September 2013

The Elephant Cage

My family and I like to boat up and down the Maine coast in search of interesting places to haul
ashore. With over 3,400 miles of seashore and 4,600 plus islands—many uninhabited—we
always have lots of places to explore. In preparation for a recent outing, I perused my dog-eared
Delorme Maine Atlas and Google Earth for a new destination and its nearest boat landing.  

Viewing the earth far below on Google, a composite of satellite photos revealed an odd feature
on a peninsula to the west of the little coastal village of Corea. Abutting an expansive peat bog
and surrounded by windswept woodlands, a perfect circular pattern, 1,300 feet in diameter, was
etched into the landscape.

Straightaway, I surmised it was a remnant artifact from one of several Maine naval bases closed
in the last decade or so. I zoomed in on the image until features threatened to blur. The circle’s
surface was, presumably, lined with a layer of crushed shale rock. Now, numerous thickets
dotted the ground. A number of buildings were huddled in the center. Faint outlines of 40 or
more parking spots were still identifiable on the ashen gray asphalt.

Half a mile from the circle, an access road entered the former base from Route 195, winding its
way past an immense building and acres of parking lots. South and west of the main road, other
unfamiliar shapes and dead-ended thoroughfares appeared.

I reckoned I had passed this place many times over the years, but as a rule, I don’t reconnoiterer
locales with manned checkpoints and Keep Out signage. However, vague recollections
surfaced in my mind of articles read in the Bangor Daily News about national wildlife refuges,
development corporations, aquaculture farms, and such. Given these memories and the
photographic evidence on my laptop, there was no doubt the base was closed, and apparently,
there wasn’t a whole lot of business development underway, yet. But, was it truly off-limits for
curious folks like me?        

My wife, Heidi, and son, Johnny, are usually up for an adventure, so our weekend plans fell into
place. First, we’d drive to Corea with our loaded boat in tow to check out the gate situation. If it
was closed, then we’d double back to Birch Harbor, launch our boat, and motor to the shore
west of the base. I figured several hundred feet of easy bushwhacking would get us to our
destination for a closer looksee. Now, I’m not advocating trespassing, but if it ain’t signed,
fenced, locked, and/or patrolled, then I’m going.

Anyhow, when we arrived at the entrance, the gate was wide open with no signage in sight.
Though the old checkpoint building had been boarded up, vandals had gained entry and
ransacked its interior. The access road was still navigable, but tree limbs and brush reached
out and over the asphalt, whittling it down to a single lane. As we drove past the main building
viewed previously from Google Earth, I almost expected to see tumbleweeds blowing down the
roadway or a pack of snarling coyotes fighting over a cow skull. Other than songbirds calling
from the woods, it was strangely quiet. Thankfully, it was a warm September day with the sun
shining bright overhead.

Before long, the road turned sharply southeast. Beyond a dense wall of alders, a large building
appeared. Built to military specifications, the structure’s concrete and cinderblock walls were
painted in sun-bleached, peeling shades of beige, tan, and brown. Number 85 was stenciled in
big white letters with black borders on the building’s corners. Grasses, weeds, and thin birches
grew from every crack and crevice of fractured asphalt and concrete. Few windows were
apparent. Heavy set doors were ajar. Again, I paused and listened to the silence. The place was
eerily quiet. For a moment, I considered the possibility of a zombie horde shuffling around in the
ruins. I thought back to the last season of The Walking Dead, and questioned how I came all
this way without a firearm, a katana sword, or at least, a sharp stick in case I had to do battle.

Getting out of our truck, we set our restless Carne Terrier loose. We looked about, gravitating to
the nearest doorway. We peered inside the expansive building. Beyond the sun’s reach, it was
pitch-black. Of course, in the brightness outside, our pupils were the size of a period at the end
of a very short sentence. Usually prepared for many contingencies, especially for a boating
excursion, I asked my son to retrieve a flashlight from my backpack.

Soon, we were spelunking the depths of the deserted building. My flashlight beam illuminated
the destruction within. Ceiling tiles, sheetrock, and insulation lay everywhere. Upended office
chairs and smashed porcelain toilets were scattered about. It was evident a thorough razing
had been undertaken to relieve the building of its treasure of copper wiring and electrical
fixtures. Not a light switch, electrical outlet, or fluorescent ballast remained. Amazingly, the
structure’s underpinnings and frame had survived the demolition, somewhat. The roof was
intact and not a single leak was found. The building’s interior was dingy and parched. The stale
air was tinged with mold.

As we ventured deeper, we may as well have been strolling through a cave on a cloudy night. A
single flashlight provided just enough luminance to keep my imaginings from running wild. I
tried to maintain a brave façade, lest my wife and son sense my unease. Taking many random
photos with my camera, I kept hoping the flash wouldn’t reveal something or someone lurking in
the darkness. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure which of my fight or flight instincts would appear
in the presence of some hulking shadow figure. Fortunately, our little dog, Jack, is pretty fierce,
so I figured he’d give us a few precious seconds to make our escape.

Anyhow, we kept exploring, laughing off our nervousness. Usually, I’m able to glean a keepsake
during my trips, but I wasn’t having any luck this time out. However, I did consider the logistics of
removing a section of undamaged sheetrock on which an unknown artist had painted the
emblem for USN Winter Harbor 52 Division. Wearing a spiked collar and a sailor’s cap, a
bulldog stood in front of two crossed lightning bolts. Written below the cartoon canine were the
words Bulldog Country. Regrettably, I didn’t relish the thought of my flashlight batteries petering
out during its removal, so we kept pressing ahead.

Finally, after walking down multiple corridors and through dozens of rooms, we exited the far
side of the building. I donned my Ray Bans against the sun’s brilliance. After checking several
maintenance and storage outbuildings, we uncoupled our boat trailer and drove down a side
road that followed the circle’s perimeter. Though it seemed like a good idea at the outset, my
pristine truck was razed by alder branches during our circuit. Driving along, I reckoned there was
once an impressive antennae array here, and later, an online search noted that this facility was
once called “The Elephant Cage”. Now, just a regular spacing of posts and pilings protruded
from the earth. Moose tracks and droppings littered the ground. Otherwise, a patchwork of alder
thickets blotted much of our view.  

On our way out, we searched the vast building that greeted us on the way in. Again, heavy set
doors were ajar, providing entry to a structure three times as large as the first. Endless corridors
and countless rooms hid in the darkness. At one point, my son said he hoped we didn’t meet up
with a dirty hobo. I laughed off the remark and said that was unlikely since there weren’t any train
tracks nearby. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about other sorts of people hiding out in the
vast catacombs of this former office complex.

Thankfully, it was an uneventful but interesting experience. The only moment of surprise was
glimpsing a rodent crossing our path. I assured my wife, that it was just a red squirrel, though
its long hairless tail indicated otherwise. Anyways, no murderous hobos, rabid wildlife, walking
dead, or security staff marred our day. So, if you’re ever near the seaside village of Corea, check
out the old base. Just make sure you bring a bright flashlight with fresh batteries…and a sharp
stick. Yah just never know…

                                                                    The End
Abandoned Naval Base in Corea Maine
Maine Travels by John R. Cobb
Main Road