Chebeague: Island Town So Near

The summer natives return year after year, and generation after generation, joining year-round residents who are proudly independent on this Casco Bay island that’s less than two miles by ferry from Yarmouth.

 

The peas are up, and one of the couples from the west coast arrived on Tuesday. “That’s the news,” reports the woman across the aisle. We’re hearing bits of island chatter during a ride on the vintage, Canada-built Blue Bird bus that is covering one leg of our trip to Chebeague. Nearly every seat is filled, and the trip is about seven winding miles from a parking lot in Yarmouth, through neighborhoods and across the causeway bridge to Cousins Island and our next stop: a ferry landing on Casco Bay. Everyone has loaded bags of groceries, totes, and suitcases in the luggage boot in the rear of the bus. Last to be piled in and first unloaded on this early June afternoon are trays of tomato seedlings and two scuffed, but sturdy-looking wooden chairs. (Word is that everything from goats to bicycles is transported on this bus-to- ferry-to-island system.)

With the dock and bay in sight, we all lug parcels and bags and start walking down to the empty floating dock. I can see a ferry chugging across the water. Most everyone from the bus is still talking with the excitement of old friends who haven’t set eyes on each other in a while. One woman tells of planning a fall trip to Puglia and another talks of renting a house in Assisi, but for the summer season that’s about to begin, they’ll reside on Great Chebeague Island. That’s the official name, but folks call it simply “Chebeague”—and depending on who’s speaking, I notice the second syllable is pronounced as “beeg” or with a softer vowel sound—a cross between “beg” and “big.”

Ferry transit is a matter of course for island residents and the modern-day summer visitors and rusticators. A water crossing is the only way to get to the island, and two ferry services make the trip between the mainland and Chebeague—the largest island in Casco Bay. I watch as people find seats and pay for round-trip tickets with the exact amount of cash. From Cousins Island, it’s a brief crossing of less than 15 minutes, a straight shot across the salt water. As we get closer, I watch the largest building, the pollen-dust-yellow Chebeague Island Inn, grow larger among the green lawns, treetops, and houses of this island settled by New England colonists in the 1700s, which was once a center for shipbuilding and the site of a military reservation in World War II.

The boat we’re on is the Pied Piper, and Kevin Wentworth is the captain. On the upper deck, the air feels chilly for almost- summer, but it’s nothing like what this guy experiences in winter. I’ve seen his pictures and videos online of the ferryboat he usually captains, the 30-year-old Islander (the workhorse boat is onshore for service when we ride). When we meet, Wentworth recalls nighttime icebreaking jaunts across Casco Bay in the 52-foot, steel-hulled Islander last February, when he saw “chunks of ice as big as cars.”

The captain says he had intended on a full course of study at Maine Maritime Academy and had never been to Chebeague before he met Polly Wentling, who traces her history with the island back some seven generations. The two married in the backyard of her family’s longtime Chebeague summer house a decade ago, and they now live and work on the island full-time. Their six-year-old twins, Olivia and Alden, are among the 32 students in the island’s only school. “Actually, they’re the island’s children,” Polly says. She’s on the boat, too, and explains how the kids readily greet and talk with residents of all ages. The Wentworths have high hopes that Chebeague will attract other year-round residents. (Maine’s coast has thousands of islands, but only 15 with year-round residents.) “We want to let people know that it’s so easy to commute (by ferry) and still raise a family,” Kevin says.

The population on Chebeague can swell from around 350 to over 1,500 people as more “summer natives” arrive. Add to that the day visitors who come to bicycle the low-traffic roads and go to the beaches. Everyone has their favorite places. Our lodging is in the formidable Chebeague Island Inn, which has been the site of a hotel since the 1880s (originally the Hillcrest). Wooden Adirondack chairs are arranged here and there facing Casco Bay, and a golf green and the Stone Wharf are below. My room for two nights is on the third floor overlooking the scene. It’s a petite space but feels larger as the decor is focused on a spare, clean palette— white walls, white-painted floors, and puffed white pillows and soft linens. Two watercolor paintings of island houses and gardens add color, along with a pale green throw and foot rug. The windows are open and the air smells of ocean and spring dirt, and particularly in the early morning I hear songbirds and seagulls. On these pre-summer days, it’s a peaceful place. I see one couple spend an entire afternoon on cushioned wicker chairs on the porch, each with a paperback in hand. Inside the wood- walled lobby there’s a fire in the large stone fireplace and on the walls are island artist Caroline Loder’s bold paintings of buoys, yard birds, and the Islander—it must be Captain Wentworth in the wheelhouse. The first afternoon, we meet Loder by chance at the Niblic, a gift shop and cafe at the boatyard. She says the paint was still wet on a few of the paintings when they were hung at the inn a week earlier.

It’s by the inn’s fireplace that the subject of long family connections to Chebeague returns. In the late afternoon, a woman brings a tray of crustless triangle-shaped cucumber sandwiches and then pots of hot tea, and mentions that her family has been here for eight generations. Then later on the Stone Wharf, we meet Alex Todd, who grew up on the island and says his family has been fishing these waters for 12 generations. Todd, who fishes for scallops in winter and lobsters in summer, is brawny and wearing the rubber overalls of a waterman. He continues working around the boat as he talks, and he says that he’s been up since 3 a.m. to collect some of his 800 lobster traps to bring them ashore for repair. Todd grew up on Chebeague in the 1970s and 1980s “when the island was more of a fishing community,” he says. “It shaped you.”

He’s got stories. The fisherman says he was driving his own truck by the age of 10 on island roads. “When I was 12, my brother and I would have to move my father’s 80-foot groundfish dragger when the ferry needed to come in. The steering was a piece of crap and sometimes we had to fix it, fast, before it blew on the rocks.” Today his fishing boat is the Jacob and Joshua, named for his sons who are also fishermen—even though the family no longer lives full-time on the island. His son Jake Todd, who’s a high school lacrosse player in Freeport and has his own boat, recently made a video about the family’s fishing history that’s gotten hundreds of views on YouTube. TOWN MEETING

Six-year-old Olivia Wentworth, with strawberry-blonde hair and freckles across her nose, says her favorite part of living on Chebeague is going to Doughty’s Island Market—a family-run shop that’s the only grocery on the island. We stop by a couple of times and see people in for coffee and breakfast pizza in the morning, and hot dogs and sandwiches at lunch. Flyers announcing town events are posted on a board outside. This is obviously one of the town’s meeting places, and behind the register is Josh Doughty, a young songwriter who says he’s played guitar often at the Slow Bell Cafe and is moving on to Nashville for a while to get into the songwriting scene there.

Next door is the roomy, wired-for-WiFi town library, where the welcoming library director, Deb Bowman, is barefoot. “It’s summer!” she says, smiling, and encourages us to stop in to the town meeting to be held the next morning in the adjoining Town Center. The island has a long history with Native American, Colonial, and modern chapters, but the independent town government is young, established in 2007 when residents voted to secede from Cumberland County. They’ve since been able to keep the island’s school open and add facilities. The island’s priorities and future are in its own hands. “Each resident gets a pink piece of paper to wave in the air to vote. I think it’s fascinating.”

Agreed. I’m always interested to see how traditions and rules on islands can be different from the mainland. On Chebeague, vehicles must be brought over on cargo barges, and once here, license plates appear to become irrelevant. I notice that most cars have no plate at all, or have the plates of other places: Germany, Cuba, Quebec. Many people get around the 4.5-mile-by- 1.5-mile island by walking and pedaling bicycles, and I’m told that once a vehicle is an “island car,” it typically stays here and becomes associated with a family or house for good, even if the house is rented out or sold.

We borrow bikes from the inn and pedal into the early summer “purple season” of blooming lupines, phlox, iris, and sweet- smelling lilacs. We see hummingbirds, herons, and ravens. Crab- and clamshells are on the beaches and the ledges at the end of paths on the wooded Deer Point. The hoof prints of deer are tracked in sand at Indian Point. And we come across a snake in two different places—that’s about one more than I usually see in an entire Maine summer.

We pedal past houses and gardens and check out where, at low tide, a sand spit connects Great Chebeague with the island of Little Chebeague. Other highlights include a pond where families ice skate in winter, a recreation center with a gym and pool, clay tennis courts, and a handful of food places. Unfortunately for us, the tiny Calder’s Clam Shack is closed for the weekend (a high school graduation in the family) and so is the Slow Bell Cafe. We follow the North Road and the South Road and make a loop of the island. Almost everyone we pass who’s in a car or on foot lifts an arm or hand in a wave. I realize they all know each other, and I recall Kevin Wentworth talking about how these kinds of rituals and familiarity are part of life on the island. “First you know someone’s car, and then their boat, and then, if you’re really good, you know the markings of their lobster buoys.”

Across from a house that’s hung with hundreds of buoys we see a small flock of fat, fluffy chickens in many colors roaming the yard of a handsome Cape. This is artist Caroline Loder’s home. We stop in and find her and her husband, Christopher Loder, making coffee on a sleepy Saturday morning. He’s from Alaska and she grew up in New Hampshire, but a Maine island has long been part of their plan. “It’s a values-focused move. We wanted to join a community,” says Caroline, who explains that the couple purposefully chose Chebeague after doing initial research about Maine islands while living and working overseas in Munich. Since moving here nearly two years ago—which involved loading a barge with an espresso machine, chicken coop, and an old Saab—the Loders have jumped into island life. While Caroline paints and Christopher travels for work, he’s also a town selectman; their three young children make up almost 10 percent of the island’s school.

Before we leave the island, we get a glimpse of Christopher again when the town meeting is underway. From an open door, I see residents gathered and holding those pink paper squares while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in folding chairs. Just outside the building, Polly Wentworth and the twins are selling baked goods to raise money for a children’s social later in the year. At a makeshift table a couple dozen yards away, other children have set up a display of brick pieces, live snails, and driftwood that they’ve found and will sell for pennies and up. We buy donuts and quiche pastries, donate to the snail effort, and then begin to make our way to the wharf.

This visit is coming to a close—to Casco Bay’s Great Chebeague, where lobstermen, retired CEOs, and artists live year-round or faithfully return for summers among the woods and lilacs. Each must realize they are part of something unusual and finite. On Chebeague, many of the wood-frame houses have been handed down or transferred within families. (Caroline Loder says that to find a house to buy, they posted fliers around the island and introduced themselves to neighbors.) Every resident or longtime vacationer I met talked of Chebeague’s strong pull—whether they were born into the connection or are just finding it.

As I step back onto the ferry, the mainland looks so near that it’s easy to have the sense that Chebeague is actually a peninsula. Not so. It’s just 1.7 miles from Yarmouth, yet the water crossing sets the pace and makes the difference.

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