On Isle au Haut, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

By Sara B. Franklin
August 07, 2020
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Credit: Becky Krystal/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The first thing you see is the church steeple. It appears almost like an apparition, a slender point of white rising up from the rolling mound of dark, dark green, mile upon mile of spruce forest. You rub your eyes, look again, squinting through the salty spray of the Gulf of Maine. Yes, it’s there, that spike of white, growing larger as your boat chugs slowly closer to The Island.

A 12-square-mile rock in Penobscot Bay, Isle au Haut (“High Island”) is among the easternmost islands in the United States. It’s pronounced EYE-la-HOH, an Americanization of the name given by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604 — but regulars refer to it simply as The Island.

I am part of the seasonal influx that balloons Isle au Haut’s population each summer, having been granted the ridiculous luck and privilege of being born into a family whose Boston-based patriarch — my mother’s father — purchased, in the early 60s, a cottage “in town,” which is to say sandwiched between the Island Store and the minuscule post office, within earshot of Sunday’s church bells.

Isle au Haut is a place that exists, in many ways, outside of time, a place that rewards slow pleasures. Literally. One can’t move very fast on the single 12-mile road that loops the island: while the speed limit is, officially, 20 miles an hour on the short paved portion, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone driving that fast. To do so on the unpaved sections would be a death-wish, with washouts surprising you around bends and jagged rocks jutting up from the packed earth.

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On Isle au Haut, the terrain demands a deceleration: we walk, ride thick-tired bikes, and bump slowly along in rusting pickups. We paddle slowly or float on our backs in Long Pond, a fairy tale mile-long stretch of pristine, fresh water enveloped by firs from which you can hear the crash of the ocean waves. The many wooded paths that lead into the island’s interior and out to its rockiest points require steady footing and a measured pace. On the water, lobster boats chug, skiff oars pull at the inky water.

For centuries before its Francophone naming, The Island was a seasonal fishing camp for the indigenous Penobscot Abenaki and Passamaquoddy peoples, who reaped the rewards of the deep, cold waters surrounding the island, among the best fishing grounds in the northeast. But they treaded lightly. Mounds of shells — the aftermath of feasts from Isle au Haut’s mollusk-rich mud flats and shoals — comprise the majority of the archaeological record they left.

But development began as Scots, Brits, and fishermen from the mainland — many of whose descendants still remain among the island’s year-round residents — started to settle on the island in the late 18th century. They primarily took up farming and fishing as their livelihoods. The land was fertile and well-tended, the waters held plenty of fish, and a lobster cannery opened in 1860 to process the glut of crustaceans.

It wasn’t long before wealthy urbanites discovered The Island. Ernest Bowditch, a landscape architect in the Olmsted circle, was drawn to Isle au Haut’s wildness and quiet, and purchased a large tract of land in 1880. There, he established a summer colony called the Point Lookout Club. “The Point,” as it is known, occupies a rocky spit of land, a protected harbor, and the hill that overlooks them both. The club — replete with a private staff, tennis courts, a clubhouse-cum-hotel, and a pier all their own — worked hard to distinguish itself from the year-round community. It became a separate municipality officially dubbed Lookout, Maine, with its own post office and ZIP code. In 1906, the Ellsworth American, a mainland paper, called the Point “Maine’s Most Exclusive Summer Resort,” noting that its residents were among “Boston’s bluest blood,” drawn to The Island’s offers of virgin nature and simpler living.

The summerers, though resented by many, brought with them a seasonal injection of cash in the form of employment. The late 19th and early 20th centuries represented an apex for Isle au Haut’s residents as well: the year-round population peaked at just under 300 people, enough to support two one-room schoolhouses, one on either side of the island.

As the 20th century dawned, though, and industrialization and technology drew more and more folks away from working the land and sea, Isle au Haut’s community shrank. The Point Lookout Club closed during World War II and never fully recovered. By then, only 75 people called the island home. Today, the island’s population hovers around half that, though it more than quadruples in summer months. One of the one-room, single-teacher K-8 schoolhouses remains; if the number of students enrolled there dips too low or for too long, the state of Maine will not fund a teacher’s salary and Isle au Haut will lose its status as a town.

Part of my abiding love for this place is its deliberate and ongoing resistance to both overfishing and over-development. Today, two-thirds of The Island is protected as part of Acadia National Park, a popular New England summer destination. But unlike Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor — both close by, the way the crow flies — Isle au Haut has managed to avoid catering to tourists. Unlike some of the tonier towns along Maine’s mid-coast (Brunswick, Camden, Belfast, and Boothbay among them), Isle au Haut is for the visitor who willingly cedes material convenience. The “ferry” that brings you to the island is, in fact, the mailboat; your car may not come along with you.

Life there has stayed the same more than it has changed, and what change has come has arrived on a delay. I remember, as a young girl in the early 90s, when the first underwater cables were laid the seven miles from the mainland to the island, providing the first telephone service. Communal phones — pay-phones for which you didn’t need to pay — were installed at the tiny island store and, up the hill at the town hall, which doubles as the schoolhouse gymnasium and the library. You dialed only the final four digits for local calls; if you needed to speak to someone farther afield, you needed a calling card, or rung collect. This was both a mark of progress and the end of a way of life.

Credit: Becky Krystal / The Washington Post via Getty Images

At present, the lodging available for visitors consists of three houses, whose owners rent for a couple of weeks per season, and a handful of highly sought-after rustic camping spots at Duck Harbor, inside the National Park, that book up to a year in advance. The island has no hotels, not even a quaint B&B — many have tried, all have burned out. There are no restaurants or cafés. The closest you will get is the Lobster Lady, a food cart run by Diana Santospago from the parking lot of the island store. (For years, Santospago, partner of longtime islander Greg Runge, ran a restaurant and inn out of a rented property, but closed its doors several years ago.) Forget scrolling away idle hours on your phone; cell service is essentially nil. Your days are shaped by the elements.

And everyone waves, a particular, island kind of wave, just a flat hand raised in acknowledgement. It’s something of a social mandate on the rock. It's fitting. People come to the island to be quiet, but islanders understand the essential presence of each other. The wave reaffirms the interconnectedness of island life: I see you. I’ll leave you be. But I’ll be here if you need me.

The world keeps hurtling toward and around Isle au Haut — the ocean ecosystem threatened by warming and overfishing, the arrival of the virtual realm a fundamental shift in the island’s isolation. Today, it is even possible to live on the island and work remotely. But Isle au Haut remains a world apart. Its fragility and remoteness are what lend The Island its enduring allure. I’m tempted, by habit and stale impulse, to write that the natural world is all there is to see and do here. But that feels like a false demotion. So let me try again: on The Island, the natural world is all.

At the time of this writing, my family and I are beginning to plan and pack for the long trip Down East. This is an unimaginable, and quite unexpected, sweetness; from March to mid-July, we operated under the assumption that we’d be unable to visit Isle au Haut this year. COVID-19 had, for months, prompted the community to temporarily close itself off to non-residents. The potential absence of such a sacred ritual was devastating. But The Island doesn’t belong to us summerers. It has never, really, belonged to anyone. We are merely visitors. We must tread lightly.