Along Maine’s highly convoluted coastline, it is fairly easy to gesture toward the eastern end of the state. Whether you’re in Biddeford, Portland, Boothbay, Rockland or Belfast, if you point toward the rising sun, you’re pointing toward Down East Maine.
The term “Down East” (which some spell as one word) originated as a reference to the prevailing summer winds along the coast. Sailors would glide downwind, with the wind at their backs, as they sailed east from Boston to ports spread out from Kittery to Lubec.
The term has morphed somewhat over the years. It is used as a cultural reference as much as (if not more than) a directional one. If you find yourself in Down East Maine, you’re in a part of the state where there are a lot of trees, not many people, and the state’s iconic rocky shoreline is not far away.
But where does the fabled land begin? That might all depend on which part of Maine you’re in.
Washington County, more so than any of the seven other counties on Maine’s coast, fits both the directional and cultural definitions of the term, though people traveling from southern Maine to Washington County might say “way Down East” to let people know just how far they are going.
So can you get to Down East Maine without crossing into Washington County? Can you say you’ve reached that idealized place — with outdoor piles of weathered lobster traps, dark and starry night time skies, and miles of winding tree-lined roads — and still be within an hour of Interstate 95?
The Maine Office of Tourism has identified all of Hancock and Washington counties as “Down East & Acadia” — one of eight subdivisions of the state that the public agency promotes to tourists. In an online description of the region, the agency says the term has grown beyond its purely nautical origins to also “represent the rich maritime history and strong, independent spirit of the people in this special part of the northeastern coast.”
But, unsurprisingly, a recent informal online survey of a few dozen Mainers did not produce universal agreement.
Based on their responses, the western edge of Down East seems to lie somewhere within or on the edge of Hancock County, with a body of water often marking the boundary. Some said Penobscot Bay, on the county’s western edge, while others said Down East begins at the Hancock-Washington county line.
The most popular answer, however, was , or a nearby landmark that lies along the same approximate north-south line that delineates east from west. Some said it was the Union River, which runs through the heart of the city. Others said it is where routes 1 and 3 split apart on the city’s commercial High Street thoroughfare. Some specifically cited the former Cheese House on Route 3 in Trenton, which motorists pass while driving between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island.
Some went out of their way to say that Bucksport is not considered Down East or to cast doubt on whether MDI — which has pricey waterfront mansions and gets thick crowds of tourists in the summer — qualifies. A few cited the tidal Taunton River about 10 miles east of Ellsworth, which separates the Hancock County towns of Hancock and Sullivan. If anything within an hour’s drive of I-95 is disqualified as Down East, Sullivan would make the cut, but the town of Hancock would not.
“It phases in starting at the western most border of the Union River watershed,” said Ellsworth resident Wayne Simmons. When you head east across the Narraguagus River in the Washington County towns of Cherryfield or Milbridge, he added, “you’re right thick into it.”
Brian Kevin, who lives in midcoast Maine, has encountered this question quite a bit, sometimes because of his role as editor-in-chief of Down East magazine, but also because he said he enjoys debating a trivial point that people are passionate about and will never fully agree on.
“It’s constant,” he said of the lack of consensus.
The debate tends to be tongue-in-cheek and “should always be taken with some degree of fun,” he said.
Kevin said that part of the inexact meaning of the term comes from people, generally from out of state, who take it as a nickname for the state as a whole. For example, none of the people featured on “Down East Dickering,” a reality-based television show that aired on History Channel in 2014 and 2015, lived east of Penobscot Bay.
A more immediate example of this, of course, is Down East magazine, which is based in the midcoast town of Camden. The staff deliberately goes to all corners of Maine and places in between to gather content for its readers, Kevin said, and tries to spread out its coverage to multiple parts of the state for each issue.
“Occasionally, people give us a hard time,” he said. “We are very deliberate about covering the whole state.”
Kevin said that, for his money, he’s on team Taunton River for where the western edge of the Down East region lies. But he quickly added that he’s willing to grant exceptions.
“It’s a vibe,” Kevin said. “I know it when I see it.”