Exploring Maine's Deer Isle

Story And Photos By Ann Powell

Do you like boardwalks, amusement-park rides, and all-you-can-eat buffets? Then you might want to move on, because that's definitely not what this family was seeking from their boating vacation, where Maine's remote coast proved perfect.

Photo of Stonington, Deer Isle, MaineStonington, Deer Isle, Maine.

The real deal — that's always the goal on our family's annual summer vacation. Remote lakes and bays to explore, wild and woolly escapades on and near the water, full immersion in local natural and cultural attractions; adventures like these make a place the real deal for us. All seven of us — my husband Eliot and me, our three sons, one daughter, and one daughter-in-law, — piled into our aging GMC Yukon XL, our Boston Whaler Montauk 17 in tow, and hit the road. Our planning sessions the previous January, with road maps and nautical charts spread wide, had pinpointed our destination as full of promise. We've been doing this for 25 years now, and have always had great times together, but no trip has ever delighted us as much as our two-week August sojourn at Deer Isle, Maine.

Photo of the Powell family on a Deer Isle hikeThe Powell family gets ready to explore Maine.

Jutting proudly into the Atlantic, Deer Isle is one of the largest of the 3,000 islands dotted along Maine's rocky coast. The slender green suspension bridge from the mainland flies high over Eggemoggin Reach, a wide channel connecting Penobscot Bay to the ocean, and delivers the visitor arriving by car or truck onto Little Deer Isle. Drivers then negotiate a sea-level causeway lined with granite boulders. It took us more than 15 hours to drive from Annapolis, Maryland — our boat packed to the gills with kayaks, paddles, bikes, coolers, life jackets, a homemade cornhole game, and lots of gear and electronics for all.

Enjoying Deer Isle is all about being outside — boating, hiking, fishing, kayaking, biking, beachcombing, clam digging, blueberry picking, and exploring. Every island beach and promontory delivers captivating views, and the 12-foot tides, fog, wind, and waves can reconfigure these vistas dramatically hour by hour. A serene harbor dotted with colorful lobster buoys becomes a moody, rocky, seaweed-strewn badlands the next time you look.

Photo of sunset over Deer Isle's Northwest Harbor
The sunset over Deer Isle's Northwest Harbor.

There's a strong sense of community here, with weekly farmers markets, a lobster co-op, a town hall, and an Opera House. Sunshine Road borders the eastern side of the island, and on the western side lies the village of Sunset. Home base for many is the village of Stonington, which hangs on the edge of the Atlantic at Deer Isle's southern tip. Scenic and ever so slightly industrial, the charming town's classically Maine cottages and businesses scramble together down a steep hill to the ever-changing harbor. The view inland from the waterline at low tide is of gnarly long-legged wharves and beached wooden dinghies. To seaward, countless small islands protect and create the harbor, defining a spectacular stretch of water called the Deer Island Thorofare and the route that fishing boats take to the sea.

Something For Everyone

On laid-back mornings, we visited antiques stores to collect blue bottles, clam barges, and old windows for pennies. We chatted with artists in mom-and-pop art galleries; bought homemade goat cheese, sausages, and pies at farmers markets; and picked low-bush blueberries on sunny hillsides. We combed the pebbly beaches for bits of wave-worn sea glass to fill Mason jars and, in the evenings, danced in the village to the vibrant beat of Flash in the Pans, a local traveling steel-drum band. At night, we gathered around campfires beneath the constellations. I'll never forget lying on the hood of the Yukon with our youngest son, Caleb, as we enjoyed the last moments of his 18th birthday, while watching the Perseids meteor shower in the Maine sky above us.

We hiked. Trails and paths crisscross Deer Isle's many nature preserves, managed by the nonprofit Island Heritage Trust. One day, we explored the silent, moss-covered understory on our way to Barred Island, a small, mysterious island accessible only at low tide. Another day, we took the mail boat from Stonington to neighboring Isle au Haut, part of Acadia National Park, where we hiked for hours on the up-and-down trails along the fogged-in coastline. As the trail wound over and around the headland, we heard through the mist the low thrum of lobster boats working close to the shore, shrouded in fog. Lobster buoys lay washed up at the head of every boulder-strewn cove, tangible evidence of this active fishery.

Photo of colorful kayaksKayaks proved a great way to explore the rocky islands.

We kayaked. In Stonington, we launched at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures and paddled for hours among rocky islands, dodging the lobster boats and elegant sailboats. As we set off en masse across the choppy water, our family friend TJ, who joins us for every trip, was swamped by a wave and went bottom up in his kayak. Maine waters are cold, and TJ, in his life jacket, popped out of his kayak and sprayskirt at lightning speed. In good rescue-mission form, the rest of the kayaks circled to right and drain his boat before making our way to a well-deserved picnic on a rock-strewn island.

Photo of Caleb Powell getting the Boston Whaler readyCaleb Powell gets the Boston Whaler ready.

We fished. Captain Pete Douvarjo of Eggemoggin Guide Service took TJ and the boys to inshore waters for pollock and mackerel and up the Penobscot River for freshwater smallmouth bass. We feasted on their catch. We went to the island seafood co-ops and feasted some more on local oysters, clams, and lobster — lots and lots of lobster.

Our rental cottage on a quiet cove lacked a dock for our Whaler, but that's not unusual in Maine; they're in short supply here because of the big tides and the heavy-duty winters. So we sought out every all-tide public boat ramp in the vicinity. We launched the Whaler all around Deer Isle: at Stonington Harbor, Benjamin River, Bagaduce River, Blue Hill Harbor, and South Blue Hill. We put many miles on our boat exploring countless coves and harbors, and our 17-footer rewarded us with close-up views of lighthouses, spruce-covered islands, and lobstermen heaving their traps onto the gunwales of their colorful boats. Our most mesmerizing times on our Maine holiday occurred on these excursions.

Rocks, Fog, And Lobster Traps

My husband Eliot has done his fair share of boating up and down the East Coast under power and sail, in boats large and small, and knows that inshore Maine boating requires keen awareness of the wind, tides, currents, fog, and, most of all, the unforgiving rocks that lurk everywhere beneath the surface. The ubiquitous lobster traps, he says, adds quite another dimension: "At home, the Chesapeake Bay has its share of crab traps. But Maine waters have an exponentially greater number of lobster buoys waiting to snag your prop. You really have to stay on your game."

We'll never forget the morning we spent on Sea Woof, a lobster boat owned by Captain Mark Billings. He named his boat for the beloved German Shepherds who once accompanied him everywhere, on land and sea. At daybreak in thick fog, as ocean swells rolled into Stonington Harbor, we watched this experienced waterman effortlessly pull and check his never-ending line of traps. He taught us how to measure the lobsters and throw back those too small or too large. We learned how to band the lobster claws with rubber bands, fill the bait pouches with dead fish, and throw the harvest into the holding tank as the skipper sped off for the next buoy, warning us about the lobsters in his Maine accent: "When they bite, they bite hawwd."

Singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg ended his days on Deer Isle and Eggemoggin Reach, and in his song "The Reach" paid tribute to its seafaring culture: "And the morning will blow away as the waves crash and fall, / And the Reach like a siren sings as she beckons and calls. / As the coastline recedes from view, and the seas swell and roll, / I will take from the Reach all that she has to teach to the depths of my soul." We were just visitors to Deer Isle that summer, and we don't yet know where our next family adventure will take us. But we know for sure that someday we'll return to cross that narrow bridge over Eggemoggin Reach, our little boat in tow. 

Ann Powell is an attorney and writer who lives and boats on the Chesapeake Bay with her family.

— Published: June/July 2015


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