From Stonington on Deer Isle, Isle au Haut with boat-woman and author Linda Greenlaw, off we go.
Since first rounding the curve on Thurlows Hill Road to the harbor, the town of Stonington has been, to me, like a beating heart of Maine—a timeless, ocean-air, rocky-coast vision, where the tides give rhythm to every day, even when the saltwater surface is glassy calm. Hills of granite ledge and spruce trees rise from a harbor speckled with boats and smaller islands, stretching to the horizon. To get here requires a purposeful haul. We follow the two-lane roads down the Blue Hill Peninsula and across the tall Deer Isle Bridge, Eggemoggin Reach, and the winding causeway. A 40-mile drive never took so long. Then, once we’re snug in Stonington for a weekend, we go about seven miles further on the mail boat, threading between the dozens of islands dotting Penobscot Bay to Isle au Haut.
Miss Lizzie, built in 1967, is the ferry boat we’re waiting to board. For decades she’s been the workhorse transport for mail and passengers to Isle au Haut. We’re on the wharves at Stonington Harbor and the sun hasn’t been up for long, but the town is awake. On these docks beside a former sardine cannery and on nearby Main Street, behind the tall plate glass windows at the open-early Harbor Cafe and 44 North Coffee, the brewing and conversations are on.
“Those boys don’t mind spending a few dollars on tires,” I hear another waiting pas- senger say, nodding toward the pavement. Stonington is the principal town on Deer Isle, the remote island at the end of the Blue Hill Peninsula known for its fishing and lobstering, granite quarries, and arts culture—and traditions like the S-curves of tire marks left on roadways by peeling out and spinning tires until they burn. (There was a documentary film, Tire Tracks, released a few years ago about that particular Deer Isle pastime.)
In the morning sunlight and the hum of the ferry engine we meet commercial fishing boat captain and bestselling author Linda Greenlaw. She’s waiting for the 40-minute passage to Isle au Haut, too, on these docks that overlook the lobster boats, sailboats, and dinghies moored all across the harbor.
Good for Writing
These are not big places, in land size or population. Stonington has a population of 1,043, Isle au Haut only 73, yet Linda Green- law is big-time as writers go. Her writing overlaps with her remarkable career in commercial fishing. Born in Connecticut and raised in Topsham with summers on Isle au Haut, the Colby College grad chose the uncommon path, especially for a woman, to be a swordfish boat captain. She’s the first and only female in the Grand Banks fleet, and she gained celebrity status when she was featured in Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm and portrayed by actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the movie version that followed.
Greenlaw continues to write and fish, and her own books include three that have earned rankings on The New York Times bestseller lists: The Hungry Ocean in 1999, The Lobster Chronicles in 2002, and All Fishermen Are Liars in 2004. She has also been featured on a Discovery Channel series about swordfishing. But today, Greenlaw is simply another person returning to the island she’s known well since she was a child. A few years ago, she built a home there not far from her parents, Martha and James Greenlaw.
As the ferry motors up to the Isle au Haut town dock, Greenlaw points out a lobster boat with a blue hull and smiles. “She’s a good one,” she says of the Mattie Belle, the lobster boat named for her grandmother, who was born on the island. It’s Greenlaw’s former lobster boat, one she used for about a decade; her father worked with her as sternman.
Greenlaw’s life is one of boats and islands. Her husband is Surry-based boat builder Stephen Wessel, who is also along for this weekend trip. The two offer to show us around the 6,900-acre island, of which close to half is conserved as part of Acadia National Park’s Duck Harbor. Luckily, Greenlaw keeps a vehicle parked near the landing for getting around the 14-plus miles of often-rough roads.
We all hop in the couple’s latest “island car,” a big SUV, and Wessel takes the wheel. On land, on this day, Greenlaw isn’t in the role of captain. Instead she’s relaxed and pointing out landmarks—the one-room schoolhouse for up to eighth graders (she says there are two students enrolled this year, and when we peek in a window, I see two laptop computers on desks and a large world map posted on the wall); the hilltop Union Congregational Church with its tall steeple, the site of Greenlaw and Wessel’s wedding in 2012; a town hall that doubles as a gymnasium; a lighthouse keeper’s house converted to the island’s only inn; roads and pathways lined with trees that lead to rocky points and her favorite water views; and a tiny, shed-sized post office with its own zip code (04645). We stop there long enough for Greenlaw to pull open the door to the lit- tle building and check her own box and say there’s something particularly satisfying about receiving mail at this island outpost. Then she adds something that every writer understands, “Even more so when it’s an envelope with a royalty check inside.”
As a kid, Greenlaw says, she’d “bicycle around the island and bum food from relatives.” There would be ice skating in winter, and she remembers kids gathering for a softball or basketball game every night in summer. These days, Greenlaw splits time between Surry and Isle au Haut, and does much of her fishing in the summer and her writing in the winter. She’s written a series of mystery novels and she’s com- piled two cookbooks with her mother. The island is a good place to write, Greenlaw says. The routine of hauling lobster traps is good for writing. And when she stays at her house on-island, friends and family know not to call or come by before noon because she typically writes for several hours each morning.
As a final stop on the island, we visit the Isle au Haut house owned by Linda’s parents, who have been married nearly 60 years. With an easygoing warmth, Martha and James Greenlaw invite us to look at the water view and to climb the impressive, curved wooden staircase in their ocean-facing living room with two-story tall windows. Daylight fills the space,and along the white-painted walls there are shelves of books and framed family photos. “I can help with that,” Linda offers when her mother begins cooking a dish to bring to a baby shower being held that afternoon in the town hall. Together, mother and daughter make a macaroni casserole tossed with red peppers and spinach that wilts in the hot cheese. It’s as if one of their island cookbooks has come to life.
We bid the Greenlaw clan farewell at the late afternoon ferry and return to Stonington, watching the town’s 1800s architecture come closer. From the ferry I can see the tall Opera House Arts building, where the night before we watched a Kate Winslet movie in the almost-full community theater.
For this trip, we’re staying at the ce- dar-shingled Boyce’s Motel, which has tidy, simple rooms and vibrant flowers in window boxes lining Main Street. The harbor is across the street, everything downtown is in walking distance, and in the morning we have time to explore. Inside 44 North Coffee, songs by Shakey Graves and Otis Redding play from a vintage receiver and sound system. This is the second location of a coffee roastery founded a half-dozen years ago by Deer Isle entrepreneurs Melissa Raftery and Megan Wood. I order a pour-over coffee, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, which demands some early-morning patience while the hot water is streamed over coffee grounds into a cone filter and drips brewed coffee slowly into a canning jar that will be my cup. Customers choose the brew method here, and the next woman who orders asks for a “fast” coffee, and then joins the other customers sitting on wooden stools by the tall, sea-facing windows. We’re practically close enough to hear the diesel engines of fishing boats, and I imagine Stonington’s lobstermen and women out there with their own thermoses of hot coffee, too.
A few blocks away at Marlinespike Chan- dlery, Timothy Whitten is crafting fancy nautical ropework in one of the Main Street buildings perched literally at the harbor’s edge. Here he weaves rope into intricate arrangements for bow fenders on boats, the handles of wooden sea chests, lanyards, pulls for bells, and, simply, art. His shop smells of pine tar, which he uses to coat the knotted rope, and also includes maritime antiques and local art. It’s fascinating just to look around, and I purchase a braided nautical bracelet that attaches with a brass shackle. I’ve worn it ever since.
At lunchtime, there’s more artistry in the bakery and bistro at Water’s Edge Wines, owned by Bette and Ken Kral. The Krals’ daughter, Kimmy, is the pastry chef and she bakes baguettes, bagels, brioche rolls, cookies, and pies (fruit and savory). It’s her bread that’s used for the sandwiches on the changing weekly menu, such as the chicken banh mi and the grilled cheese made with brie, provolone, and red onion marmalade. It’s a remarkable menu and wine inventory. The family stocks some 300 wines, and the year-round shop also hosts special dinners, cheese and char- cuterie nights, and wine and craft beer tastings. Even after the summer crowds depart Stonington, “we hang on through the winter,” says Bette Kral.
In the moodiness of an on-and-off rainy day, the sky above Stonington looks like an extension of a frothy-white ocean. We get in the car and continue exploring Stonington and Deer Isle. After parking at the Barred Island Preserve, we follow the short woodland trail to the shore. Over the waves and water, the clouds are layering the sky like cotton batting. Then at Clam Factory Gifts, we walk through a ram- bling wooden structure built along Burnt Cove (on Fifield Road) that’s chockfull of handmade gifts and Christmas ornaments, art and vintage photos. The whole place is a blast from the past. Owner Sally Mach explains that every gift is made at the shop. She knits the mittens and paints the holiday decorations herself, and her son and daughter create photo prints and cards. I buy postcards and a hand-painted mussel shell ornament and walk outside for one more look at how the building is perched on wharves above the tidal cove. Mach says the structure was purchased by her grandfather and really did function as a clam cannery through the 1920s.
Before it’s time to leave Deer Isle and head home, we make one more stop, at Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies on Sunshine Road. Beyond offering jellies, marmalades, and chutneys to taste and buy, along with other Maine-made items, there’s plenty of eye candy. Throughout the grounds artist Peter Beerits has created rooms, buildings, and forest pathways arrayed with life-size human and animal forms made of wood and found objects. I’m particularly drawn to the shack-style room where Mississippi blues music plays, and the scene looks like a frozen-in-time Southern juke joint.
Places like this stick with you. When Linda Greenlaw took us to see the lighthouse and white-painted keeper’s house on Isle au Haut where she spent summers during her childhood, she stressed its importance in her life and memory. While Greenlaw has continued to visit and sometimes live on the island throughout her life, her great-grandfather sold the lighthouse property in the 1980s. (Today it’s open to guests as the Keeper’s House Inn, and overnight stays include meals and rooms equipped with gaslights and candles—but no electricity or Internet service.)
“It was only a few summers,” Greenlaw says as she looks toward the 40-foot gran- ite and brick tower that was completed in 1907 and is still topped with an active navigational light, “but I’ve missed it for a lifetime.”