Frenchboro: Island of Fish + Forest
LOCATION FEATURE-July 2012
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
The night sky is black as a slate chalkboard. The blinds are open in the house where we’re staying on a hill above Lunt Harbor, and I can’t see anything in the tarry darkness. The spruce trees must be sheltering us from the gusts, but a wind is definitely blowing over the ocean. I fall asleep to sounds of a bell buoy ringing in a rhythm that’s almost like a passing train, one that never completely passes by.
We’re visiting Long Island in Frenchboro, which is far enough from the mainland that islands are the only landscapes and the sight of the ocean can be found at every turn. The town of Frenchboro encompasses 12 islands. Swan’s Island is in the near distance. We arrive on a Maine State Ferry ride of under an hour, and after the dark and windy night, we wake early to walk along the village roads past the houses, wharves, and lobster pounds that line the long, narrow harbor. About 70 people live year-round on the island, and there’s one church, one school, one library, and one museum.
Lunt Harbor partially splits the island, and fishing boats, dinghys, and pleasure yachts are moored on the water that looks like a snug shelter between the hills that rise on either side. But sometimes, “a nor’easter comes right up that harbor,” says David Lunt, a 74-year-old island native who operates the Lunt and Lunt Co. lobster pound that he began in 1951 with his father. Lean and sturdy, he looks tidy in a tucked-in, plaid flannel shirt and jeans. I know instantly that I want to listen when this seventh-generation islander talks, particularly when he’s talking about the weather. In the hours before we boarded the ferry, I heard reports that Hurricane Irene may make it to Maine in the coming days, but so far no one on the island seems alarmed.
David and his wife, Sandi Lunt, and their son Dean Lunt are our hosts for this trip—they make sure we have a place to stay at a house near theirs, and that we’re well fed with the likes of hot lobster stew and slices of still-warm-from-the-oven, homemade blueberry pie. Sandi talks me through a map of the island, and shows me her profusely growing vegetable garden that has been fenced in to thwart island deer. She and David built their house “room by room,” raised their family here, and they still cook lobsters and fish chowder at the dockside lobster pound. We eat together on picnic tables at their Lunt’s Dockside Deli. I’m told that boatloads of tourists often come for lunch, but on this visit we’re practically the only customers. It’s August, but school is back in session and summer is waning. Most of the families who rent houses in the summer or visit on day trips are long gone.
Several times during our stay, I see Sandi in the deli’s kitchen or on the porch of their house perched above the harbor. She gives a wave, smile, or both. She’s from Hall Quarry on Mount Desert Island, and the couple married in 1958—around the time that David wired the first small-scale telephone service on the island, which entailed hand-cranked phones and a party line for about ten houses. They now leave the island each year after Thanksgiving to travel—including a recent train trip in the mountains of Mexico—and then return in the spring. “I actually do miss the winters,” Sandi says.
Rugged with reddish hair, Dean owns Islandport Press, a Maine publishing company. He’s a former newspaper reporter, and he—literally—wrote the history of Frenchboro. Hauling by Hand is nearly 500 pages and two centuries worth of stories, photographs, and facts, including accounts of the long line of Lunts and other residents who have lived on the island since the 1820s. While we’re talking, Dean matter-of-factly points to a man steering a lobster boat into the harbor. “That’s my older brother,” he says. Dean grew up in Frenchboro and tells me he attended the Frenchboro School until seventh grade, when he left the island to attend a school that had enough students to field a baseball team. (The island school’s enrollment fluctuates, and is now at nearly a dozen students.) For Dean, returning to the island means returning to both family and the familiar—everyone knows him, and he still attends community meetings and events.
I learn bits of this recent and distant history slowly, over a couple of days, and often over a cardboard tray of steamed lobster at the Dockside Deli, which offers a well-positioned vantage point for watching boat traffic. From fishing boats to luxury yachts, every vessel that comes into the narrow harbor passes the Lunt docks. Dean and David recall many of the celebrity visitors who have visited, including Christopher Reeves, George Stephanopoulos, Lloyd Bentsen, Martha Stewart, Walter Cronkite, and Caspar “Cap” Weinberger. David Lunt informs me that they reopened the deli one day just to feed the former secretary of defense. Journalist Charles Kuralt reported from the island for his On the Road television series. Kuralt’s classic report focused on a curious chapter of the island life when, in an effort to keep the school open and the island vital, residents joined together to bring foster children into their homes. In the late 1960s, 15 children came to the island to live with families and attend school, and the foster children brought national media attention to Frenchboro.
The pace in Frenchboro is slow enough to notice things like the prevalence of pickup trucks and the differences that sunlight makes. Most residents seem to own and use trucks to get around. But as visitors, we’re always walking. Several times a day we set out and see the same harbor, village, and shoreline scenery, but the views seem fresh and new everytime we see them. One morning, the light seems edged with silver, while on another morning the sunshine burns away a fog, except where it clings in the deepest woods. We see few people, but I’m certain that the island residents have noted the strangers wandering around. We walk over to the Frenchboro Historical Society museum, which is in the same building as the town library. One room is dedicated to the seafaring and fishing history of the island, which has long been the lifeblood of Frenchboro. We gaze at a whale bone the size of chair, an undated newspaper clipping about lobster prices dropping to ten cents a pound, and a black and white photograph of men using seine nets to fish for herring.
Some two-thirds of Long Island—about 1,000 acres—is now protected from development by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. On what’s now the Frenchboro Preserve, roadways were cleared from the 1920s to 1940s, when trees were cut for timber operations that filled Lunt Harbor with floating logs. Gifts from David Rockefeller and others helped the Heritage Trust acquire the land and establish the preserve in 2000, including about ten miles of coastal trails that are open to the public. I’m told that since the purchase, some residents have, at times, had concerns and disagreements about the new rules of the preserve, including bans on ATV use, camping, and beach fires. Unless you lived here, it would be difficult to know the nuances and subtle politics of such policies, but what can’t be debated is the island’s natural beauty. Some of the paths are so soft and moss–covered that the forests look like a green-carpeted wonderland.
Dean goes with us to Eastern Beach and walks with us as we explore the island paths. I’ve never seen so many wild berries ripe at once—cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries. I’m told that gooseberries and huckleberries grow well here, too. We look across the water at sea ducks bobbing in the surf, at lobster boats passing by, and at the shores of Swan’s Island. At Gooseberry Point on the western shore (outside of the preserve), we come across a couple reading together on beige-pink rocks in the sunshine, with the forest behind them and sea spray splashing below. Dean picks some spiky “goose grass” from between the rocks and pops it in his mouth. “Residents boil and eat the naturally salty shore greens,” he says.
Later that day, we make our way back to the village and stop in again at the library. I have a chance meeting with Janet and Jim Miller, who tell me they have been visiting the island since 1967 and built a house here in 2000. As the summer pastor, Jim leads services at the church on Sundays in season, and says he has returned during the winter to officiate weddings at Christmas. Another resident we meet, Rob Stewart, is a bookseller who built a house overlooking the ocean in Frenchboro in 2002. He says he “fell in love with Frenchboro at the August lobster dinner.” Held every year since 1962 as a fundraiser for the Outer Long Island Congregational Church, the annual Frenchboro Lobster Festival happens in August and features food and music.
We pass a few platter-sized spider webs that remind me of Charlotte’s Web, and we stop in for something to drink at the Offshore Store at the head of the harbor—the only other island business that we see open during the trip. The simple building is about the size of a one-car garage, and there’s a human-sized, red plywood lobster silhouette leaning toward the door. Outside, four kids have been dashing about the mud flats carrying buckets. A little girl in pigtails who must be seven or eight years old calls out to us, “Would you like to see a crab fight? A real green crab fight?” I walk closer, and she explains that she and her friends have divided the live crabs into teams. She carefully lifts a few of the palm-sized crustaceans from the bucket and places them in the road, waiting for them to tussle. I watch a minute longer, but the crabs aren’t doing much of anything. The girl shrugs and smiles. And as we walk on, this island child stays crouched over her catch, as if she’s got all the time in the world. What a difference it must make to grow up away from carpools and crowds, surrounded by family, friends, and saltwater. I think about the girl again when we meet another young island resident on the dock. Fifteen-year-old Cody Lunt is a quiet one. I’d seen him waiting for the afternoon ferry. I introduce myself and ask what’s up. He points to his boat in the harbor—a 23-foot plywood skiff with a wheelhouse console and an engine that needs repair. In few words, he lets me know his disappointment. The engine needs a part from a marine store on Mount Desert Island, but it did not arrive on the day’s ferry. Cody continues to stand looking out over the harbor on an island where just about every adult male is a lobsterman. He wants to take out his boat and go lobster fishing, but he can’t, and you can feel his frustration. To be on his boat, he says, is “a freedom thing.” I later learn, from his relatives, that Cody has gone out lobster fishing in the boat for the past two summers, and that he works on the water solo.
By now, Hurricane Irene is looming nearer. The handful of visiting yachts and sailboats that we saw in the harbor when we arrived is already gone. We’re told that normal ferry service will be disrupted, so we’ll need to leave Frenchboro the next day. At dinner, the night before we depart, with melted butter and lobster shells still in front of us on a picnic table, we sit with some of the Lunt family past sunset. Sandi dishes up some fresh chocolate pie and whipped cream. I ask about an intermittent beam of light making a distant sweep across the sky. Dean tells me that it’s from the headlights of cars passing on a curve in the road on Cadillac Mountain. So close, but yet so far away. To return to the landing at Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, it will take another eight-mile boat ride threading through coastal islands. David Lunt will take us back in a sometimes heavy fog, expertly steering his blue and white lobster boat, the Sandi. Then he’ll return to Frenchboro, where he and his island neighbors are ready to ride out any weather, any storm.