Lobstering on the Edge
FEATURE- July 2011
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
A few days on Monhegan, ten miles out to sea.
I’ve been looking at a 1959 National Geographic article with 14 pages of black-and-white images of Monhegan Island and captions describing how Monhegan “makes its living trapping the armor-plated delicacies of the deep.” Lobsters! I’ve visited the island before, during the summer, to hike in the woods and on the cliffside trails, but the stark scenes and images of boats and fishermen by twentieth-century Maine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa (1914–1961) make me want to return—now—and see what’s still to be found of the lobstering life.
So on a Friday morning at the end of April, just before the daily ferry trips from Port Clyde to Monhegan Island will begin for the season, we board the Laura B for the ten-and-a-half mile, hourlong crossing. Summer crowds have not yet arrived, and the passenger list, including us, consists of ten people, three dogs, and a lineup of freight to be hoisted onto the deck and tied down for the crossing. I see vintage blue- painted dining chairs, a sewing machine in its case, stacks of exterior siding, and a couple fifty-pound bags of chicken feed.
In a jacket and blue jeans, Tara Hire is sitting on one of the ferry’s outside benches that morning, and we talk a bit. She manages the island’s only grocery and mentions that she’s been onshore for three days. I ask who’s been running the store, and she tells me that the door is unlocked in the off-season and she leaves a notepad for her customers to record their purchases in. “It kind of runs itself,” she says. I would get to know that system over the following three days and nights. Hire says that she will introduce me to her husband, Kole Lord, a carpenter and seventh-generation lobsterman who was raised on the island. This is a good start. I can already see Monhegan in the distance, its rocky shore rising from the ocean. We’re getting closer. If an island can be said to have charisma, this one certainly does. In addition to photographers, writers, and vacationers, Monhegan is famous for attracting painters, including the likes of Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and the Wyeths. The sea- ward cliffs are said to be higher than any in New England, and the village faces a snug harbor that is bracketed by the much smaller island of Manana. Even the Monhegan name is enticing, said to be drawn from a Native American term for “island in the sea.”
On that April morning—while the rest of the world watches the royal wedding unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic—the 1940s-built Laura B finally chugs up to the Monhegan wharf. We all walk ashore and into a buzz of trucks with tailgates open for loading, and people hug friends they haven’t seen in a while. It’s a tight community—the island is just one-and-a-half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. Within minutes Hire introduces us to Lord, who’s tall and has a ready smile and a John Deere cap pulled on tight. He’s heard that I’m interested in lobsters, and he invites us to go out on his lobster boat that afternoon, when he and his cousin will be pulling traps. We make plans to meet later, and then we slide into the cab of a truck alongside Barbara Hitchcock, who’s headed up the unpaved roads to the Hitchcock House. She’s got five accommodations there— bedrooms, apartments, and a studio cabin— and we check into a two-room efficiency that overlooks the town and harbor. Sunshine has burned away the morning fog, and I step out onto the Hitchcock’s deck and breathe in the salt air.
Before long, we walk back down to the wharf. It’s the yellow season of daffodils, forsythia, and fat buds ready to leaf out from the trees and shrubs. Birds are flitting about everywhere. I see Captain Kole on the deck of the Barbara Jean, the harbor’s only boat with a red-painted hull, and in a few minutes he motors over to retrieve us. Chris Rollins, who I’m told later is “the strongest man on the island,” extends an arm to get us aboard the tidy wooden Willis Beal boat. It’s a Beals Island craft from 1981, and Lord says he’s honored to have her. Rollins, another Monhegan native, is the sternman on this trip, while Lord takes the captain’s wheel. They are both outfitted in rubber boots, overalls, and gloves, ready to start pulling the 120 or so pots around the island that they had previously dropped to the rocky ocean bottom. There are about ten other lobster boats working out of Monhegan this year, and Lord explains that each permit holder is allowed up to 300 traps in the two- to three-mile conservation zone around the island. “It takes a long time to get to know the bottom here,” the young captain says, watching the water’s surface. “There’s a wicked learning curve.”
When he sees one of his black-and-white- painted buoys, Captain Kole pulls the boat alongside, gaffs it, and threads the line through a pot-hauler system—pulleys and an electric motor—to hoist each trap aboard. “They’re good and greasy,” he calls out over the chugging of the engine, and the line flies through, with the black-green slime of seaweed spattering. In the first trap are two lobsters of keeping size, their blue and orange shells gleaming and claws snapping. (No matter how many times I see the vivid colors of fish and shellfish right out of the water, I’m amazed.) Lord places each lobster into one of the compartments of a wooden cull box and double-checks the body length— measuring from eye socket to tail with a fixed gauge—before Rollins bands the claws of the keepers and tosses them into a water- filled barrel. The men soon get a rhythm going. Rollins has hot seawater steaming in another barrel on the open deck, and he uses it to soak and scrub the sea slime from the lines and buoys. Then he baits the traps with whole sardines in a mesh bag and tosses the pots back in the water. For a while, the catch is often two or three per trap.
The two cousins work like old pros. But on an island where some men have been lobster fishing for three and four decades, Lord, in his mid-thirties, is relatively new to the profession—he began as a sternman in 2005. “I thought I’d be a millionaire from lobstering,” he says, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, he’s like a lot of men and women on the island: a jack-of-all-trades who takes on various other jobs throughout the year, including carpentry work and installing septic systems for island homes. Rollins also builds rock walls (he points out a few on shore) and sometimes sells his paintings of island scenery—he studied painting with artist Ted Tihansky.
There are some good swells on the eastern, open-ocean side of the island. With the roll of waves, the smell of engine fuel, and the steaming pot of seawater and rope slime, I start to feel a little green, so I go sit on the back deck for awhile to get some fresh air. Plus, from there I get a better look at the island. Meanwhile, Rollins is dealing with the lobsters and gear and telling island stories, like the one about a young guy who was working at one of the inns a couple summers ago and who stood too far out on the cliffs, within reach of the sea spray. The story goes that, as friends watched, a rogue wave rose up and washed him out into the froth of the sea. Someone called 911, and every boat in the harbor headed out to rescue him. Rollins says that, by the time someone got to the young man and fished him out, he had pulled off all his clothes to stay afloat—and that may be what saved him. Supposedly, the guy was back hauling luggage within a couple of hours.
With more sea stories and lobstering on the Barbara Jean, we make it completely around the island that afternoon. All the while, the guys are hauling in the traps while pointing out island features such as the 150-foot cliffs of Black Head and the seal ledges near Washerwoman Rock. Dozens of seals are lying in the sun, their coats in shades of silver-gray, burnt red, and slate black. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. With so few people around, the wildness of the island fills the water, land, and sky. Overhead and along the shore, we see merlins, a northern harrier, a bald eagle, and plenty of gulls and eiders. I consider the tenacity of these animals, and of the people who live here year-round.
By the time we return to the wharf, dozens of lobsters fill the tank. The men put a few in a bucket for us, and Lord recommends that we boil the lobsters well and make sure we have apple cider vinegar for dipping. I like to sop my lobster in melted butter, getting good and messy while eating. I’ve never tried it with vinegar, but the captain is convincing. He says vinegar brings out the lobster flavor instead of masking it. Another islander we meet says he thinks the tradition dates back to when people couldn’t get milk and dairy products so easily. “But people were always canning,” he said. “They always had vinegar.”
I like this kind of scrappiness, and pick up both a stick of butter and a bottle of vinegar from Carina, the pink-painted, wooden- floored grocery shop that Hire runs. I jot the purchases on the legal pad that’s sitting on the counter before we hike up the hill to the Hitchcock House with our share of the day’s catch. Our room has a four-burner gas stove, and earlier I’d noticed a steamer pot on the top shelf of the coat closet. Yet since the sunlight was just taking on its evening softness, we decide to take a hike before dinner to the cliffs at Burnt Head and have a look at the ocean crashing onto the rocky shore some 140 feet below. While sitting there, I can see no airplanes overhead, hear no cars, and, even squinting, I can’t make out lights or buildings in the distance. From the eastern shore of Monhegan, there’s only open, wild ocean. That night and the next two, we share at least one lobster, along with dishes of melted butter and, of course, cider vinegar. The remainder of the weekend fills out easily: taking morning and afternoon hikes to coves and lookouts and through the tall trees of the Cathedral Woods; meeting Chris Rollins at Fish Beach to watch him begin a harbor painting as the sun falls behind Manana; stopping in at the library to sit in the handsome, wood-walled rooms and flip through its collection of books on Monhegan; and seeing residents plant flower and vegetable gardens and open doors and windows as they air out, repair, and ready the inns, shops, and businesses that will open for summer in a few weeks.
Since walking is how everyone typically gets around, you eventually end up seeing, if not meeting, many of the people who are on the island. That’s how I get to discuss Monhegan’s art and history with Jenn Pye, the curator at the Monhegan Museum up on Lighthouse Hill, whose husband is also a lobsterman. This summer’s special exhibition is a collection of paintings of John Hultberg (1922–2005), whose subjects included Monhegan. Pye and I also talk about how the island’s year-round population has dropped in recent years from more than sixty to around forty last winter. Yet she and her husband plan to raise their family on Monhegan—they have a new baby, and their preschool-aged daughter is one of three students at the island’s school. I also get the chance to talk about the precarious life of lobstering with Dougie Boynton, who’s been lobster fishing from Monhegan for more than thirty years. He’s seen a lot. Five times, he’s had to pull people out of the ocean to save them, most often when a skiff capsizes in the harbor or rolls over on the beach when the captain or crew is rowing in. His own brush with the sea happened on the island itself, when a storm’s sudden wave rushed up Swim Beach while he was trying to save his truck; he was trapped half in and half out of the vehicle in the rush of water as it washed him across the road. The danger was over in seconds. That’s lucky, he says, because “What a dumb way that would have been to die.” Boynton wants to keep lobstering as long as he can. “It’s so much more exciting out on the water,” he explains. “Living your life around the weather and the intensity of fishing.”
The next day, as the Laura B pushes off toward Port Clyde, we’re on board. The days seem to have gone by both quickly and slowly. I look back at the island and think of Captain Dougie, Captain Kole, Chris, Tara, Jenn, Barbara, and others. I’m also reminded of that National Geographic story from the 1950s. On this trip, I saw evidence of most of the elements in those black-and-white images of fishermen, boats, and island scenery. But in person Monhegan’s raw beauty is much richer, and you can taste the sweet lobster and smell the spruce. I have a feeling that most of what I remember from this weekend visit to the remote, lobstering island will stay in my mind in full, bold color.