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Life on Maine's Eagle Island During the Lonely Winters

Charles Hillinger's America

February 15, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER

EAGLE ISLAND, Me. — It was early morning and 5 degrees above zero. Mailman Robert Quinn, 43, piloted his 38-foot lobster boat, The Last Straw, through the choppy surf across East Penobscot Bay.

Windows in the wheelhouse were thick with frost. Icicles draped the weather-beaten craft. A stick held the window open in front of Quinn so he could see his way across the angry, frothing sea.

Freezing spray repeatedly struck his face. His cold, numb cheeks were beet red. Fierce gusts made the wind-chill factor 10 degrees below.

It was a three-mile, half-hour run for Quinn from Sunset, a tiny town on Deer Isle, to Eagle Island, a 1-mile-long, half-mile-wide island settled in 1825 by his great-great-grandparents, Samuel and Lucy Quinn.

Island Hopping

From mid-September to mid-June, Eagle Island is the only stop for Quinn, who makes the mail run on Tuesdays and Fridays. In summer, he carries the mail across East Penobscot Bay six days a week to several families vacationing in cottages on Eagle, Bear, Barred and Great Spruce Head islands. It's a contract route that earns him $256 a month.

No one lives on Bear, Barred or Great Spruce Head nine months of the year. If they did, Quinn would deliver their mail.

Quinn has had the mail run for 12 years; his father had it for 30 years before him. A mail boat has served the islands since 1904.

When Quinn left Sunset, he climbed down an icy ladder from the dock to his skiff and shoveled a foot of snow out of it. He rowed over to The Last Straw (so named because his last boat sunk "and if I lose this one, that's it") and shoveled the snow out of it before setting out for Eagle Island.

When he rounded Northeast Head and entered the more calm waters of the island's lee side, he spotted Adam Broome, 27, snowshoeing to the dock through powder two to three feet deep.

It was low tide; the sea was 15 feet below the dock. Quinn gingerly made his way up the icy ladder carrying a sack of groceries in his mailbag.

Adam, his wife, Alison, 26, and their children, Tom, 3, and Maisie, 11 months, are the only four people on Eagle Island nine months of the year.

On Quinn's twice-weekly run in winter, he also brings groceries and supplies to the Broomes.

Adam immigrated to Maine from England in 1979 when he was 19 "because there wasn't much work in the U.K." In Maine, he played a guitar and sang in a five-man band, Attitude Problem.

After he married Alison, they ran a classified ad in Folk, a weekly newspaper, seeking to be caretakers of an island. Maine has nearly 2,000 islands off its rocky coast. Eagle Island needed a caretaker.

"We came out four years ago and have been here ever since," Alison said. "We are not paid to be caretakers. However, we do get to live in this marvelous old house (built in 1845) rent-free."

The island has no electricity, no phones, no indoor plumbing. The Broomes cook and heat the house with a century-old wood stove. It's a turn-back-the-clock existence.

Every time she does her laundry in an old ringer washer, Alison has to hand-carry 20 gallons of water for one load, empty it and replace it with 20 more gallons of water to rinse.

"We like the solitude," Adam said. "We're kept busy--Alison with the children, cooking and chores. I have a lot to do around the house, fetching water from the well in buckets, filling the lanterns with kerosene, chopping and splitting wood, keeping the fire going.

"We do an awful lot of reading. We read every day to Tom and Maisie."

TV Is Usually Dark

They seldom watch their five-inch black-and-white, battery-powered television. "Few people write letters today," Alison said. "We write a lot of letters.

"I'm from a big family. I miss my family. I miss interacting with people. The island is so remote. But I'm like Adam. I enjoy the solitude and quiet.

"Being out here alone makes you realize how much you can do without in the world. I appreciate things so much more not being able to run to a store."

Adam does carpentry work during the winter in the nine vacant summer cottages. Last year, he earned $4,500. He and his wife have a garden in summer and she "puts up" string beans and tomatoes. She makes jams, jellies and pies from wild strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb; she bakes bread and pies.

They keep their home-grown potatoes, carrots, onions, beets and green peppers in their cellar over the winter as well as apples harvested from trees on the island.

They had a dozen chickens and a duck. A wild mink ate them.

During their nine months alone each year, the couple have never left the island except when their children were born: Tom in February, 1984, and Maisie last March. In the summers, they have gone to the mainland and stayed as long as a month visiting family and friends.

Alison went to the mainland on the mail boat a week before the birth of each of her children "to make sure I wouldn't be stuck on Eagle Island due to high seas when my time came."

They don't have a boat. If an emergency occurred, they would call for help over their citizens band radio.

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