Where is “Downeast” from here?

Since we began our trips to Maine, and subsequently found ourselves living in Washington County, many friends and family have often asked the question, what does Downeast mean, and where exactly is it? To be quite honest I asked that very same question to the person who rented us our first house in Jonesboro back in 1998. His response, that we were vacationing in the Sunrise County, the “real” Downeast Maine, only further ignited my curiosity. I knew this begged further exploration as to what that actually meant.

Heading to the dictionary, Merriam Webster to be exact, I found the definition for Downeast is, “ in or into the northeast coastal section of the United States and parts of the Maritime Provinces of Canada; specifically:  in or into coastal Maine.” Refining my search a little more to Maine, I found that this would include the rural towns of Hancock and Washington County such as Lubec, Calais, Eastport, Millbridge, Gouldsboro, Winter & Prospect Harbors and Machias.

In nautical terminology, many believe the origin of the word comes from sailors who sailed east out of Boston to ports in Maine, and typically had the wind to their backs, sailing downwind, or downeast. On the return trip the ships sailed up wind, or up to Boston as the term was used; though to look at it on a map, it is a southerly direction of about 50 to 60 miles from the southern boundary of Maine. If wind direction does not merit the birth of this term, due to its unpredictable nature and its change in direction with the seasons, then there is always longitude, which is a constant when it comes to navigation. In very basic terms, travel from west to east longitudinally is down the scale toward zero in Greenwich, England; travel west was moving up the scale.

In Canada, it gets a little easier to explain in both name and direction. For Canadians, to be Downeast means to be in any of the areas that make up the Canadian Maritimes: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick.

And for the Mainers who head south for the winter, their travel and accommodations in a certain place could also be considered Downeast. During my research I found a portion of North Carolina that the residents refer to in this manner. The history of the area associates a group of communities geographically situated east of Beaufort, NC, in Carteret County, which is in the coastal plain region of the state, as being Downeast. Those living there for decades have used this moniker to describe the location.

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Now living full-time here along the coast, for my wife and I the term Downeast means a little bit more and is now very easy to describe, and has nothing to do with geography or nautical terminology. It is a special place that gives us both a home and a community that takes nothing for granted. It provides a “sense of place”, if you will, to the core of our soul. Whether walking the rocky coastline, peering into caves at low tide, or watching the boats head out early into a fog bound channel, the essence of time simply slows down here. Not sure how or why, but it does. The waves curl and fall in slow motion and the fog roams the coastline like frames of a black and white movie, one at a time, until a trance takes over and you find yourself part of the script, an actor perfectly placed within those frames. It is said that when one says or does something repeatedly, it is eventually taken for granted, becoming a habit, invisible. For those living here along the coastline all their lives, I do not think this is true. I believe the sights and sounds experienced by them run just as deep as they do for us experiencing them for the very first time. Perhaps that too is one of the perks of a Downeast life and if it is, I am pretty sure we will be here for a very long time.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.