Down East 2013 ©
There’s not much to do on Swan’s Island on a rainy day. It’s pouring (a common occurrence in Maine this August), blurring the view of Jericho Bay. I’m watching the dark, angry waves roll in, mistaking each one for the smooth, black head of an island seal.
I am a bit obsessed with the idea of seals since we arrived on this tiny island several days ago. I’m like a child when it comes to spotting any form of wildlife — be it on land or sea. Yesterday, we went out on my husband’s sailboat and I tried to ignore my history of sea sickness by searching the water for seals. We weren’t out of the harbor more than 15 minutes when one stuck its head out of the water, thick whiskers gracing its friendly face. I squealed like a little kid at the zoo. It’s always been like that with me. I love the reminder that it’s not just us here. That the sea is teeming with life — big and small.
The most common species found in these water is, of course, lobster. We started calling the island “lobster world” — everything here seems to revolve around the crustacean, the symbol of Maine around the world. Lobstering is the main occupation on Swan’s Island – a small 7000 acre island located near Bass Harbor, Maine, and Acadia National Park. The year-round population here is about 350 people, swelling to over 1000 during the summer months. According to island statistics there are about 40 full-time lobstermen and women on the island, but spending time out on the water during the summer months that seems like an undercount. In a given day you’ll see dozens of lobster boats — with men, women and children — pulling up and baiting the traps from sunrise to sunset. Lobster buoys dot the waters here like stars on a clear night.
We have eaten lobster nearly every night, but I’m nowhere near sick of it. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but they seem to taste better here than anywhere else. We carry buckets of salt water and seaweed up from the beach each night and steam the lobsters in the salty brine. A touch of butter and a squirt of lemon is all they need. Food the way it should be –- caught fresh, lightly embellished.
Yesterday on the boat we ventured out to McGlathery Island. The sun was bright and the seas calm. We arrived at the island alongside a schooner from Camden and went off exploring. We climbed the huge boulders and walked along the rocky coastline that makes up this deserted island, one of dozens in Merchant’s Row. When we came back toward the little harbor, close to where we moored the boat, I spotted three men and a young boy clamming in the thick black mud. It was early afternoon and they were out with their long metal forks, looking for the tell tale bubbles that rise to the surface indicating that clams are living just beneath. We went over and watched, but curiosity got the better of me and I went over to say hello. We talked to Kenny and “the boys” about clamming and the current state of fishing. I remembered that I had $20 in my pocket and no dinner back home. Kenny must have read my mind because he looked up at me and said, in his deep Down East accent, “Interested in buyin’ someuh these here clams?”
The steamer, or soft shell, clams were so fresh that they squirted as they were dug up from the thick mud. We got a good amount of clams for my $20 bill (my husband was amazed that I could find something to buy on an uninhabited wild island) and when we got home I soaked them for an hour to get rid of the excess sand and mud. I cooked up some bacon, onions, and potatoes and put together a clam chowder using our island clams and local milk from Southwest Harbor. We called it “Swan’s Island Chowder,” and clinked our oversized soup mugs in a celebratory toast.
“Cheers” we said, bathed in the fluorescent pink light of the island sunset.