Monday, November 25, 2013

Pater: Matinicus Island...

Pater: Matinicus Island...  At right, my dad wandering through a field of wildflowers in a high meadow at Stony Pass, in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado, in 2005.
Matinicus Island, Maine

Unless you are an unusually fortunate person, you probably have never heard of Matinicus Island.  If you have heard of it, you probably think of it as an exclusive resort, like Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.  But when my family and I first encountered Matinicus Island, in the mid-'60s, it was an exotically remote island with no regular ferry or air service.

My family's story with Matinicus gives me a chance to relate several things that were typical of my dad, things that let to experiences very few of my peers have had.  My dad was a giver of experiences par excellence, and I am one of his beneficiaries.

The story begins with Mrs. Philbrook, who lived on Matinicus Island.  In the early and mid '60s, my dad sold small American Holly (Ilex opaca) trees by mail.  He published a catalog, and people would write with orders.  We'd pack those little hollies, with wet roots in a plastic bag, in a bright red cardboard tube, and off they'd go to places all over the U.S.  Mrs. Philbrook, way out on Matinicus Island, ordered some of those hollies, and then struck up a correspondence with my dad.  After a few exchanges of letters, she invited us all to visit with her and her family.  She told my dad that we could get there for very little money, on the weekly U.S. Post Office mailboat.

It's hard to imagine these days, but since its earliest days the Post Office used boats to deliver mail to remote locations along waterways.  Maine, with its rugged coast and numerous small inhabited islands, had quite a few of these mailboats in service.  In the '60s they were still going strong, delivering the kind of mail you'd associate with the Post Office, but also cargo (like cars, or boat engines) and passengers.  I don't know if any of these mailboats are still in service, but I'm told that all of them in Maine are long gone.  Over the years, we had quite a few adventures on those mailboats, as their low cost made them accessible for us.  My family didn't have much money.

We kids were terrifically excited about this trip to Matinicus.  It was our first ride on a mailboat.  I was fascinated by the idea that we'd be so far out to sea that we couldn't even see the mainland any more.  Matinicus is 23 miles offshore, in the deep, cold ocean currents.  There were a few dozen people living there, all lobstermen or their families.  The island had no electricity, no paved roads, no medical facilities, no supermarkets – none of the things we normally associate with civilization.  It's only regular connection to the rest of the U.S. was that twice-weekly mailboat.  The residents made fairly frequent trips to Rockland (the closest mainland port), most especially to sell their lobsters and to buy supplies.  There was a dirt airstrip, available for emergencies (especially for doctors), but rarely used.

My dad loved to travel, especially to places of natural beauty.  He was very fond of rocky shorelines, and Matinicus, he read, was basically one giant rock with a little bit sticking out above sea level.  His kind of place.  It was also a place full of adventures for a boy my age (I think I was 10 or 11).  My younger brother Scott was also old enough to experience it.

And oh, the adventures we had!

My dad arranged for me to spend a day on a lobster boat owned by one of Mrs. Philbrook's sons.  This was an experience like none I'd ever had before.  The lobster boat crew were all rough, hard-working men – free with profane language (which I rarely heard elsewhere), full of teasing and jokes, and yet careful of my safety.  I spent the day learning about sea creatures I never knew existed as the lobstermen hauled up lobster traps, cleaned them out (all sorts of things would crawl into them, not just lobsters), then baited them and threw them back.  At the end of the day we had a bunch of lobsters, and the crew was happy – more lobsters meant more payday, as each of them got a share of the sales.  Looking back now, I marvel that my dad was willing to let me do that.  Lobstering is dangerous work, and I had little experience in boats (and none in the ocean).  The safety measures we'd take for granted today – life preservers, thermal suits, helmets, etc. – didn't exist.  We had gloves and slickers, and that was it.  But I cherish the memories of my day on a lobster boat crew.  It was a day full of lessons, on lots of subjects.

On another day, my dad hiked with Scott and I down to a rocky point that jutted several hundred feet out into the sea.  It was a little frightening walking out on that point, as waves were breaking on the rocks just a few feet below us, and portions of that rock were slippery with seaweed and other life.  We finally made it out to the end of the spit, and from there had a spectacular ocean vista, almost 360° around us.  If you faced away from the island, you could easily imagine yourself being on a rock the size of a kitchen table, out in the middle of the ocean.  The day was beautiful; blue sky, warm-but-not-hot, and the air was clean and smelled of the sea.  The water was cold, very cold – probably in the mid-40s °F.  Idyllic, that scene was, until my dad shocked us with the news that we were going to go swimming in this ice-cold ocean water.  We couldn't believe it!  Not only was the water freezing cold, but we were out in the middle of the ocean!  Who knew what monsters lurked right there, or what currents (and we could see the currents, moving swiftly past the rocks) would yank us even further out to sea?  But my dad was insistent – we had to go swimming – and he'd go with us.  He saw it as a test of physical courage, the kind of challenge he'd pose for us quite often.  He wanted us to be able to find the will to do things like this, and the more reluctant we were, the more insistent he'd become.  We knew this :)   So we went swimming.  Not for long, but we did it – in the clear, cold ocean currents rushing by Matinicus Island.  How many people can say they've done that?

I forgot to mention that Mrs. Philbrook was one helluva cook.  My family still makes Mrs. Philbrook's raisin-filled cookies.  We had some memorable meals there, out on the ocean.  My mom reminded me of one of them: fresh flounder, about two and a half inches thick...

I have another memory of that visit that's a little different.  My dad and I (and I think Scott as well) had climbed up a little knoll that overlooked the harbor.  We could see the boats tied up, the lobster pens (where caught lobsters were kept until it was time to take them to Rockland), and a few people going about their business.  We could also see much of the island.  My dad was poking around the plants at the top of the knoll, and he was surprised to find some sub-arctic plants there – especially surprised to find some dwarf birch, just a few inches high.  These sub-arctic plants were favorites of his, and whenever we'd hike up high mountains (like Mt. Katahdin), he'd be searching them out.  His surprise got me curious, and I asked him why they would be here.  For the next half hour or so, my dad pointed out all sorts of things that were readily observable – clues – every single one of which I'd missed.  It was a lesson on being observant that I've never forgotten, and I had many further lessons from him later on – but that's the first one I recall.  He pointed out the trees and shrubs that were deformed by wind; evidence of frequent winds dominantly coming from one direction.  He showed me how the rocks on one side of the knoll were more worn than on the other side – more evidence of the wind.  He showed me how the soil on the windward side was covered with gravel, while on the lee side it was sandy – the wind blew all the small particles from one side and dropped them on the other.  He showed me the plants that could be found on the knoll that were typical of plants that could survive under very harsh conditions – evidence of both wind and cold temperatures.  He showed me the black lichen that grew on the knoll but not down lower, and told me how the lichen was a “pioneer” plant that created soil and organic material that other plants could thrive on – more evidence of harsh conditions.  Then we looked around and started picking out how the flora – the plant life – varied quite a bit from place-to-place on the island.  My dad was struck by how much variability there was in such a small place (the whole island is only 8 acres) – and I got my first taste of micro-environments.  There were a lot of lessons for me in that couple of hours, but the biggest one for me is one I haven't mentioned yet: that was the first time I remember realizing just how connected all these elements of natural history were.  Rocks and trees and flowers and lichen weren't just randomly sprinkled all over the landscape – there were reasons these things were where they were.  And if you worked at it, like my dad, you could learn them, or figure them out.

One last memory of my dad there: taking a nap on a flat rock in the sunshine.  This was something my dad did on nearly every mountain hike we ever took, if the weather was good.  He'd find a nice place in the sunshine to lay down comfortably, and he'd take a nap for 15 or 30 minutes.  We kids were on our own as he napped – he'd just tell us not to wander too far away, and soon he'd be asleep with a peaceful look on his face.  On Matinicus he found a flat rock on a hillside, slightly tilted toward the ocean.  He laid down, hands behind his head, and gloried in the sun, blue sky, flowered meadow around him, and the blue sea in front of him.  Usually, when taking a nap, he'd just lay down and go to sleep.  This time, he spent some time just looking around, and I could see the pleasure and satisfaction this scene gave him.  These days I can readily understand that, but then, just a little boy, it was a bit mysterious.  I recognize it now, though: it was rapture.  That's what my dad was feeling, in that meadow on the side of a hill on Matinicus Island...

I've read a bit over the past few years about how developed Matinicus Island has become.  There's now a passenger/car ferry and regular air service.  It's no longer the isolated, insular place it once was.  In the summertime, from what I read, the population (mainly tourists) is in the hundreds.  I've decided to keep my Matinicus memories pristine; I'm not going to visit again.  I want to remember it, and my experiences there, just as my dad would have wanted them...

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