Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

My Time in Maine

© 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Over a 15-year period (1983–1998), I serviced a business client in central Maine. Several times, I took my family along for a vacation. [Interestingly, when I went into business as an independent computer consultant in mid-1984, despite all the Federal, State, and local government, and defense-related work going on in the Washington DC area where I lived, for the first 20 years of my business, my projects were based in other states! C'est la vie!]

Where and What is Maine?

Maine is the northeastern-most US state. At its western border is the US state of New Hampshire; to its north and east are the Canadian provinces of Quebec (French-speaking) and New Brunswick (bilingual), respectively. To the southeast is the Atlantic Ocean. With all its inlets and islands, Maine has more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline, quite a bit of which is rugged.

There are numerous peaks over 4,000 feet (1,230 meters), and one local saying goes something like, "You can see so far from the top that it takes two of you to look!" [Mainers love their very dry humor.] Two well-known sets of peaks are in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park.

Commercial fishing is big along the coast with Maine lobster being an important industry. Inland, there is plenty of agriculture, especially potatoes. And there are huge forests, many of which are harvested and replanted. There is a lot of surface water, which leads to a huge insect population in the summer. (Can you say mosquitos!) There is an abundance of wildlife: bear, moose, deer, and water fowl, with plenty of fishing and boating opportunities. Many locals have non-winterized "camps", which really are small, second houses used except in winter.

After going 2,200 miles (3,500 km) from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail ends at the top of Mt. Katahdin at Baxter Peak in Baxter State Park. [You can argue that the trail also runs in the reverse direction, but through-hikers start in the south where the weather is warmer, and get to the northern terminus after the snow has melted but before the biting insects get too hungry.] A number of times while in the area, I picked up hitchhikers who'd just completed the whole trail in one shot. They typically took three months and wore out several pairs of boots!

Now if you spend any length of time in the state, you'll learn about the term "Down East". Its meaning differs. As best I could tell, it was a derogatory term in the northern (rural) parts when referring to that very-populated southern tip. But for those living down east, they thought something else. It seemed to me that to the northerners, pretty much anywhere in the world was "down east!"

Great Northern Paper Company

Great Northern Paper Company (GNP) produced softwood pulp from which it made paper of various grades, especially that used for newspapers and catalogs. It had facilities in several US states, but my work only involved the Maine paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. (Both towns were created around those mills when they were constructed more than 100 years ago.) When I started work there, GNP was a subsidiary of Great Northern Nekoosa, which had a number of subsidiaries, including one that harvested and sold lumber cut from various hardwoods. At the time, GNP owned or controlled some two million acres of forest in Maine. Much of the border with Canada was GNP forest, and there were a number of border crossings on company land, run by company employees.

The Maine mills were built right next to a branch of the Penobscot River. The reason for this was the company operated six hydroelectric dams. It also operated two steam plants, one at each mill, which generated power by burning wood chips. While the hydro dams were unmanned, the steam plants were manned, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They and the mills typically only closed once a year, around Christmas, for maintenance. (It took a lot of effort and time to get two large paper mills operational from a cold start!)

Both mills had a grinder room in which 4-foot-long, debarked logs floated down a sluice and into one of a number of hoppers where they were physically ground into pulp by rotating stones. An alternate approach to extracting fiber from wood was to use a chemical digester. And as the natural chemicals that came out of the wood during this process were flammable, they were used as fuel for the steam plants. It truly was amazing to watch logs going in at one end of the mill, and not far away, very wide sheets of strong paper coming off at the other onto huge rolls, all in a very short time.

My involvement was with the power-generation operation. As such, while GNP was a paper company, I always thought GNP stood for "Great Northern Power" company!

Getting There and Back

The way I got to central Maine was to fly from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS), where I changed planes, and then flew on to Bangor, Maine (BGR). For most of my time on the project, I was living in Reston, Virginia, and I flew from Washington's National Airport (DCA). However, for the time I lived in Rockville, Maryland, I used Baltimore-Washington International (BWI).

For the first year or so, I flew out early on a Monday morning, and flew back on the following Friday afternoon, for three weeks each month. So, I was away from home a lot! I also racked up a lot of Frequent-Flyer miles, which I used to take the family on vacations (including Alaska and Bermuda). So, on each trip, I had the drive to the airport, a wait, a flight, a wait, another flight, and then a 75-minute drive to Millinocket. Then I'd do the reverse coming home. It took about six hours one-way.

GNP had a fleet of cars, and as more than a few employees, contractors, and clients flew in/out of BGR, most times I arrived there, I took a company car from a reserved spot in the parking lot, and drove it "home" to Millinocket. If no company car was there, I rented a car.

Throughout my time on that project, I did this roundtrip 75–100 times. In fact, during the first year, I spent much more time in Maine than in the state in which I supposedly lived!

Over time, the need for me to be on-site diminished, and I went once every two or three months, often staying for 7–10 days at a time.

GNP had several of its own propeller-powered aircraft and several pilots. The larger one had a cockpit for two pilots, and could carry at least three passengers. Sometimes, it flew directly to/from BOS, but the highest priority passengers were company executives and senior staff, and representatives from potential or current customers. Only once did I manage to hitch a ride. There was only one pilot, and he invited me to sit in the co-pilot's seat from where the view was great. As we didn't fly particularly high, I got a good look at the countryside below, and the highlight was landing among the "big boys" at BOS, a major international airport.

Despite the harsh winters one can experience in Maine, I recall only one really bad day for making the drive from Bangor to Millinocket. The fog was so thick, visibility was down to about 100 feet, which made driving on a major interstate highway a challenge.

The Work

So, why was I in the woods of Maine? GNP wanted to be able to accurately monitor—and where possible, control—its hydro- and steam-power systems from a central location. To that end, more than a year before I came on the scene, it contracted with a group to develop a custom-computer application, which was called EOS (Energy Optimization System).

As I mentioned earlier, the six hydro dams were unmanned. At each of those, every three seconds, a large set of analog and digital measurements (such as water flow, volts, and vars) was made at each dam, and these were relayed to the power dispatcher's office in Millinocket, where those numbers—or numbers computed from them—were displayed on a set of seven, large, colored screens. Summary information was recorded permanently on disk every minute and every hour, and reports were printed on a regular basis, or on demand. Even the remote fire and intrusion alarms were tied to the system. A dispatcher was on duty 24x7. (When I started, they worked three 8-hour shifts a day. However, some years later, they moved to two 12-hour shifts.) The dispatcher could also control the remote facility, for example, to start and stop a turbine, or to increase or decrease the flow through one or more turbines.

Now each water turbine had a series of unique physical characters that determined how much power was produced for a given flow (measured in cubic feet per second [cfs]). As a result, one could draw a graph that showed this. Basically, the steeper the curve on the graph, the more power one got from a given amount of water. The on-site computer calculated this every three seconds, and unless told otherwise by the dispatcher, it made adjustments itself. For example, to pass 3,000 cfs through one station, would it be more efficient to do that at a lower flow through three turbines or using a higher flow through only two? [This calculation involved differential calculus of a polynomial function, which I had first studied in Year 12 high school in 1969. It is the only time in my life that I have used that subject for real work, so never say "Never" regarding all the things you learn in theory, but never think that you'll use!]

The two steam plants were manned. Once again, every three seconds, a large set of measurements was made and relayed to the central computer. However, the dispatcher had no control over those plants. Instead, he communicated with their operators to have changes made as his needs dictated or as operations in the steam plants allowed.

To make the engineering challenging, when the hydro and steam systems were initially installed, most (if not all) of the power consumed in the mills was 40Hz. However, later, it changed to 60Hz. As a result, the power network had two separate parts, which were connected. Over time, many 40Hz motors were converted to 60Hz, so some of the hydro and/or steam units had to be changed. An interesting twist on all this is that the whole internal power system was linked to the public utility, Bangor Hydro, via a tie-line. If GNP was generating more power than it needed in-house, and it didn't want to cut back on generation, it sold it to the utility. [For example, this might happen in spring when there is excess snowmelt, and the water had to be passed through a dam. Better to use it to make power to sell than to waste the water over the spillway!] And when GNP needed more than it could produce, it bought it, all in real-time. Yes, you could see the tie-line gauge switch from buy-to-sell or from sell-to-buy in front of your eyes! Importantly, many of the utility's big customers only needed power from 8 am to 6 pm, at which time, GNP sold its excess power at a premium, and then bought back power at a discount during the night when the utility was generating power its customers didn't need. After all, the utility couldn't switch off its facilities every night!

While there were many hundreds (if not thousands) of electric motors to be powered in the mills and support facilities, one of the biggest power users were the grinding wheels used to make pulp. As grinder lines were started up and shut down, the system load would change significantly, and these actions were coordinated with the dispatcher in advance, so he could prepare to generate more or less power, as appropriate.

When I arrived on-scene late in 1983, the system was operational and doing quite well. However, GNP had parted company with the original contractors, there were numerous rough edges to be fixed, and new features to be added. Within a few days of arriving, I made a significant contribution. On a system in which everything changes every three seconds, one cannot stop and open the hood when something goes wrong, and one can't recreate a problem to trace its origins. By the time one knows about it, it's ancient history! What I did, was to write a small program that, on demand, took a snapshot of all the transient data from a hydro or steam facility at some instant, and saved it for analysis off-line. As this program ran at a higher priority than anything else on the remote computer, we knew that all the data was related to the same instant, not some from the previous 3-seconds and some from the next.

There were nine identical minicomputers: one each at the six hydro plants, one each at the two steam plants, and a so-called Hot Spare (although it really didn't replace anything) in the central computer room in Millinocket. I could make that computer simulate any of the hydro facilities, the idea being that I could test out new code before downloading it to the real site. However, one time, I didn't go that route, and did some live testing on a hydro station, causing one of the turbines to be shut down, and we were unable to restart it remotely. Of course, this had to happen during the night when no electricians were working. So, the electrician-on-call had to be called in, paid time-and-a-half for a minimum of four hours, and for safety, he had to have a buddy go with him. So, my little stunt cost the company eight hours of time at penalty rates! [After that, I only did such testing during daytime hours when electricians were on duty.] Oh, and this all happened at the most remote site, some 20+ miles out in the wilds!

For all but one remote site, the data sent every three seconds was transmitted on a dedicated phone line from that site. However, the most remote site had no phone line. Instead, the data was magically encoded in the high-voltage power line running from that site, and then decoded back at the central facility. If a communications link went down, the isolated remote system kept running using the most-recent commands it had been given.

For all you (older) computer nerds, here's the computing environment: The central facility was a Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-11/45 with 1MB of memory, a printer/console, some hard disks, a line printer, a 9-track magnetic tape drive, numerous video terminals, and a bank of color displays in the dispatcher's office. There was also a paper tape reader and punch. The operating system was RSX-11M-Plus, and all the application code was written in Fortran with a bit of MACRO-11 assembler. The remote computers were PDP-11/23s running the memory-resident operating systems RSX-11S. The only peripherals they had were analog and digital I/O devices and a communication link; they had no disk drives or terminals, not even a console. The systems were connected using DECNet communications software. A remote system image was created on the central host, with an operating system and the applications suite combined. This was downloaded, and booted remotely.

Air Quality and Managing the River

Most of the stuff that the mills put into the air was water vapor from the steam plants. But, of course, other particulate matter made it out as well. In general, air quality was regulated, and the company also had its own operating rules in that regard. As such, certain steam-plant and mill operations could be reduced, and these affected the power needs.

It should be no surprise that while GNP had the right to generate power from dams along the river, the public and wildlife could not be denied reasonable access to that same river. Let's start with the fish. During spawning, fish lay their eggs at a certainly water depth, not so deep that they get too little sunlight/heat, and not too shallow that they overheat. As such, at those times, the power dispatcher had to maintain an even level in the lakes and river behind each dam. After all, recreational fishing was an important activity, as was rafting. Drop the water too much, and the rapids were exposed and impassable. Raise the water too much, and there would be no rapids to challenge the canoeists and kayakers.

So, as is often the case, numerous things were interconnected, with one affecting one or more of the other. In order to be legal and to not upset the tourist and recreation industry, a balance had to be maintained.

As you may have seen in old photos of logging operations, logs used to be floated down rivers, and this approach was used by GNP to deliver wood to the two mills. However, due to environmental concerns, that stopped in 1971, after which all wood came in on trucks.

Outdoor Adventures

Although I worked long hours while onsite, I also took time out to enjoy some local activities. Probably the most memorable was a hike and climb with power dispatcher Wally. We climbed up Mount Katahdin via the knife-edge, and that's as adventurous as I ever want to get climbing. As mentioned earlier, the Appalachian Trail ends at the summit, and to our surprise, when we got to the top, it was so crowded, we had to walk a bit to find a quiet patch for our picnic lunch. As well as the usual day-trippers, some people had climbed up to welcome friends who were arriving on the trail. One welcoming person even played bagpipes (despite the fact there is an ordinance prohibiting the playing of loud music in the park). The mountain is 13 feet short of a mile high, so over the years, at the summit climbers have built a cairn 13 feet high. As you might imagine, going down afterwards was harder and no less dangerous than going up.

Once when my family visited with me, we hiked and climbed up South Turner Mountain. I carried my small son on my back in a frame. As I was near to having a heart attack a thousand or so feet up, he informed me that he really liked hiking! Once I got my breath back, I explained to him that I was hiking; he was riding!

Maine typically gets a lot of snow each winter, and from GNP's perspective, "snow lying frozen on the ground is money in the bank". After all, when that snow melts, it will eventually become water in the river and then power at the hydro stations. So, how to tell how much money one has in one's snow bank? One makes a snow survey, and I had the great pleasure of being asked to go along on one.

The chief power dispatcher, Gene, and I drove to the town airport where a 4-seat propeller plane was waiting. The pilot welcomed us, and Gene sat in the co-pilot's seat. (Gene also had a private pilot's license.) We took off in the usual way, on wheels, but the undercarriage had a set of large, metal skis that could be lowered and raised to allow the plane to land on snow. So off we went, landing on frozen lakes and measuring the depth of snow in various places. Now, the surface of frozen lakes in Maine isn't necessarily smooth. In fact, far from it, as winds can be howling when the water freezes, causing frozen waves. So, landing on what looks like smooth snow can result in finding very rough ice underneath! And unlike landing on wheels, skis have no brakes. The only way to slow down is to turn the rudder, and have the plane turn a bit sideways to slow things down.

While in flight, Gene noticed out the window that a critical metal pin holding one ski in place was vibrating loose, and would eventually cause us a serious problem. So, we put down on a lake and studied the situation. Despite the fact that the pilot was an aircraft mechanic, he had brought no tools, and the plane had almost none either. We lowered the wheels, so we could work on the ski assembly. Then we fashioned a tie (using Band-aids and stuff from the first-aid kit, if I recall correctly), that would hopefully be enough to hold the pin for the rest of the trip. The final problem was, how to get the plane back up onto the skis? Ordinarily, one did that while in the air, using gravity! Well, after much manual huffing-and-puffing, with two of us lifting under the wings, and the pilot hand-pumping the hydraulics, we managed it.

Now you might think that was enough of an adventure for one flight, but no, there was more. The question was raised as to whether we had sufficient fuel to get back home. Apparently, the pilot thought this plane was a different model than it really was, and had overestimated the size of the fuel tank. So, in fact, we did not have enough! Can you say, "Flying by the seat of one's pants"? So, the two of them discussed the possibilities of where one might be able to get some aviation gas out here in the remote woods. "That should be easy", thought I, facetiously. Then Gene said, "There's a summer fishing camp on one of the lakes nearby, and that has a fuel tank to resupply the floatplanes that bring in fishermen. During the winter, a caretaker lives there to keep an eye on the place. Let's try that." So, we buzzed the camp, the caretaker came outside, we landed, and he said, "Sure, help yourself!" Of course, being young and enthusiastic, I got the job of filling the wing tank using a handpump out in the cold! All's well that ends well, right? It was quite an adventure, and I can remember it quite clearly 25+ years later.

One very nice, calm, sunny, winter's day, Wally and I went snow shoeing. It was quite an interesting adventure. It was very quiet with only the sound of a few, small birds flitting about in the trees, the sound of our snow shoes on the snow, and my heavy breathing. In general, an inexperienced snow-shoer will walk in circles when they think they are going in a straight line. On a separate occasion, I tried cross-country skiing. Now while that very likely is great exercise, I never quite got the proper rhythm of it, and my hips were very sore for days afterwards.

On numerous occasions, I hiked with one or more locals along trails through the woods, in the open, and around the lakes. Once, not too far away, I saw a huge "thing" in a lake. After some minutes, it lifted its head from under the water. It was a bull moose. It had been feeding off the bottom, and it had all kinds of plant material hanging in its big antlers.

I was invited to go snowmobiling, and was given my own sled. While it seemed like a fine idea at the start, as soon as we headed out, the others were racing at 50–60 mph (80–96 kph). When one is very close to the ground, which has rocks, ice, and debris under a possibly thin coating of snow, and one is racing between tree trunks at highspeed, after the adrenaline rush, one might start to think, "This could be very dangerous!" One local told me with great authority that a person on a snowmobile could go across open water for at least 50 feet! (While this might seem a strange thing to do, imagine someone snowmobiling in limited light, through falling snow, or in thick fog, and coming across ice-covered water where the ice turns out to be not strong enough to support much weight. Add in alcohol consumption, and you get the idea.)

Once I hired a floatplane and pilot, and took my family around the area and up over Mount Katahdin. Taking off and landing on water is a whole new experience (which I had first experienced on the Amazon River in Peru). And, like a plane on snow skis, a floatplane had no brakes.

The Town of Millinocket

The town had a population much like that of my home town in South Australia. However, while mine is at the heart of a large irrigated citrus, grape, stone-fruit, and dry-land farming area, Millinocket is a small town whose main purpose was to serve the paper mill and supporting businesses and services. [The mill has since closed.]

When I was first offered the work at GNP, I pulled out a detailed map and located the place. I'd never been to Maine before. Given the French influence in the general neighborhood in past times, I thought the ending of the town name might be French, and pronounced as in beret; that is, with the t silent, and the e as an a. But no, it was Anglicized with et as in let. So, it was no surprise that when I saw a coastal Maine town called Calais, I found it was pronounced like callous, not like the French coastal town Calais. Yes, really!

When the mill was constructed 100+ years ago, many stonemasons came from Italy, and they lived in a part of town still known today as Little Italy.

During my many trips, I stayed at the same hotel, and ate often at my favorite family diner. I also was invited to meals on a regular basis to the homes of colleagues who became friends. My friend and colleague Wally eventually became Chairman of the town council.

Some Miscellaneous Bits

After I stopped work at GNP, the power-generation group was sold to another company, which moved the dispatching center several miles away across town. Eventually, that center was moved to Boston, Massachusetts, a long way away, yet it still controlled and monitored the hydro and steam plants remotely. By then, the entire computer hardware and software systems had been completely replaced, sadly, leaving no trace of the previous effort in which I was involved.

One time I took my father-in-law, John, to Maine with me. A $20-million conversion effort of some turbines was nearing completion, and the winning bidder was told that they could hire anyone called Rex Jaeschke living at my address, to do the work to connect the equipment to the EOS. I had carefully planned and made all the software changes necessary in advance, and went back for a week of engineering testing. However, the prime contractor had problems and we didn't start testing for several days. Meanwhile, John and I played tourist. When the new turbine finally came online, there were more issues, and the contractor staff pointed their finger at me; after all, how could an international engineering megacorporation be wrong? It must be this incompetent foreign guy they were forced to use! In their eyes I was guilty until I proved myself innocent, which to their embarrassment, I eventually did.

Some years before I first arrived in Millinocket, a couple of kids scaled the security fence around the base of a pylon that carried high-voltage power lines. They had been drinking beer, which probably made them braver. One of them climbed up the pole and sat on a ledge with his legs dangling either side of some live wires. Eventually, he touched one and got electrocuted. In fact, he was blown out of the tower and suffered major burns to large parts of his body. The interesting thing is that his shoes were still sitting up on the ledge with the laces tied!

The Bangor International Airport (BGR) was a former US Air Force base, and it has a very long runway, of 11,440 feet (3,487 meters). Today, it shares that with the Maine Air National Guard. That guard unit has refueling tankers, and the group's nickname is "Maineiacs". Given the length (and width) of the runway, it was an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. The airport was heavily used for charter flights taking military personal to/from peace-keeping missions in Yugoslavia and wars in the Middle East. As I was waiting for my flight home one time, standing right near me was a rather short man who looked very familiar. It was Casper Weinberger, President Reagan's Secretary of Defense. He maintained a house in Maine.

Finally, I once thought that "The rain in Maine stays mainly in the plain.", but apparently that's not the case.