Off the Maine Coast

The island as foreign country; the vacationer as admiring expat

WE sever most of our ties when we set out for an island, leaving them to be healed after we return. Yet even while we're away, we are not altogether willing to abandon our umbilical connections to the mother continent. What is the mystery of the navel? There seems always to be a larger crowd at the island end of a ferry run than at its mainland end. The busiest, most intense location on any island is the ferry landing, with its raucous comings and goings. The world-weary ferrymen try to look as though they've seen everything; the arriving passengers are keeping their eyes peeled for newness; and the departing passengers look chastened at the thought of resuming life.

We mainlanders who love islands are only amateurs, enthusiasts, self-elected temporary Crusoes. As a young man, I wrote poems to explore the romance of islands, announcing their paradox in a book called The City and the Island: "Halfway between the city and the island I / Am bound for the city." My prediction was, alas, accurate, but I have never lost my taste for isolation.

When my wife and I landed last July on Vinalhaven, a large island in Maine's Penobscot Bay, after a seventy-five-minute ferry trip from Rockland, I was yet again discovering a foreign country. When we departed, only ten days later, I was cheerfully saying "so long" to a familiar realm where I flattered myself I might easily qualify as a naturalized citizen. This harbor, that headland, house, or boathouse, its purpose and its neighborhood, was now known to me. I knew something about the island's seals, its wild mushrooms, its lobsters, its landscape, and its history; I had swum in its abandoned quarries full of fresh water and had tumbled under its chilly and regenerative surf.

I spent my island time idly, listening to the huge eleven-foot-high tides bubble and trickle away across mud flats and observing a tentative raccoon tiptoe out to teach her kits how to dig clams and sea worms while the cove was empty. I was surprised at high water when an unsuspected canoe or silent yacht crept up on me as I sunbathed naked. I bristled when teenagers, in their appetite for speed and excitement and boom-box music, revved outboards to a shriek. But human contact, whether terrestrial or maritime, seems of marginal relevance at sunrise over a fjord while a lobster boat chugs hoarsely and dependably out to sea to "haul," or at sunset when the falling light is punctuated by the homeward wingbeats of an osprey screaming to her mate.

What is there to do on a mere island? The most noticeable quality out there is the silence -- a silence broken by birdcall, breeze-hiss in the firs, or the indoors whicker of the refrigerator. The sun, when it's out, sparkles like fireflies on the ripples. There are roads and trails to be walked, empty houses to inspect, landscape to be sorted out, trespassing to do: What sort of house is that in the neighboring cove, with its red boats stowed under blue-plastic tarpaulins? Didn't I see a jungle of skunk cabbage down that dirt road, or a telltale smear of orange, implying chanterelles to be gathered? Isn't there an art auction in town this afternoon to benefit the brave summer gallery? Today looks like the day to visit the tide race and watch harbor seals as they frolic and vault. Or to rent a bicycle and explore another back road. Or to watch my fellow tourists explore the causeway that forms the main street of Carver's Harbor, tides rushing back and forth underfoot, and test the brave but spartan shops doing their best to keep up with their summer traffic.

Or maybe not. As I slip down through the fog to the barnacled rocks and collect a pail of mussels for dinner, to be steamed with wine and seaweed on the stove of our rented house, or walk "downstreet" to buy a take-out pint of fish chowder at the welcoming window of the Harbor Gawker, in Carver's Harbor, or sit down to a slab of grilled swordfish at the Sand Dollar, the fir trees are impossible to forget: all week they have been bordering, punctuating, and feathering what my eyes grab for close up, flavoring and rustling the air currents that enliven my flesh in these cool-warm summer seaside airs.

Yesterday we set out on an exploratory walk along a half-abandoned woods road where, half a century ago, trucks or carts hauled pulpwood to be skidded offshore onto boats. Now the road is lined with a swath of scrawny green replacements and straggling rows of volunteer white birches where the slash was abandoned. After a mile we found the forest suddenly richer in texture, studded with stands of locust under whose nitrogen-fixing umbrella tall green grasses grow, and soon we were stumbling through unmistakable traces of former human habitation: smothers of lily of the valley, Monarch-butterfly-tempting milkweed, runaway expeditions of household brambles and perennial gardens that had transgressed their borders. Eventually we were bound to arrive at a well cover or a cellar hole. The largest of these islands have all been populated over and over again, with limited success, but most have declined in year-round population during the twentieth century.

WHEN Sarah Orne Jewett's touching stories from The Country of the Pointed Firs were published in these pages, in the 1890s, the islands were passing their point of maximum residency -- at least by males. ("She had lived to lament three seafaring husbands, and her house was decorated with West Indian curiosities, specimens of conch shells and fine coral which they had brought home from their voyages in lumber-laden ships.") Fishermen still handlined under sail for haddock and cod in waters that floated a considerable traffic of boats carrying provisions for the mainland. Ships were laden with granite quarried on Vinalhaven for city buildings like the U.S. Customs House in New York and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- stone blasted from the island's giant quarries in a day when its population was double the present winter load. Other ships and boats were laden with sheep and cattle that had been fattened on the grassy pastures of North Haven or Monhegan or even smaller, uninhabited islands where the herds were left alone to graze all summer unmolested by mainland predators. Later, when the October grass withered, these four-footed islanders would sail for slaughter in Boston.

In Jewett's time the curve was already falling fast. The toll of the sea meant that many sailors would never come home, leaving their women isolated as widows, teachers, solitaries. The railroads had compromised sea transportation, rendering it less economic; the forests that had once crowded the islands had been felled for shipbuilding or firewood or pulp; the house-building boom on the mainland had moved west, out of the range of maritime traffic; the granite trade was about to bow its head to King Concrete; and the fisheries that had first brought men and women to the islands of Maine from across the Atlantic were surrendering the silent graces of sail to the harrumph and huff-puff of the gasoline engine, eventually enabling fish from the vast offshore treasuries of Georges Bank and the Grand Banks to be delivered promptly, fresh on ice, to Boston or New York without the season-consuming necessity of salting and drying. By the time of my first island visits, in the 1960s, groundfish had long since begun to yield to the gnarly lobster, which before the Civil War was widely regarded as offal, fit only for enriching lime-poor soils. By a convenient combination of miracles lobster has metamorphosed into a delicacy in the age of Surf 'n' Turf. Ingenious islanders figured if they could succeed for a while as codfish salters, lumberjacks, quarrymen, shepherds, or sailmasters, why not as lobstermen? So the sea blooms with lobster pots in the summer months, and in trying winters the hardworking lobster people betake themselves to Jupiter, Florida, and like havens to relax their aching, well-paid bodies and forget fog for a while.

Just as the internal-combustion engine brought island ports closer to the workplaces and schools of the Atlantic coast, it narrowed the distance between workers on the mainland and potential playgrounds offshore. Island settlements could now import provisions and off-load their natural resources with greater ease, and this meant that the tourist countercharge could gather its forces in readiness for the mild months of school vacation. The tourists came at first by steamer from Boston to Portland, Rockland, and Bar Harbor, whence they caught ferries to the outer islands; later by train; increasingly by private yacht, Veblenian vessels that plied eastward after Memorial Day and westward after Labor Day; and, finally and nowadays overwhelmingly, by car to the ferry docks.

Delighted tourists and leisure-time sailors bought abandoned shorefront land dirt cheap from the farmers and shepherds who could no longer find a market for their stock. Du Ponts, Cabots, and others built themselves grand bungalows on North Haven and Isleboro; Rockefellers erected granite piles along the cliffs of Mount Desert Island; Porters built eccentric frame houses on Great Spruce Head. Day-sailing magnates bought old sea captains' mansions in Camden or Castine and moored their own boats below in the harbor for island picnics or outings.

On less glamorous coasts the fishermen of Swans Island, Grand Manan, and Deer Isle hunkered down while a burgeoning population of artists, beginning with Thomas Cole and Fitz Hugh Lane on Mount Desert, and Rockwell Kent and N. C. Wyeth on ancient Monhegan (where in 1609 Captain John Smith had planted a garden), scanned and limned the surf, the rocks, the light.

No two islands, of course, followed the same historical path, but the entire archipelago rode at its moorings off the coast like a flotilla at anchor. The hawsers always must lead to and from a home port on the mainland. The towns of Rockland, Rockport, and Camden, each in a different style, served as strategic centers for the islands of Penobscot Bay: supply depots for the transport of mainland goods islandward, receiving stations for loads of pulpwood or granite or lobster to be trucked inland once the marine traffic ceased to serve, and eventually, of course, staging areas for herds of tourists. Today, for example, the Garbo Lobster Company has established itself conveniently with poles at Vinalhaven, Maine, and Stonington, Connecticut, and eighteen-wheelers traffic almost daily over the 300 miles between, which nowadays can be traversed more easily by land than by water.

TO participate, however vicariously, in the life of the islands means that a visitor needs a motel, an inn, a bed-and-breakfast, a campground, or other rental space. The summer folk who now own island property usually cannot spend whole summers there, so it turns out to be relatively easy, if not always cheap, to rent a seaside house by the week or the month. Most of these arrangements are made directly with the owners, because most of the real-estate agencies concentrate on sales. But Vinalhaven Rentals (207-863-2241) can find you houses of varying capacity and elegance for $500 to $1,500 a week, which may prove more economical for a family than a B&B. In our effort to penetrate the past my wife and I found through friends a Vinalhaven house to rent so idyllic and isolated as not to be believed. On our reluctant return to the mainland, for experimental contrast we located the Windward House Bed and Breakfast, in Camden, a comfortable and very careful bed-and-breakfast run by an assiduous Ottawa couple, situated on the heavily trafficked artery of Route 1 a few easily walkable blocks from the luxurious shopping of Camden's downtown.

Coming back to the mainland coast for several days before returning home is a little like making a stopover to reduce jet lag after a time-machine trip. Camden seethes with people in shorts and sneakers who come (by car, bus, bicycle, or boat) to admire the boats. Its main street is a shopping haven, with antiques, gifts, upscale clothing, bookstores, coffee bars, and a bewildering variety of restaurants. It looks landward to a sleek gathering of church spires, a particularly well-sited and elegant public library, an impressive collection of private gardens, and the tempting lakes and other destinations of the Camden Hills, where one can conveniently drive or bike in order to hike or swim at places with names like Shirttail Point and Pitcher Pond.

But by no stretch of the imagination can one imagine Camden as it might have been in Jewett's day, even though the mainland harbor she described as "Dunnet Landing" was not so different from the islands as we see them today.

One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a fine crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town.

Jewett's protagonist was lucky enough to rent herself a little white schoolhouse as a studio -- for fifty cents a week. Present-day Maine islands take you a step toward the Arcadian past; toward sprinkles of white houses among the dark trees, yards bursting in summer with day-lily colors, soothed and gentled by the fog; toward coasts flickering with flights of guillemots skittering across the waters with a flash of white in their black wings. The wholeness of the past, or what is left of it for us to relive, is one of the likeliest and most enlivening of destinations.