Rugged Beauty Draws Artists to Maine Island

Tiny Monhegan is something of a secret; but those who find it cherish its meandering trails and lovely vistas

Business is going pretty well for 11-year-old Joseph Mathiau this summer. ''I've made about $29 so far,'' says the young entrepreneur. For 25 cents a bag, Joseph will wheel your luggage to the end of the pier at Port Clyde, Maine, where the Laura B departs twice a day for Monhegan Island.

''I'm saving for Disney World and college,'' says Joseph, who made about $300 last year. This is his third year as Port Clyde's self-appointed ''baggage master.''

Capt. Rick Mathiau, Joseph's dad, has been ferrying folks back and forth from Port Clyde to Monhegan for 15 years. On this warm, brilliant summer day, some 53 passengers and a collie board the Laura B for the hour-long, 10-mile trip. ''There's no smoking outside the village, and don't pick any of the wildflowers,'' Captain Mathiau cautions his passengers.

''Now we might see some seals, and keep your eyes out for whales and porpoises,'' he says as we head onto the inky sea. The dark water is still and dotted with fluorescent lobster buoys; only the occasional splash of a porpoise or minke whale breaks the stillness.

Early explorers were familiar with Monhegan. The first recorded landing was by Capt. George Weymouth who arrived in 1605. He and his crew feasted on wild gooseberries, strawberries, peas, and fresh fish. Today, Monhegan is still something of a secret even among many Maine residents.

''So where's Monhegan Island?'' I had asked a gas-station attendant after pulling off the Maine Turnpike. ''Ummmm.... I think it's in Michigan,'' he said. Fortunately for me, he was a little off course.

Monhegan has, however, been no secret to artists, who have lugged easels and canvases around the island since the turn of the century. Its beauty becomes increasingly clear as you approach the rugged coast of this ''great island that was [shaped] like a whale,'' as an early explorer noted.

Actually the island is tiny, about 1-1/2 miles by 1/2 mile, smothered in virgin forests of fragrant balsam and fir, and held firmly in place by the claws of the abundant lobsters that cling to its rocky shores. Shy, elusive wood fairies are said to inhabit the forests, and children are encouraged to build little cottages of bark, sticks, and moss to shelter them. A small white lighthouse blinks atop the island's highest point, and a one-room schoolhouse sits on a small rise overlooking the sea.

Monhegan's harbor side is studded with small, gray weathered-shingle cottages belonging to summer vacationers, a few resident artists (including Jamie Wyeth), and about 60 or 70 year-round residents, mostly fishermen and their families. About a dozen artists open their studios during the summer months, and the Winter Works shop sells fine crafts made by residents ''who have stayed year-round on the island at least one year.'' Eighty percent of the island is held in private trust but is open for all to explore.

The yellow-shuttered Island Inn dominates the hill overlooking the harbor. For 30 years, Bob and Mary Burton have run the hotel. Bob is one of the few locals. ''I was born here,'' he says. ''Well, not really born here. I was conceived here and came back when I was 15 days old. In those days, women weren't allowed to stay beyond their eighth month [of pregnancy],'' he commented, as I checked in.

Nature lovers, with binoculars and the latest Roger Tory Peterson bird guide, make up most of the day-trippers to the island, exploring the 17 miles of meandering trails and crawling its slippery rocks.

One favorite trail leads to White Head, where the cliffs rise a dramatic 160 feet above the pounding sea, a fine spot to unpack that picnic lunch and soak in the view. To the south, lie the tidal pools and abundant shore birds at Lobster Cove. Swimming and even wading are not advised because of the undertow and high surf there. Bathing, in fact, is not advised at all except for the two small beaches in town.

Nightlife on Monhegan is pretty much limited to watching the sun set and picking out your favorite constellations as the stars burn through the black sky.

The only vehicles on the island are a few beat-up old pickup trucks used by resident lobstermen to haul their traps, or those owned by the few hotels, guest houses, and B&B's.

The island takes kindly to strangers - not surprising, as tourism, along with fishing, is the economy. The only off-islanders that are not appreciated by the locals are the white-tailed deer brought over in the '50s.

Ted Cochrane is busy draping stiff nylon netting over some newly planted white rugosa roses by the stone wall in front of his home.

This, he hopes, will dissuade the deer from snacking on the soft fragrant petals. ''Lobster fishermen brought [the deer] over here to hunt during the off-season,'' says Ted, a retired Navy officer who has been spending summers on Monhegan since 1929. Ted isn't sure how many deer are on the island, he puts the figure at ''too many.'' ''They come right up on the porch and eat the impatiens right out of the window boxes,'' he says.

Has Monhegan changed much over the years? I ask. ''Well,'' Ted says, ''of all the places I've visited in the United States, I'd say Monhegan has changed the least. Even the roads are in the same amount of disrepair.''

It's the slow-to-change pace, thick woods, and beautiful vistas that draw the fortunate few back to the island each year. In many ways, Monhegan encapsulates all the best that Maine offers.

''I had a great time,'' I said to Bob Burton as I checked out of the inn. ''You'll have to prove it by coming back,'' he answered. I plan to, sometime after young Joseph Mathiau visits Disney World and before he starts college.

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