The secret of Wrack Island

Far down the Medomak River, where it widens into Muscongus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, there is an uninhabited ledge sticking out of the water that geographers have mistakenly set down as Wreck Island.

They presume, I presume, that once upon a time there was a shipwreck there. If you listen carefully to a Maine lobster catcher, however, you will notice that he says Wrack Island. As nobody else, much, knows about Wrack Island, it will be well to assume he is correct and the geographers are wrong. It is not just his way of speaking. The word is "wrack."

Wrack is seaweed and mingled marine contributions churned and chewed by storms, surf, and tide and cast in a row along the high-tide mark to await further orders. The wrack will turn dry and brittle in the sun, but only on top. Beneath, wrack is moist and salty, in a state of decay, and if you stir into it you will be unhappy.

Wrack Island is a sanctuary for great blue herons, eider ducks, and sea gulls, who nest in adjacent and overlapping intimacy in great numbers. No humans have ever lived there, and the island is under the protection of the Maine State Forestry Service. Visitors of humankind are not appreciated.

In 1605, when the Plymouth Company attempted the first English settlement in the New World, the colonists (all men) came to Popham Beach, which is but a looward abaft the aft, sort of, from down by Wrack Island. The settlement failed, but certain of the colonists stayed in Maine and moved to a more propitious place. The men had come from Bristol, England, and so called their new home Bristol. Bristol remains where the Pophamists left it, a town of 2,000 of whom 10 out of every 8 are from some place in Connecticut.

Bristol has the communities of the Pemaquids, Round Pond, New Harbor, Chamberlain, Loudville, and the village of Bristol. More than likely, nobody in Bristol knows Wrack Island is there.

I went to Wrack Island some years ago, not knowing that it was a state-supervised no-no. Since I was not ordered away, I stayed all afternoon and had a wonderful visit. Most of all I enjoyed the comical array of 40 or 50 blue herons standing on one leg apiece in the tops of 80-foot spruce trees while their incubating wives brooded away patiently. I did not try to climb to admire this closely.

The high tide line was well wracked, and then the ledge began. Here was a ring of sea gulls all the way around the island, which is not large. Unlike the eider ducks, the gulls do not make nests, but lay their eggs in close clutches, so not only the eggs but the mother gulls as well are in a warm togetherness. You will wonder how a dame knows which eggs are hers. When I approached, gulls nearby rose and flew to sea, but those not too close bided and seemed not to notice me.

Gulls' eggs are larger than hens' eggs but can be used in cooking and at table. They are not "fishy," as you might expect. The only problem is to use those that are fresh and avoid those that have started to incubate.

I asked a lobsterman about that, and he said, "That's no problem." When he was a boy, he'd tie a bit of cotton rag on a long stick, and use it like a paint brush. Using toy water colors, he'd take an area of gulls' eggs eight feet or so square, and daub every egg with red. The mother gulls would fly away to let them do this, and would stay away until it was done. Now they had the previous eggs marked. Any egg tomorrow without a red dot was fresh.

He said a gull whose eggs are pirated will just lay more until she has her full clutch, so there's not much chance of depleting the Earth's gull population by stealing a few omelets and yaller cakes.

Inside the island's circle of gulls, under the spruces, the eider ducks nested. The eider is also known as the sea duck, and was once plucked commercially for feathers and down. They are still a game bird but live at sea and don't come over land as do mallards and mergansers and other ducks.

When on the nest, a colony of sea ducks is a tight carpet of heads sticking up, silently intent. But when disturbed, the hens rise in a tight flock and take off over the ring of gulls and vanish out to sea. It is a flurry for sure, headed straight for Spain at bullet speed. I stood leaning against a spruce to see how long before they returned, but I left before they did. Each clutch of eggs was snug in Mother's down, and incubated right along in her absence.

While I did not try to swipe any gulls' eggs, I did select one eider egg and carried it home in my shirt pocket. Before it cooled, I had it in a home-made incubator. In 11 days it hatched, but I never saw the duckling. Somehow it escaped, and I was told eider ducklings will fly as soon as they dry off from the egg. Perhaps my duckling just flew out to Wrack Island. I hope so, because I was also told that an eider will not embrace captivity.

One other thing: For years I've had on my desk a two-ounce package of sea wrack, processed and labeled for commercial sale. The packager was Gould Bros. of Malden, Mass. As near as I've been able to find out, it was packaged a good hundred years ago.

The contents are tiny shreds and crumbs. I have no idea why sea wrack was packaged or what use was made of it. I'd like to know what two ounces cost. Whatever the price. Wrack Island is a gold mine.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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