In Maine, an Island of Sweet Lobsters and Salty Humans
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page A01
MATINICUS, Maine -- For three hours the ferry rises and falls across blue Atlantic swells, the island ahead floating on the edge of vision.
Twenty-five miles off the coast of Maine, the farthest-flung of this state's inhabited islands, Matinicus has the feel of a place out of time. A two-by-one-mile slab of rock outcroppings and fields of goldenrod and deep green spruce forests, the island has a year-round population of 25 or so. All but three or four haul lobster traps off the ocean bottom.
This is not postcard-kitsch Maine. There's no resident watercolorist and no cop. The ferry runs once a month, the few cars look as if they have been pre-stripped by auto thieves, and last August the fog hung so "dungeon thick" that everyone here called it "Fogust."
Call Matinicus cozy and watch an islander gag.
"We take care of our own problems -- the sheriff is very reluctant to come out here," said Eva Murray, a ponytailed woman who has served as town clerk, rescue chief, treasurer, schoolteacher and sternman on a lobster boat. "He ran unopposed in the last election and still lost the vote out here."
Once Maine had dozens of places like Matinicus, islands of fiercely independent fishermen that stretched necklace-like along an archipelago up into the Bay of Fundy. Now, just 15 of the 4,000 islands are occupied year-round, and more than half of those are all but fully colonized by out-of-staters. Old family homes on these islands sell for millions of dollars, and the lobster bisque comes with a soupcon of saffron.
Not in Matinicus. Summer residents make their way here, certainly, and they own more than half the island's 750 acres. There's a children's-book writer, a professor, a Philadelphia heiress. But they arrive in June, leave in September and keep a low profile. This is a working island, run by and for lobstermen. (Women fish for lobster, too, and no one ever calls them lobsterwomen.) There's a single bed-and-breakfast, no general store, and the Matinicus International Air Strip, which is a narrow stretch of dirt that runs downhill toward the rocks and ocean spray. The runway gets 50 feet shorter at high tide.
"We are on the edge of the world," Postmaster Wanda Philbrook said of her island. "And I love it."
There are two truths about life on this island: The year-round population is getting smaller and smaller, and everyone worries where that ends. Those who remain cannot survive without the tools of our modern age -- the computer hookups and Global Positioning System devices in the lobster boats and the fax machines that enable islanders to forward grocery orders into the Shaw's Supermarket in Rockland. Groceries come back on the mail plane.
Eva Murray, who lives here and writes a column for a newspaper on the mainland, warns not to romanticize the place. Life here comes with calluses. She's culled a list from daily life titled: "You Know You're Really From Matinicus When . . ."
"Crabmeat is legal tender for all debts public and private."
And: "You rush to the aid of people you can't stand. Every time."
Law of Matinicus
The lobstermen of Matinicus take pride in their remoteness, and in their orneriness. They fish the deepest and coldest channels and snare crustaceans famed for the sweetness of their meat. Officially, state officials regulate this industry. Unofficially, the men of Matinicus meet each fall and decide who can and cannot throw out traps.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company