It’s early, and T is sleeping in for the first time in months. After coffee, I leave by the screen door, wade fifty steps through soft sand to the Bay and turn left.
There is only one house on the island. There is no one else here.
The island is two miles long, most of that north of the house. But it is very, very narrow. For most of its length, so narrow you can stand in the marsh and throw a stone across to hit the Bay. More than a sandbar, but to call it a barrier island perhaps exaggerates. There are trees, many of them quite old, but dunes throughout are flattened by overwash from Bay to marsh. It’s clear that water often flows through the trees. No barrier; more like a split rail fence.
The place is raw and wild. Animal tracks everywhere – birds of all kinds, but also otter, fox, raccoon and muskrat. And terrapins. With no one to disturb them, the tracks persist between rains. We find many skeletons. Like the undisturbed tracks, bones remain in place, composed where each creature took a last step.
The island has no official name. It has not been an island long enough to get one. Perhaps a budget office calculates it isn’t worth updating maps and charts, that it may not be an island for long. Even for locals it has no name. They simply refer to it as “the island.”
Not quite here, not quite not.
While most islands in the Chesapeake are disappearing – Smith, Tangier, and Hoopers; others like Holland already gone – new islands do appear, created by the same forces. That’s how this island came to be, about 40 years ago.
The directions were a little vague. Arriving on the downwind leg of the afternoon, we followed not so much directions to this place as a description of it. Our friends decline cell phones. Their farmhouse is lined with shelves of books, the kitchen with jars of food from the garden. They don’t use the internet; no email or texts. They send hand-written notes by mail, or call on a land line shared with another couple. Not much help here. There’s no land line out on the island, either, so we can’t call to be sure.
This feels right, though – they’re good with words, our friends – but we’re going a bit on faith, like looking for a place you only know from novels.
With the passing of the Small Reach Regatta I realize I never finished the posts from Maine over a year ago. Nice to be able to go back to it now.
A light rain is falling as we pull onto the town dock to board the ferry. Attendants wave cars to park out on the wooden pier over the water. Another cautiously directs us into a small slot, the cars packed in so tight T has to get out before I back in.
There’s a notable mix of vehicles: old rusty pickups, almost as old as I am, with Maine plates. Next to those a brand new Lexus or Mercedes with out of state plates. Repeat. Like much of coastal Maine, people with homes on Isle au Haut are either true year-round locals, people who make a living on or near the water, or wealthy summer people from away, their second or third homes out on the island.
I chat with the fellow who waved us in. He’s friendly but his accent seems off. Says he was born here but grew up away, a teacher. Now he comes back every summer and works odd jobs for the season to be near home, his parents aging. Says he misses it so much that he comes back every year.
We rent bikes there on the dock to take with us on the ferry. A dozen or so are arranged in a large empty warehouse once used for sorting and loading fish; it too is out over the water. We try the bikes for fit and finish, and I ride figure 8’s through the big echoing space that once was bustling with people and cod and lobster. It’s clean, the cement floor smooth for riding, and the walls smell faintly of fish. Light filters in through tall salt-crusted windows. Gliding in big looping circles, murmurs of conversation, rain pattering on the tin roof.
Was paddling around in a swamp a few years ago and dug one of these plants up to bring home. Just a stalk and a bag of smelly black mud. Stuck it at the edge of the pond in the yard.
Now in summer you can’t see the pond for the flowers. Bushes five feet tall, flowers as big as your head.
A sort of wild hibiscus, these are the original Marshmallows from which the confection derives. The ones we put in smores and hot chocolate are synthetic now, but the originals were made from the roots of these flowers more that 4000 years ago in Egypt, and were reserved as food for gods and royalty. Back then it took two days of laborious processing to make marshmallows, not including the harvest and drying and prep of the roots. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that they could be produced on a scale that plain folk could have them, too.