The creak is a distinctive sound – wooden oars kiss oarlocks, wood rubs green bronze and squeaks before settling into a silent furrow. A line, a pause, water flows then another line. The head turns from side to side, wary and cautious. A cadence is formed between the boat and the rower.
The journey through the water varies over time, depending on the tide, current and wind. The weather is friend or foe – and you don’t know until you’re there – when you’re rowing off the island for food, a visit to the doctor or to take your kids to school .
For those brave enough to test the waters of island life today, transit to the mainland is much safer and faster. Motorboats make travel much easier, although certainly less dramatic. But before all that, rowing a dory was the very first chore if one had to leave his native island.
Here, along the Isle of Down East Coast, life was a unique and challenging way of life for many. Lighthouse keepers and their families are the privileged few now recognized for their bravery and unwavering determination to light the waters along the coast. Many of these stories emanate from isolated places in dark, cold waters, like Libby Island Light – celebrated in Philmore Wass’ “Lighthouse in My Life” and where his family lived for 21 years.
But for others, life on the island is just one day, then another full of challenges, shrouded in isolation, comforted by unbridled beauty and cherished as a normal way of life.
Maine’s coastal waters are home to approximately 4,000 islands. Of these, only about fifteen “bridgeless” Maine islands have year-round populations. According to the 2020 census, Vinalhaven had the largest population at nearly 1,300 and Frenchboro the smallest at 29.
Monhegan Island was the first island I visited once I found Maine. The island is home to a fishing fleet and artists, but still has no automobiles, as it protects itself against modern means. What I remember most is a feeling of isolation that I had never felt before. I was there with other people, but seeing water surrounding it while hiking its trails instilled in me an eerie sense of loneliness.
There are islands to the east where generations of families have built homes and lived. Starboard Island – now called Ingalls – is accessible via the bar at low tide. The families who lived on the island took the children by rowboat to school on the mainland at the one-room schoolhouse, which still exists today, in the village of Starboard. The island of Ingalls now only welcomes families during the summer. Foster Island, its now-defunct concrete castle, has a secluded cabin there, and Roque Island, with its rare crescent-shaped sandy beach, is also home to a number of families during the summer months.
What drives people to venture out to the islands to live out their days on a hump in the water? This passage from Philip Conkling’s ‘Islands in Time’ says it best: “On these islands lies an underlying tension that characterizes much of this beautiful coastline. It is the tension between rootedness and impermanence, between generosity and failure, between rock that does not give and quicksand. This cold coast is the silent witness to the enduring truth that human endeavor can come and go, can rise and fall like the tide, and that only sea and granite can endure.
I recently read the story of a couple whose choice was to live on an island. Over time, this place turned out to be the only place they could have lived and been happy. Life is like that, revealing more and providing answers over time.
This couple, Art and Nan Kellam, lived on purpose and did so for over 40 years. Their island was Placentia Island off the east coast of Maine, near Mount Desert Island. They found it, bought it, and built a life on it. “Our first year was one of discovery, of our environment, of others and of ourselves,” wrote Nan Kellam in 1950.
The Kellams are gone, but the remnants of their lives on this island still linger in the air, on the island’s beach, and in the fields of grass, rocks, and trees. The shadow of their steps extends all around to be discovered by visitors from time to time, shared by the flora and fauna every day. The dory they used to row to the mainland is upside down, its hull like a bleached whale stealthily for its other parts, while slowly sinking in time.
A life of two became three when Art and Nan set foot on this island. Now the island is all that remains, a family member mourning and remembering loved ones. The island gave, it took and it demanded respect over time. Like all families, quarrels were inevitable but the love was always constant.
When I look to the islands today, I see yesterday – islands and islanders – looking at me. I see sharp spiers of trees catching and holding the mist as it disturbs, gulls fluttering on invisible bands of air, rocks hammered by the waves, spray wetting my sight.
I see the life of those who have chosen a life on the island: children play on the beach and ripple, clothes hung out to dry ripple too; the men repair the boats and repair the traps, the women roll up their arms looking at the horizon; cattle roam, landscapes are painted, words are written, time stands still and all is well, all is calm and all is so perfect.