Set on stone
Nature comes alive on rugged coast
VINALHAVEN, Maine - Thor Emory pilots his Presto 30, the Thorfinn, out of Rockland and across Penobscot Bay to the Vinalhaven archipelago on the edge of the Gulf of Maine. The 30-foot backcountry sailboat is designed to poke around the wildest places. It has a retractable centerboard, a flat Kevlar reinforced bottom, and two carbon fiber masts with wishbone booms. It is light and fast on the water and can sail through storms and into knee-deep shoals to land almost anywhere.
Emory, a veteran Outward Bound instructor, now leads expeditions by sailboat and stand-up paddleboard all over the East Coast and down to the Florida Keys. On this sunny August afternoon he is heading out for a charter cruise with three grown brothers and their dad - a family of adventurers and musicians who feel like being blown around the bay for a couple of days.
Penobscot Bay is the second largest embayment on the East Coast. In all there are almost a thousand miles of shoreline including 624 islands and ledges. The largest and most populous of these is the island of Vinalhaven - only 12 miles from the mainland but another world.
I’m tagging along with the Thorfinn for the afternoon, hoping to get a long, slow, and close look at the western shore of Vinalhaven and some of the smaller islands around Hurricane Sound. Later I will head over to the big island for a couple of days to explore on my own by foot, and to meet up with a couple of specialists on island ecology - Philip Conkling for a ramble along the seashore, and ornithologist John Drury for a trip to the outer islands.
Just past the Rockland breakwater, the sails of the Thorfinn catch a southwest sea breeze. We glide past the lighthouse at Owls Head, past the Muscle Ridge Channel, and into the bay. An hour later we are surrounded by granite islands, dark spruce trees, and infinite lobster buoys, each connected to a trap, and each trap probably packed with lobsters.
We tie up at the dock on Hurricane Island. In the late 1870s this was a thriving community with a post office, bank, pool hall, bowling green, bandstand, ice pond, ball field, boarding houses, and dozens of cottages. Quarrying was big business at the time and Hurricane was known for having the finest polished granite. The fine-grained, gray-white granite from the islands was shipped down the coast and used to build the grandest buildings of the time: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, the Lincoln Memorial, and many others. Around the turn of the century, concrete replaced granite. The quarries closed by 1915.
We spend the afternoon and early evening wandering around the mossy woods and overgrown fields, the old churchyards, abandoned quarries, and shoreline of bubbly granite.
The sun is setting. Emory pushes off the dock, sails across Hurricane Sound, and drops me at a friend’s wharf on the western shore of Vinalhaven. The tide is way out, exposing deep mounds of mussel shells and granite boulders covered in a quivering mop of rockweed, barnacles, whelks, and periwinkles. I climb the ladder, up and out of the tidal world and onto the granite dome that is Vinalhaven.
The next morning I wake up with the sun. My friend has gone to the mainland for her son’s baby shower. She has picked me a small bowl of wild blackberries and offered up the beer in the fridge and the use of her bike, a very small and very old beach cruiser.
I walk into town. It’s a couple miles along the shore, past meadows of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, past berry brambles at the edge of the woods, tidal coves, and thick stands of spruce. Many lobstermen still live on the shore, maintaining their own wharves and shingled fish houses. On Vinalhaven, lobster fishing is king.
I drink fancy coffee and eat an egg sandwich on a homemade buttermilk biscuit at the ARCAFE, a cafe and market run by island teenagers. I wander around the harbor. For lunch I eat a perfect fried fish sandwich with havarti cheese and tartar sauce at the Harbor Gawker in the center of town.
Just after noon, Drury pulls into Carvers Harbor, dragging a small skiff behind his 34-foot wooden lobster boat. It’s for his wife, who will be returning to Vinalhaven after a trip to the mainland and will need it to cross over to their home on Greens Island just offshore.
Drury is heading to the deepest reaches of the bay, to Seal Island, to count great cormorants and other seabirds. The boat is littered with bird bones and cans of ginger ale. We steam away from shore, past Brimstone Island with its beaches of shiny black stones, past harbor seals and grey seals, and little storm petrels that run across the water before they spread their wings and fly.
The egg harvesters and plume harvesters are long gone from the islands, but bald eagles are back in a big way and have figured out that young great cormorants, which are rare in Maine, are good to eat. “The cormorants should be fattening up and growing feathers instead of dodging eagles,’’ says Drury.
Seal Island is 21 miles from the mainland. It is 65 acres of arctic plants and nesting seabirds: jaegers, puffins, cormorants, herring gulls, black guillemots, eider ducks, harlequin ducks, and shearwaters. Grey seals hunt the shorelines and haul out on the smooth ledges. Drury circles the island, dodging rocks and whirlpools, spying birds with binoculars and tallying their numbers in a waterproof journal. This is bird-watching as an extreme sport.
Back on shore, I walk north out of town on Sands Road and Dogtown Road for an evening swim in Lawson’s Quarry, one of the abandoned granite quarries now filled with cold clear water from underground springs.
In the morning I walk back into town. Lane’s Island, a 10-minute walk from the center of town, is on the southeast side of the harbor, connected to Vinalhaven by a causeway and surrounded by Indian Creek. From 4000 BC to Colonial times the island was home to seasonal Native American villages. It is named for Captain Timothy Lane, one of the island’s most successful sea captains.
Philip Conkling is an author and president of the Island Institute, a nonprofit community development organization focusing on the Gulf of Maine and particularly the 15 year-round island communities off the Maine coast. He spends summers with his family in the big white farmhouse that once belonged to Lane. It is on the edge of a 45-acre Nature Conservancy preserve that covers about two-thirds of the island.
Conkling and I stand on the shore looking out in the distance to Robert’s, Hay, and Otter islands. Just to our east is a meandering mound of bleached shells, broken arrowheads, bones, and other ancient detritus - a centuries-old midden exposed by the sea.
“In the springtime the Indians traveled down the rivers and set up seasonal camps on the islands,’’ says Conkling. “This is the Indian Creek Encampment, a seasonal village.’’
According to Conkling, the women stayed in the camp, tending to the children and gathering shellfish to dry for winter. The men went offshore in their birch bark canoes to hunt and fish. They used harpoons with barbed tips of sharpened bone to spear porpoises, seals, and swordfish. Nesting islands were an abundant source of food - bird eggs and fledgling young.
The shore of Lane’s Island is like a kitchen garden of edible plants. There are beach peas, sea celery, glasswort, sea rocket, sea blight, berries, and a grand hedge of rosa rugosa alive with goldfinches, Savannah sparrows, pollen-heavy bees, and hummingbirds.
Under the rockweed, Conkling finds soft-shell crabs, which he pops in his mouth whole. I do the same. They are delicious, as sweet and briny as a sea urchin. He gathers periwinkles from the rocks and ledges. He holds them close to his lips whistling to coax them from their shells.
We wander for hours. Conkling has a story for every plant, flower, bird, and vista. He talks about how the Indians may have discovered the islands by following birds, and about how most of the island trees are spruce - “the old saying goes that three foggy nights will kill a fir tree.’’
Later, back at the quarry, I take one more swim. The sun goes down and the fog rolls in.
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jonathanlevitt.com.