on Swan’s Island

02Jun11

About a week ago, I boarded the ferry at Bass Harbor and after a forty-minute trip through a thick bank of fog debarked at the Swan’s Island landing, where a large sign reads “Welcome home.”  Swan’s Island will, in fact, be my home for just about six months while I hole up and work on finishing my doctoral thesis.  The island, which is located off of the coast of Maine’s Acadia National Park, is stunningly beautiful.  There are just 350 year-round inhabitants and the only major industry on the island is lobster fishing.  During the summer the population swells to around 1,000 as vacationers — the so-called “summer people” — come to the island to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of New York and urban New England.

The house I’m living in is the family home of my friend Julie Carr, co-founder of Counterpath Press and an absolutely amazing poet.  There are two houses on the property, in addition to a small cabin, a sheep shed, and a tractor barn.  The house I’m living in was once the home to Swan’s Island Blankets, which produced beautiful handmade artisanal wool blankets.  (The company has since been sold and is now called Swan’s Island, though it’s no longer located on the island itself.)  The part of the house that I’m living in used to be the showroom for the blanket company, but it’s since been converted into a lovely apartment with handsome built-in wooden shelves, a kitchen that gets beautiful morning light, and windows that look out onto the original house on the property, which dates from the 1700s, and then on to the cove beyond.

Swan’s Island is divided into two halves, almost like a pair of glasses.  The bridge that connects the two halves is a thin spit of land that keeps Back Cove and Toothacher Cove from meeting.  The bridge is called the Carrying Place because it’s possible to carry a boat over from one side of the island over to the other, almost like the island’s own miniature version of a Panama Canal for sea kayakers.  The house where I’m living is just a short walk away, which means there are two ridiculously beautiful beaches located ridiculously close to my front door.

The photo above is of the view across Back Cove, which looks out onto Acadia National Park and the Bass Harbor ferry landing.  This inlet has a muddy floor, and when the tide goes out there are several hundred meters of mud flats that appear.  People often come to these flats to dig for clams, and as soon as I get myself a clam fork, a proper bucket, and a license ($25, available at the town office) I plan to join them.

Toothacher Cove, on the other hand, faces the Atlantic and has more of the feel of the ocean about it.  There’s a beautiful crescent of sandy beach here, a few islands out on the horizon, and when the tide is very low you can harvest mussels from the rocks.

When I arrived at on the island I was met by Claire, Julie’s sister, who was kind enough to guide me around the island and give me some pointers about such things as who to call if I needed more propane, where the local dump is, and where I should go when I wanted to pick up some fresh lobster or scallops.  Claire and her friend Barbara (who has two of the best dogs in the world, one of which spins after its own tail like a top when it gets excited) also introduced me to a few of the many hiking trails in the area.

One of these trails is called the Blue Dot Trail because the course of the trail has been marked out by a series of stones that have been painted a bright blue color, almost like misshapen robins’ eggs that have been hidden throughout the forest.  The hike takes you through several different ecosystems including pine forest, granite ledges covered with lichen and small shrubs, coastal habitat, and — perhaps my favorite — lush green bogs with acid black pools of water.  These bogs are currently peppered with skunk cabbages, a plant that’s an almost unreal shade of green.  “I think I’ve fallen in love with skunk cabbages,” I say.  “I’ll be interested to see if you still think that later in the season when they begin to stink,” says Barbara.

The bogs (and the pine forest as well, and a wide area of the coastal habitat) are full of the most incredibly thick, green moss.  I’ve seen some incredible moss gardens in Japan — including Ginkaku-ji’s garden with its “VIP mosses” — but nothing can rival the magnificence of the rich, green beds on Swan’s Island, which are so deep and soft that a mattress can feel like a stone slab in comparison.   Another great thing about the mosses, and the lichens too, is that they mimic the fractal structures of the surrounding trees and, as such, almost seem like a miniature forest inside a larger forest, a kind of model beneath your feet of the larger landscape that you’re traveling through.

In addition to mussels and clams, there are also crabs, sea urchins, and seaweeds that can be eaten, though the crabs and urchins are probably too difficult to get at without expending a good deal of effort.  I was especially hoping that there would be a large, untapped sea urchin supply on the island since I love uni and was hoping to find myself a readily available supply.  Unfortunately, it seems that I’m not the only to have this idea — several years ago a group of urchin divers set up shop on the island in order to harvest the urchins and, just as in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, ship them to Japan.  Once the area was picked clean, the divers left and now the only ones eating Swan’s Island urchins are the seagulls.

The weather on the island has been incredibly variable so far (right now I’m writing this in the middle of a thunderstorm), but the last few days have been glorious.  The day before yesterday I walked up to the lighthouse, which was built in the 1800s and is currently being restored.  I found a good rock at the top of the cliff and spent an hour or so looking out across the still fog-shrouded islands that dot the horizon and watching the lobster boats travel in and out of Burnt Coat Harbor.  As I was getting ready to leave, I had the good luck to meet one of the volunteers working on the lighthouse restoration.  He was putting a new cupola on the old brick oil house and, noting the obviously new guy around town, told me that the lighthouse was currently open and invited me up for a look.  I climbed up the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse building, all brick and musty, and then up to where the still-functional Fresnel lens sits, guarding the harbor.  I take in the view and then head back down the stairs.  As I start heading back home, I’m hailed again — “By the way, if you want to go lobstering sometime, I’ve got a lobster boat.”  “Yeah,” I reply, “I’d love to spend a day or two crewing on a lobster boat.”

I can’t wait.



3 Responses to “on Swan’s Island”

  1. 1 Ann Erickson

    Your photos and description actually make me feel wonderful….a bout of insomnia and sadness, even though I myself live in a very beautiful green patch…I think the thing that is making me feel good reading your blog is that sometimes I feel alone in talking to plants and spiders (one of my poems is called “I photograph moss”)..

    and here is this other human being who takes photographs of moss and probably talks to spiders and plants, maybe, too…

    The photos are really really beautiful.

    Ann

  2. 2 Ann Erickson

    gosh it says my comment is awaiting moderation..

    In spite of my taoist leanings, “moderation” is still long awaited in my life…

    ann

  3. 3 erin

    gorgeous pictures, Trane. all of them, but the top is my favorite. and the narrative to match.


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