By Barbara Fernald
In October, many of us in the Cranberry Isles were badly shaken by the untimely death of Courtney Chaplin, an Islesford community member.
When he didn’t show up at home, after a day of work on the island, his wife Kate made some phone calls and a ten-person nighttime search began. By morning there were game wardens with dogs searching the woods, along with a seaplane criss-crossing the island for hours, creating an eerie quiet when it left to refuel.
People from both Great Cranberry and Islesford assembled in front of the town office, on Islesford, waiting for orders to form search parties. Several women went home to prepare food, knowing searchers and police would need to eat at some point. Within an hour, there was a buffet of pulled pork, rolls, potato salad, salad, and three kinds of ginger bread complete with paper plates, napkins, silverware, and coffee for anyone who needed to refuel.
In the center of town, the air was uneasy, yet still hopeful, as people stood in small groups, or sat on the back of pick-up trucks, or at the picnic tables outside of the post office.
Katelyn Damon, our Islesford constable and the town’s public safety coordinator, along with the town fire chief, Richard Howland, were the liaison with authorities from the mainland.
It was one of those beautiful and unseasonably warm October days. A tour boat was still running and sure enough, we soon saw groups of three and four tourists slowly making their way up the road. I can’t imagine what they thought, arriving upon a rather somber and not too chatty assemblage of the local townsfolk as an airplane flew low over the island.
I heard that one tourist thought the food inside was some kind of welcome spread. As he was helping himself to a pulled pork sandwich, our town clerk, Denise, politely shooed him away.
Outside, I was sitting with Eric Sandberg, on the back of Cory Alley’s truck. Two women quietly approached asking, “What is going on?” We told them the basics. A missing person. Waiting to get directions from authorities for a search party. No one allowed in woods while dogs were going through.
“Oh. Is it an older person?”
“No. He’s only 50 and incredibly strong.”
As they walked back to the boat, I believe their prayers were added to the silent swarm that filled the air.
We waited as the police went through all of the houses where Courtney was a caretaker. They had been searched several times overnight, but still had to be covered once more by the authorities. I went home to get extra cell phone chargers to leave in the post office.
We had no idea how long the day would be. When I returned, Richard and Katelyn were counting off two groups limited to 15 people to be the first search parties. The rest of us just kind of looked at each other. More waiting. More hope. More worry. More prayers.
Cindy Thomas and I looked at each other and said, “Yup. Let’s go now. While we’re waiting.” October Dip of the Month Club took priority for a few minutes that afternoon. We dipped off the rocky beach at the end of our road, not wanting to seem frivolous by going to the Sand Beach where the search parties had started. I pictured Courtney, on the back beach maybe injured, but smiling at us for finally finding him. If only. Soon after we returned from our dip, word came that he had been found but he was no longer alive.
Courtney’s relationships were warm with some people, and more complicated with others. On the day he went missing, any differences were cast aside as community members from both islands came together to help find him. Throughout the day I kept wishing he could see this outpouring.
Courtney leaves a legacy of phenomenal love for his wife and three teenage kids, and a legacy of incredible craftsmanship all over Islesford. To our town he gave an opportunity for common caring—a legacy of the kindness and community we all felt for each other that day. I hope we carry that energy far into the future. God knows we could all use more kindness these days.
Barbara Fernald lives, writes, and makes jewelry on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island).