New Year’s Eve is that most traditional of traditional holidays. New Year’s Day? It’s generally a late start, maybe a brunch, then a long walk thrown in as we attempt to cling to the resolutions we made hours before.
For some of us, though, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are a time to buck tradition: to embark on a new adventure, see some new things, commune with nature, or spend some time with people we haven’t even met yet. That’s the idea when our team set a course for Lubec, Maine, two days before the New Year, bound for a location known for superlatives.
First To See the Sun
We’re ostensibly headed north from Boston, crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge at Maine’s southern tip. But north is only half of the compass setting. Maine has a gloriously cold and rugged 228 miles along the coastline, and we’ll be following almost all of it. Yes, north, but east as well.
If you position yourself at the West Quoddy Head Light early on New Year’s Day, you’ll be among a handful of people who will be the first to see the sunrise in the United States. At daybreak, we’ll be catching the sunrise eight minutes sooner than those sleepyheads in Boston.
That’s what we drove up here to see, and so did a bunch of other Subaru owners. But before we get to that, we’re checking in on one of America’s most unique New Year’s Eve celebrations in “nearby” Eastport.
Eastport, Maine, 45 Minutes Away by Car
Sure, Maine has 228 miles of coastline, but that’s as the seagull flies. In actuality, Maine has thousands of miles of inlets, peninsulas, islands and coves. Measure all 3,478 miles of it, and there’s more area where ocean meets land than there is along California’s shoreline.
That’s what makes getting from Lubec to Eastport a bit more challenging than it appears. It’s right there, tantalizingly close on Moose Island.
According to the census in 2020, just 1,288 people called Eastport home, making it the least populous city in Maine and, simultaneously, the easternmost city in the United States. It’s here where we’ll catch one of America’s most unique New Year’s Eve celebrations.
The Eastport Sardine and Maple Leaf Drop
Our guide for the event is Kristin McKinlay, the director of exhibitions at the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport. The Tides Institute is focused on the cultural ties between Maine, New England and the Atlantic provinces of Canada.
“Part of our mission is to restore buildings in the downtown and also bring some vitality into the downtown where there hadn’t been,” McKinlay says.
Midnight on New Year’s Eve hits the Canadian Maritimes a full hour earlier, so at 11 p.m., the Canadian celebration begins with an illuminated 4-foot maple leaf on a pulley system affixed to the front of the Tides Institute building.
The Maine event (ha!) is the Great Sardine Drop. This 8-foot-long, 20-pound creature of the deep is a celebration of the state’s sardine fishing industry.
The event has been going strong for close to two decades. “This is the 17th year. We started in 2005 as a way to bring a celebration to town when there really wasn’t any organized festivities,” McKinlay says. “We thought, what a great opportunity to celebrate our unique location within New Year’s and do it in a fun but kind of local way.”
Subaru Owners Gather To See the First Sunrise
Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the continental United States, is home to the West Quoddy Head Light, one of the most photographed lighthouses in the state.
Dozens of adventurers are here in the pre-dawn gloom, milling around open tailgates and trying to stay warm. Among them, we meet several Subaru owners.
“I heard about the farthest east point in the United States, and it being a neat experience to see the sunrise,” says Thomas Enright from Washington, D.C., who made the 14-hour ride “to try it out and do a little road trip” in his 2018 Subaru Crosstrek, he says. “It was a little bit of weather, little bit of rain, little bit of sleet. I’ve been in much worse.”
Jamie McConnell traveled with her husband from Oxford, Massachusetts, and made the rest of the drive with her mom, Terrie, in Terrie’s new Outback. “I’m a nurse, and I work at MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta, so I have to drive an hour to work,” says Terrie.
“I just bought a brand-new Subaru to get me there safely in the snow, and I love it so far.” Terrie’s husband passed away last year, and she calls this trip with her daughter and son-in-law a bucket list item for her.
First Sunrise in the Continental U.S.
It’s important to temper your expectations when you see a “sunrise” in Maine. Maine gets precipitation 131 days a year, and only 192 of the 365 are considered sunny.
At sunrise on January 1, 2022, the sky is typically leaden, but the glow on the horizon is just as welcomed as it would have been had it been clear blue.
Watching the sun come up at West Quoddy Head Light is a unique New England event. “We’ve had people from Dubai,” says Kimberly Ashby, the executive director of the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association. As the pandemic shifted from stay-at-home restrictions to reopening, “We still had 16 countries that came through,” she says.
It doesn’t require physical strength or superhuman mental acuity. It just requires a willingness to get here in any kind of weather and roll out before the crack of dawn.