Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. He’s visiting the University of Maine this summer.
Our travels from Alabama to Maine this summer recently took us east along Route 1 to the town of Columbia Falls.
With a population under 500 according to the 2020 census, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village worth visiting to appreciate the charming architecture of the Bucknam, Ruggles and Columbia houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and a few surprises.
Crossing the small, unassuming bridge over the Pleasant River just past the former Union Church — built a decade before the beginning of the Civil War, later becoming the town hall and now housing the town’s library and archives — several people milled around gazing over the river, so we stopped to investigate.
Nearby, a row of deep pink rugosa rose bushes formed a partial border to the river below. A pair of solitary paler pink peony shrubs were nearby.
“Those peonies on the left, my mother planted them years ago,” Roberta Hammond, a longtime resident and local historian, told me.
Behind the colorful blooms, the rushing water swept by exposed bedrock and cascaded over partially submerged boulders and decaying fallen tree trunks. Channeling its way through a large gap in a broken containment wall — the remnants of an old, abandoned dam — the water dropped several feet into a small pond before discharging into the Pleasant River.
A modest wooded area overlooked the water, creating a picture-perfect postcard setting that we have seen in many Maine towns this summer. But Columbia Falls held a surprise — a couple in fact, not immediately obvious to the casual visitor.
It was suggested I should walk down toward the water and look for the hidden hobbit house.
“Hobbit house,” I inquired, thinking perhaps we had stumbled upon the filming of a new Peter Jackson epic.
“My husband built it,” Hammond said.
Concealed within the hillside and not visible from the road, lay a quaint, diminutive dwelling modeled after homes from the famous Tolkien fantasy. And when I gently pried open the tiny yellow door, inside I found … well, you’ll have to explore that yourself!
But the miniature hobbit hut wasn’t the only surprise that day.
“The river is a popular spot for birds, just look at the seagulls after the alewives,” Hammond noted.
The gregarious gulls made no secret of their mission — stalking the waters for a meal — while others lodged in an almost ominous Hitchcockian manner on the metal roof of the nearby Pleasant River Fish Hatchery building, presumably digesting their recent catch, or planning another.
After moving closer to the bridge to photograph the flowing waters and gulls from a different angle, we were in for a real treat.
Looking more closely, I noticed a dark speck perched atop a dead tree about a quarter-mile away that was clearly the outline of a bird of prey. Squinting, I switched to a modest (200 mm) telephoto lens that revealed a bald eagle, hidden by another tree in my previous photo. I was told the area was a frequent stopping point for these grand raptors.
Though my chief photographic goal on this trip was to photograph moose, the bald eagle is especially awe-inspiring through a camera lens. Just look at its authoritative gaze as it rests unchallenged as master of its domain below.
This unexpected discovery will remain one of many treasured memories from this visit to Maine.