Getting There From Here
Four of us were expected at the Island Teacher’s Conference, sponsored by the Island Institute and held in Belfast last week. Teachers, school committee members, and other staff from one-room schools and some of the other island schools would be attending. The networking is fun; the hard part is getting there. Needless to say, the weather forecast did not guarantee conditions “flyable” on the day we needed to cross the bay. We did have one of our infrequent state ferries scheduled for the day prior (and by infrequent I mean roughly thirty trips a year.) Taking the ferry, we realized, would be the wise move.
“It won’t be too bad,” the guys say. “It’ll be behind you.”
This attempt at comfort and reassurance is what we hear when we are about to board the state ferry vessel Everett Libby (or any other boat) for a long, wet, tedious, possibly freezing, potentially sickening trip to Rockland. The ferry rides to and from Matinicus in poor weather can feel like a boot camp endurance challenge, a continuous loop in the space-time continuum where there is no way out, nowhere to run, and one wonders if there is punishment for sins of past lives. You cannot leave, you cannot get comfortable, you may not be able to get away from somebody’s irritating chatter or the high-pitched engine whine or the diesel exhaust or the tourist blather or the yipping dog or the smell of somebody else’s, uh, mal de mer. Your shoes may well be soaked through. It might be a very long two hours.
About a half an hour from the island, maybe a quarter of the way across, there is a section of open ocean where the seas are technically and quite properly described as “confused” and where even on a good day there’s a little something weird going on underfoot. One can safely assume that if the ol’ stomach holds up through that, all shall be well.
As the ferry idled at the end of the Steamboat Wharf through the one-hour layover on Matinicus, while Tom and Craig got their seven tons each of wood pellets come all the way from Damariscotta Hardware and a couple of the guys maneuvered two “junkers” (dead trucks) aboard, to be met in Rockland by Tim the Wrecker, the deckhands and engineer stepped aboard the Maine Seacoast Mission vessel Sunbeam for cookies and coffee. Somebody called over to the ferry bridge on the VHF and asked the captain if he wanted anything. He needed to stay aboard and keep on the throttle, just a little, so he got take-out.
Back years ago, in National Fisherman, Reverend Stan Haskell used to call the Sunbeam “God’s Tugboat.” Okay. Twenty-odd years ago I told Reverend Tony Burkhart it was more like a floating truck stop. The guys here just want a piece of hand-built pie and an hour’s diversion before they go back to work. Little doubt God’ll vouch for the sense in that.
Somebody thought to be sure to remind the captain of the Sunbeam that he had once again delivered the bad weather. The jibe is traditional and obligatory and more often than not, accurate. “Oh, no,” said Captain Mike Johnson. “It wasn’t bad when we got here at one o’clock in the morning.” Oh, yeah, that’s right; Paul made that trip down to the harbor the night before at nine some-odd to check for skiffs, maybe move a few, so the Sunbeam could make the inside of the wharf in the middle of the night. They came early, or late, as you like, from Isle au Haut to beat the gale; we were glad to see them here in the morning.
It was raining hard as Heather and Lana and I waited to board the ferry. I thought I saw hailstones. The cozy main deck salon of the Sunbeam made a far better waiting room than we usually get, with Pat’s coffee cake and all, but we still squirmed a bit over what was to come. I have had rides aboard that ferry that seemed to go on for six, seven hours. I’ve had a ferry ride from North Sidney, Nova Scotia, to Port au Basques, Newfoundland, that seemed to go faster than the ride to Rockland from our home town ledge pile. The teacher was genuinely planning on getting seasick, and we were all three thoroughly soaked before the trip had even begun.
Eventually, the wood pellet truck made its way back down the island to the wharf; that was our signal that coffee hour had concluded. We thanked Pat the cook, said our goodbyes to Mike and Storey and Rob and Sharon, braced ourselves and walked up the ramp, trying to step on the non-skid. The National Weather Service yesterday had been giving gale warnings for today. I’ve been on trips like that. I’ve been aboard when trucks got so iced up you couldn’t see through the windshield, when they took so much water there was no reason to assume they’d start again, when loads shifted, trucks slid sideways, chains creaked, freight rolled in the back, overload springs made unnatural sounds.
Paul climbed up on the concrete abutment from which he operates the works for the ferry ramp (“transfer bridge”). The ferry guys retrieved their eye-spliced lines from our wharf pilings, hooked the chain across the bow, the vehicle ramp was raised and the ferry began to back away from the wharf.
The Matinicus Island teacher stood on the deck in wool hat and raingear singing Monty Python songs to herself. Whatever it takes to keep one’s mind off certain discomforts. Lana and I sat in the passenger cabin, swearing next time we’d be smart and bring pillows. We did not, after all, descend into either fisticuffs or “rock paper scissors” over who got to ride in Stuart’s pickup truck the whole way over and sleep. The rigid, close seats in the passenger cabin are less than ideal for napping, and napping is often the best way to cross the bay.
Three hours later, as we warmed our hands over burritos in Rockland, we speculated on how all the other island teachers were getting to the conference. Look at the map: Isle au Haut, Monhegan, Cliff Island — you can “get there from here,” sometimes.
Eva Murray lives, writes, and bakes on Matinicus Island.