oasis. Maybe it is. I haven't spent much time there, but it's a pretty industrial city. It is close by though, sort of.

Travel is going to be an issue. There's no way around that. I'd mapquest the trip to Bangor. Maybe it's 2 hours? It's a straight shot from Calais. Along maybe the most desolate road in the Northeast, but there's pretty spots.

Dancing, other than drunken bar country dancing is not going to be happening. There will be a very occasional contradance in Machias. Machias has the Beehive Collective(, which is a pretty interesting thing that I can never really make sense of. But they restored this awesome Grange Hall and have events there on an irregular basis. Their Black Fly Ball is quite a party though. Machias is maybe your oasis. There's a University of Maine Campus there, and I've met some interesting people there.

If I were you, I'd be seriously thinking about Canada. I'm in nursing school now and think about it often. It's sort of like what Maine was like 40 years ago (well, I'm I'm guessing this). A lot of healthy rural communities. There's not the rural brain drain that you get in the US...where the economies and culture don't support some intellectual activity. I apologize for the generalalization, that's just sort of how I've experienced it. You'll find more organic hippy people in rural Canada, doing interesting things. I find rural Canadians bizarrly well travelled and good conversationalists. The only really annoying thing is when the topic of the states comes up and everyone gets really resentful, it can be weird.

You could live on the outskirts of Halifax, maybe 10 miles out, in the middle of nowhere, and be in the city in short order. Awesome music, beautiful town, and some amazing country all over the place. Lots of culture, both the snooty stuff and the indigenous stuff. I'm kind of dying to move there. And you'd be able to fly to NY no problem, Cleveland I'm not so sure.
posted by sully75 at 8:05 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my crystal ball, I see 80/20 odds that this is not going to be a great thing for you. As someone who is somewhat in line with the creative vibe I'm getting from you, I've had great times staying in the area for summers and doing my work in a really distraction free environment. But this is for maybe a month at the longest. Some days I would not see another human being, and that was cool at the time.

But for a life, to live up there year round, it would not be for me. I could do it if I had to, but I wouldn't want to. Belfast, Maine, maybe. Outskirts of Halifax, definitely. Cape Breton, I'd do it in a heart beat (love the fiddle music). But Washington County is tough right now. There are interesting people there, but they are hard to find. People move there because they want some isolation. Which makes it hard to meet those people.

Also...I think you need to go up there with the firm assumption you are not going to change anyone's mind about anything. And if you want to make friends, don't try. This means, for instance, don't tell them their cars are gas guzzlers, or they should eat less fried food, or exercise. Seriously. Don't even think about it. If you meet people who agree with you about stuff, that's awesome. But you have to come to these people as if you were a guest in their home, and not assume that you know something they don't.

BUT you never know. You could quite well meet some amazing people, develop a love for the great outdoors, find something you can fix up there, help out with education. The area probably needs some people like you, and maybe you can start something there. There's space to do things. A whole lot of spa.ce.

That's all I got.
posted by sully75 at 8:28 AM on August 7, 2009

I lived for many years in Machiasport and my Mum still lives in Cherryfield, so I know Calais fairly well.
Nthing that there isn't much there, although it's MUCH better than it used to be. The grocery store is fairly decent and there's a Wal-Mart. I know, I know, but trust me, you'll be thankful.
Unless you are really good at amusing yourself and enjoy nature, you will go nuts. Bear in mind that you are a LONG way from anything.
I don't know about the Calais area, but Cherryfirld only has dial up internet provided by Fair Point, a really bad provider. This alone would prevent me from moving back.
I love Maine, but I would really be hesitant about moving back to that area.
posted by pentagoet at 8:30 AM on August 7, 2009

For the record, there is high speed internet available. My parents have it, out in the sticks. So I'm almost 100% sure that it's available in Calais.

Hmmm. Northport (where my mom lives) doesn't have it. May be a crapshoot.

The pronunciation is actually more like "ka-LIS".

Stress on the wrong syllable. "KA-lis" with the A like the A in "cat."

Right you are.
posted by Koko at 8:49 AM on August 7, 2009

I grew up in St. Stephen, NB - right across the river and the two towns are very similar. I would recommend them as a good places for small/new families as they both have a nice small town/safe atmosphere.

If it's just a short stint for a few years you are only an hour or so from Saint John, NB or Bangor, ME so you won't feel completely cut off from things like malls, large movie theatres or cultural events and concerts.

Other than that - it's beautiful in that area and there will always be colourful characters in the two or three bars you can choose from.

You will also get a large blank stare, a little chuckle and branded as a dandy should you pronounce Calais correctly.

Good luck in your interview, should you decide to go for it! :)
posted by UnsaltedButter at 5:44 PM on August 7, 2009

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