Alive Amongst the Living: A Winter Morning on Casco Bay

maquoit in winterAt Casco Bay Lines in sunny Portland, Maine, the Memorial Day Weekend is the start of the busy summer season. It’s when the bell goes off, when summer residents fill up carts and pallets and head out to their summer homes to see how they fared during the winter. For a year round deckhand, it’s a welcome sign- a sign of life after a long, quiet winter.

I attempted to capture one of those mornings in the long, quiet winter for one of my essays included in my thesis, It Will Be Amazing Eventually, which was completed in the fall of 2007. Every Memorial Day Weekend, I think back to my days at Casco Bay Lines. This weekend is no exception. So with Bay Lines on my mind, I thought I’d post my essay, “Alive Amongst the Living,” which is about the 5:05 Down Bay run on a cold, winter morning.

Alive Amongst the Living: A Morning on Casco Bay
photos by Seth Chute

THE SMELL OF CASCO BAY in Maine on an early morning in the beginning of January is piercing and runs up through the nostrils, tickling the hairs and crisping my eyes. My freshly shaven face is coated by the frigid air, numbing my chin and solidifying my cheeks. It’s everything I don’t want to be a part of at 4:30 in the morning. Yet deep within the natural feeling of resentment that such a morning brings is the toasting of life, the celebration of living that pours rocket fuel into my heart, causing it to beat faster and faster. The time and temperature clock high above the dark skyline of Portland, Maine reads negative thirty degrees and after only a few minutes my fingers and toes are lonely and isolated. My heavy gloves, rock scrawled across one and roll across the other, are still stiff from the snowstorm over the weekend, and the dark gray Smart Wool socks my mom stuffed in my Christmas stocking serve as warm, little nooks inside my dirty, brown, steel toe boots.

I feel fresh and able, ready to start another day on Casco Bay.

The other deckhand, Spills, comes trudging down the slip and laughs a devious chuckle because I look the way I do, exhausted and hung over. With a coffee in one hand and an old, ratty tote bag swinging in the other, brown stubble covers his already pink face. Dropping the tote bag onto the slip, he reaches out to make the two-foot leap onto the boat, the Maquoit II. In the darkness, the Maquoit doesn’t look as she normally does. Most of her eighty feet are in shadows and only a small section of the crane on the top deck is visible. The colors on the side of the boat – black, white, yellow – and red are darkened and seem to run together. Down on the cowcatcher, long slivers of ice drip off the frozen frame.

Few words are spoken as lines are tossed back and forth. The gangplank is shoved out and sails across the slippery deck, glazed from last night’s frost. The plank juts out and starts to dip down into the black water below. Spills is able to grab hold, preventing the kind of annoyance that gives deckhands stronger, more fierce headaches than any combination of booze ever could.

“That would have sucked, huh?” Spills says with a crooked smile, hauling the plank back on deck.

“I could think of better ways to start the day,” I reply, tying off one of the ends of the plank to the boat. The plank’s tagline is frozen, causing a diluted shimmer of frustration. No punching bulkheads or chucking a pair of car blocks across the deck this early in the morning. Just knowing that once the boat leaves it’s time to go back to bed for a bit makes anything easy to shake off.

Along the pier iron bollards line the edges, boat tie-down lines hanging either loosely or taught from their base. The Maquoit’s yellow tie-down lines are popped off the bollards, which in this light and in their frozen state, look like weathered army dudes standing watch. The stern line gets caught on a piling, one of the long wooden poles that support the pier. I try and pop the line off but with little strength and even littler desire I toss the line overboard and into the Maquoit’s wash. The piling, cracks running in scatters down the face of it and a collection of old tie down lines looped around its mid-section, pulls slightly as the boat leaves before once again standing tall.

Maquoit two, five-fifteen departure, Portland, 1 P.O.B..

We head out into the Fore River and then out into the bay. Off to the port side, the yellow nightlights of Portland shine like Christmas lights. It’s quiet on Munjoy Hill. There are no dog-walkers, people-walkers, or walker-walkers. Open spots along the hill are covered in white, with footprints running in curious circles and trails around the front of them. Off to the starboard side, the gas fields of South Portland lead into the glow of Bug Light.

Then the bay starts to open up and the lights begin to disappear.

Slowly making the way down the bay I’m haunted by the lingering feeling that I don’t exist; like I am a ghost in layers and layers of winter clothes, tiptoeing my way around the beds of the living. In early January fishing season for locals is mostly over. The Maquoit is the only boat out at this time of day, except for a possible heavy-laden tanker or a fast moving tug. The dark pilothouse is silent. News comes over the radio – reports from overseas regarding turmoil in the Middle East broadcast by a local gal with a thick and cheerful Maine accent. Minutes later the captain, Gene Willard, whose wild eyes pierce through the darkness, has heard enough and blindly switches over to the local classic rock station, the Blimp. The station’s disc jockey, “the Captain,” says the day’s temperatures likely won’t break negative ten. Captain Willard mumbles something in response, laughs, and digs through the drawer of the chart table. He emerges with a cassette tape that he stuffs into the tape deck of the old boom box that is tied down on top of the microwave. Soon Dire Straits fills the pilothouse and the song “Sultans of Swing” prompts Willard to sing along enthusiastically. During guitar breaks, he muses about a misguided trip to Boston University in the seventies to see a girlfriend who ended up calling security on him for reasons that, like the sky above, aren’t entirely clear.

Coming up to Great Diamond Island I walk out to the Hurricane Deck, the boat’s top deck, with a bundle of newspapers in a clear trash bag. Away from the shelter of the pilothouse, the unblocked wind careens into my eyes, and the bitter air rushing into my nostrils reminds of ski trips my uncle used to take me on. Willard glides the boat up to the dock, towards the headlights of an old Jeep Cherokee. The Jeep’s driver, Little John, stands outside, hands buried in his pockets, waiting for the day’s news. Little John’s gray beard twinkles with the bits of ice that have formed through it, and his small frame bounces up and down to keep warm. Without stopping, Willard pulls up just close enough for me to heave the bundle of papers onto the dock and I watch it coast through the air like the soft pumpkins we used to hurl around the neighborhood after Halloween.

The bundle hits the frost-covered dock and slides right up to Little John’s big, bopping boots.

He waves.

I wave.

Turning around I blow some snot onto the deck, laugh because it’ll be frozen before it hits, and head back inside to lie down. With any luck I’ll go back to the dream I was having about owning my own island in the Caribbean. An island of amazing white sand, outside toilets, and speakers placed in the tops of palm trees. An island I wouldn’t necessarily rename unless the name was too foreboding or implied something I didn’t support or stand by. An island that would have wild horses, a wiffleball field that looked like Fenway Park, and a small, little house that I’d brew beer in, adding fun, natural elements that I would find while out on one of my daily strolls around the grounds.

Casco Bay hasn’t completely frozen over since the early 1900’s, not since tankers starting coming into the harbor. The port of Portland is one of the busiest on the East Coast and tankers from all over the world with names like Overseas Shirley and Uranus wave exotic flags from their sterns and come in and out of the harbor at all hours of the day and night, off-loading and on-loading cargo and fuel. The tankers cut through any chunks of ice that form, making it easier for smaller boats to find a way in and out of the harbor. Still, at spots further down the bay where the tankers don’t go, the ice collects and makes certain parts of the bay almost impassable.

Back in the early 1900’s, long before the tankers, the bay would freeze up, creating ice so thick that islanders walked freely between the different islands that were starting to be inhabited – Cushing Island, Great Cheabeague Island and Orrs Island, where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There is a legend that one family pushed their small house from one island, Peaks, to another, Long, further down the bay. On this cold January morning however, the ice is mostly in chunks, loitering around the frigid waters like hooligans looking for trouble. I forget about them until I hear the bow of the Maquoit gently nudge a good chunk and Willard’s maniacal laugh as he gives the engines a little more muscle to push through. Still lying down, I turn my head and look out the side windows. The boat revs. I watch slabs of frosty ice get pushed off to the side and gradually slide underneath the black water and the crystallized, white wave off the boat’s wake.

Some time passes and we’re no longer inside. The papers at Long Island aren’t tossed, but passed and it requires both Spills and I. The large dock is covered in mounds of dirty snow, stacks of old pallets, and ratty banana boxes islanders use to transport groceries. The boxes blow from one side of the dock to the other as the wind comes down out from the West. Pulling away from the island, the Maquoit’s gray deck is covered with scattered sand and glassy slabs of ice. The only noises are the rumbling of the boat and the occasional ringing of a Coast Guard bell buoy somewhere off in the distance. Millions and millions of stars watch over Spills and me.

“My mouth tastes like a baby shit in it,” Spills says.

A smile cracks open the frozen cover of my face. Laughing is important. Makes us still feel alive.

Off Down East, down past Cliff Island, the dense black of the night sky is starting to mesh with the blossoming blue and yellow of daylight, sending strands of colors clawing into the vast darkness. The Portland Express Water Taxi, a small twenty foot power boat with frosted over windows, comes up the bay and its bow light, a bouncing flashlight hastily tied to the railing on the bow, dances with each wave. As it passes I see the silhouette of the captain, my roommate Obie, huddled over the wheel inside the small pilothouse and his hand floats past his head as he waves. Moments later the taxi’s stern disappears into the night.

Turning the corner around the northern tip of Long Island and into the Luckse Sound, sea smoke has clouded the gap between islands and Cliff Island is somewhere lost in the middle of it. Sea smoke is worse than fog. Sea smoke wafts and fades, swarms and settles. Some mornings when the temperature isn’t as bad, the sea smoke climbs up to the boat’s rub rails and rays of light are able to make their way through, piercing the light gray haze. Yet when it’s cold like this morning, the sea smoke rises up high enough to engulf the boat, and the rest of the world disappears. The sea smoke spirals and takes hold of the boat like giant octopus tentacles. At this point we are completely alone. One lone passenger, Sean, a young father of three from Cliff Island who works the graveyard shift at the post office in Portland to support his growing family, sleeps on a bench on the lower deck and is unaware of the vast emptiness he has just entered.

18180_1308614669731_1226343_nAfter 3,000 years the bouncing, bobbing Maquoit, guided by radar through the sea smoke amidst the rolling waves of the Luckse, where swells come in sometimes as high as six to eight feet, Cliff Island gradually emerges. Solemn and frozen over, a handful of shivering islanders huddle up behind the shed that still has half of its Christmas lights lit hanging from it. The shed’s old wooden boards block the islanders from the wind. One islander, Paul, an elderly man who meets us every time we come to Cliff, slowly walks to the edge of the dock, tracing the cracks in the wood. He patiently waits to catch the yellow docking line, moist now from being kept inside and having started to melt. His arms sway back and forth as if they are being bullied by the bitter wind.

On the lower deck a light, friendly kick to the bench wakes up Sean, our 1 P.O.B. and he looks up through his groggy, sleepy eyes.

“Oh. Hey, Ryan,” he mumbles, standing up and zipping his old ski jacket. His face looks confused and relieved. He gathers his things, a backpack and some groceries.

“Downtown Cliff Island, sir.”

“Fantastic.” Sean follows me up the stairs and out on deck, where the wind rips across from starboard to port, like someone slapping you across the face with jagged fingers.

The Maquoit approaches the dock and Spills stands ready to chuck the tie-down line at one of the bollards bolted down along the edge of the old dock. Spills’ shot is spot on and the loop at the end of the line falls perfectly over the round bollard.

Willard lets the boat walk in and saddle up next the dock casually.

Sean trudges off and a small collection of islanders cross the plank like marching penguins. With a loud blast of the horn, a quick drag of the plank and the smooth popping of the line off the bollard, the day has started. The temperature won’t make it above negative ten all day and the wind chill will make it seem like it’s almost negative fifty. My rent is past due and my girlfriend just told me she’s moving back to Cranberry Island to run a deli. There’s a throbbing in my head that no amount of painkillers will help and my coffee is cold and stale. But the sun is out, the sun is bright, the sun is there to remind me and Spills and Willard and everyone else that, frankly, it could be a hell of a lot worse.

It could be raining.

Categories: Life Lessons, Maine Memories

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