Galen Koch is on a deadline. She and her oral history project, The First Coast, are due at the Fishermen’s Forum from March 1 to 3 at the Samoset in Rockland. Her mission there will be to lure attendees aboard a 1976 Airstream-cum-media lab to tell stories of their lives in the fishing industry. But on the day we called the Stonington native to talk about The First Coast, Koch had just discovered some fresh leaks in the Airstream. “I’m feeling mildly demoralized at the moment, but I’ll be OK soon.” We talked about getting road ready and how and why she got so interested in preserving the stories of life on Maine’s coast.

MEMORIES LIGHT THE CORNERS: The First Coast project was created, as Koch puts it, is to try to “preserve a collective coastal memory and living maritime history.” Not for tourists, but for Mainers. She’ll roam the coast in the off-season – “you can’t ask Mainers to drop everything in the summer to talk to you” – running the Airstream as both a lab to gather the stories and an exhibition space to share them. Koch, a graduate of Skidmore College in New York and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, works primarily in radio but sometimes in video as well. In 2016 she created a series of stories about Portland’s working waterfront called Wharfside, funded by the Waterfront Alliance and Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, and she liked that experience.

DEEP DIVES: She wanted more of that kind of immersive journalistic experience, but without the boundaries of traditional formats. “I am so tired of having to find the nut graph, that’s what they call it in radio.” (That’s the paragraph that sums up what a story is about. Newspapers use the same term. Editors demand them.) People’s stories are legitimate, even without a “thesis,” Koch feels and not always obvious. “I wanted to have this feeling where I could go to a town like Lubec and really spend time there – I’ll be there three weeks – and not be the reporter that goes in for like one day.” With all these thoughts in mind, she eyed the old Airstream in her mother and stepfather’s backyard and started writing grant proposals.

THE WHEELS ON THE BUS: The Airstream dates to 1976, but it had spent its most recent years sitting in that backyard in Deer Isle. Her stepfather acquired it from a farmer who lived further Down East and had used it to house farmhands. “His story is it was like $500 and a handle of vodka, but I don’t know if that is true or verifiable in any way because he is a teller of tall tales.” She bargained with him for it, thinking she’d maybe hit the road for a year. At this point, he shouldn’t count on getting it back; “now it is hopefully going to be my job for the next couple of years.” The First Coast is (so far) funded by a $5,000 grant from SPACE Gallery through the Kindling Fund, another grant from the Maine Arts Commission and about $20,000 that Koch crowdfunded and will use to pay photographers.

OPEN DOORS: She doesn’t have so much a mission statement as an open door, heart and conversational style. “I don’t want anyone to think I am coming in with a value system that contradicts their value system.” She wants to invite Mainers of all generations into the Airstream for free-ranging conversations about what keeps them up at night, what keeps them going on a daily basis or really, anything at all. “If that ends up being talking about rising sea levels or invasive species or the decline in the lobster industry, that’s great.” What matters is that it is an organic conversation. If participants have home movies they want to digitize, Koch will do that, too. She’s got no immediate plans for a podcast, but she’ll be doing an audio log about her adventures. “It’s going to be a learning experience.”

TIME AND MONEY: Koch had planned to be on the road long ago, but has been held up by the extensiveness of the needed renovations and the lack of money to throw at them. She didn’t understand quite how rotted the floors were or how widespread the mold. “The walls were covered in mold. Like, black. It was so gross. And the leaks I am contending with, they are like 20-year old leaks.” She’s done a lot of the work on the aluminum shell of the Airstream herself, but relied on friends to do things like build a bed and her kitchen area. Another friend hooked her up with solar panels. “I would not have described myself as handy in any construction way. I can do it, but I am slow and I am not good at measuring.” Cilla, as she calls the Airstream, after her grandmother, has been parked in one friend’s South Portland driveway while Koch works on those leaks and soundproofing curtains – she’s making those herself to save money – for the recording booth.

FIRST STOP, ROCKLAND: Koch hoped to land a donated truck to pull the Airstream herself, or raise money to buy one (her main source of income comes from teaching an oral history class at Harpswell Coastal Academy). But that “has not fallen into place.” Instead, she’ll get a tow to Rockland from Brunswick writer and teacher Jaed Coffin, whom Koch met through Salt. After that? She’s still working on the next step. (If you’ve got a spare truck lying around and the inclination to donate it to the project, you can find her at

WHAT’S IN A NAME: Speaking of, what’s the name about? First Coast came from writer John Cheever via a historian named John R. Gillis, a retired Rutgers professor and author of “The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History.” Koch attended a lecture given by Gillis, a summer resident of Great Gott Island, where he used “second coast” as Cheever had, to describe a coast “built up around the nostalgia for the working waterfront.” We’re talking nautical-themed goods, bars decorated with buoys and as Cheever put it, “other relics of an arduous and orderly way of life of which they knew nothing.” The kind of thing that celebrates the past with perhaps not much recognition of the present. Koch’s first coast will be the original coast then, stripped of frills and knickknacks and full of people who live there year round.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN: Given how tight money will be, how is she going to pay for the basics along the way? Like eating? “I have a little propane stove and a little cooler.” No fridge. “Honestly I will probably eat rice and Brussels sprouts and kimchi. I am pretty frugal. As long as I can make some coffee and boil an egg.” The Airstream has a composting toilet, but no shower. “I am going to be showering at like, the Y and people’s houses. And I will have some dry shampoo.” She’ll also have her dog Zed and a stack of old magazines, the kind with nut graphs. “I have all the old Island Journals to work my way through.”

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