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.
"If you are the child of a lobsterman, you're in," said Clayton Philbrook, 52, a bull of a man with four decades of lobstering behind him. "If you marry one of our daughters, you'll get in, too, but it'll take you a while. That isn't the law. That's just the way it works."
There's an unmarked ocean perimeter around Matinicus that lobstermen from other islands do not cross. If they do, a trap line might get cut. Or a boat might float loose from its mooring. At least one Matinicus lobsterman flies a black Jolly Roger flag on the back of his boat.
Philbrook ran a large hand across his gray-flecked beard and smiled. "Matinicus has, let me say, a reputation," he said. "Everyone knows that our ocean bottom is well-enforced."
It has ever been so. This island was named by the Wabanaki Indians, who fished and harvested it. When the first white man, Ebenezer Hall, set anchor and claimed the island in the 18th century, he burned their fields. The chief sent a letter to the colonial governor: If you don't remove him, we'll kill him.
The governor didn't, and they did.
Three families put ashore on the island in the 1820s -- the Ameses, the Philbrooks and the Youngs -- and their descendants still dominate the island. "There are no family trees," a lobsterman explained. "It's a wreath."
The island's population reached a zenith of 270 in the late 19th century. The harbor was a forest of masts, and 70 children crowded the school. "Birth control was unknown," noted an old book, "and children the principal crop."
Matinicus's weather -- the wind blows 60 knots in the winter, and "shut-down" rain can fall for days -- offered a bounty. Forty ships came asunder in the 19th century. "The islanders' first concern was after the safe rescue of the unfortunate sailors," Donna Rogers, a lobsterman's wife, wrote in her history of Matinicus. "But not too far in the back of their minds was also the rescue of useful items from these ships."
That's how islanders acquired calico curtains and grindstones and molasses and, best of all, rum. As Rogers noted: "It's a damn fool would spend hours on the water, in ass freezing cold, without a touch to warm the innards. And there have never been many fools on Matinicus."
The young sternmen, who live two or three to a room in the ramshackle gray wood buildings that sit on pilings around the harbor, are the most unruly of this lot. One sternman hurt himself badly a few years back but refused an airlift to the mainland because he faced an outstanding bench warrant.
For years, judges on the mainland offered wayward sternmen a choice: 10 days in jail or go to Matinicus.
Desperately Seeking Kids
The Matinicus eighth-grade graduating class consists of Stephen, 14. The fifth grade has three 11-year-olds, and the kindergarten is represented by little blond Isabella. That's the student body.
Pat Walchli, 52, who has the distant smile of a woman accustomed to keeping her own company, is the teacher. "I was kind of burned out with all the rules on mainland," said Walchli, who has lived in a dozen places around the world. "I knew if I was the principal, the nurse and the faculty, I wouldn't have to go to faculty meetings anymore."
The general store has closed. There is no doctor. The mail comes in, fog depending. Older lobstermen live off the island during the winter. The school represents the island's future, and last September, Stephen was the only student.
A child's life here can be an idyll. There are bogs and powder-gray beaches to scramble across and boulders to scale. Stephen has his own lobster boat. The 11-year-olds drive cars. But islanders send the children to the mainland for high school.
The island takes year-round residents where it can find them. Years ago, Eva Murray arrived as the teacher, met Paul Murray, a tall, bearded electrician in bib overalls, and fell head over heels. They and their two children are island mainstays. Bill Hoadley, 67, the owner of the Tuckanuck Lodge bed-and-breakfast, is from Nantucket, worked in a Boston distillery, and landed here 15 years ago with his mutt and a Eugene Debs poster. He hosted this year's Democratic caucus on the island -- there were five voters -- but he wouldn't call himself a native.
"Omigod no!" Hoadley said. "The only thing I say at town meetings is 'I second that motion.' "
Today, the lobstering families pin their hopes on three or four young couples, such as Natalie Ames, who grew up on the island, and her partner, John Griffin, who came here with his family every summer. In a most unusual move, the lobstermen voted to let Griffin captain his own lobster boat.
"I guess they figure if I'm stupid enough to take this up full time at age 38, they'd let me," he said.
It's not an easy life by any stretch. Dick Ames, Natalie's father, sits on a chair and nurses a Scotch after a long day hauling lobster cages. He peers out a picture window at the brown-gray tidal flats.
"If you're looking for the edge of the world, you've found it. But life's getting tougher here," he said. "John's a fine man, and I hope he and Natalie make it -- the island needs some young people."
Many decades ago, Ames's own parents dreamed that he might know life off this "hardscrabble island." They sent him to high school on the mainland of Maine and to college in Florida. He joined the merchant marine and captained ships from the Straits of Molucca to the Arctic Circle. Occasionally, he took a year or two off to lobster in Matinicus. Now he has retired.
"Look at that" -- he points to a white halo of fog rolling in and three loons swooping by. "It's harder to leave this island than you'd ever guess. The life traps you."