By Bernadette Bernon
A few days of fog here and there puts the skids under the best-laid plans in Maine. Before you know it, August is half spent and you can never make it to all the places you’d hoped to visit. This isn’t all bad; anyone who likes to see the world by boat learns that rushing means you never enjoy the subtle nuances of where you are. But Douglas and I had hoped to enjoy the nuances of places farther east, so we decided to take off from Casco Bay, and sail directly overnight toward less-traveled Maine, near the Canadian border, then meander back at a leisurely pace.
Our voyage began in a light fog, velvety enough to make the scenery lovely to port and starboard -- an ethereal, soft-focus-Barbara-Walters-lens perspective. We suffered the misery all cruisers up here face as we darted and weaved among the nightmarish blanket of lobster-pot buoys, each one a potential prop grabber. They are the absolute bane of being here, and demand utmost vigilance. Soon, as we headed further into the Gulf of Maine, the fog floated in around us, thick as vichyssoise, and then we couldn’t see the pots, or anything else. Soon, even the bow of the boat was swallowed. Douglas assumed his battle station below, at the nav desk, eyes glued to the radar, leaving the cockpit to me. Throughout the day, the fog waned and filled, waned and filled, as we took two-hour watches scanning the horizon for pots, and checking the radar for our waypoint buoys and other boats. We ate well, and often, which is our bad habit on a passage. With abandon, I’d cooked up our last package of chicken for the journey, as well as the last bits of all our heretofore hoarded fresh provisions, and we even boiled the last of our eggs, all before leaving Quahog Bay, knowing we’d make landfall at Cape Split, a fishing town reputed to have a charming grocery store owned by former cruisers. I also envisioned, hopefully, that it had a laundromat, as we’d way underestimated the quantity of warm clothing we’d need up here, and how frequently we’d want to change out of damp and into dry. The end result was our fleece wardrobe needed a major washing.
The night was long, the wind came and went, and the whole voyage had the slight weirdness that comes from barreling along for hours and not seeing anything farther than 20 feet away. My watches flew by as I read an entire book, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius,” which now gets added to my all-time-favorites list. According to the calendar there was an almost full moon; neither of us saw it.
In the morning, we popped the last two eggs into our gobs, and as the fog thinned a bit, we began to look ahead with great excitement, like Labrador retrievers with heads out the car windows, toward the soft green of the coast. I wondered if there’d be a bakery. Yes, a nice hot cinnamon bun fresh out of the oven would be just the thing.
Cape Split, according to our guide book, is a working harbor, full of local color – lobster traps piled on the docks, lobster boats bustling in and out. I so looked forward to it. We pulled down the sails, and Ithaka tickled in between the granite ledges, many of which lurk just below the surface, even at high tide, and only reveal themselves as the waters fall. We found brightly painted lobster boats moored cheek to jowl, as promised. I waved to fishermen, in my usual throes of landfall euphoria, imagined chatting to the kindlier looking of them, and having one of them offer us a lift to the store, perhaps bringing us home to meet his family. His wife would insist we take a jar of blueberry preserves she’d just put up herself. I liked the place already.
“There’s no room to anchor anywhere in here,” said Douglas. I took this for his usual lack of optimism, so I looked around more carefully. The mooring field was jammed to the ledges with commercial fishing boats. I puttered over to one that had some men aboard working, said hello, and asked about the store written up in the guidebook.
“That place closed up two years ago,” said one of the guys. “The only place to buy food between here and Canada is up in Jonesport” -- a shattering piece of news. Jonesport, only several miles away, was located inside the Moosabec Reach, a narrow thorofare with no place to anchor, and a current that sometimes runs 6 knots. With no place there to safely leave Ithaka, we swung her bow around, away from cinnamon buns and blueberry preserves, motored back into the fog, and regrouped.
Our plan had been to stock up, then head for Roque Harbor, a spectacular archipelago of pristine—and mostly uninhabited—islands about 25 miles farther east. “Well, what if we didn’t shop,” said Douglas. “We’ve got enough canned goods to last us for months.”
What a gloomy prospect, was my first thought. And how odd it is that he’s being so optimistic. “Well, sure, I guess so,” I said. “We have nothing fresh. But I mean we wouldn’t starve.”
I didn’t want to risk getting fogged in anywhere we didn’t want to be, so, more gamely than I felt, I said “OK, let’s do it. How bad could it be,” as I did a quick inventory of the oddball cans of things we had stashed in all of Ithaka’s dark recesses. Some were a few years old, never having made the “Gee I’d like to eat that” list, but they were about to become the stars of our gastronomic road show. We set sail for Roque as the fog burned off.
The day sail to Roque was as pretty as any I can remember. Spectacular scenery along the rugged, spruce-packed coast was punctuated by the wailing calls of lighthouses that guard the granite promontories. At 3:00 we ghosted in to Roque Harbor, one of the jewels of Maine, and for many sailors exploring this part of the world, the culmination of their trip East Of Schoodic Point. Ithaka approached the mile-long sandy beach, nuzzled in, and dropped the hook in this giant, empty harbor. Around us was an archipelago of islands: Double Shot, Great Spruce, Little Spruce, Halifax, Lakeman, Anguilla, March and Bar. In between them was a labyrinth of waterways to explore by dinghy and kayak. Roque, and many of these islands, are owned by the Gardner and Monks families. A couple of houses overlook Shorey Cove, at the back of the island, where there also is a full working farm that keeps the few inhabitants self-sufficient. Although we never saw this ourselves – indeed, we never saw anybody -- other cruisers report seeing family members riding around the island in horse-drawn carriages. In the winter Clydesdales haul people around on old blue sledges.
Our days unfolded easily at Roque. We dinghied around, and strolled the beach, and at low tides we collected mussels. We cooked elaborate meals as often as possible, as much to keep the boat warm as for food, and we ate some of the best dinners we’ve ever had aboard -- wonderful concoctions made almost entirely from cans and dried goods. Curried lentils in tomato soup is a recipe I’ll repeat happily, no matter how much fresh food we have (recipe below). We listened to Prairie Home Companion, and the news, and Fresh Air, on National Public Radio; and we regularly sponged up the condensation that formed inside the boat, under the waterline, as the frigid water sweated the boat.
Finally I broke down and did a big load of laundry by hand. There’s nothing dirtier than boat laundry, marinated over extended periods of time in dampness, sweat and grease. I scrubbed, and scrubbed again, and rinsed and rinsed again, finally squeezing each piece around a stanchion to get out the last drops of water. As I hung the clean clothes to dry in the sun on the lifelines, I remembered my four-year-old niece noticing the basket of clothespins on Ithaka, picking one up, and asking me what they were for. Relics from a bygone time, I’d said, like 8-track tapes.
One day, a little lobster boat emerged through one of the cuts between the islands, approached us, and slowly circled Ithaka a couple of times. I waved hello. The driver waved back, drew closer, and called out to me: “You folks telephone the Jonesport Harbormaster?”
“No we didn’t,” I called back. In fact our T-Mobile cell phone was useless up here.
“Hmmm. I got a call that someone at Roque needed some help. Twasn’t you?”
“No sir, we’re all set,” I said.
“Well, musta been a crank,” he called back, drifted off, then returned to circle us again. “Well, I’m all the way over here now,” he called. “Y’need anything in Jonesport?”
Douglas and I looked at each other. Was he serious?
“Well, sir, thanks, but we’re fine!” Douglas said.
“If you need some groceries, hop in!” he said. “I’ll run you over and back. There’s nothing pressing me today. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
“Wow, thanks!” said Douglas, and we leaped below to grab our shoes, money and backpacks. Within five minutes, we’d hopped aboard the little lobster boat, met Mr. Russell Batson, volunteer Harbormaster for Jonesport and its neighboring islands, and were give a glimpse of what it’s like to be a lobsterman in Maine. Russell’s is a working boat; he bought it for $500, and with one of his two sons he brought it back from being a wreck to being a sound little workhorse. It’s equipped with a chart plotter and forward-looking depth sounder, modern navigational conveniences that are on most lobster boats these days. “Ah, these little black boxes don’t change things that much. All they tell you is that you’ve been going over some ledges your whole life you didn’t know were there.”
Russell is 75 years old, and has been Harbormaster since his retirement from the post office 20 years ago. He adores his job keeping an eye on things marine in busy Jonesport, but everyone who knows him knows he’s a softie. “Been up since four this morning,” he told us as the boat flew along. “I put on my tall boots, tied ropes around my ankles to keep the boots on, and headed for the mud flats. Been there all day checking the clam diggers to see if they’ve got licenses. Didn’t have to give one summons, which is just fine with me. I do not like causing people trouble. In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret. I can’t sleep if I have to give someone a summons.”
Russell has out 100 lobster traps himself, which he tends every few days, and he does this mostly for fun. To do it seriously, he said, “you’d be looking at tending about 250 traps a day. You’d have each and every one marked on your electronic chart and get to’m by GPS. Some a these boys out here can make $100,000 a year; and that’s selling the lobster at about $3.50 a pound. But to make that amount a year, you’d have to have about 800 traps out, and that’s a lot of hard work, twelve months a year.”
Russell steered his little boat through “a wall a traps,” and as we neared Jonesport, he pointed out the surrounding islands once owned by the Beals, Falkingham, and Alley families. He told us “my daddy used to work quarrying the red granite” out on one of those islands, and how the ships would come down the Moosabec Reach, laden with the beautiful stone, and then set sail for Providence, Rhode Island, to be offloaded.
He motored us around the great ark of a boat called Raw Faith, moored in the Reach, the homemade barquentine with telephone pole masts being something of a novelty in Jonesport, and he told us how the fellow who built the boat takes handicapped children out for visits. We climbed into Russell’s car, and he drove us out to his house on Batson Point, overlooking the Moosabec Reach, and introduced us to his wife Roma, who was in the backyard painting lobster buoys orange and yellow. Each rig, he told us – trap, line, buoy, and toggle – costs about $75 for a near-shore pot, much more for pots set in deeper water with longer lines.
As Russell toured us around little Jonesport, he told us who lived where, and what they did, he also told us the story of how Roma forced him, for awhile, to live in Florida in the winter, in a trailer. “She thought it would be good for us as we got older. Y’know, get out of this cold weather. And she had a sister down there. So, alright, I went down there a few times. I didn’t like it one bit. You’d go out the door of your trailer and the guy in the place next to you is so close I could’a reached out and took the toothpaste right outta his hand. That’s how close I was to him. I said, Roma, this is no place for a Downeaster. I’m going home.” Which he did. And she followed him. “Now, in the winter, I make a big fire in my wood-burning stove in the morning, get my coffee and my book, sit and look out over the Reach, and I’m a happy man.”
We stood together with Russell Batson, behind his home, looking from his back yard at the water bashing in against the rocks along Moosabec Reach -- the powerful tides of Downeast Maine running through these narrows reminding me of how puny we are. Day in and day out, year in and year out, answering only to the call of the moon, some little harbors change in depth as much as 20 feet from high to low – and even more the farther north you go -- responsible to no one or nothing, a force unto itself.
For anyone cruising “Downeast” Maine, life is about the intensity of being outdoors, the cold, the fog, the giant tides and currents, the eagles and puffins, the lobster and mussels, the whales and dolphins, the craggy pink islands topped with green forest and veiled in fog, like leather sculptures leaking steam. This, we could see on our own. But standing with this man, who took us under his wing for the day, we saw more of the true nature of Maine. We said goodbye to Roma, but before we bundled into Russell’s car, now crammed with our bags of groceries, and started back on the lobster-boat trip from Jonesport out to Ithaka at Roque, he scurried back into his house and came back with something.
“I almost forgot,” he said. “That’s for you.” I looked in the paper bag. Roma had picked us a bag full of fresh blueberries.