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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New friends and local celebrities

We've just spent a delightful couple of days on Isle au Haut, a small island with some fifty year round residents and a small set of summer visitors. Now, Isle au Haut has some interesting connections.

Some of you may know that one of my favourite books is 'The Hungry Ocean', a simple but brilliant description of a fairly typical six week commercial sword fishing trip. It is written by Linda Greenlaw, probably the only female captain of a 100ft sword fishing boat, the 'Hannah Boden', which is the sistership to the 'Andrea Gail' lost with all hands in 'The Perfect Storm'.

I've read and re-read that book a dozen times, and it always inspires and awes me - the things that men and women do month in, month out to put fish on the table for the rest of us. It was only a few weeks ago I found out that Linda Greenlaw has written more books, and she lives on Isle au Haut, Maine. So I bought her second book, 'The Lobster Chronicles', which is the story of a season lobster fishing back home on the island after she gave up the swordfishing. It's funny, rich and more personal than the previous book, and just as engaging. Gesa's enjoying it too.

Arriving at Isle au Haut, we read up on the island's history. Back in 1879 a wealthy Bostonian, enchanted with the beauty of the place, got together with some friends and bought up most of the spare land on the island, forming a sort of boys club for summer getaways - no women or children allowed. Splendid idea, I'd say, but probably not going to fly in the twenty-first century. Even by the start of the twentieth, the one-time bachelors had succumbed to marriage and now it was families spending their summers on the island with a few simple cabins and a large clubhouse for meals and entertainment.

After the war, the descendants of these original good-timers generously gifted the bulk of the land to the state, becoming part of Acadia national park. They retained the clubhouse and 'cottages', which were now substantial homes in a prime part of the island, and so it continues to this day.

We anchor near to Point Lookout, where these cottages stand, largely hidden by the trees and with their own private dock. A few small day sailing boats and little powerboats bob on their moorings nearby. In one, a man is preparing for a sail, just him and his dog. I pop over in the dinghy to say hello. Yes, we're fine where we are. And of course, no-one will mind if we use the dock, and there's water too if we need it. The kids are welcome to play on the swings and slide.

Later we go into town and, outside the only village store, we meet him again, it's a small island, he notes. Back at the boat, I take the kids ashore to the swings. I chat with a women on the dock. Oh, yes, I think you were talking to my husband earlier.... We, and our kids, are similar ages and she's interested in our trip and how we live. Do we need anything? Showers? (when she asks about showers twice, I wonder if I need better deodorant) and eventually I get over my British politeness and say actually, yes there is something, could we do a load of laundry? Of course, and why not come up to the house now with the kids so you know where we are.

The houses are beautiful here, a range of styles and sizes, linked by boardwalks through the woodland. Their family has owned it since 1920, and it's now shared by the brothers and sisters who use it for a few weeks a year each. It's a very special place. At the house, the kids get on like kids do, straight into play without a glance back at Daddy. It's suggested that I go back to the boat and get the laundry, and Gesa, whilst they look after the kids, which is exactly what we do.

The following evening we are invited for dinner and share a lovely evening in adult company whilst the kids do their own thing - only the second time in our trip that we've been to dinner at someone else's (non-floating) home. There aren't a lot of children around so all parties are pleased to have the kids entertaining each other with the minimum of fuss.

During the day, we had been for a walk along the trails in the park, another beautiful forest walk with the added bonus of plentiful blueberries. From having paid silly prices for these in Tescos back home, we now have a pound of fresh, wild ones in the fridge and they are better than anything! As we return, however, it begins to rain lightly and the bugs come out in force. We quit the trail and head back by a quiet, unpaved road, hoping the bugs will be fewer on the road than the trail. MAybe they were, but it didn't feel like it. We round a corner to find a sign - cafe and chocolatier. Normally this would have Gesa delighted and me groaning but this time we were both very happy to step inside and behind the screens. Here, in the middle of a forest on a tiny island in the Atlantic, someone has begun making chocolates and opened a room of their house to serve these and nice fairtrade coffee. It turns out that they do most of their business via stores on the mainland and internet mail order, but there's a surprising number of islanders who pop in for a $2 truffle. And they are very tasty.

We walk on and another hundred yards brings us to the 'Sea Urchin' gift shop. More of a gift shack, actually, being a small shed next to another little forest house. We browse, and there is a good selection of items as well as quite a few of Linda Greenlaw's books, including a cookbook she has written with her Mum, Martha. There's a photo of them on the cover. I look at it. I look at the woman behind the tiny counter. I look at the photo. Yep, seems like we've walked into Mrs Greenlaws little shop. We chat a little about the books, and how The Hungry Ocean has a prime place on our small bookshelf. She's clearly a very proud mother, despite having despaired when her daughter gave up an English degree to go deep-sea fishing.

We buy another book, signed this time. It's good too, 'All Fishermen are Liars', a woven together set of fisherman's stories and anecdotes from her time at sea.

Isle au Haut has been really good fun, it would be nice to stay longer - it really has the change of pace that island life is meant to represent and rarely does in this interconnected, broadband world.

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