With all the insidious racket in Washington last week, I needed to escape to the place where I find great solace without having to travel more than a few miles: Casco Bay and its hundreds of islands, right there in Portland’s front yard.
The last time I was out on the bay was for a sublime final run in my own little powerboat in October. Winding among the islands late in the day, I noted then how the bay seemed to be putting itself to bed for the coming winter. There was a gentleness and quiet after a busy summer. The bay never sleeps, but it was resting.
But now it’s winter, the skiff is under cover, and there’s only one good option to get out on the water for a tour of the islands when the mood strikes — the twice-daily mail run operated by Casco Bay Lines.
“Do they actually carry mail?” a friend asked when I announced my plan. Yes, I told him. That is why they call it the mail run. How else are these intrepid islanders supposed to get their bills, birthday cards, and Amazon packages?
But these ferries carry much more.
When the Maquoit crew casts off at 2:45 p.m. sharp on a gray, but unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon, there are a sprinkling of passengers, all of them – unlike me – aboard not for novelty, but for the essential daily business of travel between the islands and the mainland.
In the warm cabin, school kids heading home from classes in the city giggle and play a raucous game of cards. Yes, actual playing cards, no screens. They are having a blast.
There is a woman on the last leg of a vacation trip to Florida, her exhausted 4-year-old sprawled across her lap, sound asleep. The mom catches up on the news with a neighbor.
Another woman winces and uncomfortably cradles her arm, which is wrapped in a fresh cast, the result of a skating accident that had necessitated some medical attention on the mainland.
An older man tells endless stories to his companions, one of a guy with a peg leg; another of a suicide; another of a passing of a fellow islander. “Joe’s gone,” he announces matter-of-factly. He shares another story about someone whose mother was a … well, she apparently wasn’t very nice.
On a rising tide, the wind light, we pass between Peaks and Little Diamond islands, make a quick stop at Great Diamond, and head toward Long. A couple of fishing boats are at work, a few loons and ducks float on the icy water.
Otherwise, Casco Bay is on its own under pewter skies. It is a monochromatic scene. The bright reds that pop from the colorful houses in summer are muted now, a dull crimson. Even the many garish red buildings on Hope Island can now manage only a dull luster.
At about 3:30 the crew docks the ferry at Long Island. Kids get off. Some freight, mostly cartons of Chiquita bananas, is lifted off. “Smallest load of groceries I’ve ever seen,” says the woman receiving the delivery.
A brand new small refrigerator is hoisted ashore.
And always, mail in bags and boxes. Someone on the island is getting a package from Amazon.
The Maquoit moves on to Cliff, docking at 4:40. In the west, a thin eyebrow of pink appears on the western horizon as the sun sinks lower. A few loons bob on the small waves. A fishing boat passes close by.
We move on to Chebeague to unload more bananas and we are back at Long for a second stop at 4:35. A few people board, but almost everyone has disembarked by now. Pink light lingers in the west as dusk arrives. The storyteller and his audience are gone. The little refrigerator is still on the dock.
On the run back to Portland, there is time to think and reflect as the leaden sea glides by and the ferry’s engines drone. It is refreshing to see the slower pace at which island life proceeds only a few miles from the hustle and bustle and constant noise and traffic of the city. It all seems a world away.
It is, really.
Yes, even in midwinter, a ride on the bay can be just the thing when life on the mainland becomes a little too boisterous.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.