"The Seductions of Fall"
By STEVE DOUGHERTY
from The New York Times
Published: September 10, 2004
PEAKS ISLAND, ME.
DRAWN by the timeless beauty of its ocean vistas, the spooky ruins of World War II-era military installations and the romance of life on a Down East island that is both far from it all and a quick 20-minute ferry ride from Portland's bustling waterfront, tourists and day trippers flock here by the boatload all summer long.
Come autumn, when the seasonal visitors board the ferries back to the mainland, most summer homes, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and small businesses that serve them shut for the long off-season. But do not weep for the 800 or so permanent residents left behind. "The fall is our little secret," said Lisa Lynch, a year rounder. "You don't have bicycles clogging the roads — you can actually get around the island without any trouble. The views are absolutely gorgeous, and there are fewer people to interfere with your enjoyment of them."
Like many year-round residents, Ms. Lynch, 38, says she finds that the sense of peace and solitude she has enjoyed since she moved here 18 years ago from Connecticut is hard to come by during the three-month tourist season. In summer, navigating the island by car is like dividing the waters in a sea of slow-wheeling bicyclists and the ocean-washed rocks on the island's Atlantic "backshore" are swarmed by visitors from the vague but vast outland realm known in Maine-speak as "Away."
Although it is part of the city of Portland, two watery miles west, where most permanent residents of the island work and where their older children attend high school, Peaks is very much a world unto itself.
The feeling of separateness is pleasantly heightened in the off-season. "This is the time of year you really enjoy the sense of community," said Ms. Lynch, who, from her perch behind the counter at the Peaks Cafe, is well situated to feel the rhythms of life on the island. "Everyone knows each other, and everything goes at a much slower pace. We're here at 5:30 every morning, when the first commuter boats come in so we get to watch everyone streaming down the hill on the way to work. After the boats go, the moms come in with their babies and a lot of the older folks come in. It's just a real peaceful, easygoing way of life."
The island is accessible from the mainland by ferry, a lifeline that doubles as a tourist attraction. Operated by Casco Bay Lines, the oldest ferry service in the United States, according to company literature, the boats sail between Portland and Peaks from dawn almost to midnight.
Crowded in summer by daytrippers enjoying the sun topside and toting canvas L. L. Bean bags filled with beach and picnic supplies, the ferry returns to a sort of workaday character in the off-season — its passengers sitting below like commuters on MetroNorth, reading papers and sipping coffee from cardboard cups.
Even on the coolest autumn afternoons, however, a warm-blooded passenger or two can be seen standing at the rail or sitting in the rows of open-air pews on the upper deck as the ferry leaves the dock with a deep blast of a signal horn and begins its voyage across the harbor. Gulls shriek and swoop over graceful low-slung lobster boats and oceangoing freighters ply the waters along with sailboats and all manner of small pleasure craft.
The fish shack at the foot of the pier, where young lobstermen sell the succulent fruits of the local fleet's daily catch for around $7 a pound, operates in the off-season the same way it does in summer — unpredictably. As is said hereabouts "It's open when it's open."
A popular summer getaway long before Europeans began settling on the island in the 1700's, Peaks was a favorite retreat of the Abenaki tribes of the mainland. Where native Mainers once beached their canoes on the island's sandy bay-side shores, Peaks at the turn of the last century boasted a skyline sketched by 16 hotels and inns, three summer theaters, numerous shops, restaurants, dance halls and an amusement park that led boosters to promote it as a Down East Coney Island. The once-glamorous waterfront fell into disrepair during World War I, after which the entire island went into a long decline, according to a local real estate agent, Kirk Goodhue. "Up to that time, most homes were built along the bay side," he said. "No one saw any reason for building on the backshore; people wanted to be closer to the ferry."
In the Depression, ownership of many foreclosed properties fell to the city, which generously devoted them to housing the homeless, a trend that led to the island's postwar reputation as a so-called welfare island. "Everything became kind of run-down," Mr. Goodhue said. "It wasn't until the 1970's that people began to see the potential of the place. In particular, artists and a younger crowd moved out here and the island became known as a haven for creative types."
Once such resident is the artist and musician Nancy 3. Hoffman, who legally changed her middle name to a number because, she said, "I always wanted to." A 54-year-old Cleveland native who has lived on Peaks for 21 years, Ms. Hoffman is the leader of the Maine Squeeze, an all-accordion band, and proprietor of the island's most eccentric emporium, the Umbrella Cover Museum. A single room festooned with several dozen "covers that have lost their umbrellas," the museum, she said, "is dedicated to an appreciation of the mundane and to finding wonder and beauty in the simplest of things." (Hours are by appointment until Ms. Hoffman migrates to Key West, Fla., for the winter; a $2 contribution is suggested; 62-B Island Avenue; 207-766-4496.)
As the island has been transformed from impoverished refuge to hip enclave, real estate prices have soared. A modest oceanfront house that sold for $40,000 in 1980 is now considered a relative bargain at $600,000, Mr. Goodhue said. And while a pair of uniquely designed oceanfront homes built atop the remains of abandoned World War II-era military observation and ammunition bunkers were recently put on the market for upward of $1.2 million, even a house that is deprived of a water view in the island's sparsely populated interior will "sell for $250,000, minimum."
Although home construction is no longer confined to a walking-distance radius from the ferry, most of the island's merchants, restaurants and inns do business within a crabshell's throw of one another on the bay-side bluff overlooking the Portland harbor.
Local legend has it that Longfellow was inspired to compose "The Wreck of the Hesperus" after seeing the wreck of the schooner Helen Eliza, which sank off Peaks's backshore in 1869 when "the cruel rocks . . . gored" her. Those same waters hid different dangers in World War II when German U-boats preyed on allied supply convoys that gathered in Casco Bay before sailing under escort to Britain.
The most striking of Peaks's historic sites is the Battery Steele, an artillery bunker where enormous Navarone-size guns capable of heaving one-ton shells at targets 26 miles away once guarded the coastline. The battery was under construction through most of the war, and its two 16-inch battleship guns were never engaged, though locals say that a test firing broke windows in every home on the island.
Ms. Lynch said that most outsiders listen in disbelief when she tells them how much she also enjoys the winters here on a Maine island where the cold winds that buffet the backshore blow across the open Atlantic all the way from Europe. "It's brisk all right," she said with classic Yankee understatement.
But those same winds that whip the island serve as a backshore snow removal service, sweeping it off Seashore Avenue and creating sculpted drifts leeward of the roadway.
The winter wonderland effect is heightened in other ways, Ms. Lynch said. "The ice that forms on the rocks is beautiful and, of course, on a clear night, the stars are just as bright as can be."
And, as a kind of heavenly reward for hardships endured, now and then, the Northern Lights can be seen from the island. "If you've never seen them, well, they're indescribable really," she said.
There is one catch, however. "For them to appear," she added, "it has to be cold, cold, cold."
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