In Search of Old Maine
By Sam Low
Kim Hart Photo
A pair of Sailors cruise the far reaches of Penobscot Bay looking for traces of the Down East life where lobstermen rub shoulders with stone cutters and charming villages are best visited by boat.
It was half a lifetime ago – thirty years almost – that I first sailed downeast in a small wooden sloop. In those days, Maine seemed exotic. There was usually one general store in each port town and, when you entered, conversation would stop. The other customers eyed you – someone ‘from away.' Now, these stores are Seven Elevens and no one notices. I preferred the stares.
Today, Maine is poised in an unstable balance between tradition and tourism. You see it everywhere and if you are like me, you silently cheer the occasional rudeness and cold shouldering from native Mainers - the gunning truck passing close as you walk through town. But I miss the confident nonchalance of earlier times when Mainers owned their state, when they stared and when you were enough of a novelty – and no threat at all - for them to eventually extend a warm hand.
In the late summer of 2003, I decided to go downeast again so I chartered Aria - a 38 foot Alden Yawl - and invited my cousin Kim to come along. We would photograph and scribble - sample life in various ports to find out how much folks ‘from away' had affected traditional Maine life.
We began our journey by steering seaward to Maine 's outermost island – to Ragged Island and the tiny port of Criehaven . We expected to find a gruff folk uninterested in receiving guests. We were mistaken.
“Just go out to the mouth of the harbor and pick up the mooring with the skiff on it. That belongs to Dave but he went to Tenants Harbor and won't be back until tomorrow.”
The voice came from someone on a dock. I was glad of it because the harbor was tiny and crowded and there was clearly no room to anchor, and it was late and the light was failing. The houses that snuggle up to Criehaven harbor are neat. The lawns are cleanly cut. A path of stones, smoothed by the ocean, leads around the perimeter of the harbor. Later that night, we found our way along a trail veined with the roots of stunted fir and cedar to a friend's house on the east end of the island. At dinner, we met Charlie Stone – a Criehaven Lobsterman - and his family.
The Stones live in a snug house at the head of Charlie's pier. He built the house with his father who fished before him. The water in Charlie's shower is carried by hand from a communal well. It's heated on the stove, then dumped into a plastic garbage bucket and pumped up to the shower head by an electric motor, powered by a generator which hums outside. All the comforts of home.
“We have television,” says Tootie, Charlie's wife, “but thank God the kids use it hardly at all.”
Instead, they play with other children in secret spots all over the island. Or they fish. Charlie's daughter, Kristie, salts away the money she earns lobstering to pay for her college education.
The Criehaven lobstermen fiercely protect their traditional fishing territories.
“You can't just fish here, Charlie tells us, “you've got to do two things – buy out an existing fisherman's share and be accepted by the other fishermen.”
“How does someone get accepted?” I ask.
“It helps if you are the child of a lobsterman from here,” Charlie says.
Someone like Kristi, who lobsters on an apprentice license that allows her to set out 25 traps. She logs the time she works and, when she totes up 200 hours, she is eligible for a full lobster license. Even so, she will have to wait for one of the existing Criehaven lobstermen to retire before she can acquire her own rights to the ocean surrounding the island.
At first light, Charlie, his son Travis, Kristi and her friend Jake, are aboard their lobster boat – Inspector. They fish a string of traps to the east then turn back west. The sea is a sheet of satin. It reflects Inspector's hull as Charlie maneuvers to haul his traps. A half hour later, Inspector is alongside Aria with a present of four lobsters, a blowfish and a sea cucumber – the latter two for admiring, not eating. Before the sun is high, we have been offered another two lobsters by a teenage crew in a fifteen foot skiff. I had not expected Criehaven's warm welcome.
Kim and I ease into the rhythm of sailing. The winds are mostly light, from the southwest, and we ghost among islands that hump up from the distant horizon like giant sea creatures. Up close, they are stubbled with fir and pine clinging with splayed roots to granite polished smooth by glaciers that once stood a mile high.
That evening we anchor in Lundt's harbor. Soon, the dozen or so moorings are taken and many late coming yachts are anchored out in the roadstead. Lundt's, it seems, is a place that yachting savants like to visit. Like the couple aboard an Alden Yawl similar to ours – sailing on a ten day vacation from Portland with Lundt's as their ultimate destination - or the elderly couple in a downeast style cruiser who make a yearly pilgrimage to the island every August.
There's a kind of sophistication to the place that's difficult to describe. Anchored in the harbor, for example, is a rare example of a 40 foot Concordia yawl, three beautiful Hinckleys and another Alden Yawl like Aria. The lobster boats that hail from Lundt's are courteous, leaving little wake as they come and go from piers at the head of the harbor. There are many more people ‘from away' here than in Ragged Island but they seem to mix well with the traditional residents. Perhaps it's because Long Island seems to lure folks with a dream of splendid isolation. The young woman who runs the deli at Lundt's dock says: “people who come here fall in love with the place and just can't seem to leave. Like me. I was a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado and visited Long Island two year's ago and have been here ever since.” Her dad arrived at the same time and is now building a house on the western coast – intending to settle permanently. These people have come to Long Island because they treasure its ‘out island' sense of the place. Perhaps yachts and lobster boats can abide here peacefully. There's one problem with this hopeful forecast though. Many of the lobster piers are torn and tattered, and most of the new construction seems to be homes for recent arrivals.
A sailor working on the foredeck of a huge racing sloop yells over to us as we leave the harbor, “where you bound?”
“Not sure,” we reply.
“I like your attitude.”
Kim and I settle into the simple life that a yacht imposes – rising with the sun and going to sleep with its descent. We jump overboard to bathe. I cook. Kim cleans up. At sea, Kim takes long stints at the helm. In tight spots, I steer. When not on watch we doze, read, write, or daydream. We find our way through narrow, ledge-strewn passages between the islands.
“Steer toward the south end of The Sisters,” says Kim as he scans the chart laid out in Aria's cockpit, “we can pass between Sunken Money and Dry Money ledges if we're careful.”
Sailing downeast makes us acutely aware of space in three dimensions. We imagine rocky fingers of ledge reaching for the skin of our boat. We constantly scan the horizon, trying to decipher the rolling shapes of granite islands all around us. We consider each day in terms of not just time, but distance. How far can we sail today if we tack upwind? And we are always leery of a change in temperature, or wind, or visibility that might presage the arrival of fog.
That evening, we head down the Deer Island Thoroughfare and anchor in Stonington harbor. Unlike Lundt's, there are few yachts here. This harbor is the preserve of lobstermen. Ashore, Stonington resembles the rest of Maine . We find tidy eateries, real estate offices, art galleries and a busy ice cream shoppe. That night we attend a series of one act plays at the revived Stonington Opera House. High school kids are the actors. A gay couple run the place. It has been written up in the New York Times.
At four thirty AM , about an hour before sunrise, we are wakened by what sounds like a squadron of Wildcat fighters revving on the flight deck of a World War II aircraft carrier. Dozens of lobster boats are on the move. Ruby and emerald running lights skim the harbor. Spotlights slice the darkness. Sodium Iodine lights gleam at bait piers. In the sterns of the boats, men don orange heavy weather gear and stir stinking tubs of bait. Some boats depart slowly – others with a roar and deep furrowed wakes that cause Aria to roll wildly.
These are not your grandfather's lobster boats. They are huge. They are mostly fiberglass. They have the traditional high bows and sweeping sheer to low sterns that provides easy access to the traps, but they will go 40 knots with ease and carry tons of lobster. Pilot houses glow with Furuno radars, Hondex plotters, Sytex autopilots, and global positioning instruments of all kinds. They are powered by Caterpillar, Detroit Diesel, John Deere and Volvo - mostly turbocharged. These are the Big Rigs of the sea – many costing a quarter million dollars and up. Mary Elizabeth sets out, along with Wet Dream, Sundowner, Blanche Marie, Geneva Sue, Wendy Dear, Heritage and Hard Money. There must be a hundred of them revving their engines - going to work.
It doesn't seem there are enough lobsters in the world, let alone in these restricted waters, to provide a living for so many fishermen. As they move away from the harbor, the reaches and narrows fill with their dwindling lights – a swarm of thundering fireflies twinkling among the islands. By six thirty , the harbor is largely empty, confettied with day glow mooring balls and bobbing skiffs.
Across the thoroughfare from Stonington is Crotch Island , a mountain of granite bored and sawn into bold shapes. Our first impression of this shaved island is the stunning scale of things - of power and brute force – a tearing of the firmament amplified by the stillness of early morning broken only by the shrill call of osprey nesting in a rusting crane. We see discarded tires the size of VW sedans, cable spider webs, Ingersoll Rand compressors, rusting boilers, seagull carcasses and – in the distance over the rushing waters of Deer Island Thoroughfare – the town of Stonington tumbling to the sea.
In the 1800s, Crotch Island was abuzz with activity. Stonecutters provided granite for libraries, museums and monuments the world over. Then cement and steel became more commonly used and the island's economy crashed. It slept for almost a hundred years, but is now once again alive with new energy. We can hear the roar of front end loaders and cranes and jackhammers working in a quarry just over the hill. In the huge slabs of cut rock all around, we see the beginnings of obelisks and libraries.
Stonington and Crotch Island may be separated by the Deer Island Thoroughfare but they are economically joined at the hip. The two economies, fish and granite, supported each other in the 1800s and they do so again today. The place is booming with the rough sound of industry. And this resurgence in vitality means local Mainers can once again earn a decent living. Stonington may be the epitome of a rejuvenating Maine – a place where a gay couple can revive the old Opera House and lines will form all day in front of the local ice cream emporium, yet the waterfront – or most of it – is still the turf of the fishermen and stonecutters.
Our journey continues. As we move away from the open sea and into Penobscot Bay , things change rapidly. The landscape becomes well tended. Here and there, meadows spill to the sea from the dooryards of trim farm houses, and many more yachts are moving about. The airwaves fill with VHF chatter, mostly yachtsmen talking to each other and, at end of day, asking for moorings. Even the rocks change. Kim, a nature photographer with a keen eye for detail, notices it first. The granite, previously smooth, is now more fractured and twisted. Why we wonder? Perhaps, as the glaciers retreated ten thousand years ago they lollygagged longer here, eroding and cutting the islands in a last grip before warmer winds whipped them northward.
We pass through Fox Island thoroughfare between North Haven and Vinalhaven. Here it's downright civilized - quoiffed and pompadoured with neat docks and flag poles and Adirondack chairs on manicured lawns. The harbors teem with Herreschoff ‘twleve and a halves,' the Porsche speedster of the yachting set. It's a good introduction to our last destination, Dark Harbor on Isleboro.
Ghosting down toward Dark Harbor with the wind behind us, we are passed by many magnificent sailing yachts headed, we learn from the VHF, for a reunion of the American Yacht Club on Seven Hundred Acre island. This part of Penobscot Bay is an inland sea, a playground for the rich and famous. Entering Isleboro's Ames Cove is like passing through a social time warp. The houses are huge. The money is old. The place feels like West Egg, do you remember – from The Great Gatsby? In the outer Maine islands, we were ashamed of sailing a boat so grand and wonderful as Aria. Here, however, the yawl seems small and shabby. For the first time, as we moor next to a perfectly restored Huckins power boat, vintage 1952, I consider refurling our sails to make them neat. Picnic boats, wondrous cabin cruisers glistening with new varnish, zip about with that muffled roar that you hear almost nowhere else in Maine – the sound of money.
Isleboro and neighboring Seven Hundred Acre island are Maine 's version of Easthampton . Ever since the Cottagers (wealthy ‘from away' folks) arrived in the early 19 th century and built grand summer places it has been like this. Grover Cleveland 's sister came here and established a model farm. Charles Dana Gibson, the creator of the famous ‘Gibson Girl,' arrived in the late 1800s and built his mansion. The few Maine natives who still reside here do so by the leave of the cottagers – and tend to their needs.
If there is a fleet of lobster boats here, we do not see or hear them. Instead, in the soft early morning, the sound of laughter carries out to us and, did I imagine it, dulcet tones from a clarinet. If Criehaven and Stonington define one end of the spectrum, Isleboro defines the other end - the place most thoroughly cleansed of traditional rural Maine life.
In Penobscot Bay , you sail seaward if you prefer a less refined Maine - places that are lonely and untended. Among the outermost islands, you will find men like Charlie Stone who continue a traditional seafaring life. On Long Island , lobster boats and yachts reside in uneasy equilibrium and the future is unclear. In Stonington , it's as if the forces of tradition and tourism have collided at the water's edge - and rebounded – to regard each other from the security of their own distinct economic health. Here, it seems, tourism and tradition may abide, separate but equal. If you are a sailor who prefers the calming hand of man, you will cruise the tended sea lanes between North Haven and Vinalhaven and drop anchor among Isleboro's picnic boats and yachts.
Kim and I are romantics, of course, and so we nurse a forlorn vision of past grandeurs. We prefer sturdy and picturesque places to manicured and tamed ones. We like to be on the edge of things. And so next time we will sail back to Criehaven to visit Charlie and his family and to see if a visiting yacht is still welcomed by a shout from the land. Yes - we realize that we are tourists - and that we bring with us the change that we mourn, so we will not be surprised if there is no shout.
The article as it appeared in the magazine