Facebook sent me to Matinicus.
When former Soundings editor-in-chief Mary South posted a spectacular photo of the Maine island that she sometimes calls home, I told her I might have to run my RIB out there for a lunch visit. But before opening my mouth, I should have done my homework. I knew Matinicus was out in the ocean, but a closer look at a nautical chart provided me with a bit of a shock.
A straight run from my homeport of New Harbor, Maine, to Matinicus is 27 nautical miles in exposed waters. My 16-foot Zodiac, Bob, can do 30 knots, but not in a big chop or a short swell, and with Matinicus about 20 miles from the mainland, I pondered whether I was biting off a little more than I should chew. In the previous months I had experienced some shockingly challenging weather while exploring islands inside Muscongus Bay. Was going out to what the Abenaki natives called “far out island” one isle too far?
But the idea of seeing Mary and the U.S. East Coast’s most far-flung inhabited island was enticing, and when the next day’s forecast predicted 2- to 5-mph winds and 2-foot seas, I couldn’t resist.
To make the first part of the run less imposing I picked a slightly longer, inside route that put some islands between me and the ocean. Zodiacs can handle big waves and long ocean swells, but with a single engine, the little voice in my head kept saying, “lose the engine, and your next stop could be Africa.”
I also went over the boat with a fine-tooth comb. Even though the 12-gallon fuel tank could provide the range to get me to and from Matinicus, I added four 5-gallon gas cans. Besides giving me a huge reserve, the additional weight made the boat more seaworthy. Bob is very light. When I’m alone, the RIB easily launches off waves. Flying through the air is fun, but not in the open ocean. The 120 pounds of fuel low in the bow would prevent that from happening and help trim the boat.
The engine had recently been serviced and the fuel pump was new. Earlier in the summer I had replaced my starter battery and added a back-up. I felt good about my 12-year-old boat’s condition.
Having moved to Maine months before, I already had the charts I needed. Although GPS is my primary navigational device, I’m still a bit of a luddite and like having paper charts. When I realized one side of a chart covered the first half of my run across Muscongus Bay and the other side covered the second half to Matinicus, I felt the boating gods were spurring me on.
Early the next morning, I triple-checked everything. The handheld GPS had fresh AA batteries plus a set of spares. The spotlight, iPhone and VHF radio were fully charged and backed up by portable power supplies. Other than the boat and its single 50-hp Yamaha outboard, I had backups for everything and even some backups for the backups.
Loaded up with enough bananas, hard-boiled eggs, apples and water to last me a week or two—just in case I drifted into the Atlantic—I towed Bob to the boat ramp. With a PLB, flares and a strobe, I felt more secure about boating in cold, unfamiliar waters.
The conditions turned out to be even better than forecasted: flat water, virtually no wind or swell, and excellent visibility. By 10:30 a.m. I was zipping across Muscongus Bay at 30 knots. The first quarter of the run was easy, but after crossing between Franklin Island Light and Harbor Island, I was in unfamiliar territory and faced with a minefield of lobster buoys. Because I couldn’t read the small GPS while dodging buoys at speed, I stopped to check my path. I’d filed a float plan with my family, and I wanted to stick to my route.
The stop allowed me to take in my surroundings. All around, lobstermen were pulling pots out of what the native Abenaki called Muscongus, which depending on the translation either means “fishing place” or “many rock ledges.” Both are accurate. The bay is full of fishermen and granite ledges.
South of Davis Island, I caught a glimpse of the white, clapboard and cedar-shake buildings on Allen and Benner Islands, which looked like Wyeth paintings. That’s no coincidence, since Benner is owned by Betsy Wyeth, wife of the late Andrew Wyeth, and Allen is owned by their son, Jamie, who lets commercial fishermen live and work there in the summer and also allows Colby College faculty and students to use the island as a living laboratory. There are archaeologically sensitive prehistoric sites on Allen Island, and in 1605, it was one of the first islands explored by English Capt. George Weymouth and the crew of the Archangel. After failing to find a Northwest Passage to India they held a religious service there and then kidnapped some Abenaki natives who they took back to England to entice potential investors into funding future trips.
As I entered Penobscot Bay and approached the northern tip of Metinic Island, there was a disturbance in the water. A seal shot halfway out of the water, and within seconds I saw a harbour porpoise’s dorsal fin. For a moment I questioned whether I’d misidentified the seal, but when it shot out of the water again, I realized a large school of fish was getting worked from both ends by different predators.
Just as I put Bob back on plane, my wife called from our New Jersey condo about the kitchen counter installation. I stopped again to answer her questions about ½-inch versus ¾-inch overhangs, and then got the boat back up to speed. I was almost at Metinic Island when Ray, the counter installer, called to ask me where I wanted the seam in the counter. It was good to know that I had excellent cell service so far out at sea, but the kitchen business was starting to interfere with my boating mojo.
As I crossed over Metinic, Matinicus appeared as a thin, low, black line on the horizon. A cloud shaded the island, giving it a slightly ominous look. Adding to the dark feeling was the total absence of life around me—no boats, people, fish or birds anywhere. I looked at the unbroken veneer of the placid ocean to the south and became acutely aware of how disconnected I was from the rest of the world. Other than the purring of the Yamaha, there was no sound. My apprehension about the run was replaced by euphoria.
About 90 minutes after leaving New Harbor, I zoomed into Burgess Cove, where Mary was waiting on the beach. I set two stern anchors in the water and a third on the beach, but all of them, a folding Grapnel, a Bruce and a Danforth fluke—all holdovers from my New Jersey boating days—failed to give a good hold. Fortunately, the grapnel snagged on some debris. The tide was coming in and there was no wind. I decided to monitor Bob’s position from the cabins. I made a mental note to purchase some heavier, more aggressive hardware for future trips.
I followed Mary up the rocks and through the dense vegetation to her family’s cottages. Along the way, she plucked cloth napkins off the clothesline. It seemed like a scene from another time, but in the next hour or two I learned that timelessness is the essence of Matinicus. It’s why the island’s population swells from about 20 in winter to 100 in summer when the seasonal residents arrive to slow the passage of time.
Giant beach roses swallowed Mary’s cottage. The cedar-shingled hut with white trim had all the amenities for a pleasant island summer. A basic kitchen, one bath, two bedrooms and a living room were all tastefully decorated. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Over a sandwich, we caught up. We hadn’t seen each other in almost two years, and oddly, in the midst of a pandemic we’d managed to meet on one of the country’s most remote islands.
After we ate, we hopped in Mary’s father’s 1980s GMC Sierra pickup truck. With dents, rust and a yellow rope holding up the tailgate it was the quintessential Maine island truck. With the windows rolled down we traveled the island’s dirt roads, Mary grinding her way through the truck’s manual gears. The grinding had nothing to do with Mary’s driving skills and everything to do with the condition of the truck.
There had been a long drought. The sun was baking the island, and despite our top speed of about 12 miles per hour, we kicked up a tiny dust storm. The island is only 2 miles long and a mile wide. You don’t need to go fast. If anything, the whole point of the place is to go slow. Most of the homes were modest and simple. I only saw one fancy garden.
Apple trees were everywhere. The island is a pomologist’s dream. Matinicus has an unknown number of apple varieties, some of which are believed to no longer exist on the mainland. How they got there is not clear. One theory is that birds spread the seeds. Another is that kids threw apple cores by the side of the road. One resident is trying to get experts to come in to identify the various species.
Cell phone service on the island is spotty at best. The only internet hotspot comes from a renovated 8-foot by 20-foot utility shed that serves as the Matinicus Island Library. The library is open year round and the door is never locked. It’s run by volunteers, and books are signed out on the honor system. The library is not recognized by the Maine State Library system because it doesn’t have a bathroom. There are no public bathrooms anywhere on the island.
The power company is also a shed, filled with diesel-powered generators. If you want to take a walk at night, you need a flashlight. There are no streetlights, but there’s also no light pollution, which makes Matinicus a great place to stargaze.
Near the airport we passed three kids on bikes. With no planned entertainment, watching a small plane taking off is about as exciting as things might get. The airport’s runway is a small clearing between the spruce trees. There is no control tower, but there is a tiny, wooden shed with a sign that announces the location to be Matinicus International Air-Strip.
You have to have a sense of humor to live on this island. Sometimes someone runs a “restaurant” or bakery out of their home, but there are no stores. Everything comes from the mainland. The mail, packages, medications, birthday cakes, pets, even goats, arrive by air. Most residents flew their groceries in from Shaw’s supermarket in Rockland until the beloved owner of the air service died and prices were raised. The state-run ferry from Rockland doesn’t run often, takes two hours each way, and only runs once a month in winter. And because the approach to the dock is nerve-wracking, and the weather, especially in winter, is unpredictable and sometimes frightening, it is the least popular run among the state’s ferry employees. Unless you own your own boat, a private water taxi run on a 35-foot Mitchell Cove is the only other way to get food delivered.
Matinicus was formally organized as a plantation in 1840. It’s a type of minor civil division that falls between an unincorporated area and a town, a designation unique to Maine. The island has always been a maritime community, but cod, mackerel and herring fishing have mostly given way to lobster fishing, which is now the dominant industry.
Mary drove us to the harbor where lobsterboats appeared to rest on a sheet of glass. Traps were stacked next to parked pickup trucks by a dormitory building that housed lobsterboat sternmen from the mainland, a job few are willing to accept in this remote place. A couple of fishermen were cleaning a boat at the dock. Mary chatted with some locals and soon we headed back to her family’s cottages.
It was time to leave. On the beach I said goodbye to Mary, her partner and their dogs, hopped on the RIB, topped off the fuel tank and motored out of Burgess Cove.
The water was still flat as a pancake. An hour later I was back in New Harbor. Matinicus suddenly seemed very close. And that got me thinking, “What’s Mary serving for lunch tomorrow?”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.