Matinicus Island - life off the coast of Maine

I awoke alone at my cousins’ family cottage on Harpswell Neck which juts into the heart of Casco Bay. A bright sun peaked over an island across the sound and it promised to be a clear day, one where the blue in the sky will be surpassed only by the deeper blue reflecting from the water. I have been waking to this sight at this cottage off and on since about the age of two. It never gets old. Inside and outside temperatures were the same at around 50 degrees; it was late May. But there was no time for a fire in the old stone hearth.

After drinking the scalding top half of a cup of tea, and partly filling my backpack with a few days worth of clothes, I drove the mile down towards the point to pick up another cousin, Harold. Turning into their drive meant putting my back to a view of the many islands crowding the western half of Casco Bay. I had seen this all my life as well, and so did not pause there this morning.

Together we drove up Maine’s coastal highway, Route 1, initially encountering the morning shift heading to the Bath Iron Works, but little in the way of summer crowds since this was still before Memorial Day. We passed Bath, Wiscasset, Darmascotia, Thomaston, and Big Al’s Super Value Store, all places worthy of a stop or detour.

But our destination that morning was the Maine State Ferry Terminal in Rockland where one might catch a boat out to Matinicus, among other islands, the most remote island community on the American east coast. The small open, car ferry makes the 23 mile, two and a half hour crossing only 20 to 30 times a year, running once a month in winter, but twice now in May. The first of these was on a Tuesday and the next that following Thursday, which would permit a two day stay on the island.

We arrived at the ferry facility by 730 am, early enough to allow time for a walk into town for breakfast. A ticket issuing machine and mechanical arm gave access to long term parking. It was the most sophisticated piece of equipment we would encounter for the next 50 hours.

Backing up some. For a couple of years some of my cousins, siblings and I had been going out to Monhegan Island for one or two nights each summer. (Also off the coast of Maine, but somewhat closer to the mainland.) It’s become a cherished tradition. Staying overnight allows the visitor to experience the peace and isolation of a remote island after all the day-trippers have left. No cars, few people, great hikes (most of the island is a forest preserve) wonderful sunrises and sunsets and the quiet that only comes from being miles out to sea. See Up the coast without a car for details.

And Monhegan has a number of facilities for the visitor, such as several old inns, a small country store with some groceries, a museum and art gallery, and a few shops. Refreshments can found at a coffee shop and seafood is available at an outdoors beach shack and even in a very fine restaurant. Stunning cliff-side views and seascapes, along with a special island light, entice many artists there every summer and their studios are often available for a tour.

About a year ago, as we were discussing our next such Monhegan trip, Harold and I shared that we had never been out to Matinicus Island, actually a small archipelago, somewhat further out from Monhegan. Our vague impression had been that Matinicus was an island suited to those who think perhaps that Monhegan may be a “bit too crowded.” Both of us had always wanted to go, so we resolved to find a time in the next year to head out there. 

That’s how we found ourselves on this ferry, which now was making its way to Matinicus, thankfully with a stern wind and following seas.

If one were to follow the South by Southeast heading to Matinicus’ harbor, steering from Owls Head Light outside of the Rockland Harbor breakwater, and should one manage to miss the landing at Matinicus, the next landfall on that heading would be along South America’s northern coast. Should one miss that, next stop is Antarctica. This was a crossing exposed to the open ocean.  

Part of the reason there are so few ferries is that there are so few people living out there. There is a year round population of maybe around 40, making a living lobstering mostly. Though even some of those may take extended winter vacations in places like Florida. And there is no thriving summer day-tripper or even overnight business to be made either. It’s just too far out there and the seas and skies can be unfriendly.

There are no groceries for sale, no restaurants, no hardware stores, and really even no inns. We stayed at what was once an inn, but now the innkeeper has retired. He graciously had us at his home for a couple of nights. In season there is a gift shop, a bakery and an island resident runs a taxi service. But it wasn’t yet in season.

The only opportunity for food, other than what we brought with us, was to buy hard-as-rock hard shell lobsters from the fishermen at the dock and steam them ourselves in the inn’s kitchen. Which we planned to do. We ended up with two 1-1/2+ pounders for us each. They might have been a bit bigger. There could have been a pound of meat in each tail alone ($10 each).

Finishing off over 3 lbs of lobster each is serious business, requiring a relentless commitment with no distractions tolerated

When an islander needs groceries, they fax (not email) an order to Shaw’s on the mainland and a small plane will deliver them to the airstrip at the north end of the island, for pickup (fax machine is at the post office which is in the basement of the parsonage). 

That gravel airstrip, the ferry and a daily water taxi service amount to the sole physical links to the mainland. Of these, the ferry is the clear bargain winner, at $11 for an adult round trip. But the small Cessna planes run by Penobscot Island Air are a good deal as well, at $65 per person one way. And we were told that the water taxi service is well run and a good option.

Still, we were on the ferry.

Another reason there are so few ferry runs is that they can only land (and depart) at Matinicus at high tide. The harbor there is too shallow at any other time for the larger-than-fishing-boat-sized ferry. High tides provide periodic windows when a boat can leave Rockland at a reasonable hour in the morning, arrive at Matinicus, unload and load, and then return to Rockland by mid afternoon with ample time for something to go wrong. But these windows come in periods only about twice a month.

At low tide parts of the harbor bottom out

Our May window was timed on Tuesday to arrive one hour before highest tide and on Thursday one hour after highest tide. A ferry could come out on Friday still, but by Saturday that window may be closed for another couple of weeks. This is why so many of the ferry trips run in couplets, two days apart. 

One of the first indications how Matinicus differed from our experiences on Monhegan were all the pick up trucks on board the ferry. Aside from a couple of resident trucks, no vehicles are allowed on Monhegan. You walk. You can’t even bring bikes unless you demonstrate you are passing through. The roads there don’t go very far anyway.

But it seemed as though the main reason to have a ferry to Matinicus was to permit the sizable number of pick up trucks to transport their sizable payloads of gear, food, hardware, building supplies and whatever may have been loaded in that U-Haul that was on board. Matinicus is not a forest preserve, it’s an island where people work and live. They need things, distances are not trivial for hauling gear around (try carrying building supplies a mile on a hand cart over gravel roads) and they use their pick up trucks to get these things from place to place. 

The harbor itself was unmistakably a working place. And that meant lobstering. Private piers dominated the shoreline. These were not adorned with floating docks at the end of convenient ramps swinging up and down with the tides, made for small boats, deep water anchorages and a lot of maintenance. These were piers made to serve a high tidal range where the sea bottoms out twice a day and where they must be kept up with minimum fuss. If someone had to deal with climbing up or down due to the tide level at the moment, well, so be it. If you had something heavy to pick up and transfer, then just wait for high tide. Nature will eventually do the heavy lifting.

After landing, I shouldered my backpack for the walk to the inn, unusually loaded down by a glass jar of spaghetti sauce and pasta, along with some cheese, cold cuts and a few cans of other food in case the lobsters somehow did not materialize. Harold had bested me in bringing less, simply a large beach towel draped over his shoulders (Douglas Adams would  be pleased) and some peanut butter crackers. We didn’t need to carry any of this very far.   

Though the inn was around 3/4 a mile away, trucks would stop as we walked and friendly drivers offered to carry our gear. We would have received a ride for ourselves as well had either of us thought we could manage to jump into the back of a pick up truck already filled with a lot of stuff, plus other people. It was good enough to have our gear get a ride from the first truck that went by.

When we told the driver where we were going he simply asked “Does Bill know you’re coming?” Though I assured him that indeed Bill was expecting us, the question put me at some unease. The whole thing had been somewhat casual. This was a far cry from, with our reservations in an app, confirmation number and all. In any event we didn’t hesitate to load our gear into his truck and never felt any concern over handing over even an expensive camera for delivery.

The sun had grown quite hot and the route along dusty gravel roads required choosing between a number of left and right hand forks, all unmarked. It seems that most people out there already know where they are going. One doesn’t just follow the water as I had assumed.

A nice lady sitting on a log in an apparent quest to obtain the only cell signal on the island assured us that we had only one more fork to go, to the right. She then chased us down, which at our rate of walking was not hard, to tell us she was wrong, it’s actually one left and then one right.  We would hope for the best.

By the time the road with the designated forks petered out to a couple of ruts that looked as though no one had driven in them yet this season, there was in fact a house there. But we were a bit unsure and as yet too shy to just knock on a random house door.

So we went back to get more instructions. We had been at the correct place. We made it back eventually. We should have taken heed of the number of lawn chairs out for rest in the gardens.

Bill greeted us with a warm reception.  

The inn is an old house which over the years Bill has added to and worked on himself. The room where we ate meals and sat most of our time in comfy chairs had been built by him. There is a library of books in his study, enough for a lifetime of reading, which I expect they had provided. There were also some items that gave a sense of the man.  

Bill is Matinicus’ oldest resident, lives full time there and has for the past 32 years. He had been an island man for most of his life. Born and raised in pre-WWII/ pre-“discovered” Nantucket, then served in the post WWII navy, then lived for awhile on Peaks Island in Casco Bay and now here. Never has he had a drivers license and he’s never driven a car. Walks about the island every day. Gets a lot of rides in trucks, especially on icy winter days. He was full of great stories and had a way about him that reminds one of a kindler, gentler Burgess Meredith in the Rocky movies. He was a great host and let us be as active or passive those days as we wished. A judgement free zone.

The parrot in the living room wished us good mornings and otherwise was mostly friendly, though Harold believed the parrot didn’t respect him very much. Breakfast was supplied by Bill and included his homemade English Muffins. Spring was arriving and the breakfast table was set with his tulips from just outside.

The inn doesn’t have a sea view but I think the ocean couldn’t have been more than 20 or so yards away from the trees that lined the property. We were nestled in a small clearing with fresh breezes blowing through the house.

I was struck by the variety of wildlife and plants. There were many sorts of birds, not just gulls. Robins, crows, sparrows, cardinals and jays were everywhere as well as a few hummingbirds. Matinicus is on the flyway for a number of migratory birds.

Looking out every window one also could see different varieties of trees in each direction, including a huge apple tree overhanging the porch. I had expected mainly just conifers such as spruce and firs, which are in fact there. These mainly line the shore, providing a year-round bulwark against the weather, while a greater diversity of deciduous trees fills the interior areas.

When outside we could hear some nearby cows, but neither that sound nor their atmosphere made it into our bedroom windows.

Our two days at the inn could be best described as simply peaceful. We didn’t do very much. We really had very little planned. And I needed the break, having been traveling for almost a month at this point.

So most notably we took some really deep afternoon naps. And these did not prevent really restful nights. Even after a hard sleep during mid afternoon, I slept better there at night than I had in many years. A combination of fresh air coming through the windows and utter quiet worked magic. 

But we did get out for some walks as well, though we did not try and canvass the whole island. There are great views everywhere, and we were very lucky with our weather each day.

Bill told us the story of an old couple who had lived in a two room cottage most of their lives somewhere at the end of that short spit of land shown at right in the photo above. It was just down the rutted road past his place, the one that didn’t look like it was being used much anymore.

The man was a lobsterman but not terribly successful it seems. Their cottage was without water and electricity. They came to get water as needed from Bill’s well. He had built for them a small bridge over a creek to cut their well trips down by around 50 feet, but they didn’t use it. They preferred the path they had always used before. Their cottage had a kitchen and then a small room with a couch and a sitting chair. In their many many decades on the island together she had slept on the couch and he sitting upright in the chair. It was an arresting image, blurring the lines between the forced limitations of poverty and deliberate choices in how one goes about life in a remote place like this.

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that this couple lived there until fairly recently, in this century. This was not a story dating back to an earlier era, 100 or even just 50 years ago. This was roughly contemporary. They had since been taken to the mainland due to health issues and probably have passed away now. Their cottage was slowly deteriorating; eventually it will collapse into the island and disappear if not bought, restored and maintained.

These are very typical sea views on Matinicus. Granite shorelines mostly. Though there are two sandy beaches out there which we did not get to.

When we were out for an afternoon walk we missed Bill’s monthly visit by the nurse from the Maine Seacoast Mission. I regretted that, not because I wanted to intrude on his nurse’s visit, but because I wanted to learn more about this group first hand.

For over 100 years they have visited islands along Maine’s coast (originally focused on the lighthouse keepers on small rocks and living with no outside support at all) bringing health care, companionship and simply attention to some of the State’s most isolated communities. Their current ship, at 75 feet and drawing 7 feet, is the Sunbeam V (there have been four other Sunbeams since 1912), and she had arrived in the harbor that day.

They come to these islands and personally call on anyone wishing to be visited. According to Bill, there is no evangelical pressure, which he appreciates. But if anyone wants to participate in a service, those are provided too. Or even just get a cup of coffee and some conversation. All of this is free of charge.

A nurse visits the island homes, and there are telemedicine facilities on board to e-link in doctors as needed. They also provide sporting events, cultural enrichment such as concerts, island schooling for kids, scholarships, a food pantry and other vital services to these places. In winter the Sunbeam will do some icebreaking for the harbors she visits.

In our modern world, most of us probably think that things like this don’t still exist, at least not in the US. Organized, continuous and full time missionary work has gone way out of style. But, entirely funded by donations, this group does something that the State does not. It is one reason islands like Matinicus can still be populated at all. And it is also fitting that a religious institution of community service, long ago wiped from our urbanized societal consciousness, still remains an important aspect of lives out on these islands. It’s needed, no one else is doing it and it works. That is all that counts.

Not the Sunbeam. I unfortunately did not get down to the harbor then for a picture of their ship.

As the evening of our second night approached, while we waited for a fisherman to deliver a bucket of 4 lobsters, we heard outside the rumble of a lawnmower. Bill has an arrangement with a young guy who works as a stern man on a lobster boat. He mows Bill’s lawn and in return Bill let’s him take hot showers. Wherever he was living, hot showers didn’t seem to be one of the amenities. He was a nice guy and came in for a sit and a talk, after both ends of the bargain had been completed. 

When we woke up on Thursday, the day the ferry would return and we had planned to leave, Bill’s propane tank gave out while making breakfast. He made a call to a lobsterman who also had the island’s inventory of propane tanks. (Also an electrician and married to the baker, who also had been schoolteacher, currently a writer, a pilot, and medical technician. And probably a few other professions I don’t know about. People do more than one thing.) He would be over shortly. But he passed on the news that the ferry was broken, they were waiting for a part and there was a 50/50 chance it wouldn’t run that day.  

I rang the state ferry in Rockland and indeed it was already canceled. Maybe they could make it out tomorrow. Maybe not.  

So I next called Penobscot Island Air in Rockland. Due to the ferry cancellation they were gearing up to run flights back and forth all day. We could fly out whenever we wanted; we told them we could be ready to leave by noon.  

The walk to the airstrip was a bit farther than what we had managed already (more than double), being at the other end of the island. It was a walk along and then at the end of the Main Street, where the school, church, parsonage/post office and cemetery are. Essentially, Main Street just turns into a gravel airstrip at the north end of the island. 

We set out at 10 am in hopes that by noon we would be there. Slow, very slow, we are.  

It actually only took us an hour, with a stop or two. (Only? You say.) In the meantime a nice lady came by and threw our bags into the back of her truck to deposit them for us at the runway’s edge.

A few moments after we arrived, a small Cessna plane approached and landed, dropping off a couple with a dog. Not really needing to take anyone else at the moment the pilot told us to climb in. Harold in back with our bags, me in front in the copilot’s seat.

Matinicus’ gravel airstrip with the Camden Hills in the background

I say climbed in but this was really a drawn out process. One loses track of time but I expect it might have taken us longer to get in than the flight would end up taking. Which was around 15 minutes. Me longer than Harold, much longer. (Pilot: “that’s not a step” and moments later “that’s the brake line you’re stepping on”) Not helped by the fact that once inside and with an expression of real accomplishment written across my face, the pilot politely informed me I was in his seat.  

In any event, we took off into a beautiful day over the top of Penobscot Bay. The plane banked and then passed back over the island providing a great view from a vantage we obviously had not previously enjoyed. In the photo above the airstrip is to the left, the Main Street runs across (see the church) and the harbor is on top. The inn is somewhat to the right out of view.  

Overall, our two days out on Matinicus made for a very special visit and I especially am glad we saw it before the summer season really began. We experienced it primarily with just its population of year round residents, only slightly increased by summer folk, the two of us mainly. This is not a place fixed up to fit into someone else’s idea of what an island off the coast of Maine should be like. It is exactly what that island life is, unvarnished by anyone’s expectations. Not everything is neat and tidy, some stuff is downright falling apart if it no longer is being used. I am sure that demons need to be wrestled to the ground there as with everywhere else.

But from what we witnessed, islanders work and live there in those ways that they wish. Helping each other get along, each with multiple jobs to keep the community functioning. And doing for themselves what has to be done since no one else is there to do it for them. 




©️ 2019 D Abbott