North Haven: A City Girl Soaks Up the Last of Summer
By Laura Serino
Photographs by Trent Bell
Fried food, wooden boats, bonfires on the beach
North Haven, one of Maine’s 15 year-round island communities, has 381 residents, one grocery store, one gas pump, and lots of deer. In May, Laura Serino left Starbucks, subways, and her studio apartment in New York City to live on the island. Now, she brews her own coffee, rows around in skiffs, and lives in a home heated with
a wood stove. Summer is almost over. The evenings have turned cool. I’m told by islanders that there will be snow on the ground in no time. Are they serious? I unpack my fleece jacket just in case.
I’m leaving soon, but I’m not quite ready to say good-bye to this place. Before I move back to the mainland, North Haven deserves a proper farewell. I set my alarm clock for 5 a.m. and vow to soak up the last of summer.
It’s still dark, and quiet too. In the summer, when the island’s population triples, the early morning is the only time for real quiet. And it is so still and so quiet, except for the sounds of diesel engines and seagulls as fishermen go about their mornings.
I hitch a ride to the North Haven Grocery. Outside the store is a bevy of pickups: a rusty orange Ford and a few glistening GMCs. I head indoors to get a cup of coffee. Tania, the cashier, looks shocked to see me before 3 p.m., but she smiles and nods politely.
Before the morning rush, the store’s three aisles are all in order. The store is for everybody—summer people, year-round people, everybody. There is fresh produce from Turner Farm near the South shore of the island, Groff’s bologna sticks by the dozen, and fragrant cinnamon buns baked by Little Urchin Bakery.
Island lobstermen stand around in stained jeans and ripped T-shirts, scratching scratch tickets and pouring heaping scoops of sugar into their cups of coffee. I eavesdrop on the fisherman banter.
“Some of the freshest bait I’d ever seen…”
“Price per pound’s about the same over in Stonington, I hear.”
“Hey,” I say to one of the lobstermen, “I thought you guys wore yellow oil-skins.”
“Only when we’re out there on the boat, girly,” he says. “They’re too hot for land.”
I’m embarrassed by my lack of knowledge and decide not to inquire about the way lobster traps stay underwater. They look buoyant to me.
Heading down Pulpit Harbor Road, I walk by a cemetery and wave hello to a pickup as it flies by. It’s a necessary part of island etiquette: you must wave, nod, or flash a peace sign at any person or vehicle that passes. To not signal back is to snub island decorum.
I walk down the ramp to the Pulpit Harbor float. Lobstermen pile into skiffs with mini-coolers and jugs of water. My friend Alex, a sternman, offers me a ride out into the harbor.
Alex works the oars of his boat. Tall spruce trees flank both sides of the harbor. Every once
in awhile, a waterfront cottage comes into view. A white, shingled place is my favorite. It has a wraparound porch with a light blue ceiling, a bunch of hanging flowerpots, and a guesthouse one tenth the size of the big house but otherwise identical. Upstairs, a lady watches us with binoculars from her perch in a large bay window. I wave and she waves back.
We dock in a marshy area at the end of Mill Stream. The water is freezing, but feeling brave, I dive in. I paddle a little, expecting the water to warm up, but it doesn’t. It feels therapeutic, as if it’s washing what’s left of Manhattan off of my body. Alex is still tip-toeing into the water. “Are you crazy? It’s as cold as a whore’s heart!” he says. I climb back into the boat—proud that I beat a Mainer into the water. We pull the oars into the boat and drift. We lay back and let the sun dry us off as it rises against the cotton-ball clouds.
Back on shore, we make our way down Main Street toward town. The road is dotted with the homes of islanders, some run-down, some shipshape, all very lived-in. They’re spaced much closer together than summer homes, and many of the yards are cluttered with buoys and busted traps. These things remind me that North Haven is a fishing community where generations have made their living from the land and water, where church suppers may be cod suppers, where boats are named for wives and children, where even toddlers use words like “barnacle” and “outboard.”
I wave to a summer family on scooters. They are all wearing Boston Red Sox T-shirts. The prevalence of such paraphernalia is still something I’m getting used to. I miss those blue and white pinstripes. I stop at the town’s signpost where Church Street and Main Street connect. The wooden telephone pole is covered with event fliers advertising this happening and that happening—the farmers’ market, a film screening, yoga classes, the School of Fish preschool. Most are hand-drawn, beat up and busted from this summer’s weather—rain, sun, and more rain.
The North Haven Gift Shop is a former general store. Small drawers line the walls and built-in shelves reach to the ceiling. I overhear some customers telling June Hopkins, the 85-year-old owner, how good the place smells. “It’s the pine soap,” she says. Summer folk come in to get their fill of balsam fir pillows and wooden buoy necklaces. Hopkins lights up when she sees me. She moves with the grace and pace of a young girl. I know June. I watch the store every Thursday while she takes her weekly trip to Rockland. I like her company and relish her stories.
Attached to June’s shop is the North Haven Gallery. The exhibitions change weekly. Today the shelves are lined with small bowls of pottery and paintings of birds. Artist Ann McClellan sits in a vintage Eames rocker. She tries to describe to me which house is hers on the island. “It’s got a god-awful shed that my husband built,” she says. “He painted the roof red with a can of paint he found at the dump.”
Just up the street from Hopkins’s place is Waterman’s Community Center. The front door opens into the coffee shop. I help myself to a cup of Rock City coffee and a chocolate donut. The chalkboard behind the counter advertises a Thursday night concert and wine tasting. Each table is topped with Mason jars filled with wildflowers that volunteers pick each week. A few teenagers shout in the corner, playing a game of Apples to Apples. Another kid shouts for a Ping-Pong rematch. I feel like I am at the center of the island’s chaos and community.
This summer, the community center stage hosted a contemporary dance troupe from New York, several plays, and The Toughcats, local boys who performed with Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show to a packed house. A retired regular asks me why I’m not behind the counter. (Naturally, I work here too.) I tell him I’m writing a story about the island. He suggests that I mention that the ferry tickets have gone up in price. They’ve gone up $1.25. “You’ve got to pay almost $10 just to get groceries in Rockland!”
H. J. Blake’s Restaurant, the little lunch place across the street, serves snacks and seafood either to go or to eat on their big outdoor deck. I head inside for a post-donut snack. I’m torn between the crabby roll or a to-go container of peanut noodles. I leave with a scoop of blueberry ice cream instead. Blake’s marks the edge of downtown.
“Look! Look!” Two young boys carrying pails of sea urchins tell me there’s a blue lobster at Brown’s boatyard. The lobster could be a candidate for the Eighth Wonder of the World. I head toward Brown’s—a giant red-shingled garage with a wharf that leads directly to the bay. The float is busy with Vinalhaveners just off a navy schooner. I pet Jake, one of the boatyard dogs, and walk down to the live lobster tank. I peer in. The single blue lobby is more sky blue than he is ocean blue. Nearby, two men discuss a boat that went down in Pulpit Harbor. How could I miss such a tasty tidbit of island gossip?
“How did it happen?” I say.
“The guy was too busy fiddling with his GPS in the fog,” says one of the men, the guy with the beard. “He drove straight up a big rock. And that’s all she wrote.”
I walk home on Mullins Lane and pass Nebo Lodge, the only B&B on the island. I make a mental note to have another Sternman’s Pleasure before I leave for good. It’s Mt. Gay Rum, tonic, and lime. Two different cars offer me a ride. I assure them I live only moments away and wave them on, happy that I would have had the option if I needed it.
It’s late afternoon but still hot. All I want to do is sit on a beach. I grab my Raleigh and pedal down Crabtree Point to my favorite spot on the island—Tartank Beach. The beach’s nickname is literal: a cement cradle that once held full tanks of tar still stands there. An early morning motorcycle ride to this beach with a very handsome lobsterman remains one of my favorite memories from my first trip here.
The beach is empty. I walk down the rocky edge, slip off my Havaianas, and head straight for the water. The bay is completely calm. A few sailboats cut across the horizon. I perch myself on a piece of driftwood. The rocky beach sparkles from broken pieces of glass and pottery. I let my thoughts wander and I think of my best friend, Amanda, who first introduced me to the island, and to this beach. I wish she were here with me, warning me to stop dressing “so city,” afraid that I might stick out. I hear the beep of a moped and realize I’ve been discovered. It’s friends from the island. We make plans to meet up later in the evening for a bonfire at Big Beach. I stash a few pieces of blue sea glass in my pocket and cruise home.
My stomach tells me it’s time for dinner. I’m still a Manhattanite at heart, so it feels natural to order takeout from Brown’s Coal Wharf. I’m in need of a fried feast, and so I order the popcorn shrimp, haddock fish and chips, and sweet potato fries.
Alex, the sternman, drives me down to the boatyard, where the restaurant juts out over the water, and the dining room windows let in the colors of the sunset. I pull out my wallet to pay for the food and I hear a familiar voice behind me. I turn around. It’s Billy Bush, the correspondent for Access Hollywood. He’s picking up dinner as well. Stay calm, I tell myself. What’s happened to that New York sensibility of acting nonchalant in the presence of celebs? Surely I’ve lost it. I rush past him before I make a bad Nancy O’Dell joke.
Back home, Alex and I drink beer and polish off the fried stuff in record time. Just as we finish, our friends in their big silver pickup are beeping the horn outside, ready to whisk us off to Big Beach.
There’s something about sitting in the back of a pickup in the dark, my hair whipping in the wind, dirt spraying up as we hit bump after bump. I miss the subways but this ride could lull me to sleep too. The narrow unpaved road dead-ends at the beach.
A few other cars are at the beach. It smells like someone is grilling a steak. The beach is vast and desolate. An osprey flies overhead. I sit down in the sand. Several guys head off in different directions and return with branches that look like small trees. A fire is lit. I warm by the flames and watch the light flicker on my friend’s faces as they reminisce about high school, when beach bonfires were a nightly ritual. We talk about the fall. I am glad I’ll be here for some of it. The crowds will leave and the parking spaces in town will be available again.
Daydreaming about cider presses and flannel shirts, I realize that I have unfinished business.
“This might be a dumb question,” I whisper to Alex, hoping the rest of the group won’t hear, “but how do lobster traps stay underwater?” He looks at me quizzically and asks if I’ve ever noticed the bricks in the trap—or how heavy they are to lift, for that matter. I laugh at myself, but at least now I know the answer.