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I Was Stranded For a Month on an Icebound Maine Island

A brutal winter tests an icebound scientist’s off-grid savvy — and her capacity for solitude.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine
By Diane F. Cowan
From our February 2016 issue
Diane Cowan

You may have heard about me: I’m the lobster biologist who was iced in and isolated on Friendship Long Island for 34 days last year, one of the harshest Maine winters in decades. My predicament made international news.

From mid-January to early March, I spent a sum total of six hours on the mainland: 2½ hours on January 22, when I filed some paperwork and took a shower at the Friendship office of The Lobster Conservancy (TLC), the nonprofit organization I created in 1996; two hours on January 30, the day before Friendship Harbor froze over completely; and 1½ hours nearly five weeks later, on March 5, the day the ice loosened its grip just enough to allow my lobsterman friend Philip Bramhall to come get me (not having showered in 43 days, I refused to venture past TLC’s wharf-side office). During the long stretch that I was stranded on the island, I told my journal what I was doing, thinking, and feeling.

Now, I’m telling you.

Stranded: Day 5
February 3, 2015

Iced in. Ice as far as eye can see.

We had another foot of snow last night. I’ve been out to sweep and shovel the back porch. Most of the wharf is clear, except alongside the lobster traps. It’s too windy to shovel there — the snow would just blow back in my face, and it’s too cold for that.

Why am I here on this island, alone except for Sula, my gorgeous mixed-breed rescue dog?

I’m living my dream, learning everything I possibly can about lobsters as an eyewitness to their lives.

I always thought I’d be a professor at one of Maine’s small liberal arts colleges, and I was for a while. I was teaching at Bates College when I started the lobster nursery habitats research project that led to the founding of TLC, with its mission to sustain a thriving lobster fishery through science and community education. A year after I created TLC, the organization was given a substantial donation of island properties in the Cushing peninsula town of Friendship, and in May of 1999, I moved to the largest of them, 3-mile-long-by-¾-mile-wide Friendship Long Island, where I live in a small house on the tip of a tiny peninsula that’s bound on one side by Muscongus Bay and on the other by a 6-acre dammed-off tidal cove. This is the former lobster pound, where lobsters were kept at the turn of the 20th century when the island hosted a year-round fishing community. Today, the pound is my laboratory, and the lobsters that live there are free to come and go as they please. Every day of the year that conditions allow, I step out the door, walk a few steps, and dive in to observe their courtship, mating, and other social behaviors.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine
Cowan looked out on an ice-clogged and unnavigable Muscongus Bay. She had to work hard to stay warm, but she was well provisioned.

Although there’s no ferry service to the island, I too can come and go as I please six months of the year, rowing the one mile to Friendship Heritage Lobster Co-op when I don’t have so much gear to mess with and zipping back and forth in my 21-foot motorboat, Zostera, when wind or labor requires.

A lot of people seem to enjoy my way of living in summer, when all of Friendship Long Island’s 25 homes and camps are occupied. By October, however, when the winds begin to howl in earnest, most, if not always all, of the houses are empty. I drain the pipes in my house so they won’t freeze, and I beach the ramp and float that allow access to the wharf. Coming and going becomes a lot harder, especially if I take Sula: I row to Zostera’s mooring, towing the kayak that I then haul onto the motorboat. When we reach the mainland, I drop Sula and my gear at the wharf, motor to my Friendship mooring, launch my kayak (which can’t accommodate Sula), and paddle to shore. From November through April, hindered first by wind and waves and later by big chunks of ice, I make it to the mainland about once every two weeks to visit the post office, buy fresh milk, do laundry, and take a shower. Then I turn around and head home, where there is no running water or mail delivery or stores or cars or neighbors. Just Sula and me.

But we are comfortable. My house has solar panels, which charge a bank of batteries and power the lights, computer (complete with Internet connection), television, DVD player, stereo, and microwave oven. My refrigerator runs on propane.

As I look out on the ice-choked bay, I wonder if, for the first time in 16 years, I’ll go more than two weeks before crossing to the mainland again.

Stranded: Day 8
February 6, 2015

Am I bored? No, I’m far too busy doing what I need to do to keep from freezing. I get frustrated that I can’t find enough time to work on my lobster data and the book I am writing, but I can’t imagine I’ve ever been stronger or more physically fit.

I spend my days splitting wood, dragging already-split logs out of the deep snow in the woods, and hauling buckets from my only winter water source, a dug well about 120 yards from my house.

It’s minus 10 degrees this morning. The sea is ice white. The world is silent and still. All I can hear is the crackling of the woodstove.

And I shovel snow. I shovel paths to the well, the outhouse, and to my field site one mile away on the other side of the island, where I take a census of baby lobsters in their natural nursery habitat, a valuable indicator of lobster fishery health. The lowest astronomical tides of the month, when I can count and assess the baby lobsters hiding under rocks usually covered by water, won’t start for 12 more days, but considering the amount of snow and how long it takes me to travel a few feet, I need to start grooming the trail now.

I also shovel out my boat, but I can’t do that now: access to its mooring is blocked by sea ice, and I have too high an instinct for self-preservation to walk across it. My pledge to stay off the ice was solidified earlier when I was snowshoeing in the woods and suddenly dropped hip deep into a spruce trap — a cavity that had formed around a fallen tree under the deep snow. I stood there and thought a minute, then dropped onto my right side and rolled until I could grab a tree limb and pull myself out. From now on, I’ll poke around in the snow with ski poles before advancing through the woods. And I won’t walk out on the ice to my boat. I love life, and I don’t want to die until I’m so old and feeble that there are no other options left.

Stranded: Day 12
February 10, 2015

Mom wants to know what I’m eating. Today, I emailed photos of the refrigerator, freezer, and kitchen shelves to show I have plenty. Mom wrote back, noting that I had lots of candy canes. I hadn’t noticed all those Christmas leftovers, but I did notice two jars of green coffee beans. I’d forgotten about my plan to roast my own beans. With my stockpile of Rock City Coffee Roasters Jet running low, now’s the time to try it — hooray!

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine
A lobster biologist, Cowan spends hours underwater observing lobsters’ behavior, and she has a particular interest in monitoring baby lobster habitat, accessible just once a month during the lowest astronomical tides. Here, she and Sula examine her collection of molted shells.

I also reveled in the culinary delights yet to come: My freezer is still full of local scallops, island deer meat, garden basil, pesto, chard, beet greens, peas, and more. I’ve run out of olive oil, but fortunately I have bacon grease, so I made up a new pan-seared scallop recipe: Coat 1 pound of scallops in one stick of melted butter and refrigerate. Go to the “root cellar” — a.k.a. the bathtub, the coolest, driest place in the house this time of year — and take out a couple of leeks from last summer’s garden. Cook them with the scallops in bacon grease and serve over squid-ink pasta from Portland’s Micucci Grocery. White wine, if you happen to have it, would enhance the sauce nicely.

A glass of wine also would taste good with such a wonderful meal, but I don’t have wine or any other adult beverage, and the nearest wine shop is (almost literally) an ocean away. Fortunately, I do have yeast, and I have fresh ginger, so today I started brewing my own ginger beer.

Stranded: Day 16
February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine’s Day!

It’s minus 10 degrees this morning. The sea is ice white. The world is silent and still. All I can hear is the crackling of the wood burning inside Mr. Green, my emerald-colored enamel woodstove. Thank God the wind has died, and thank God I didn’t neglect Mr. Green last night. It was too cold (47 degrees!) to sleep upstairs in my bed, so I slept on the floor in front of Mr. Green, getting up every couple of hours to feed him. Despite his huge bed of coals, it’s still cold in here.

The weather forecast for today looks good. Tonight and tomorrow look dreadful.

Stranded: Day 21
February 19, 2015

4:30 a.m.: Outdoor temperature 27 degrees. Indoor temperature 62.2 degrees. Predicted tides: high of 11.31 feet above mean low water at 10:44 a.m.; low of -1.96 feet below mean low water at 5:06 p.m.

I’ve had my eye on this set of tides — the biggest tides of 2015 — since I bought the Maine Tide and Everyday Calendar last August. If they converge with a frozen sea and a storm, it could be a disaster.

The marine forecast has a gale watch. High winds are predicted the next few days. So here I sit, looking out on a frozen sea, worrying about what will happen when the big tides come.

I remember the tide that floated the steps of the front porch on December 3, 2009. That day, the water had someplace to go, splashing through the boards. Ice won’t be so forgiving. I could lose the entire wharf.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

7 p.m.: Not long before sunset, I walked across the island to my field site, hoping to count and measure the juvenile lobsters that had been there when I did the January census. The gravitational pull of the moon had drained the sea away, leaving the low-tide terrace covered with large chunks of ice. The ice was softer and not as thick as the ice on this side of the island. I walked in snowshoes nearly all the way to the lobster habitat, then switched to Muck boots somewhere around the mean-low-water mark, where there was open mud and some pooled seawater. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen mud. It stunk like heaven to me.

The outer ledges were mostly free of ice, but broken chunks, probably left as the tide receded, were teetering on top, preventing me from conducting my census. I was surprised to find ice where the baby lobsters live, but even if it hadn’t been there, I would not have been able to count the lobsters, because there was water. The tide didn’t go as low as predicted. That’s data too, I reminded myself.

When I got home around sunset, I just wanted to come inside and get warm, but Sula wanted to roam around and play. I felt bad leaving her behind, but I am afraid she’ll go too far out on the ice — and I fear a confrontation with the bobcat that’s been leaving tracks everywhere. I wouldn’t normally, but the poor cat is obviously getting desperate for food. That’s why I made damned sure I was home before dark, and I sang at the top of my voice all the way.

Stranded: Day 25
February 23, 2015

I was watching a movie, eating popcorn, and drinking my first home-brewed ginger beer, when my friend Pam Cabanas called. She and a few friends have hired an airplane to look at the extent of the sea ice. Pam thought the pilot might agree to drop a package from the sky. She asked what I wanted.


After all, I was drinking ginger beer. With rum, I could be drinking a dark and stormy.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

Stranded: Day 26.
Airdrop Day!
February 24, 2015

First thought of the day: cheese. I would like some cheese. And milk, fresh fruits, and veggies. But all I asked for was rum.

Then Pam called. I was sure she was going to tell me that there would be no gifts falling from the sky. Maybe there’d be no flying at all — after all, it was minus 15 degrees on the Knox County Airport runway. But I was wrong: Penobscot Island Air pilot Tomás Sowles was excited to make an airdrop. Pam was preparing two small packages, and they’d soon be on their way.

I dressed in layer upon layer and donned snowshoes, and as I walked along the narrow strip of land that connects my place to the rest of the island, the plane appeared and a package dropped from the sky, but I couldn’t see where it landed. I made my way to the outbuilding on my neighbor’s property, where I watched the plane circle overhead. I waved, hoping to see faces. After a half-dozen or more passes, a second package careened out the co-pilot’s window, dropping smack dab into a snowbank on the shore. A perfect landing! Sula got to it first.

I searched and searched, but I couldn’t find the other package, so Sula and I went inside to warm up and see what we had: coffee, half and half, oranges, breakfast sausage, dog food, a Snicker’s bar.

No rum.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

I went back outside and searched until I found the second package. Inside were more oranges and a bottle of rum. Dark and stormy, here I come.

Stranded: Day 28
February 26, 2015

Am I lonely? Not when there’s no one around to remind me that humans can be a nice distraction. I was fine and dandy, just me and my dog, until that plane flew over, and then I wished I was up there with my friends. And I felt lonely today — 13 days since I last saw a boat go in or out of Friendship Harbor — when the Coast Guard came but couldn’t manage to break us out of the ice. But mostly, I’ve been way too focused on what I have to do to survive and on keeping some good work on lobsters going.

Over these 16 years of island solitude, I find I generally get lonely twice a year: in early summer, when the summer people arrive and remind me there’s another world out there, and again in early fall, when, just as I’ve gotten used to them, they leave. The rest of the time, I’m happy just to be out here with my furry, feathered, and crusty friends.

Stranded: Day 29
February 27, 2015

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

The ice is breaking up. There are some open places in the pound, not just in the sluiceway, and the ice is looking thinner in the bay. The best of the February light has turned to near-March ugliness. Bless the winds for staying relatively calm.

Stranded: Day 32
March 2, 2015

This morning, I stood at the end of the wharf with binoculars and saw the WCSH News Center team a mile away on the other shore, filming me for the 6 o’clock news. The airdrop has attracted media attention.

In an email, WCSH reporter Don Carrigan asked me if I feel claustrophobic. No, I spend the better part of every day outdoors. I feel for the people in Boston who are stuck inside their homes and offices because the sidewalks aren’t plowed — that would make me claustrophobic. Surrounded by nature’s majesty, I often feel small and insignificant, but that’s a very different thing from claustrophobia. It’s affirming. In no way do I feel trapped or cornered.

Stranded: Day 34
March 4, 2015

This morning at around 4, the first indication of ice out was auditory: waves slapping the wharf and dam. Then I heard rain hitting the water. These are welcome sounds. I tried to go back to sleep and failed, so I got up, but it wasn’t for another hour or so that I saw the extent of the sea’s thaw: Last night at dusk, it was ice from here to the mainland. This morning, it’s open water.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

Stranded: Day 35
March 5, 2015

7:53 a.m.: I talked to Philip, my lobsterman friend, yesterday: There is still a lot of ice floating in the harbor, but Reliance — the Island Transporter barge that moves construction equipment up and down the coast — came and broke out his lobsterboat. The A.S.A.P. (named for Philip’s wife Sue, their daughters Amanda and Ali, and Philip himself) is on the wharf, ready to take Sunset Knoll Landscaping workers out to Cow Island for the first time in three weeks. Philip said he’d call if he were able to drop off mail, but there are big chunks of ice floating this way, and I wonder if they’re going to lock me in again.

9:02 a.m.: Philip is going to try to get out before 11. He asked if I wanted to go to the mainland. No! Please just bring my mail! Not having showered or laundered in 43 days, I don’t wish to be seen or smelled. And what if the ice comes back while I’m gone? I can’t get stuck on the mainland with Sula still on the island. But I finally agreed to go on the condition that I don’t have to venture beyond TLC’s mainland office, all of 20 paces from the wharf.

Stranded, Diane Cowan, Down East Magazine

11:51 a.m.: I’ve been ashore! From my window, I watched as Philip arrived in A.S.A.P. and carried a tote full of letters, magazines, and packages to my house — I joked about all the Valentines I had gotten. Then we set out for the mainland. We had only a small window of time to get out and back while the tide was high.

At the TLC office, I took a shower, did a load of laundry, filed papers, and watered the plants. I rummaged through the cupboards and the freezer, filling a bag with cheeses, tea, olive oil, and dog treats. When I returned to the island, Sula was frantic. I’d been gone less than two hours.

Now, I’ve just come in from hanging laundry (yes, it’s 25 degrees and cloudy, but the clothes will smell so good) to find a phone message from my dear friend Fred Moon! He’s at his place on Pine Island in Florida and says an 80-year-old woman noticed his Maine license plates. She told him she’d seen a story on the Today show about a woman iced-in on a Maine island. Fred knew it had to be me.

Almost Free: Day 37
March 7, 2015

I have mixed feelings as I watch the winter melt away, knowing I’ll probably never see anything like it again. As soon as I’m zipping along in Zostera, coming and going as I please, I’m going to buy an old wooden treasure chest and fill it with books, movies, chocolates, olive oil, Rock City Jet coffee beans, maybe a pretty dress, and a bottle of rum. I’ll hide it in a closet and mark it with a sign: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE FEBRUARY!

Just in case.

Photo credits: Pam Cabanas (top photo: Diane Cowan waves to her friends who arranged an airdrop of goodies on Cowan’s 26th day of being icebound on Friendship Long Island.); Irvin Serrano (portrait); other images courtesy Diane Cowan (boat & dock).