Said & Done: A Monhegan Island exploration
A fisherman sends a lobster trap overboard at dawn off of Monhegan Island, more than 12 miles off the coast of Maine. AP file photo.
Said & Done this week is written on the occasion of the writer’s 92nd birthday. A year ago, sister Caroline and best friend Poesy Barlow treated me to a saltwater trip from Bar Harbor to Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. Here is notes of that birthday party.
The evening before we took the boat to Monhegan Island, sportsmen brought in two tuna fish, one weighing 375 pounds, the other nearly 500.
For us who struggle to net 1-pound trout, these giants seemed like outsized prizes caught only in dreams.
Men at the fish pier don’t muscle behemoths to hanging hooks, there’s an electric winch for tackling that job. Japanese agents were not on hand, as they generally are to buy these monsters for their sushi market. The fish went quickly enough, anyway, and in a trice, fisherman’s pier was hosed down to receive the next day’s catch.
In the meantime, we stood on the pier waiting for the Hardy III to take us to Monhegan. It became a toss-up whether we should go or stay and watch what was going on below us on Small Brothers’ wharf in New Harbor.
For us landlubbers, there was so colorful and varied a kaleidoscope of saltwater activities in front of us, and on every side, that we needed a sensory adjustment to take it all in.
At 8 in the morning, waterfront smells are pervasive and permeating. The aroma of bacon and eggs and coffee advertises the dock-side restaurant. Fish and clams and oysters and lobsters, the sand and gravel beach at half-tide with its jetsam of stranded dead sea creatures, all contribute to the overwhelming melange of saltwater-front flavor.
You find that this mixture is beyond the human nose’s ability to separate and identify as to source in terms of a description. You find yourself stranded, too, thinking only that Greenfield never smelled like Down-East Maine.
Men in yellow waterproof pants have already been at work since sunup sorting the previous day’s lobster catch.
Someone takes down a supply of steamed clams to the men. Work stops and soon empty clam shells are flying overboard into the water off the dock.
We are beginning to warm to all of this when a ship’s horn wakes the drowsing seagulls that are perched on every sunny projection — rouses us, too, as the Hardy III moves from her mooring to the dock and makes ready to board her Monhegan passengers.
And so on board — spic and span. The day we made our passage, a gentle ground swell gave us at least a taste of what old salts put up with in terms of pitch and roll. Nobody got seasick.
We cannot speak too warmly of the courtesies shown us by the captain and his crew. For all that, however, it is our opinion that they missed the boat in a very significant manner.
We’d have had the mates line up all the passengers and parade them around the boat. Port and starboard, bow and stern, amidships and abaft the beam; we’d have sent them back home with a saltwater vocabulary to drive ignorant suppertime companions crazy — those who didn’t make the trip.
As it was, some people sat with the Times open in front of them, some real paperbacks. That was a shame. A rich and rare opportunity was lost. We shall write boats like the Hardy our disappointment in this.
Gradually, Monhegan, only a low gray mass on the horizon to start with, loomed larger. We were there in an hour, having made 10 knots steadily once we cleared the channel buoy.
You get only three or four hours to explore Monhegan. You need a guidebook and map to do it. Once you have these in hand, you find on consulting them that you are a truly welcome guest of the Monheganites — but with conditions.
Monhegan has a ZIP code and a constable. In other words, it is a political entity with a social mix like that of any New England small town. When the tour boat arrives each morning, the island population triples — multiplying immeasurably the problems that residents must resolve: sanitation, food (there’s a Northland Pizza) garbage, litter and simple excess human clutter.
So we read all this and digested it and set out for the cliffs where Pulpit Rock places you in a lofty position to look out across the briny deep in the direction of England. We lit no fires, left no litter, picked no plants and were cautious not to frighten the deer.
Guided by two intrepid leaders (let us refer to them in an informal way: Poesy and Caroline), we hiked all around the island.
It was a lovely day. It was sunny and clear and clean and warm. Monhegan was everything the guidebook advertised it to be. We felt the isolation, ingested its spirit, and took away all we were able to carry of its charm.
Too soon the Hardy III came alongside Mohegan’s hinged ramp to pick us up. Captain Duffy, apparently eschewing use of his compass, ran over every yellow lobster buoy ahead of him on the way back. For 10 miles they stretched like beads on a string straight back to New Harbor and our safe anchorage, home.
Workmen were still sorting lobsters when we climbed the gangway and had Small’s wharf again firmly under our feet.
Paul Seamans is a permanent resident of the Charlene Manor nursing home. A picture window on his room’s west side gives a full view of Shelburne Mountain, a continuing inspiration for “Said & Done.” Some of his columns will have been previously published.