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Matinicus Isle

Roaming in ghostly, seaward Maine

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2008

Walking through salty fog on dirt roads, past lupines and beach roses, we see nobody, and then we see a man. He is very tall and broad shouldered and very bald and very suntanned, and he is changing the oil in his ancient pickup with no license plates because you don't need them on Matinicus. He comes over to say hello, and he welcomes us to the "pirate island."

The pirate island, so called because of its reputation for eccentricity, independence, and frontier justice, is the most seaward of Maine's inhabited islands. About 20 wild miles out to sea, and out of sight of the mainland, it's 2 miles long and a mile wide, less than 800 acres of granite and spruce. The population peaked at 270 people around 1870. Now about 50 people, mostly fishermen, live here year-round.

There are no paved roads and no restaurants. Because of a fire in April there is no Post Office. But there is a mailbox. And, as of a couple of weeks ago, there is a small general store. There is one bed-and-breakfast but no public restroom. Ferry service from Rockland takes more than two hours and runs just four times a month in summer and once a month in winter. Otherwise you can fly from the tiny airport in Owls Head or boat over yourself. For groceries, islanders grow their own, head down to the general store, or fax orders to the Shaw's supermarket in Rockland. It's $8 per banana box delivered by air.

We meet captain George Tarkleson in Rockland. His boat is the Robin R, a 35-foot Mitchell Cove lobster hull set up for cruising back and forth to the island, which he does up to a few times a day most days from May until October. The other man on the boat, an islander, has plastic bags from a trip to the supermarket in Rockland. We pound out over Penobscot Bay, through the rain and fog, past Owls Head and the Mussel Ridge Islands, and then out into what feels like the open ocean. The boat is twice as fast as the ferry, and a rough enough ride today so that halfway through the trip a grocery bag falls and spills cigarettes, Doritos, and a bottle of rum.

It's all of a sudden sunny when we near the island. We glide past the painter Bo Bartlett's summer studio on Wheaton Island and into the harbor, which could be part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World, only it's full of lobster boats instead of pirate ships. It's low tide and there are no floats, just long greasy ladders to climb from the boat to the pier.

Matinicus is not a spontaneous trip. Before we left we took care of all the details. We booked passage on the Robin R; we secured a cottage; we went shopping for six meals plus wine and beer; and we called Ann's Mermaid Taxi to pick us up in the harbor.

Ann Mitchell is waiting for us when we arrive. She is tall and blonde and has an old Ford Explorer with a bobbing mermaid doll on the dashboard. The road to the cottage is basically a hiking trail, and it dips and dives over rocks and roots. Mitchell tells us about the birds we might see, and the story of a disgruntled lobsterman, jealous of the good fishing around Matinicus, who may have released pesky garden-eating raccoons close to shore.

The rental cottage is a rustic camp perched on a granite ledge, right on the ocean. From the picture window we see eider ducks and ducklings, seagulls, fog, and the bell buoys. We make coffee and then head out to explore.

We are looking for South Sandy, the long beach on the south side of the island. But first we explore the harbor. A fire in April destroyed the newly renovated Post Office, and the long awaited general store that was about to open. There are only volunteer firefighters here so everybody who could turned out to help fight the flames. Firefighters from Vinalhaven Island sailed over but it was too late to save the building.

In the past Matinicus has been listed in yacht guides as a "hostile harbor." Now it feels like a peaceful ghost town.

Matinicus is silent. It floats in a velvet bubble of fog. All of the blossoms here are a couple of weeks behind those on the mainland. Lilacs, horse chestnuts, lupines, and wild strawberries are still blooming. The houses are small. Yards and flowerbeds are well kept. Red-bearded Andrew Thompson tends to many of the lawns. He is a self-proclaimed workaholic and sometimes mows by headlamp after dark.

At the dusty four corners sits the island's church, a 102-year-old gathering place that only recently was plumbed for running water. Farther down the road, the airport is a clearing in the woods, a dirt landing strip facing the mainland. Busted cars are here and there but not as common as they used to be. Islanders recently rented a barge and a crane to remove dozens of junkers.

Past the church we see Mitchell gardening in the wind. She's wearing a wide-brimmed hat and hoeing in the pumpkins and corn. It occurs to us that she could be a fallen mermaid who fell in love with a fisherman, gave up her fins, and came ashore.

Matinicus may mean far out or grassy isle, or it might mean place of many turkeys. The first human visitors were Penobscot Indians who came to harvest seabird eggs. The first white settler was Ebenezer Hall, who came with his family in 1750 to farm and fish. He burned fields for better pasture and burned land on a nearby island and upset the Indians enough that he was scalped. His wife and four children were kidnapped. We walk past the site of his house, now a pile of stones next to the one-room schoolhouse and a sign that reads "EBENEZER HALL The first white settler on Matinicus Isle, Maine. Killed by the Indians June 6th, 1757."

We find the beach: white sand, seaweed, breaking waves, and driftwood. We linger and wade. We wander home. We cook. We drink tea. We fall asleep to the constant and surprisingly not annoying ringing of the bell buoys.

In the morning we set out in the fog and we wander. We watch ants carry a bee that died on a Rosa rugosa blossom. We decide that we want lobster for dinner. We spend hours in the island cemetery.

At dusk we run into Thompson and his dog, Mo, a basset hound-beagle mix. Thompson is also the sternman on a lobster boat and agrees to sell us a couple of lobsters. An hour later he brings us a couple of big snapping bugs, which we throw into a pot of seawater. We eat them on toast with spicy mayonnaise. We drink beer and light candles. We watch the water.

The next day we wake up to more fog and head straight out for opening day at Eva Murray's bakery. Murray moved to the island 21 years ago to teach school. She married Paul Murray, who runs the power company - a shed near the harbor filled with diesel-powered generators. Eva is an emergency medical technician. In July and August she turns her home kitchen into a tiny no-name micro bakery. We walk into her house and feast on doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, and good strong coffee. Then we make a run for the harbor.

The Robin R is waiting for us. Thompson and Mo are already on board, heading into Rockland to do laundry. Again we pound across the bay. We pull into Rockland Harbor, which is all of a sudden sunny. We unload. We shake off a strange feeling of culture shock after only a weekend away.

We watch Thompson as he walks away from the boat and toward his mainland truck. He looks down at Mo and says, "Well, buddy, welcome back to America."

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at Jon.levitt@gmail.com.

If You Go

Matinicus Excursions

207-691-9030

matinicusexcursions.com

Book a seat on the Robin R for a smooth and fast trip to the island, $50 per person one-way on days with scheduled trips.

Katz Cottages

603-487-3819

matinicusisland.com

About $300 for two nights. One of many rustic rentals on the island.

Ann's Mermaid Taxi

207-366-3161

Ann Mitchell will pick you up at the harbor and drive you wherever you need to go.

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