Island fog, Sunday shine

THE island settlements off the coast of Maine have their own rhythm, like the slow gait of a patient mother, not to be hurried along by the casual intrusions of the mainland. Having weathered a varied history - many were first summer encampments for the mainland Indians, then lumbering settlements, until, stripped of their virgin tree covers, they turned to fishing and lobstering - they can accept change without rushing toward it. We were visiting Swans Island, taking the Everett Libby ferry from Bass Harbor, across the steely waters of Blue Hill Bay, to Atlantic where the ferry docks. Swans Island is one of the larger coastal islands, a rocky maze of inlets and narrows, with two small mountains rising 200 feet from its marshy interior. With only 350 year-round residents, it has three post offices and no taxis. We were coming to look at a 12-acre parcel of land for sale, feeling insignificant and presumptuous among the names of families that live there, names like Kent, Sprague, and Grindle, that stretch back to the 1700s, when settlers were first lured to the island by promises of 100 acres for seven years of farming.

THE ferry docked with its handful of passengers, bellowed its horn, and pulled back into the dense fog. The other passengers dispersed, and we were left alone, clutching an inadequate island map and pulling our jackets tight against a cold wind. We had six hours to explore the island before our return trip - an eternity. We felt confident, my husband having pinpointed the land parcel in a crumpled fold of the map, and we set off at a comfortable pace, my son sitting kingly in his stroller and my daughter on a diminutive pink bike, weaving precariously ahead.

The road wound between island farms, warm in the protection of the island's interior. An empty one-room schoolhouse stood abandoned in an overgrown field. Then the pavement graded into dirt and finally deteriorated to a muddy gouge through the undergrowth. It ended abruptly in a great pile of forest loam and upended trees. We were not prepared for this. In restudying our map, we saw that we were six miles down the wrong end of the road, so we started back.

We were struggling on the upside of a steep hill when a blue pickup stopped on the shoulder. We were met by a rich, welcoming voice. ``Why, two hours ago I saw you folks walkin' the other direction, and here you are comin' this way. Now, either you folks like walkin' or somethin's amiss. Can we give you a ride?''

My husband started to say ``No, thank you,'' but I drowned him out with a hasty ``Yes, and bless you.'' I looked into the cab, with its front seat and narrow passenger-shelf behind - it was already filled with various small forms and a lovely, quiet-looking woman.

``We can ride in the back,'' I argued, embarrassed at the inconvenience we were causing.

``No such thing - you're from away, that makes you guests. My wife and kids can fit behind the seat.'' I saw a tumbling of small bodies over the seat-back into already filled laps. ``You folks sit up front with me.''

We slid in, glad for the comfort. I turned to see six beautiful, small faces, all blond and pale-eyed, polished and scrubbed. They made no sounds, just offered their silent stares alight with interest and an occasional shy smile. ``A stark contrast,'' I apologized, ``to our two little grubs, wet and soiled, with lunch smeared on their faces.'' ``That clean shine's not an everyday occurrence,'' he explained, ``just on Sundays.''

OUR noble escort knew the land we were headed for and said he could get us within striking distance. We started off. I asked him what he did on the island.

``I'm a preacher,'' he said, ``the island preacher. But around here, that's not enough, not with my six little ones. On weekdays, I'm a jack-of-all-trades - lobsterman when the weather's good, part of the highway crew when they need me. Last month we dynamited the holes for those telephone poles.'' He motioned to the newly placed poles alongside the road. ``That one, there - the rock she's sittin' in's so soft we had to blast it out six times before the hole amounted to much.'' He paused. ``Yup, on the island, one's gotta' keep pluggin' 28 hours a day to make a go of things.''

I felt a bit inadequate, measured against this island preacher. When we reached the narrow path that led to the land, he stopped the truck. ``Now if you folks insist, I'll let you out. Just remember, when you get back to the main road, if you need any help, just stick out your thumb, anyone passing will be glad to stop.'' We shared a warm goodbye.

The land we found was a paradise of rugged beauty. Bold rock faces dipped gracefully down to disappear gradually below the water's surface. Higher up, a stand of pine towered above the jagged irregularities of the forest floor cushioned here and there in lush, pale green moss. We left with reluctance.

The walk back to the ferry terminal was long. The fog had settled back in, thick enough now to qualify as rain, and we plodded. Just before the turnoff for the ferry, a blue pickup honked and pulled over. The preacher's wife hailed us. She bubbled forth with an easy stream of conversation. ``My husband was sure you wouldn't make it, so he sent me out to see that you did. Looks like you made it, though - you're some walkers.'' Her admiration was genuine. She pulled back on the road and 12 hands waved gaily from the six kids now scattered all over the truck.

We reached the terminal and waited for the ferry in a cold drizzle, having decided with pinched sadness that we would not be coming back as fair-weather residents. We had seen that the eastern end of the island beyond the narrows was being subdivided, a change we felt unable to accept. We left feeling wiser. In this small realm where existence is lean, people know work and how to help folks from away. It is what we hope mainland progress cannot change.

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