Lubec, Maine

A Town in Between

The easternmost village on the U.S. Atlantic coast charts a course through tradition and change, natives and newcomers, nature’s beauty and nature’s fury.

By Joyce Kryszak
Photographed by Adam Woodworth

The ancient Christian Celts ­believed in the existence of supernatural spaces between heaven and earth — “thin places,” they called them, where the distance between the two realms, between the sacred and the profane, collapses. Gandhi talked about something similar, places where a mysterious power pervades everything. “I feel it,” Gandhi said, “though I do not see it. It transcends the senses.” Mystical nonsense? After spending some time in the town of Lubec, I’m not so sure.

The first person to describe Lubec’s “vibrational energy” to me was artist Shanna Wheelock, who draws inspiration from the view of Quoddy Narrows and West Quoddy Head Light outside her Crow Town Gallery. With sun-blushed chestnut hair, her neck swaddled in a scarf splashed with colors from the sea, the potter might be mistaken for a mariner’s daughter. But it was providence, not birthright that brought her to Lubec from Tennessee, some 17 years ago. Her then-husband’s grandfather presented the couple with a photo of a house with an address on the back; below it was taped a key. “I had never seen Lubec, nor heard of it, until three weeks before I moved here,” Wheelock says. She never looked back.

Wheelock says there are all kinds of crazy stories about how people are drawn to Lubec. “A woman visited my shop years ago,” she recounts. “She said her 7-year-old daughter, who had died of cancer, came to her in a dream and told her to go to Lubec, that it would be her healing place, a portal between the worlds.”

“Her 7-year-old daughter came to her in a dream and told her to go to Lubec, that it would be her healing place.”

Wheelock believes the tides are the source of Lubec’s pull. The tidal range here is among the highest in the world, as twice each day seawater floods the exposed ocean floor of the bays and coves, reaching depths of 28 feet. “If Lubec wants you, she won’t let you go,” Wheelock says.

These days, Lubec is in the midst of a tempest, struggling to accept newcomers and new ways forward, while hanging on to its essence — its thinness, if you will — during a season of change. A tragicomic event last winter is a fitting metaphor for Lubec’s reluctance to let go of its past.

With each storm that battered the harbor, Lubecers took unofficial turns standing vigil as the last smoked-herring brining shed in the country sighed its resignation. During a brutal nor’easter in January, gale-force winds pelted the bruised and tattered building, and churning waters yanked at the pilings. Finally, after more than 100 years, the 75-foot-long shed, one of five buildings in the McCurdy Smokehouse Museum complex, was washed into Lubec Narrows, the channel between Lubec and New Brunswick’s Campobello Island.

A Town in Between
For a few weeks each year, West Quoddy Head Light is the first place in the U.S. to see the sunrise.
A Town in Between
Fishing boats in Campobello Island's Head Harbour Wharf.

In the warmth of the rehabbed Mulholland Market Gallery next door to the museum, Rachel Rubeor, the president of Lubec Landmarks, retells the story. “It was just the coldest day, frigid really. There were many of us down there. John McCurdy and I sat in my car just watching as it floated under the bridge with all the dignity of the Queen Mary.”

Eventually, the beleaguered brining shed — or Briny, as some Lubecers call it — came to rest on a clam flat on Campobello Island. The unsanctioned trip abroad led to an international incident of sorts, after Rubeor alleged that scavengers were vandalizing the shed, and someone hoisted a Canadian flag on its remains.

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But folks on both sides of the maritime border say that’s all water under the bridge now. Rubeor points to the Briny T-shirts hanging behind the register inside the sleek white-walled gallery. The 76-year-old former Michigander believes the historic smokehouses are an essential part of Lubec’s charm and maritime heritage, and since taking over Lubec Landmarks 10 years ago, she’s worked to secure grants to restore the decaying complex. But she isn’t getting much support for resurrecting the brining shed. Most Lubecers — including McCurdy, its former owner — say the remaining splinters, which have been brought back home, aren’t worth saving.

Now 87, McCurdy grew up working in the herring smokehouses alongside his father. He ran the business for 25 years until 1991, when, he says, new government regulations and falling demand forced him to close. Though it’s hard to envision in this town of boarded-up buildings and storefronts, once there were 30 smokehouses and 23 sardine-packing plants squeezed in along the waterfront. Even so, McCurdy doesn’t have much nostalgia for Briny. “I already did my mourning,” he says. “When you’re the last of them, you don’t have much backing. You’re out there all alone.”

Lubec, Maine

In many ways, Lubec is a lonely, insular place. Two hours northeast of Bar Harbor, in Washington County, Lubec is the easternmost community in the U.S., seated at the tip of an 11-mile-long peninsula. By land or sea, this fishing village is geographically closer to its international neighbor — Canada’s Campobello Island, a mere one-minute drive over the Franklin Delano Roosevelt bridge — than it is to its sister fishing village of Eastport, Maine, a 50-minute drive up the coast.

But it’s the roiling tide — the heartbeat of the ocean, which pounds harder here — that makes Lubec feel at once isolated and enchanted. In a tangle of islands, channels, and ragged bays, the incoming tide clashes against a submerged mountain and the outflow of the St. Croix River, creating chaotic currents, fevered swells, and unusual phenomena, like whirlpools and waterspouts.

For Lubec fishermen, there’s nothing mysterious about the pull of these dangerous waters: they’ve been a source of sustenance for generations. Even today, with declining catches due to overfishing and climate change, the community of 1,359 people includes more than 40 clammers, a handful of lobstermen, and some 100 licensed fishermen (including ground-fishermen and shellfish harvesters diving or dragging for scallops, urchins, and periwinkles), all making a living off Lubec’s 92 miles of shore. It is not necessarily a comfortable living, however. According to the 2010 census, Lubec’s median household income is under $30,000 a year, and the poverty rate hovers around 18 percent.

“There’s a certain graciousness in the people of Lubec, but the fewer opinions you express, the better you’ll get along here.”

Lubec, Maine
A Town in Between
A Town in Between
A Town in Between
A Town in Between

Water Street, Lubec’s main drag, which is mostly shuttered this time of year; Lubec Brewing Company brewmaster Gale White; Sally Ann’s Cafe and Market; the taproom at White's 3-year-old brewery, one of just a handful of year-round businesses; the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge, linking Lubec and Canada’s Campobello Island, where FDR’s cottage is part of an international park.

Thirty-five-year-old Basil Woodward III is a typical Lubecer, stitching together many jobs to get by. In the summer, he’s a bookkeeper at SummerKeys, a music school drawing students from around the world. He’s also a handyman and does snowplowing. But Woodward drags most of his winter income from the Atlantic’s icy waters, fishing sea urchins. “It’s a tough business,” he says. “You don’t know from one day to the next what you’re going to get paid — some urchins might not have anything [roe] in them. And the cold is brutal when the wind is blowing.”

With limits on how many days they can fish, and how much they can catch, most fishermen go out anytime they can, even when forecasts say it could be treacherous. In a single winter nine years ago, eight fishermen perished in a series of violent storms that sank several boats off Lubec’s shores. The youngest man was 19-year-old Logan Preston. Another man, 29-year-old Joey Jones, braved the perilous weather because he had a truck payment due. He left behind a wife and a 6-year-old daughter.

Julie Keene was among the fishermen who combed the beaches, praying to find survivors. When I met her this fall, Keene waded through the rows of her bountiful terrace garden, collecting late green tomatoes before the frost, her blond hair flying out from under a black fishing cap. Descended from generations of fishermen and lighthouse keepers, the broad-shouldered 60-year-old is a former commercial fisherman whose lifetime on the seas has taught her a thing or two about listening to Mother Nature. So she listened a few years ago when instinct told her it was time to leave the ocean waters. “Many years ago, a friend in Portland who got done with commercial fishing said to me, ‘You know, Julie, there comes a point where you feel you’ve used up all your luck,’” she said. “I didn’t understand it, because I was only in my 20s. But I understand it now.”

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Keene’s partner of 25 years, Adam Boutin, is a scallop dragger. Keene tries not to worry about that. She stays busy throughout the year fishing for elvers (baby eels), mending nets, cooking, and more. “If it’s rough, though, I usually can’t help myself,” she says. “I go to town to see if I can see him out there — and I watch.”

After that horrific winter, a Safe Harbor Committee was formed, with Keene as its chair. The project, now in the engineering and fundraising stage, will create a breakwater in Johnsons Bay to give fishermen some protection from the deadly tides when launching and returning in their skiffs. In 2016, Lost Fisherman’s Memorial Park was created at the end of Water Street, overlooking Cobscook Bay and the fishermen as they come in. Engraved on an elegant granite wave sculpture are the names of the 111 fishermen who have perished since 1900.

“It just seemed like it never stopped,” says Shelly Corey Tinker, a lobsterman’s granddaughter and fisherman’s wife, who started the fundraising effort to pay for the memorial after the sea claimed her neighbor, Loren Lank, husband to Florence and father of six. Tinker says everyone rallied, raising the $150,000 needed in less than a year. “People would come knocking on my door and hand me $300 they raised in a yard sale.”

Lubec, Maine
A view of Lubec across Lubec Narrows, from Campobello Island. To the far right is the Mulholland Point Lighthouse, part of Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.

The ties that bind Lubec can make it tough for outsiders — or, as they’re called here, PFAs, People From Away — to feel fully embraced. Bob Judd, a five-month-a-year Lubec resident, says it took decades for him to feel accepted as part of the community. He started coming in the ’70s and eventually bought a piece of Lubec history, an 1885 former sardine factory, which also housed the post office and general store. Walking through its front door is a walk back in time. The original stools are drawn up to the fire-etched potbelly stove, as if their occupants had just stepped away to grab a cup of coffee. Judd, a tall, gray-bearded man, looks like he could be the store’s keeper, and in a way, he is. He’s drawing up a covenant that will preserve the building indefinitely. Although he’s demonstrated his commitment to protecting the town’s heritage and counts many native Lubecers among his friends, Judd treads lightly when asked about the community’s future. “There’s a certain graciousness in the people of Lubec,” he says, “but the fewer opinions you express, the better you’ll get along here.”

“You can go to Cobscook Bay, see no houses, no boats, and say this is what Champlain saw in 1604.”

Still, engaging with the community goes a long way toward breaking down barriers. When McGinley Jones moved to town for a housesitting job 20 years ago, she had a serendipitous encounter with a lifelong Lubecer outside the old Howie’s Convenience Store. Jones and a friend were scrounging around in her car seat cushions, trying to scrape together enough change for a mini-bottle of vodka. “But we were still 35 cents short,” Jones recalls. “Then this woman sees us and says, ‘What’cha short, deah? Can’t deny a couple of girls a little nip in the wintah!’”

The encounter cemented Jones’s decision to make Lubec her permanent home, and she eventually became friends with the woman who spotted her that 35 cents — Maureen Lord, the manager of the local branch of Bar Harbor Bank & Trust. Two years ago, Lord went to bat for Jones and her husband, Gale White, when they sought a loan to purchase the Water Street building that houses their business, Lubec Brewing Company. Lord assured the lender that the couple was a good risk, even convinced the building owner to lower his price to help get the loan approved. “That’s how it is here — people help each other out,” Jones says.

Lubec, Maine
Though the last of its herring smokehouses and canneries closed nearly 30 years ago, Lubec’s Fishing industry endures. Most Fishermen go out even in winter, when brutal cold and severe storms make the powerful tides even more treacherous.

The loan saved the business — one of just a half-dozen open year-round — and by extension, the jobs of eight employees, including three single moms. With its bohemian vibe and regular live music (including a band called The From Aways), the pub stays busy, and Jones and White return the embrace with their commitment to helping the community. “We have fundraisers, birthdays, anniversaries — we’ve even had wakes,” says Jones. When I visit one afternoon, well after tourist season, the place is nonetheless full of patrons. From behind the bar, Jones offers me a spoonful of bubbling shepherd’s pie made with spicy organic sausage, smothered with garlic béchamel.

For her part, Lord believes PFAs and tourism are vital to Lubec’s future, and she co-chairs the annual Bay of Fundy International Marathon with neighboring Campobello Island, part of a “Two Nation Vacation” marketing campaign.

Likewise, seventh-generation Lubecer Davis Pike is on board with encouraging tourism as a way to keep the village vital in the face of declining fisheries. Lubecers can’t rely on fishing going forward, Pike says. A board member for the Down East Coastal Conservancy, he believes the Cobscook region should capitalize on its natural beauty and enigmatic allure. He envisions it as a less-crowded alternative to Acadia National Park. “You can go into Cobscook Bay, look around, and see no houses, no boats, and say oh, God, this is what Champlain saw in 1604,” Pike says. “This is the last place in New England that’s like that.”

Lubec, Maine
Sea smoke rises around East Quoddy Head Lighthouse on Campobello Island, Lubec’s nearest neighbor and home of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, once the summer home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and among the area’s biggest tourism draws.

It was Pike who introduced millionaire philanthropist Gilbert Butler — a friend from his Harvard University days — to the Cobscook region a few years ago. The Butler Conservation Fund has since purchased 13 properties with about 10 miles of shorefront for public recreational use and has plans to buy more, for an investment estimated at $2 million. One of Butler’s biggest projects is Red Point Park, an 80-acre waterfront parcel that will open this spring for biking, hiking, and picnicking. Eventually, the three-season park will connect to adjacent properties being developed for recreation.

“We’re thrilled about Red Point,” says Heather Henry, who operates the nearby Eastland Motel with her husband, Glen Tenan, and serves on the board of several community support organizations. “It’s the PFAs who take the risks. The town was boarded up.”

But the objections voiced about these sorts of developments typically aren’t economic ones. Rather, locals worry about PFAs making changes that diminish the qualities that have long defined Lubec’s character. “It certainly isn’t the town I grew up in,” Julie Keene, the former fisherman, says. “It was a thriving place then — you knew everybody, but not anymore.”

But survey the scene at the brewpub and a new picture of Lubec emerges. Over in a corner, a man and a woman from away snuggle on an overstuffed sofa, their dog curled up at their feet, listening to a jazz pianist playing across the room. A local fisherman recognizes the couple from a prior visit and walks over to shake hands and chat them up. Watching from the bar, McKinley Jones says people like the PFA couple, who seem to get what this community is about, typically fit right in. “That’s what makes the place magical,” she says. “When you have that, it’s enchanting.”