The Maine Course

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By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004

At just past 4 a.m. on a day in early July, the first hints of light appear on Hog Island's horizon. Lobster boats on Muscongus Bay soon labor to their pots, their unmuffled motors providing percussion to a disjointed symphony of buzzy blue-winged green warblers, laughing common loons and chattering red squirrels.

By 4:45 a.m., sound and light have joined to wake many of the 52 people who have come to this 333-acre island just a quarter-mile off the coast of Bremen, Maine, most to attend Maine Audubon's five-day natural history camp. The first risers are already wandering the native-plant-filled grounds, sipping cups of freshly brewed shade-grown coffee and watching one of the island's signature sunrises.

There are no cars, phones, Internet, televisions, newspapers or radios to fill the morning. The natural world is the island's entertainment. Participants have exchanged comfy beds and gadget-filled homes for dormitories where sneezes, snores and songs pass indiscriminately through walls that are as thin as the mattresses. Bathrooms are shared with strangers of both sexes. Cell phones have been swapped for eye contact.

The simplicity of the island is initially foreign and jarring. There are no traffic noises, no plunk of the paper on the front door, no ringing phones or "you've got mail." But by just the second day, most of our congenial group, perhaps tapping into long-retired memories of childhood experiences, have easily settled into the cadence of summer camp.

'You're on the Island Now'

My journey here has started so stressfully that a noticeable twitch has developed in my right eyelid. Scheduled to arrive on Monday afternoon, I am finally making my way to the island (about 90 minutes north of Portland) late Tuesday morning, thanks to canceled and late flights. Also, my luggage is missing. It has taken me 26 hours to get here, and I doubt I will ever again feel relaxed.

Anthony Liss, a transplanted Long Islander who is the island's caretaker, along with his wife "Seabird Sue" Shubel and 4-year-old daughter, Ayla, assures me during our short boat ride to the island that I will soon forget the ordeal. "You're on the island now," he says.

A few minutes later, he has led me through a silent spruce forest, our footsteps deadened by a dense carpet of spongy needles, to a small cove, where the group has assembled to learn about tidal life. Several college-age summer interns are cooking up pots of just-harvested mussels and periwinkles. We use the pins of our name tags to scoop the critters out of their shells, and into a garlic-butter sauce and our mouths. They are delicious, and I notice that the twitch in my eye has slowed considerably.

That afternoon, we take our first boat ride, designed to familiarize us with the coastal islands and their inhabitants. Harbor seals pop up to take a quick peek, and a black mink skulks along the mainland's shore. King eider females surround their vulnerable chicks, which we are told are often snacked on like popcorn by the predatory greater black-backed gulls. Another youngster, an eaglet nearly as large as its parent, cries ceaselessly in its nest until the adult reluctantly swoops off to find it a meal. The twitch in my eye is gone.

The Spartan Life

The 43 of us who have come to take part in the "Natural History of the Maine Coast" camp -- the rest are doing a kayaking camp -- quickly fall into a pattern, dictated by its very full schedule. Days officially begin at 6:15 a.m., when the massive camp bell is rung for wake-up. Already, the daily 6 a.m. bird hike is in progress. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m., followed by a morning class, then lunch, an afternoon class, dinner and an evening program. Most of us won't venture outside without applying a heavy dose of DEET-based bug spray to ward off the ever-present mosquitoes.

Early in the week, just about everyone goes to every session. By the end of the week, some are taking breaks to hike or read or just sit. Some of us stay in basic rooming-house type buildings with double and single rooms off a hall and a shared bathroom. A group of about a dozen mostly young women stay in the Crow's Nest, a large dormitory with just two rooms. There is no air-conditioning or heat.

During the week, the weather fluctuates from cold and rainy to sunny and hot. One night I sleep in my sweats, another in a T-shirt.

Meals quickly become both a highlight of the day and a running joke. Last year, the camp did not do well financially. Faced with a decreased food budget, chef Janii Laberge, a wiry man with neon-blue eyes who would be well cast as Popeye, is nervous that there won't be enough food to go around, so he begins each meal by announcing in no uncertain terms that we are to take only one slice of bread, one half of a tostada, one half of a fish cake. At my first lunch, I watch a man in his eighties scolded by an intern for taking both tuna and turkey. We all want to eat more because the food, including linguini with fresh clam sauce, curried squash soup and still-warm chocolate chip cookies, is delicious. We giggle like schoolchildren as one troublemaker pipes up, "Please, sir, I want some more." Yet I soon realize that one serving easily sates my hunger. Gluttony seems out of place here.


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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