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A bit of heaven on an island of your own

For a good many years, whenever I have found myself navigating a stretch of life’s unsettled weather, I have retreated to a little island where the fog seemingly rolls in and out at will and the smell of honeysuckle and wild rose in late June leaves me dizzy.

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It is a place where the kids still cannon-ball off the town dock, where the fish are big and willing, and the currents run fast; fishing from a small boat, you pick your way carefully around shaggy boulders the size of pickup trucks.

A wind vane in the shape of a striped bass sits atop a Methodist church. In an odd way that piscatorial icon has served more as a reminder that it is again time to adjust my internal compass than it is an indicator of wind direction. As Dylan once bawled: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Good advice for a lifetime.

Islands are good places to recharge and regroup, to get just far enough away from the go-go pace of mainland life to gain a little perspective. The distance helps you remember what’s important in life — spending more time with your kids, fishing or netting crabs or searching for sea glass, rather than worrying about jobs and money and the usual stuff.

I like island landscapes dotted with steep bluffs, glacial boulders and meadows of waist-high grasses dancing in the afternoon southwesterlies. Lighthouses and fog horns; the working boats pulling traps; swelling tide rips, sandbars, mussel bars and bright, windy flats alive with life. And I have a fondness, too, for the scrubby little rock piles smelling of nesting cormorants and gulls, overlooked, sometimes unnamed, but nonetheless part of the magic of these waters.

I have stood outside island churches and listened to snippets of sermons, prayers and hymns. A few years back, I loitered beside the lovely chapel on a Maine island one evening as a small congregation sang “Amazing Grace.” It was moving, and I quietly joined in before making my way down to the wharf, refreshed.

Another memory: It is high summer and my first trip back to the island in a year. This one is really no more than a small current-swept nub in the recessional moraine, a little high spot that in another 100 years — maybe less — will probably be awash at high tide. It’s home to a lighthouse, a pair of noisy oyster catchers, a black-crowned night heron and few dozen black back and herring gulls. Chris and I have come for the fish.

We bring the outboard boat into the narrow landing slot on a big ebb tide, arriving just after dark and sending the roosting gulls to the water. I flick on a spotlight for a moment to illuminate the steeply shelved gravel beach. We tie up the boat between a tall, crumbling bulkhead and a jumble of riprap, effectively hiding it from view from most approaches. I have never seen anyone in here other than the Coast Guard, who slip in once in a while to check on the lighthouse.

With the exception of the light, the most distinguishing feature on this lonely heap of glacial debris is an enormous log that a powerful storm deposited well up the cobbled shore. I wonder what it would have been like hunkered down out here as the winter gale surged over the island and rolled this smoothed hardwood bone so impossibly high up the steep beach. Surprise — this year it has been pushed back even farther. I am impressed. Must have been one helluva blow.

You won’t find any sand out here. The current is too strong and constant for so much as a grain of quartz or feldspar to find a toe-hold.

The fishing is as good as we hoped for. A ton of small stripers are set up in the rip. The pace is pleasant and unhurried, like the languid rhythm of a midsummer ballgame at Fenway.

Once the tide is mostly shot, I fish a couple of cold beers out of the boat, and we lean our rods and tired backs against the log. The light sweeps over our heads. It is about 1:40 in the morning. We watch the tugs pulling east and west, snuffing out the lights on the mainland as they slide past with their barges in tow. It is a good place to ponder the bright sky overhead. Time slows as the tide grows older. We are off the clock. There’s nowhere we have to be. The world is sleeping, and no one is expecting us, anyway.

It’s a damn good log and a damn fine little island, too.

“Islanders have the same respect for the sea as sailors, for what is an island but a huge moored ship breasting the bluewater stream, the ebb and flow of the tide." — Ray Kauffman

July 2013 issue