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The Islanders of Maine Are a Hearty Bunch : Just Off the Coast But Decades From Today's Conveniences

Charles Hillinger's America

March 22, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ISLE AU HAUT, Me. — Seventh-grader Jemma Rauscher trudged through the deep snow along the shores of this 6-by-3-mile island looking through her binoculars at loons.

"Listen to those big birds," she said. "They make the funniest sounds: a wail, a laugh, a yodel and a toot."

Jemma, 13, is doing a report on loons for her class. She is one of eight students in the one-room school on Isle au Haut, population 55.

She isn't an islander; she is a city girl.

"I never heard of Isle au Haut until my parents rented a house out here last August. I love the island so much I asked if I could stay and go to school here. My parents let me. It's a great experience," Jemma said.

Her father, Andrew, 40, is an anesthesiologist in Cooperstown, N. Y., where Jemma attended a school with more than 300 students.

"Can you imagine what it's like for me to be on this island, to know everybody that lives here, to be in a school where there are just eight of us?" she said.

There are no telephones, no sidewalks, no traffic lights or stop signs on Isle au Haut. There is a post office and a tiny general store; the 1906 Town Hall is closed all winter because it costs too much to heat. Jemma lives with Lisa Turner, 22, who runs the store.

Nearly all the men on the island are fishermen who catch lobster, scallops and mussels.

"We love this island because we are so far away from everything, because we can live a quiet life," said Belvia MacDonald, 45, Isle au Haut's mayor.

Law and Order

"Nobody ever gets a traffic ticket," she said. "We have no jail. Nobody has ever been arrested that I know of in the 27 years I have lived here. We have no bad apples.

"We have a constable if there is any problem. He's a fisherman appointed to the job and is paid $100 a year and $6 an hour whenever he's needed--which isn't very often."

When someone dies on the island the body is taken by boat six miles to the mainland to a mortician and later returned for burial in the island cemetery. Some of the graveyard's lichen-mottled headstones date back to the early 1800s.

Every Wednesday is Social Day for the women. They gather to knit, crochet, sew and visit.

Doreen Carlson, 30, who is in her second year of teaching here, is from Northampton, Mass. She and husband Bob, 33, a lobsterman, pay $75 a month to live in the schoolteacher's home. She is paid $16,500 a year.

"You can walk everywhere. You don't need a car. The pace is so slow. The people are so friendly," Carlson said.

The island's link to the mainland is a daily mail boat, the Miss Lizzie, which was named for Lizzie Rich, 95. She retired eight years ago after working 65 years for the island post office, much of the time as postmistress.

According to Philip Conkling, 38, founder and executive director of the Island Institute headquartered at Rockland, there are nearly 2,000 islands off the coast of Maine--900 of them occupied at least part of the year.

The most remote island--22 miles off of Rockland--is Matinicus, 1 1/2 miles long, three-quarters of a mile wide. Like Isle au Haut, Matinicus has a year-round population of 55, mainly lobstermen and their families.

A mail boat sails to Matinicus Island once a month from the mainland with mail, food, supplies--and to provide transportation.

Island Institute has 1,003 members, mostly islanders, who pay annual dues of $25. The institute was established to make island year-round and summer residents, scientists, governmental agencies and recreational users aware of the natural resources and human elements of the islands.

Members receive an annual magazine, which serves as a forum and a celebration of island life. The institute sponsors conferences pertaining to island concerns and also publishes a quarterly newsletter.

In Casco Bay off Portland, Maine's largest city, lie the Calendar Islands, so called because early settlers thought surely there must be at least one island for every day of the year in the Archipelago. There are actually about 250 in the group.

Nine of the inhabited Calendar Islands are within the Portland city limits, with 3 1/2-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Cliff Island the farthest out at 13 miles.

Six of the islands are served year round by the Casco Bay Lines ferryboats, a transportation company owned by islanders. High school children on the islands ride the ferryboats back and forth to school in Portland. Workers who live on the islands also commute.

Choppy Seas

"This water might seem rough to you but it's not rough to us," said Capt. Nick Mavodones, 26, piloting the 65-foot ferryboat Abnaki on a recent early morning run. The boat is named after prehistoric "People of the Canoe" Indians.

There are times when the ferryboats break channels through the ice to get to and from the islands, when seals sit on the ice barking at passing ferryboats.

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