You Can't Make This Stuff Up
On a Saturday in January, as my hands were deep in a bowl of potato bread dough, the phone rang. Unable to pick up the phone at the moment, I heard the voice of a mainland friend talking to the tape: “There's an article in today's paper, it mentions Matinicus...”
Once again, Matinicus Island was in the newspaper. My loaves shaped and rising in the pans, I checked the story online. Yes, once again, someone out there is writing about us, and once again, they make our home appear the very bitter end.
The story described how three birders spent a cold day out here working on the annual bird count, and how one islander was trying to find them to tell them about a snowy owl. Any trip to Matinicus will offer plenty for the outdoor writer. Whether one journeys by small boat or small plane (and there are no other options) the trip is rarely boring. Sometimes breathtaking, sometimes exhausting, often stunning, and more-than-occasionally sickening, I don't fault any writer for focusing on the transportation portion of their Matinicus adventure.
I would just encourage them to be accurate.
This particular writer clearly did not enjoy flying. That's fair enough; lots of people find riding in small planes and “bush piloting” a bit stressful. Still, I was concerned about how the headline began: “Treacherous trip to Matinicus...”
The owners and pilots of Penobscot Island Air do not offer “treacherous” passage to the islands. These professionals, often former Alaska bush pilots or retired military, know how to put safety first. There are many days each year when flying here is impossible, because of dangerous winds, ice, fog, even plain old mud...but this day was not one of those. If the conditions make flying unsafe, they tell their customers to try again tomorrow. As it happened, I flew home to Matinicus on the same plane that took the birders, including the distinctly uncomfortable writer, off the island.
Yes, the island “runway” is a “narrow gravel strip,” but “treacherous” is far too scary a description. It is not merely “frozen mud.” Essential to our community, islanders and air service owners struggle to find money to maintain the airstrip surface.
More worrisome was the assertion in the story that four people were stuffed into an aircraft designed for three. The writer was no doubt hoping to emphasize the wild back-country adventure aspect of the trip, but he didn't consider the ramifications of such a statement. He was (unintentionally) saying that the air service breaks safety rules. That is simply not true. There are no planes “designed for three” in the PIA fleet. I'll admit, with my 22 years of experience riding in those little Cessnas, that they
can sometimes feel like flying sardine cans, but decisions about safety, flying conditions, and the loading of passengers are best left to the pilots who do it all the time.
Remember, they risk their necks, too.
A few other minor details were incorrect in the story, but these things happen. I recognize that a winter day can make Matinicus seem desolate and lonely, and that such is a fair topic for an outdoor writer. A“handful” of people live here, we read, “at any given time.” No, a handful of people live here in January. When the writer met an islander who was looking for them to let them know that a snowy owl had been spotted on Matinicus, the man's noisy, rattling truck did sport a TDS Telecom logo, which the writer noted as “out of place.” Funny, but Paul, as well as being a hopeful owl-spotter, works as the local phone man. It wasn't out of place at all. Likewise, we read that swapping e-mail addresses is “amusing,” as “technology seems out of place here.”
We do have a neighbor who gets a big kick out of telling about her wireless Internet and her outhouse, but this business of computers and telephones as misplaced oddities on the island seems more like touristy wishful thinking than anything sensible...wishful, that is, until they want to use that technology...to call the air service, for example.
Oh, and finally, one of the locals was described as having a “downeast accent straight from central casting.” Actually, when people first meet that particular islander, they more often notice his complete lack of any regional dialect. A Maine native and lifelong Maine resident, this man has about as much downeast accent as Walter Cronkite did. He doesn't say “ain't” and he doesn't say “ayuh.” I guess that's thanks to all those schoolteachers and aunties in his childhood. Of course it doesn't matter, but this sort of thing happens all the time when writers take on Matinicus. The journalist saw the overalls, the plaid shirt and the hauling boots, the bushy beard and the muffler-less truck, and completely imagined the downeast accent.
No harm done. Just let's not make the flying service look bad for the sake of a hair-raising headline.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island and thinks bush pilots are heroes.