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Voyage of a Captain from Down East
Frank Graham Jr.
August 22, 1966
He knew every treacherous trick of tide in the stormy waters between Maine and Grand Manan Island
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August 22, 1966

Voyage Of A Captain From Down East

He knew every treacherous trick of tide in the stormy waters between Maine and Grand Manan Island

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J. C. had decided to alter his course and head for Roque Island, due north of us. "There's a beautiful harbor there," he said. "We'll up a while and wait for the tide to change. The fog might lift, too. Then we'll go on down to Grand Manan later tonight."

Presently we made out through the fog a buoy and a fish weir (pronounced "ware" in these parts) and a deserted lobster boat at anchor in an inlet. The entrance to Roque Island Harbor, a narrow passage between rocks, was cloaked in the fog nearby. J. C. followed a series of ledges for a short distance until it became clear that we were cruising along the island's southwestern shore. Oriented now, he swung around, and in a few moments the Eugenia II was in a "thoroughfare" leading to the harbor. The fog lifted just enough to reveal this small watery jewel set in a circle of spruce-covered islands—of which Roque Island was the largest. Like most Down East islands, they arose from the water on granite pedestals, but on its harbor side Roque Island itself descended to the water in a gleaming beach, stretching in a white arc for over a mile.

J. C. sailed the Eugenia II into a smaller harbor between the islands and tied up, not to a tree limb but to a pole standing offshore from a huddle of small, weather-beaten buildings. This was the headquarters and year-round home of an octogenarian who deals in lobsters. One of J. C.'s party heated a roast chicken prepared early in the day and served it with peas, beer and a chocolate cake bought at a recent Milbridge church sale. A half moon, "bright as a dollar," burned through the fog overhead, but all around us the wisps of fog curled again into an opaque curtain. J. C. decided to remain there for the night.

The Eugenia II headed out of the harbor at 5 the next morning into a fresh new day. We could see the distant mainland to the west, where the red-and-white towers of the Navy's radio station at Cutler dispatched its messages to America's scattered submarines.

We had shaken the fog, but the tide ebbing from the Bay of Fundy was again at our throats. The Eugenia II pitched in the heavy seas, driving on deck a member of the party whose stomach rebelled at remaining below with the smell of sizzling bacon. The boat was now in the open water of Grand Manan Channel. Terns, each dangling a tiny fish from its blood-red bill, flew gracefully past toward Machias Seal Island. A petrel hugged the troughs in the waves nearby. Harbor and horsehead seals basked on a distant rock. But of all the small life in this chilly sea none creates as much of a stir as the puffins, those Cyranos of the bird world, with their grotesque red-and-white triangular bills and their buzzy flight.

There was the island dead ahead. It is rare to see it so clearly from a distance, for the chill waters of the Bay of Fundy are damned almost as roundly for their fogs as they are for their tides. Grand Manan, which is about 16 miles long, lies in the bay between West Quoddy Head, Me. and Campobello Island to the west and Nova Scotia to the east. The sunrise one hopes to see at Campobello is likely to be veiled by the fog shrouding Grand Manan 7 miles away across the channel. But in that morning sun Grand Manan shone ahead of us as distinctly as a tropic isle; more distinctly, in fact, because the great cliffs which form its western rim and wrap around its northern and southern ends prompt one to get ready for an immediate landing when they are still some miles away.

Presently we stood off from the great cliffs, rising 300 feet and more above the churning surf. At close range their solid front was seen to be a wall of dark columnar volcanic rock crumbling under the elements. Here and there this face was softened by a blanket of green, composed of the moss and shrubby plants that sprouted wherever the crumbling rock granted them a foothold. Ravens glided like dark shadows across this facade. A lighthouse stood at the crest of Southwest Head. Against the cliffs, standing on a pedestal of its own in the surf, was a striking figure: an upright fragment of rock that wind and sea had hewn in the shape of a cross. This was "The Southern Cross," a symbol of that unseen presence which safeguards the lives of island fishermen.

The Eugenia II rounded Southwest Head and pushed through choppy waters up the eastern side of the island; a stiff wind had appeared out of the southeast. The cliffs shrank here into low rocky shores and occasional coves. To starboard were other islands of the Grand Manan archipelago: Kent Island, where Bowdoin College maintains a scientific station; Wood Island, once inhabited, now deserted except for nesting petrels at one end, a cluster of houses, stores and a church rotting under an unsympathetic sky. A few minutes later the Eugenia II was at rest behind the big breakwater, built of timbers and steel, at Grand Harbor.

The goal attained, what are the rewards? Grand Manan offers very little more than itself to the "rusticators," or tourists, who venture there. Water sports are impractical, the icy water discouraging even most of the islanders from learning to swim and accounting for the high mortality among fishermen. "If you go overboard at Grand Manan," J. C. said, "the thing you want to do is grab hold of an anchor, and when you reach bottom run like hell for the shore."

Lodgings may be found, but not abundantly, at the northern end of the island, while "eating places" are even scarcer. Movies are shown Tuesday and Saturday evenings at the Happy Hour Theater.

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