Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vinalhaven

Vinalhaven is a working island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The year-round population of 1,200 people are hardy folk. Many are lobstermen and women, leaving the harbor before dawn in their boats to haul in the days catch. These are not good times for lobstering, with low prices and high costs. Tensions are high among the fleet. On a nearby island a man shot his son-in-law (not fatally) for encroaching on his lobstering area.

For those of us without private boats, we reach the island via the Maine State Ferry. The ferry leaves Rockland six times per day and a similar one leaves the island at the same times, passing each other along the way. The 15 mile ride takes one hour and 15 minutes. On the trip over and back we saw black guillemots in fall plumage, a few harbor porpoises, many herring gulls, and hundreds of lobster buoys.

The board chairman of our local land trust and his wife donated a 3 night stay at their Vinalhaven home as part of the annual fundraiser. A year ago we bid on this gem and to our surprise ended up as the highest bidder. We spent 3 days on the island last week, our first experience with the idiosyncrasies of the ferry system, which included waiting in line at 3:45 am to reserve a spot on the next days return ferry.

The ferry holds about a dozen cars, but there is also a weight limit, so if a cement truck needs to make the trip then fewer cars are loaded. It is quite unpredictable which ferries will be full. That seems to fit with the uncertainties of island living. Islanders move at a different pace than mainlanders, their lives governed by tides and weather and other forces beyond their control.

In earlier times Vinalhaven was a center of granite quarrying. Huge blocks of granite were carved out of the ground and shipped to New York City and beyond. Now the old quarries, filled with cold spring water, are swimming holes (but the signs say "No soap and No dogs").

The island is all about life in the sea. Vinalhaven has a dozen or more protected areas with narrow foot paths that lead through spruce-fir forests, around saltmarshes, and to the waters edge. One trail lead us to The Basin. The tide was out allowing us to walk through saltmarsh, scramble down large rocks, and across mudflats hardened by spent sea shells. At the water's edge we watched patterns of light and wave ripple over mussels, snails, barnacles, and seaweed.


The weather was picture perfect during our stay. No Downeast fog or weeks of rain such as fell in June and July, stressing the lobstermen and everyone else.

Vinalhaven does not overtly cater to tourists, although there are a few restaurants, one motel, and one IGA with all the food you would need, all within walking distance of the ferry. You can walk on the ferry and stay on the island without a car, but a mountain bike would be useful to reach many beautiful trails and sights; bikes are not allowed on most of the trails. The "working waterfront" is part of the island's appeal--watching the lobster boats head out at dawn and return at midday to unload at the Vinalhaven Fisherman's Coop.

We left the island on the 7:00 am ferry, stopping in Rockland at the Atlantic Baking Company for some coffee, scones, and sourdough bread for the road. A very fine pastry and artisan bread bakery. Downtown Rockland is walkable and full of fine art, crafts, and other locally made products. The Farnsworth Art Museum is home to the Wyeth Center celebrating three generations of Wyeths. Just up the road from the bakery and the art gallery is the home of the Island Institute and the Archipelago Fine Arts Gallery, this summer featuring an exhibit called Catching the Light: The Frenchboro Paintings by Daud Akhriev, a Russian-born artist.

Danny, by Daud Akhriev

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