RFD Maine — Eskers, Beaches And Red Paint People
Eskers, high, steep-sided ridges composed of sand and gravel, mostly of the marine variety, form inside tunnels within glaciers. The last ice age, with its expansive glaciations, saw the formation of many eskers in Maine.
Ancient trails and trade routes often flowed along the top of eskers. Being flat, these offered the path of least resistance. These old trails frequently became paved highways in modern days. Some notable examples of this are the Bingham Esker, where Route 16 traces a sometimes 90-foot tall esker. Another well-known example occurs where Route 9, “The Airline,” winds along the top of an esker known as “The Whalesback” in Aurora. This offers spectacular views, especially to the north, of a peat bog, or heath, along the Middle Branch of the Union River.
Waldo County has eskers too. One, known mostly to hikers, woodcutters and anglers, runs between Route 203 and Ellis Pond in Brooks. Driving in to the pond, visitors would have no idea they were riding along the top of an esker. But were they to stop, get out and walk in the woods only a short distance, that fact would become abundantly clear. This esker has very steep sides, but they aren’t visible from the road.
Another esker, this one out in the open and visible for miles around, sits in Sandy Point. This long esker ends at the sea at Sandy Point. It isn’t terribly high as eskers go and the sides aren’t as steep as, for instance, the esker at Ellis Pond. But this esker has some special features that make it an item of interest.
First, as the Sandy Point esker erodes as a result of wind and wave action, it forms beaches. Some of these consist of fairly fine-grained sand, others are pebblier. The pebbly beaches exhibit a good number of pieces of Kineo Rhyolite. This really is something extraordinary, since Mount Kineo sits 100 miles away across from the village of Rockwood on Moosehead Lake. Mount Kineo is largely composed of rhyolite, a flint-like material.
As the glacier flowed over Kineo, it removed a large, jagged portion of mountain on the southern, or downstream, side. This resulted in the stark cliffs we see today. But the glacier was not finished with Kineo flint. As it headed toward what is now the coast, it ground up huge chunks of rhyolite. It also picked up marine deposits, left from a vast inland sea that extended as far north as Chesuncook Lake, north of Moosehead Lake.
Much of this rhyolite and fossil material went to the formation of eskers, which explains why we can find seashell fossils in places far from the sea. At least some of the marine fossils we find on our local beaches were not formed on the spot, but carried there from far inland.
In addition to being common along the beaches at Sandy Point, Kineo Rhyolite is also fairly plentiful along the shores of Sears Island, just a short distance across the water from Sandy Point. I have also found it far out on the beach at Ducktrap Harbor in Lincolnville.
After the glacier receded, it didn’t take long for indigenous people to discover rhyolite and use it for the manufacture of stone tools. The earliest of these people were called the, “Red Paint People,” owing to their habit of burying their dead with red ocher. Also, they are thought to have been a seafaring race. Other than that, we don’t know much about Red Paint People. However, I’m convinced that these people are responsible for the three-sided stone tools found along our local shoreline and also, at Munsungen Lake, one of the earliest known human habitations in Maine.
This style of tool interests me because its three sides include a long base and two shorter sides. A cross-section describes an Isosceles triangle, one where two of the three sides are of equal length. As a collector and general fancier of arrow points and stone tools, I have never seen this style of tool anywhere other than the two places mentioned above.
But back to Kineo Rhyolite. Kineo became a flint-gathering destination for Native Americans from far and wide and this continued long after the Red Paint People faded into obscurity. But not everyone needed to make the trek to Kineo, since some areas of Maine already had a more-than sufficient quantity of rhyolite. These areas were the beaches of Waldo County, particularly in Stockton and Searsport.
In fact, lots of Native Americans made it a point to travel south to the coast rather than north to Kineo. Places such as Sears Island were wild paradises, where seafood abounded. Clams, oysters, lobster, crabs and finfish were plentiful and easy to harvest. And at the same place, a skilled tool-maker could sit down and work on nodules of Kineo “Flint.”
So summer vacation for these people was something of a change from the tedium and dangers of life during the cold seasons. By comparison, these were easy times.
Kineo Rhyolite does not resemble obsidian, something also called “flint.” Where obsidian is glassy and pure black, rhyolite is rather gray, with a fairly smooth surface, but certainly not a glassy texture. Oftentimes, rhyolite has a waxy appearance and exhibits flecks, or incursions of white material.
If searching for bits of stone tools on the seashore, don’t look for cleanly-cut, delicately-fashioned arrowheads or scrapers. Any tool remains would have been wave-washed for many centuries. This action would soften the sharp edges. However, a keen eye will still detect that some bits of material exhibit flat sides, or “facets.” And of course, anything that appears to have been deliberately fashioned into a three-sided bit of stone, may well be a genuine artifact.
A trip to our local seashore can result in a lot more than just a pleasant walk. Just imagine the forces that worked to deposit marine fossils and Kineo flint here. And then think upon the generations of people who came here and spent their summers, fishing, relaxing and making tools out of the abundant Kineo Rhyolite.
One final note. Artifact collecting on private land requires owner consent. For collecting on state-managed lands, permission from the Maine State Museum (they hold title to all artifacts and scientific specimens on state land) is required. Federally-operated lands also require prior permission.