Life on an Island: Silence, Beauty and a Long Wait for the Ferry

Snow-covered pines add to the quiet beauty on Matinicus, one of the remote islands off the coast of Maine, where lobster traps are stacked for the season.

MATINICUS, Me. — The snow had begun falling overnight, and fell throughout the day, draping the towering pines and the lobster traps, stacked up on land for the winter, in blankets of white.

Still, Sharon Daley, a nurse from the visiting vessel Sunbeam, which provides medical care to remote islands off the coast of Maine, made her appointed rounds. She forged a path in knee-high rubber boots to the home of Bill Hoadley, who is, at 80, this island’s oldest resident.

She checked his blood pressure, which she pronounced “so good, it’s boring.” She listened to his heart, which was ticking just fine, almost in rhythm with his many clocks. Mr. Hoadley is something of a clock aficionado, and he keeps his timepieces on daylight saving time, which in winter is an hour ahead of everyone else.


“Because I can,” the impish Mr. Hoadley declared from his nautically themed front parlor.

Being able to do exactly as he pleases — and have health care come to him — are big reasons Mr. Hoadley stays here, 22 miles out in the North Atlantic.

Mr. Hoadley, who has lived the past 30 years on the island, is part of a band of devoted denizens who would not live anywhere else.

Credit...Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

The rocky sea islands reflect Maine’s independent character. They are steeped in rich history and are cherished by the many Down Easterners who visit in the summer. But the band of full-time residents has diminished.

The number of Maine islands where people live year-round has dwindled to just 15 today, from a high of about 300 a century ago. This winter, only 20 people are living on Matinicus.

State agencies and nonprofit organizations have tried to stem the loss of year-round populations by giving islanders guarantees of a certain number of lobster licenses, grants for affordable housing, and upgrades to their internet speed.

The populations of the islands closest to mainland towns have increased in recent decades. But the more remote outer islands, like Matinicus, have struggled.

Still, for some people, the remoteness is the appeal.

“We had been to other islands in Penobscot Bay, and they were too crowded,” said Robin Tarkleson, 60, the Matinicus postmaster, who has lived here year-round for nine years. “This one didn’t have anything. That was the big attraction.”

Other draws: freedom, quiet, beauty, the opportunity to live off the grid, and a frontier sensibility.

Matinicus is smaller in area than Central Park in Manhattan. It has no stores, restaurants, or pharmacies. There is a one-room school with two students, a small post office, a church and a tiny library.

There are no gas stations, but then, there are not a lot of places to drive.

“I last filled up my gas tank in May,” Laura Livingston, 58, who runs a small dairy farm here, said recently. “I think I have half a tank left.”

Most islanders catch lobsters for a living. Like many lobstermen, Chris Hodgkins, 30, who lives in the island town of Frenchboro, 30 miles northeast of Matinicus, spends the winter repairing his traps, painting his buoys and cleaning his ropes.

And reveling in the stillness.

“Have you ever heard the absolute silence?” he asked.

To him, the down side of island life is how few young, single women seem to want to try it.

For Jan Keiper, 64, the teacher at the Frenchboro school, which has four students this year, social isolation can be stifling. That is eased, she said, by a teaching and learning collaborative that links students from other islands through online book groups, field trips and in-person events.

The economics of island life can also be tricky.

“What’s happening on the islands now is not a simple decline story, as much as a whole series of booms and busts — in the quarry industry, in shipbuilding, in fishing, in farming,” said Heather Deese, executive vice president of the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sustaining Maine’s islands and coastal communities.

At the moment, Maine is in the middle of a lobster boom, following a sharp decline in prices during the global recession of a decade ago. That downturn fed territorial disputes and earned Matinicus some notoriety for lawlessness. Now, sea temperatures are rising in the Gulf of Maine faster than in almost any other part of the ocean, driving the lobsters toward colder Canadian waters and leaving islanders wondering how much longer they can make a living.

Boom or bust, island living is never easy, especially in winter.

Life is dictated by the weather and the ferry, which stops at Matinicus, the farthest flung of the inhabited islands, only once a month. The island has an air strip, and residents can regularly fly to the mainland, weather permitting, but a round trip costs $100.

Everything costs more, because it has to be shipped in, including food, fuel and workers like plumbers, whose bills include travel time.

With so few people living on the island, most residents wear several hats. Eva Murray, 53, a writer, is also an emergency medical technician, the registrar of voters and the operator of the recycling center. In summer, she runs a bakery out of her house.

“All of those things that people expect to be handled by a big agency — whether the phone company or solid waste — it’s us,” she said. “There is no ‘they.’ ”

For the ever-fewer year-round island residents, though, these are not hardships, just life as it is.

“It’s a wonderful place to live — and I’m glad not everyone wants to live here,” said Ms. Tarkleson, the postmaster, who said she and her husband love winter sports and spend much of their time outdoors.

If an emergency arises, she said, “the first thing we do is look at the sky and ask ourselves: Is it flyable?” If a plane cannot land, she said, you either find a fast lobster boat or just “hunker down.”

It is not an idle worry. There were two plane crashes here in 2011, one of them fatal: A Cessna pilot was killed when his plane hit a power line as he tried to land in high winds on Matinicus’s dirt airstrip. The winds cannot be tamed, and they dictate the flight schedule.

“They will twist your plane right around,” said Mike Falconeri, an Alaska bush pilot who works for Penobscot Island Air in the winter, ferrying passengers, mail and packages from Amazon to the islands.

Like the airline, the 75-foot vessel Sunbeam, which is operated year-round by the nonprofit group Maine Seacoast Mission, is seen as a lifeline, especially in winter. Often breaking the ice in the coves and harbors it visits, the Sunbeam provides a communal gathering place for islanders, who go aboard for meals and stay for the fellowship.

Ms. Daley has been the Sunbeam’s nurse for 17 years, and has built up relationships with many of the islanders.

She makes home visits on the islands and sees patients for routine procedures like flu shots. Using specialized equipment, she also conducts telemedicine sessions from the boat with doctors from the mainland, tackling physical ailments and mental health issues, including depression, addiction and even marriage counseling.

Douglas Cornman, another Sunbeam crew member, is the boat’s director of island outreach and its chaplain. He tries to combat the islanders’ feelings of isolation, publishing an anthology of their creative writing, counseling island students on the transition to mainland high schools, and officiating at weddings and funerals. Last summer, he presided over a renewal-of-vows ceremony for Kim and Gary Peabody, held on the deck of the Sunbeam at sunset.

Despite a tendency of visitors to romanticize island life, year-round residents reject any suggestion that it is simple.

“Anyone who thinks it’s simple is delusional,” said Natalie Ames, 48, who grew up on Matinicus. “If you don’t have the part to fix your kitchen sink, you don’t have the part. There’s an ocean between you and the mainland, and you have to plan ahead.”

Ms. Ames moved off the island when one of her children needed continuing medical care. But her partner still lobsters on Matinicus, and she said she was eager to rejoin him.

“I’m part of the island,” she said. “It pulls me back again and again.”

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