Hops and Skips

Water is ubiquitous on Mount Desert Island. Ponds, lakes, inlets, ocean. Viewing from a distance, these are calming features; they add variety to the landscape, picking up reflections or bits of light that change with the sky above. But on the southeastern coast of Maine, water is not just for viewing; it’s part of the lifestyle. Family-owned lobstering and boat-building operations have thrived for generations; networks of ferry service support tourist and commuting populations year-round, to the local islands all the way to Nova Scotia. 

For one afternoon we decided to swap our perspective, from observer to participant, by stretching our sea legs and venturing out for a ride on the water to the Cranberry Isles. I’d expected the crisp, autumn air of October as we set foot in Maine, but the forecast had other ideas in mind. Instead of the blustery cloud
cover that comes to mind when picturing Fall in coastal New England, the sun was blazing, heating the air to what felt like warmer than its 61 degrees. This dash of uncharacteristic weather turned out to be ideal
for our boat ride; sure, the mist of cloud cover and drizzle looks cozy, but I’m certain our experience was better for the lack of it.

In mid-October, we were on the cusp of the off season. With most ferry services having cut tourist service at the end of the summer, our most accessible (if not only) option was the Beal & Bunker Ferry, providing year-round service to the Cranberries from the town of Northeast Harbor. During Spring and Fall, the ferry runs four trips a day. A quick phone call to the ticket office offered guidance for our afternoon adventure with two small kids – a situation that inherently requires flexibility and shorter time commitments. The 2:30 pm route would take 15 minutes to reach Great Cranberry Island where we could explore for an hour as the ferry continued its looped route before again hopping aboard to return home. 

There was little traffic at the waterfront of Northeast Harbor. An older couple seeking information on the Sea Princess cruise schedule, a family picnicking on a sunny spot in the grass. As we approached the dock, other travelers unpacked their cars and wheeled their wagons of supplies down the ramp to our craft, the Sea Queen. We boarded early and secured seats just on the edge of the boat’s deck and cabin; uncertain whether the warm temperatures would remain once on the water, we wanted the option to escape that inevitable sea breeze. Passengers boarded along with bags and bags and bags of groceries and goods; pleasantries were exchanged between familiar faces. It was apparent we were one of only two small tourist groups on board with a bunch of regulars.

Cranberry Isles earned its name back in 1762 when then-Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts was inspecting the area and noted the 200-acre cranberry marsh on Great Cranberry Island. In present day, the five islands of Cranberry Isles—Great Cranberry, Little Cranberry (also known as Isleford), Sutton, Baker, and Bear—have just over 140 year-round residents. The largest two, Great and Little Cranberry, are the most populated by both residents and tourists. Isleford is home to a dockside restaurant, historical museum, and several art galleries (all open seasonally); Great Cranberry Island, our stop, boasts a general store, café, post office, library, and scenic walking trail.

We disembarked with most of the ferry, and one-by-one, our fellow passengers dispersed towards (presumably) the comforts of their final destination. A two-mile road stretches from the dock at the north shore of the island to its southeastern tip, and we trod it by foot. To reach the library was our goal, a 15-minute walk. But with two small children and a strict one-hour time limit, even this short distance proved to be impossible. Instead, we stretched our legs with a brief stroll, rambling past clapboard farmhouses and shingled Cape Cods, before returning to the harbor’s rocky beach where we searched for sea glass and skipping rocks. We didn’t pass another soul. Great Cranberry Island, too, it seemed, had closed for the season.

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