It will come as no surprise to those who know me and follow my word-ramblings that I cannot hide for long my special love for coastal New England; it is a sad burden to bear if a year passes without a return to my private “Mecca-by-the-sea”, no matter how brief.
It has become my Maine habit to rise early each morning in order to pay an anonymous visit to a nearby wharf where I can observe the start of a “fishermen’s day”, as lobster boats line up at the fuel dock, take aboard blue barrels of bait, and, amid the burbling of diesels and the cry of gulls wend their way, one by one, through the narrow passage from New Harbor to the waiting Atlantic.
On one memorable occasion, I was late in getting there, disappointed to realize I had missed the moment. The local “fleet” had already sailed. All except one boat. I watched as a lone teen age boy, in yellow boots and ragged jacket prepared his small, unsophisticated lobster boat just beneath the overhanging dock from which I watched. I was not alone. Within easy ear-shot were two old-time “locals”; grizzled men of the sea who no longer plied the trade, but were always there, watching, measuring, still attached by a lifetime of memories to a way of life which would always define them. Finally, the neophyte lobsterman cast off, his final purchase – a six pack of Coca Cola – lowered to him by dock workers, as the two old timers watched critically. I could sense a touch of mild disapproval, even in their silence. Then one took his pipe from his mouth, and amid curls of blue smoke said to his companion in a grudging bit of Down-East understatement “Wal, he may be late, but he always goes”.
You would have to have grown up among these seemingly-gruff, and unarguably laconic “Yankees” to understand – as I did – that a great compliment had just been shared. Over the years, that mental picture and those words have stayed with me: “He may be late, but he always goes”. There is much to be said for the old fashioned virtue of persistence; that inborn tenacity which drives people to honor some tradition, cause, or ethic even when it is difficult or uncomfortable to do so. Inherent in the lives of these Maine lobster fishermen can be seen a respect for old values, and a quiet kind of integrity which never fails to warm my heart and restore a flagging pride in my race.
Lobsters from the cold waters of the northeast are – to be sure – the king and queen of seafood. However, to the truly initiated, a “Maine Lobster” (Homarus americanus) is in a special league, and a “Monhegan Lobster” is supreme. In the waters around Monhegan Island, nature, (and man) have been especially kind to this culinary crustacean which, for a number of reasons grows larger and more delectable there. And they sell for a higher price! Many years ago, the lobstermen of Monhegan got together and decided to limit the length of their fishing season and the size of their catch, believing that the extra-large specimens should be protected as “breeders”;all of this when there were no such limits on lobstering in other Maine waters. What’s more, they discouraged (in their own way) poaching by “outsiders”.
As a matter of long tradition, their self-imposed season would run from January 1st into the month of June, the exact starting day determined by common consent in an annual meeting. For weeks, the local fishermen would stack their repaired and weighted traps beside the island’s wharf as they prepared for the magic day known as “Trap Day”, honor bound to the idea that all should have an equal chance of success. This ideal came to a test one year when the wife of one of their number was taken seriously ill, and was being treated in a mainland hospital, where her husband remained at her side. Not only did the Monhegan men see to it that his traps and boat would be ready upon his return weeks later, but that no boat would launch until they could all launch. “Trap Day” on Monhegan Island – to this day – takes place when everyone is ready to go.
Lobster traps help to frame the approach to Monhegan Island’s lone dock, connected by a network of hiking trails to Cathedral Woods, the stone lighthouse and the 200 foot cliffs which drop off sharply into a breaking sea on the island’s east side. The small harbor is protected by tiny Manana, an islet where Viking artifacts have been found.
Maine lobstermen at Round Pond help each other to load traps, floats and gear for a day off-shore. From here, it is a twelve mile run out to Monhegan. A two-man crew might maintain and harvest from 100 to 200 traps, attached to floats painted with their unique licensed color scheme. Each float might be tied to six or eight traps which are usually “pulled” daily, in all kinds of weather.
An old and weathered “fish shack” acts as a community bulletin board on Monhegan Island, a favorite destination for artists and tourists in the summer months, but year-round home to fewer than one hundred hearty residents. The entire island comprises little more than one square mile. It was probably the first point on the New England coast to have been visited by Europeans.
All Photos by Al Cooper