By Barbara Fernald
Summer visitors often ask what it’s like to live here in the winter. For many of us, this is a much slower and quieter time of year, affording us the time to travel, to catch up on some projects or take a class. I dedicate the month of January to reading more, spending a few hours by the woodstove with a book, after breakfast, whenever I can. My husband schedules all of his annual doctor’s appointments for January and February so he doesn’t take time away from fishing.
No matter where you live, there are bills to pay, meals to put on the table, and homes to heat. The only real difference between us and our friends on the mainland is that we have to take a boat, first, to go anywhere.
When winter weather is challenging to drivers, it is also challenging to boat captains and passengers. There are plenty of days I change my plans to go off the island. Do I really want to ride through “that” to go driving in “that?”
Most receptionists are amenable to changing an appointment when you say you can’t come in because you don’t want to experience a rough boat ride. I believe they picture themselves on a boat in “that” and wouldn’t want to do it either. It makes them very accommodating.
We don’t have all the summer traffic to deal with now, but in a snowy winter it is hard to get to Ellsworth before 10 a.m. on the 8:15 a.m. boat. Though the town parking lot is plowed, it still takes time to dig out and clear snow from the car in Northeast Harbor. Good thing we get to warm up by clearing and shoveling out our island cars before catching the boat! We keep this time frame in mind when making winter appointments.
The 6:30 a.m. commuter boat is an option used by several high school students and island residents who work on the mainland. It makes a return trip from Northeast Harbor at 5 p.m. For a good part of the winter these trips are in the dark. A gale warning in the forecast is one cause to cancel the boat. Freezing spray is another. When this happens, the high school students take the 8:15 a.m. boat and find a ride to school. They only miss the first class of the day.
I had an appointment on Jan. 7 to take our Subaru in for 30,000-mile maintenance. The temperature had dropped to 11 degrees overnight, though we still had no snow on the ground. Bruce offered to go out and start the island car for me as I gathered my tote bags, purse, water, grocery list, and car keys. (ALWAYS check to make sure you have your car keys!)
When the car wouldn’t start, he ran downstairs to get the battery pack from the basement for a jump-start. I made it to the boat with time to spare. At the dock, passengers huddled next to a wall blocking the icy wind while waiting for the boat. After such a mild start to the winter, the cold was shocking.
The morning commuter run had been canceled, so I was not surprised to see Patrick, one of the island high school students, on the boat. I said I was going to Bar Harbor on my way to Ellsworth and asked if he needed a ride. He did.
We walked hurriedly to the parking lot, grateful there was no snow to clear off the car. I couldn’t help myself. I gave him a pointed motherly/grandmotherly look and said, “I hope you weren’t planning to hitch hike if I didn’t offer a ride.” Don’t worry. He gave me the right answer.
That’s another thing about living on an island in the winter. With fewer boats in the harbor there are fewer opportunities to catch a free ride from someone. Most of us are comfortable asking for or offering to do errands for each other on the mainland if we’re going off anyway. Picking up a prescription, stopping at the bank, getting a few groceries, and dropping books at the library are things many of us have done for another when we’ve had the time, saving each other the cost of a round trip ferry ticket.
So, what’s it like to live here in the winter? It’s quiet, wonderful, challenging, and beautiful, with constant opportunities to improve time management skills, and watch out for each other. You just have to be flexible enough to change plans when the boat ride looks too rough.
Barbara Fernald lives, writes, and makes jewelry on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island).