Published: 5:28 PM 10/15/2014
On a mid-December evening, I'm driving on Route 7 in Brooks, headed for Belfast. Up and down those Waldo County hills. Black sky.
Suddenly a knot of white light pops into view over the trees to my left. Distant but bright, I register at the speed of thought. A fireball! But there's no trail. It speeds straight and even and disappears behind the trees on the right in something less than five seconds.
What the heck was that?
Now, I have a fair amount of experience looking at stuff in the sky. I've spent many nights with small telescopes zeroing in on stars, planets and globular clusters. I've seen meteors, fireballs, satellites, helicopters, jets and airplane landing lights. When I was a teenager, I flew small planes.
This thing speeding across the sky in Brooks was way too slow to be a meteor. It was way too fast and too large to be a satellite. It was as bright as a fireball, but it had no trail and its trajectory was a straight line parallel to the horizon. An aircraft still reflecting sunlight at that hour in December would be so high it would appear much slower, even at jet speed.
In my microcosmic lexicon, this was: an unidentified flying object.
Mainers are no strangers to unfamiliar lights in the sky. A news story this spring said that Maine in 2013 was among the top three states per capita for reports of such sightings. The story was based on a tabulation by Outer Places ("where science meets science fiction") of the Mutual UFO Network's records of unidentified sightings.
The map on its website pegs Arizona with 4.05 sightings per 100,000 people, Vermont with 4.02 sightings, and Maine with 3.87. The summary on the graphic (somewhat more fictionally than scientifically) states: "Maine and Arizona [ranked] highest with 3.87 and 4.02 respectively." Anyway, it seems like a lot of hard-to-explain lights are spotted in the sky in Maine, relatively speaking.
But like the graphic, this might be true, or it might not.
HOTBED OR NOT?
Valerie Schultz, assistant state director for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, in Maine, took issue with the summary when I asked her about it.
"Maine had 51 cases reported to MUFON in 2013," she wrote in an email. "California had the most reported sightings at 814." Texas was second with 462, and Florida had 446. "Maine's 51 MUFON reported sightings in 2013 puts our state into 35th place out of all 50 states," she said.
In March 2014, she continued, California had 103 reports, Florida 58, Texas 46, and Arizona 25. Maine had eight. Four in February.
"Maine does not appear to be a hotbed of UFO activity," Schultz said.
Raymond E. Fowler, a widely respected UFO researcher, had much the same take.
"I do not agree that Maine is more of a hotbed of sightings than other states," he wrote in an email. "It varies as there are hot spots here and there and sometimes around military bases storing atomic weapons."
One of those hot spots was the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, which had significant incidents cited by both Schultz and Fowler. In 1969 and 1975, military personnel spotted unidentified flying objects near the base. The 1975 object was tracked on radar, prompting a security alert.
In fact, the Strategic Air Command was quite uneasy that fall and winter about a spate of similar reports at military installations in northern states and Canada.
Not far from Limestone, a still-active MUFON case occurred in January 1953 at the (then) Presque Isle Air Force Base, when a UFO was tracked by long-range radar and four F-94 interceptor aircraft were scrambled to check it out. The report came from a staff sergeant who was on duty at the time of the incident.
THE ALLAGASH ABDUCTION
Perhaps Maine's best-known UFO incident, documented by Fowler in his book "The Allagash Abductions," occurred in August 1976. Twin brothers Jack and Jim Weiner and friends Charlie Foltz and Chuck Rak went camping on Eagle Lake, and one dark night decided to go fishing.
They made a big beacon fire on the beach, paddled out in a canoe, and then, according to their accounts, saw "a large, bright sphere of colored light hovering motionless and soundless about 200-300 feet above the southeastern rim of the cove."
When Foltz blinked his flashlight at the object ("the size of a two-story house"), it started to move toward them, so they turned and dug for shore. Their fire, which should still have been in full blaze, was just coals when they arrived, and then the details of the night frayed in their memories.
Years later, strange dreams prompted Jim Weiner, on the advice of a physician, to undergo hypnotic regression sessions, and eventually all four participated. They all had similar recollections of being taken into the object that night and, well, examined.
Taken and examined by whom or what?
The amount of time and energy that's gone into answering this question over the last roughly 75 years is staggering. Serious organizations like MUFON grew up out of efforts in the 1960s and '70s by credentialed academics to get to the bottom of strange sightings reported with more or less increasing frequency since just after World War II.
Former New York Times reporter Howard Blum in his 1990 book Out There outlines a history of the Air Force, National Security Agency, CIA and other government operations seriously probing not only UFO reports, but the possibility that they're of extraterrestrial origin.
Schultz said Maine MUFON formally investigated 145 reports of puzzling aerial phenomena from 2011 through the beginning of this April. Of those, 63 were classified as "unknown" cases, and "57 of the 145 were found to be IFOs – Identified as either natural phenomena or mis-identifications of satellites or other aircraft," she wrote.
"Thirteen cases were informational only, 11 had insufficient data and 10 were found to be hoaxes."
MUFON took reports of sightings last summer and fall from Lewiston, Brunswick, Ellsworth and Sanford, she said. And anecdotes abound, too, of course. A story in Yankee magazine in 1982 describes a "floating light" seen by several people in Starks in November 1981, which, the story speculates, might have spurred a fatal car crash.
I remember news accounts in the 1970s of Farmington police wondering about some weird lights outside town. I've read that people in Downeast Maine saw the light that crashed into the ocean off Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, in October 1967.
What might be of interest in the Gulf of Maine, I don't know. But Blum reports an incident that occurred in the 1980s during a secret government meeting to demonstrate progress in remote viewing, or "scannate" experiments.
A viewer "scanning" in his mind for the location of a submarine was shaken to pallor when he perceived an image of a "wingless aircraft" in the waters between Maine and Nova Scotia. No one was sure what to make of it.
As for my bright object over Brooks, Schultz asked me carefully scripted questions. Was it the ISS? A planet? A fireball?
No, no and no. I guess that bright moving light was an aircraft of velocity-capability beyond my reckoning. I don't know. As Blum says of the CIA's findings by the 1980s, no explanation is the only explanation possible.
Dana Wilde is a writer, editor and former writing professor. His column, Backyard Naturalist, runs in the Kennebec Journal and Central Maine Morning Sentinel. He lives in Troy.