A sunbathed, beach-shack-relaxing, sensory-underload weekend on Matinicus, 22 miles from the midcoast.
Ginger the yellow retriever is pushing on my elbow from the backseat of the four-seater Cessna. Her nose is wet and cold, and we’ve just met. The friendly dog hopped onto this Penobscot Island Air plane with a man who’s also flying out to Matinicus Island today from the Knox County Regional Airport on the peninsula of Owls Head, just south of downtown Rockland.
“She flies a lot,” the man tells me, “and she’ll nose you.”
It’s almost startling how brief the flight feels. This is my first trip to Maine’s most remote in- habited island, some 22 miles offshore. A few pats of the dog’s head, a look down at the mid- coast shoreline and the boats in the pale blue water below, and we’re already approaching the island’s landing strip, which is actually a multi-purpose stretch for airplanes, cars, and pedestri- ans. The landing strip is also part of an unpaved cross island road. At one end, the runway meets the open ocean; at the other, it continues past a barn and apple trees. And on either side is grass, a line of island cars, and then trees and a trailhead. The airfield’s only building is no larger than a backyard shed.
Once we roll to a stop, pilot Shawn Michaud helps photographer Peter Frank Edwards and me out with our bags, then boards the plane again for the return flight. The flight service is busy this weekend—we could hear radio calls coming through during the flight—and Michaud has passengers waiting for pickup on Vinalhaven next. While he turns the plane around and readies for takeoff, a waiting car picks up Ginger and her owner. After the sounds of both en- gines fade, there we are, just the two of us, out in the Gulf of Maine on the island of Matinicus.
We called ahead to arrange for car pickup too, but learned that the woman who operates the taxi service is on the mainland for a few days. Peter Frank was offered the use of another island car. I overheard part of the phone con- versation, and it went something like this:
“You seem like a pretty good guy. How many people?”
“You got a lot of stuff ?”
“OK. I’m going to make you a deal. I’m gonna trust you. The keys are under the mat. You can drive the car to the cottage, leave your gear, and drive it back. Leave me ten dollars under the seat.”
“Any other questions?” “Yes, how far is it?” “About a mile.”
The year-round population is about 74 people, and this is our first glimpse of the sharing systems and do-it-your- self mentality it takes be here.
Matinicus is a 720-acre island, and there are only a cou- ple of primary roads. How hard can it be to find a specific rental cottage near Markey’s Beach? We don’t see street signs, but the next person we meet is a woman in a truck who is kind enough to slow down to advise us to “turn left at the four corners” and “follow the road past Matinicus Harbor.” The cozy cove looks to be one of the truest fishing harbors I’ve ever seen—chock-full of moorings, lobster boats, bobbing skiffs, and docks trailing from the edges of rambling buildings with weathered shingles or painted in yellows, pinks, or greens. We park and walk along the largest pier to take in all of the maritime color and character for a few minutes. I hear music (a radio?) coming from one of the dock sheds across the water, and we watch a man in a plaid shirt row a skiff out to a fishing boat. Back at the car, I notice that my mobile phone has no reception, but I do have directions sent by the cottage owner when we booked the stay, which include instructions like “Take the Jeep trail up to the left slowly, nearly to the beach.”
On first pass we accidentally overshoot the driveway and end up a couple hundred yards farther, where the road ends at a sandy curve with tall trees and a tumble of stones at one end and woods in the distance at the oth- er. No one else is about. So, this is Markey’s Beach. All we have to do is back up to find the shingled house with a red roof that we’ve been looking for.
I’m the first to push open the door and look around: there are windows along most of the ocean-facing wall, and be- yond that, all I see is ocean. Peter Frank’s still walking up from the car, and I call back over my shoulder, “Hurry!”
Except for two rear bedrooms, the seasonal cottage is essentially one oceanfront room with a kitchen, dining area, sitting area, and a larger bedroom with a queen-sized bed. It’s outfitted with midcentury wooden furniture, a tabletop spotting scope, land- line telephone, books, a radio, and original art on the walls. Nothing fancy here, but what more could you need? I notice an outhouse in the yard, and there’s a shower and an incinerator toilet in a separate room on the porch outside the rear door. That porch ex- tends even farther toward the water’s edge and over- looks an arc of rocks that’s created a private little cove sheltering the shoreline. Looking northward, I can see the tumble of rocks that edge Markey’s Beach, just beyond a second rental cottage.
We unpack a few groceries and set out to return the car to the airstrip and continue island exploring. The June-to-August summer season is just past, and we’ve been noticing fewer people than flowers in bloom—including hydrangeas and verbena—and trees growing wildly with apples. In the pages of cot- tage guest info, I read that most of the island is not fenced and is open for walking along its many paths. From the airport, we follow a trail to Northeast Point and pick a couple of (knobby and tart) apples along the way. We see the recycling center, school, and a few lazily grazing cows near a bulletin board with a notice about fresh milk and eggs for sale. And we stop by the tiny island library where books are lent on the honor system.
Seaside Dinner Party
Surrounded by so much island solitude, when the house phone rings, at first I don’t recognize the sound. Cyndie Katz is on the line inviting us to a dinner party at the next cottage down the shoreline. (Both are owned by Cyndie and her husband, Geoff Katz.) Earlier we heard a saw buzzing and some hammering. We realize now that must have been Geoff who was making repairs in the warm sunshine before the late fall and wintertime ahead. We walk over with a few beers to share, and he greets us in a tur- tleneck, blue jeans, and bare feet—a bohemian sort. Over drinks, we learn that many of the portrait paintings and island scenes I’ve been looking at in our cottage were painted by Cyndie. The two other dinner guests are also artists: Kathleen Colton designs and sews silk velvet scarves, and Maury Colton is a painter. He’s been coming to the island since the 1980s and for years did plas- terwork and painting in Manhattan, “from the Upper West Side to the Bowery.” (The next day we stop by the Coltons’ house and Maury’s painting studio, which is surrounded by a yard of blooming flowers and woods at the perimeter.)
The day’s light is fading over the ocean while the six of us share a dinner of lobster, homemade pizza, and warm applesauce made from island fruit. I have island questions to ask. Is that the diesel generator I hear by the harbor? Yes. Why do we keep seeing piles of lobster shells in the road? When crushed by passing cars, it’s a good way to build up the roadbed. And I’m curious about who else books the rentals, especially since there are no hotels on the island. Geoff recalls a few guests: the New York artist dressed in black with black suitcases and a black dog and the Kansas or- ganist and his bride who visited for their honeymoon, “staying in their pajamas all day looking at the ocean.” (“They’d never seen it before.”) And he’s just booked an oncology nutritionist for a five-day stay, he reports. “She tells me she’s coming to write a book.”
The Matinicus connection has been pivotal in their lives, they tell us. Along with fixing up and maintaining the island cottages, the Katz duo, who are from New Hampshire, have raised their family spending part of each year here. Their youngest daughter is now in her 20s, the same age as Geoff was when he first rambled around this island in summertime.
Over the Moon
At 2:30 in the morning, I’m up and walking out onto the deck to look up at the sky. Waves are rolling in softly, and I am seeing a planetarium view. Better. The galaxy of stars over the dark ocean’s surface appears bigger and brighter than I’ve ever seen. Oh starry, full-moon night. I’m mesmerized, particularly by a twinkling bluish-red orb. I go in to look again through the spotting scope that’s on a stand at the dining table. Earlier we’d aimed it at the full moon rising. “It looks so close,” I’d said to Peter Frank. I could see every crater, study them and count them like never before.
Over the next two days we soak up as much of Matinicus as we can, walking the main road that tracks the middle island like a spine. We sit for a picnic on the horse-shaped South Sandy Beach. A plane flies directly overhead and lands on Ragged Island, also known as Criehaven, just across the water—a much smaller island with a summer colony but no year-round residents. We meet some island children who want to show us a treehouse they’ve built, and we stop by the former Tuckanuck Lodge, which the longtime innkeeper, Bill Hoadley, 80, still uses as his year-round home. He’s lived on other islands, including Nantucket and Peaks down near Portland, but Matinicus is where he’ll stay, he tells us. Already the eldest man on the island, spry, suntanned Hoadley, who once self-published a novel set on the island, titled Adonis, says he aims to match or exceed his great-grandfather’s final age of 99. His secret? Walk- ing everywhere, and some ocean swimming, too.
The shells in the road have us thinking of lobster again. We call Clayton Philbrook from the phone list at the cottage to see about getting a couple of lobsters for dinner, and the lobsterman delivers them to our door in less than 15 minutes, with his dog, Yoda, tagging along. We prod him for some stories, too, and he seems hap- py to oblige. Philbrook’s family has been on the island since 1826, and he works 700 traps on his boat Samantha J. He says he also fishes for halibut in the spring to freeze for meals later. He remembers when the die- sel generator that creates the island’s electricity was only on for part of each day, and during the downtime he found a love of reading, especially mysteries. “And I learned to row about the time I learned to ride a bicy- cle,” he tells us, extolling the virtues of wooden skiffs. Philbrook says he’ll build a new skiff some years “for something to do in the winter,” and because they’re reliable. “The oars always start.”
On our final night on the island, I wake often to watch the sky, and I jot details in my notebook so I can keep as much of the memory intact as possible. At 4:55 a.m. the light starts, horizon to horizon, and by 5:30 I see a bright star that I imagine could be Mars, followed by red-orange sunlight in a deep-hued stripe at the horizon, staining the water. By 6:15, a giant warm egg yolk of sun is just above the sprawling sur- face of the Atlantic.
The cottage is still bathed in light when I have to pack up my notebook and everything else so we can walk back to the airstrip. Cyndi and Geoff Katz join us to wait and wave until the return flight takes off. As the island’s long, leaf-like shape becomes more distant and the seawater more wide, I’m already missing the warmth and glow of those morning sunbeams, and the gentle pace of oceanfront days on Matinicus.