The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier

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9780143035343: The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier

“A thorough and engaging history of Maine’s rocky coast and its tough-minded people.”—Boston Herald

“[A] well-researched and well-written cultural and ecological history of stubborn perseverance.”—USA Today

For more than four hundred years the people of coastal Maine have clung to their rocky, wind-swept lands, resisting outsiders’ attempts to control them while harvesting the astonishing bounty of the Gulf of Maine. Today’s independent, self-sufficient lobstermen belong to the communities imbued with a European sense of ties between land and people, but threatened by the forces of homogenization spreading up the eastern seaboard.

In the tradition of William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers, veteran journalist Colin Woodard (author of American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good) traces the history of the rugged fishing communities that dot the coast of Maine and the prized crustacean that has long provided their livelihood. Through forgotten wars and rebellions, and with a deep tradition of resistance to interference by people “from away,” Maine’s lobstermen have defended an earlier vision of America while defying the “tragedy of the commons”—the notion that people always overexploit their shared property. Instead, these icons of American individualism represent a rare example of true communal values and collaboration through grit, courage, and hard-won wisdom.

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About the Author:

Colin Woodard is a Maine native and the author of Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas and The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Him Down.  He is a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

one
Monhegan

In winter the Laura B., the mail boat to Monhegan Island, is usually fairly empty. A handful of islanders gather in the small aft cabin, warming themselves by the tiny black stove, while their groceries and shopping bags chill on the deck alongside rows of propane tanks and other large island-bound parcels. Mailbags rest in the starboard cubbyhole, protected from the elements, which can be extremely assertive during the fourteen-mile crossing from the mainland. From November to April, the Laura B. is the only link to the mainland for Monhegan's sixty year-round residents, making the round-trip journey from the tiny fishing town of Port Clyde only three times a week.

But on this last day of November, the Laura B. is packed with people. There are nearly as many people on board as live on the island this time of year, most of them mainlanders on their way out to help friends and family prepare for the most important day of Monhegan's year. Tomorrow, December 1, is Trap Day, the day Monhegan's lobstermen begin their unique, winter- only lobster season.

At a time of year when most of Maine's seven thousand lobster- men have hauled up their traps and brought their boats around to secure winter anchorages, Monhegan's fourteen lobstermen are getting ready to set their traps for the first time since spring. Once the fishermen have set their traps, they'll continue fishing through the dead of winter, braving ferocious weather and subzero temperatures that often leave their twenty-eight- to forty- foot boats encased in frozen spray. The lobstermen can handle this with the help of a sternman or two, but on Trap Day they need all the help they can get moving their heavy traps down to the town wharf. There are only twenty aging, beat-up pickups on the island, but each lobsterman needs to get a gang of six hundred traps, weighted metal cages weighing forty to fifty pounds apiece, out of their backyard, down the hill, and stacked up on the town wharf where they can be loaded onto the lobster boat. It can't be done much beforehand because the island's 8,400 traps can't fit on the granite wharf. Even if they did fit, they'd make offloading the Laura B. next to impossible. So, just before Trap Day, the entire village and dozens of mainlanders turn out to move the traps in the maritime equivalent of a barn-raising ceremony.

I'm on my way out to help Zoe Zanidakis, the island's only female lobster boat captain and onetime proprietor of the Monhegan House, one of the island's three summer inns. But there's a problem. About two months ago, Zoe quit answering her phone. She stopped picking up her cell phone and left e-mail and answering machine messages unreturned. It was as if Zoe had dropped off the face of the earth. After failing to track her down through several mutual acquaintances— nobody seemed to know where she was—I decided to board Laura B. as planned and track her down on the island. After all, no Monhegan lobsterman would ever miss Trap Day, least of all a ninth-generation islander like Zoe. Monhegan lobstermen make or break their season in the first few weeks of December, harvesting lobsters in an area that has not been fished in six months. But Trap Day has a ritualistic importance that transcends dollars and cents. “It's like cleaning the slate,” one islander explained to me. “We all come together to get the boats ready and any of the crap and hard feelings that have accumulated in the community are wiped away.” As we pass Allen Island and begin the final, seven-mile open ocean crossing, I'm certain Zoe is out there on the gray, humplike shape looming on the horizon.

It's a mild day for Maine in early winter—forty-five degrees and almost sunny, with still air and gently swelling seas—so many of the passengers spread out on deck, lounging amid the luggage, propane, and building supplies. I join them, and halfway up the port rail I find Billy Payne, who runs one of the island's two small stores. Billy, tanned from a vacation in South Carolina, tells me Zoe is nowhere to be found. “They say she's in a movie out in Hollywood,” he says, breaking into an understated smile. “But nobody seems to know for sure.”

The Laura B. lolls along, unperturbed by the swells. She's nearly sixty years old, and her wooden hull is only sixty-five feet long, but she was built for tougher chores than the Monhegan mail run: running soldiers and ammunition around Pacific bases during the Second World War. Slowly, steadily, Monhegan grows before us, its features becoming more detailed with each passing minute. First the rocky cliffs emerge from their forested crown. Then the forest reveals its inner anatomy of pine, spruce, and fir trees, straight and tall on the island's interior, stunted or dead along the exposed headlands. Guillemots and other cold-loving seabirds flutter over the primeval scene.

At first only one or two houses are apparent, poking out from the forest like lost children, along with the lighthouse tower, which sticks up from its hilltop like a ship's funnel. But as we round the island's northern tip and head down the western shore, the village slowly reveals itself. A cluster of wood-shingled houses, fish houses, and boat sheds stand on the gentle hillsides facing the shore. There are two hundred all told, but as we approach the harbor it's clear that most of the buildings are boarded up for the winter.

We slip past the nasty ledges guarding the north entrance and into the harbor, or what passes for one. Monhegan, a sausage-shaped island two miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, doesn't have a single deepwater cove or inlet in which one can protect so much as a skiff. All it has is Manana, a small grass-covered hump of rock that protrudes from the sea alongside Monhegan like a whale calf cuddling next to its mother. Monhegan's lobster boats are moored in the narrow passage between the two islands, an anchorage as uncomfortable as it is beautiful. The four-hundred-yard-wide passage is well protected by the tall islands on either side, and the ledges at the narrow north entrance afford reasonable cover from northeasterly winds. But the harbor is completely open to the south, and in a southwesterly storm the seas race through the harbor unimpeded. During particularly fierce winter storms, waves have crashed through low-lying parts of the village, but the lobster boats themselves ride the tempests out on their heavy moorings. We enter the harbor and come alongside the town's heavy granite wharf. Stacks of lobster traps are already growing at the base of the wharf, and one of the town's aging pickups is driving down the dirt road, piled high with more traps to be unloaded. But as we tie up and begin collecting our bags from their pile on the foredeck, the first thing I notice is the camera crew.

The three-man crew has set up a tripod-mounted camera and a big pole-mounted mike right on the edge of the wharf to film the mail boat's arrival. The height of the tide is such that the camera is pointed right in our faces, and a couple of people pause to stare at it as we head down the gangway. “Just move along,” one of the cameramen barks, waving us along with a gloved hand. “Pretend we're not here.” I try but just up the hill from the wharf I encounter a giant boom crane, poised to capture Trap Day action on the wharf. As I stand, gaping, the pickup pulls alongside me.

I drop my bags and start stacking lobster traps.

A burly, red-faced man in a flannel shirt has climbed to the top of the truckload of traps, stacked six-high in the same inverted ziggurat pattern farmers use for hay bales, which makes sense since the traps are approximately the same size and weight as a large hay bale. He passes traps down to the four of us on the ground and we carry them, in turn, to the growing stack on the wharf belonging to that particular fisherman. It's not hard to tell which traps go with which stack. Each lobsterman has already rigged his traps, and every second or third trap has a buoy and a coil of rope inside. The distinctive main buoys are painted in the unique color pattern of their owner, in this case white with an orange top and matching orange and white spindle. Later, when the traps are deployed and the buoys are floating on the surface, there will be no confusion as to whose traps are whose. It quickly becomes evident to me that the traps with the buoys in them are much heavier than the others. These “headers” are the first to be hauled up in the strings of two or three traps used on the island. Often these are more heavily weighted than the other traps in their string, serving as the anchor for the other traps they are attached to, called “tailers.”

The truck is empty, and the four people who came down with it jump in the back and start riding up the hill for another load. We haven't yet spoken a word apart from “got it” or “over there.” Another truck rolls in, loaded with traps containing fluorescent pink buoys topped with a black ring. The scene repeats itself. By the time the Laura B.'s crew has finished hoisting the heavy cargo onto the wharf with the boat's gantry crane, truckloads of traps are already waiting to be piled up in her landing zone. After an hour or so, the same trucks begin reappearing with fresh loads of traps. The men and women in the respective crews start acknowledging my existence the second or third time around. We shake our introductions with gloved hands. One couple is from Port Clyde and attended Georges Valley High School at the same time I was at a track and basketball rival a few hours to the northwest. Another guy turns out to be from Boothbay and knows my father. As we stack traps I ask if anyone's seen Zoe. I get all sorts of answers.

“Out to help Zoe? Haven't seen her since October,” a taciturn sternman tells me. “They say she's doing stunt work out in California.” A middle-aged resident assures me she's acting in her own movie and that that's why the film crew is here, sleeping in Zoe's house at the top of the hill. “No, no, no,” a third islander asserts. “She's in Australia with that actor Russell Crowe.” After hearing variations of these and other stories throughout the day, I feel like I've stepped into a novel cowritten by the ghosts of Franz Kafka and the Brontë sisters.

After a teal and white truck comes down to the wharf for the third time, the driver introduces himself. He turns out to be my host, John Murdock, a lobsterman in his mid-forties who also runs one of two year-round bed and breakfasts on the island. “Colin!” John laughs. “Was wondering where you were. Welcome to Monhegan! When we get this unloaded, toss your bags in and we'll show you your room.” Fifteen minutes later I'm in the back, bouncing up the hill with a couple of John's friends.

We pass the imposing Island Inn, its windows boarded up for the winter and a film crew on the lawn, round a corner at the crossroads, and pull up in front of John's rambling house. John's wife, Winnie, shows me to my room, where I dump my bags and change footwear before heading around back to where John's traps have been stacked all summer, waiting for this day. A second stack belongs to his nineteen-year-old son, Ben, who has his own friends out on the island helping. But Ben has been distracted by a problem with his boat's engine, and most of his six hundred traps are still sitting in the backyard. Half of John's stack has already been moved down to the wharf.

By early evening, the wharf is stacked so high with traps that no more can be safely added. A narrow passage to the wharf's boat ramp passes between the fifteen-foot-high towers of green-, black-, or yellow-coated metal traps. A few boats come alongside and take on twenty or thirty traps for the first run, scheduled for the following morning. After that, the wharf grows quiet as most islanders turn in early in preparation for the manic day ahead.

s

The next morning I awaken to the news that Trap Day, like so many Maine winter events, has been postponed by Mother Nature. It had been blowing at thirty miles an hour from the southwest for much of the night. It was quiet now, but the wind had driven a heavy swell into the unprotected mouth of the harbor that would make loading traps from the wharf more difficult than it was worth. Monhegan's lobstermen, who make all-important decisions collectively down at the Stanley fish house, had decided to hold off for a few hours. They were meeting again at eleven to decide if they would go out in the afternoon.

It's an unseasonably warm fifty-five degrees, and the road down to the wharf is turning muddy, with pools of water accumulating in the ruts left by the town's little fleet of trucks. All that warm air hanging over the forty-degree water has created another hazard. A pea soup fog is flowing slowly over the village, whose clapboard houses drift in and out of the gray mist. Despite the towering piles of traps, I can't see the wharf until I'm almost standing on it. Inside the traps, the fluorescent paint on the buoys glows as it refracts in the swirling fog. I walk through the narrow canyon between the traps and peer out to sea. I see only two of the fourteen lobster boats in the harbor, their sterns piled high with traps. Manana, just two hundred yards away, is completely invisible, though the foghorn on her far side cries out plaintively from time to time. Big swells crash into the wharf's granite blocks every few seconds, and their splash sizzles on the ocean surface like bacon in a frying pan.

There's no breakfast place on Monhegan this time of year, but there's fresh coffee down at Billy Payne's store. Billy isn't there when I come in, but he's left a pad of receipts on the counter for patrons to fill out. Some have weighted theirs down with little piles of change and banknotes. Rita White, an elderly lady who once managed not to visit the mainland for seven years, is playing solitaire at one of the store's little booths, and a couple of lobstermen are shooting the shit by the coffee thermoses. Somebody's collie is napping on the floor. I greet people good morning, which seems to take everyone but the dog aback, as if they have gotten out of practice since the summer people went away. Rita sizes me up at a glance. As is often the case in Maine, I'm not sure if I've passed inspection, but she nods assent to my sitting opposite her to drink my coffee.

The lobstermen are speculating on the result of the upcoming fish house meeting, and there's general agreement that the swells won't die down before nightfall. Problem is, tomorrow is Sunday, and a few of the captains observe the Lord's day of rest. Traditionally, Monheganers don't start their season until everyone is ready. If somebody has engine trouble or a sick relative ashore, fishing is postponed until they can start too. But a number of years back, the fishermen by the coffee thermoses recall, the majority decided to start the season on a Sunday, and some of the older fishermen watched them leave from the beach. “Didn't do relations much good on the harbor for a time,” one recalls.

As if on cue, pastor Ted Hoskins comes into the store. Hoskins, middle aged with a white sea captain's beard, is the minister of the Maine Sea Coast Missionary Society, a century-old organization that provides social services to Maine's fourteen year-round island comm...

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Woodard, Colin:
Verlag: Penguin, New York, (2004)
ISBN 10: 0143035347 ISBN 13: 9780143035343
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Buchbeschreibung Penguin, New York, 2004. OKart., Buchzustand: vom Autor signiert. New York, Penguin 2004, 372 S., OKart., vom Autor signiert 121. Tsd., Hs. signiert: "Für Wolfgang signiert Dein Erich Fried" Sprache: en. Artikel-Nr. 93439AB

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