Falling for a Maine island

“Like snowflakes,” the writer notes, “each [island sunset] is different and unique.”
“Like snowflakes,” the writer notes, “each [island sunset] is different and unique.”Glenn Rifkin for The Boston Globe

Well, I hope you understand, I just had to go back to the island.

Leon Russell

I was awakened by the distinct chug of the lobster boat heading out of the harbor. From my bed, I could see the first rays of sunrise disrupting the dark sky. Normally, I would have turned over and fallen back to sleep, but I noticed my camera on the kitchen table and couldn’t resist. I threw on some shorts and flip-flops, grabbed a hat, and headed out to the dock, just a short walk from the cabin where even the dog remained sleeping. Out on the dock, the full beauty of an island dawn made my decision a sound one. A summer morning on an island in Maine is an inimitable balm for the soul, and a photographer’s nirvana.


As I stood and felt the cool ocean breeze off the water and tracked the seagulls swooping in and around the shore, a dark shadow passed over head. I glanced up and aimed my long lens. It was a majestic bald eagle flying leisurely toward the sunrise. As if he knew what a thrill his presence was, he circled down and then back overhead several times as I snapped away, hoping for one good money shot.

When my wife and I married in 2000 (both for the second time), she told me about this small rustic island, a bucolic destination her family had been visiting every summer for most of her life. It’s a private island, as are more than 1,400 of the 4,600 islands off the coast of Maine, and her family was part of a trust the original owner created to allow his friends and their descendants to enjoy the place forever. About 20 families are “members” and pay annual dues in order to get a week each summer to vacation.


This island, off the coast near Acadia in Jericho Bay, came to me as a kind of odd but compelling wedding gift, a place my wife adored, but a place, she readily admits, that is not a vacation spot for everyone . . . for example, me. As someone for whom roughing it was a Best Western, I was ill-suited to the realities of our little island paradise. There is no electricity, no running water, no toilets, no showers, no roads or shops or spas for a nice vacation massage. Club Med it’s not.

You must carry in all your food and necessities for the week and bring extra batteries for flashlights and bug spray for the mosquitoes. That means a trip by ferry to a larger, inhabited island, a drive across that island to the dock where the lobsterman, who doubles as caretaker for our island, lets us keep the outboard which ferries us across the harbor. We must carry everything down the dock, onto the boat, motor through the countless lobster buoys to our dock and then schlep all this gear and vittles up to where we stay.

The farmhouse on the island.
The farmhouse on the island. GLENN RIFKIN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The accommodations consist of three buildings: a cabin built in the 1950s down near the dock, a cottage from the early 20th century, and a farmhouse that dates back to the American Revolution. Once upon a time a few families lived on the island and sheep grazed in the pastures. But it has been uninhabited for much of the past century save for the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the members come for their week away from the madding crowd.


For newbies, the moment of truth comes early. My wife held her breath on my initial visit when she introduced me to Cousin Martha, not an actual relative, but the oddly-named outhouse that serves the farmhouse guests. No one recalls how it got the name, but the reality that for the duration of your visit, this is where you must go when nature calls requires a drastically new mind-set. One legendary tale involves a family friend, a sophisticated New Yorker, who refused to go into Cousin Martha for her full week’s visit to the island. I wasn’t there but I could feel her pain.

Knowing how much my new bride loved this place was incentive enough for me to give it a try. It was a simple proposition: you bring several books, you get ready to play an oddly raucous card game called Pounce, you take scrotum-numbing plunges into the ocean, you hike with the joyful dogs across verdant island trails, and you prepare to be off the grid for a week of isolation. In recent years, smartphones have appeared, but spending any significant time on them is deeply frowned upon.

My family loves this place, and my son, joining the family along with me, took to it like a loon to a lake. The year between visits is merely a chunk of time to think about getting back there. For me, it was an acquired taste. My initial visits had mixed results and I left early a couple of times to return to my air-conditioned den and Red Sox games on TV.


But eventually, the unspoiled beauty, the pristine lure of the Maine coast, the ability to leave the madness of the troubled world behind, crept into my soul. There is indeed something magical about the early morning sun, with air so fresh you can almost taste it, while eating breakfast of fresh coffee, homemade granola, and wild Maine blueberries, picked right out in the field. There is awe-inspiring beauty, lying in the inky night in that same field under the Milky Way, in hoodies and long pants to ward off the mosquitoes, counting shooting stars and finding the North Star.

The author snaps hundreds of photos each year he visits the island. This is one of them.
The author snaps hundreds of photos each year he visits the island. This is one of them.GLENN RIFKIN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Over time, photography, a long-held passion, was reason enough to visit each summer. This is a tiny island — just a mile or so across — and one would think that after a few years, I’d taken every picture from every angle that one could imagine. But that turned out to be remarkably shortsighted. Every year, I manage to snap hundreds of photos, and while some might feel repetitive, I am always amazed how the landscape, the harbor, the ocean, and the endless sky, create a new, dramatic canvas. I’m sure I’ve taken thousands of sunset photos aimed at the same view out toward the bay, but like snowflakes, each one is different and unique. I’m an avid bird photographer and I never tire of the seabirds, the eagles, the osprey, and the island’s varied songbirds. I’ve captured otters, seals, and dolphins, some while sailing in a brisk wind in the bay. Most of all, there is the island light, a clear, golden hue, as the sun dips toward the horizon.


I’ve learned to love the group dinners by candlelight, the sing-alongs, the cornhole games, the cocktail hour sitting outside the farmhouse as the sun starts to go down, staying until the mosquitoes drive us inside. We have lobsters plucked fresh from the ocean and mussels mined near the shore. Over time, it occurred to me, that a life filled with candlelight and loving companions set in a place at the far edge of the map, is far more prized than any fancy resort. I occasionally hint at the idea of installing plumbing, but I’ve even made peace with Cousin Martha.

Glenn Rifkin can be reached at grifkin@comcast.net.