12 Square Miles of Solitude
By Sara B. Franklin
The first thing you see is the church steeple. It appears almost like an apparition, a slender point of white rising up from the rolling mound of dark, dark green, mile upon mile of spruce forest. You rub your eyes, look again, squinting through the salty spray of the Gulf of Maine. Yes, it’s there, that spike of white, growing larger as your boat chugs slowly closer to The Island.
A 12-square-mile rock in Penobscot Bay, Isle au Haut (‘High Island’) is among the easternmost islands in the United States. It’s pronounced EYE-la-HOH, an Americanisation of the name given by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604 — but regulars refer to it simply as “The Island.”
I am part of the seasonal influx that balloons Isle au Haut’s population each summer, having been granted the ridiculous luck and privilege of being born into a family whose Boston-based patriarch — my mother’s father — purchased, in the early 60s, a cottage ‘in town,’ which is to say sandwiched between the Island Store and the minuscule post office, within earshot of Sunday’s church bells.
Isle au Haut is a place that exists, in many ways, outside of time, a place that rewards slow pleasures. Literally. One can’t move very fast on the single 12-mile road that loops the island: while the speed limit is, officially, 20 miles an hour on the short paved portion, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone driving that fast. To do so on the unpaved sections would be a death-wish, with washouts surprising you around bends and jagged rocks jutting up from the packed earth
On Isle au Haut, the terrain demands a deceleration: we walk, ride thick-tired bikes, and bump slowly along in rusting pickups. We paddle slowly or float on our backs in Long Pond, a fairy tale mile-long stretch of pristine, fresh water enveloped by firs from which you can hear the crash of the ocean waves. The many wooded paths that lead into the island’s interior and out to its rockiest points require steady footing and a measured pace. On the water, lobster boats chug, skiff oars pull at the inky water.
For centuries before its Francophone naming, The Island was a seasonal fishing camp for the indigenous Penobscot Abenaki and Passamaquoddy peoples, who reaped the rewards of the deep, cold waters surrounding the island, among the best fishing grounds in the northeast. But they treaded lightly. Mounds of shells — the aftermath of feasts from Isle au Haut’s mollusc-rich mud flats and shoals — comprise the majority of the archaeological record they left.
But development began as Scots, Brits, and fishermen from the mainland — many of whose descendants still remain among the island’s year-round residents — started to settle on the island in the late 18th century. They primarily took up farming and fishing as their livelihoods. The land was fertile and well-tended, the waters held plenty of fish, and a lobster cannery opened in 1860 to process the glut of crustaceans.
It wasn’t long before wealthy urbanites discovered The Island. Ernest Bowditch, a landscape architect in the Olmsted circle, was drawn to Isle au Haut’s wildness and quiet, and purchased a large tract of land in 1880. There, he established a summer colony called the Point Lookout Club. “The Point,” as it is known, occupies a rocky spit of land, a protected harbour, and the hill that overlooks them both. The club — replete with a private staff, tennis courts, a clubhouse-cum-hotel, and a pier all their own — worked hard to distinguish itself from the year-round community. It became a separate municipality officially dubbed Lookout, Maine, with its own post office and ZIP code. In 1906, the Ellsworth American, a mainland paper, called the Point “Maine’s Most Exclusive Summer Resort,” noting that its residents were among “Boston’s bluest blood,” drawn to The Island’s offers of virgin nature and simpler living
The world keeps hurtling toward and around Isle au Haut — the ocean ecosystem threatened by warming and overfishing, the arrival of the virtual realm a fundamental shift in the island’s isolation. Today, it is even possible to live on the island and work remotely. But Isle au Haut remains a world apart. Its fragility and remoteness are what lend The Island its enduring allure. I’m tempted, by habit and stale impulse, to write that the natural world is all there is to see and do here. But that feels like a false demotion. So let me try again: on The Island, the natural world is all.