Frenchboro in the fog

Tegoak, the author’s 21-foot Sea Ray, at anchor in the fog. Photo courtesy Tim Plouff

September 2021

By Tim Plouff

Given the whip-sawing weather thus far in the summer of 2021 – wicked unseasonable heat with heavy winds followed by days of overcast, crying, and cold skies, it seemed altogether prudent for friend and former co-worker Scott Kimball and me to be pro-active and jump at a small window for powerboating. Having sold his beloved sailboat last summer, an act in motion as COVID-19 assaulted us all, and apparently flunking out of his early retirement and now riding the mailboat regularly to work fixing up houses of every pedigree on Little Cranberry Island, we targeted our recreational boat ride for Frenchboro and a day of hiking over the island’s vast network of maintained trails.

Frenchboro, or Long Island to the locals, is a tiny fishing village on a large island south of Mount Desert Island and southeast of Swans Island. Only about 65 people live on the island year-round, relying on the Maine State Ferry Service for regular Wednesday arrivals and departures from Bass Harbor (8.25-miles north). At the same time, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday service evolves with the calendar – and the demand.

With the land forecast for the mid-80s, extra humidity, and potentially heavy afternoon thunderstorms, the inland-waters forecast was, naturally, for early fog, 1-2-foot seas and remote storm possibilities. Piece of cake for my 21-foot SeaRay, so we headed out on an early weekend Friday for the town dock at Manset in Southwest Harbor, where placid waters, no other boaters and mostly sunny skies ushered us underway.

Passing the crowded docks at Hinkley Boat in Manset, full of multi-million dollar picnic boats and beautiful sailing vessels, we slow-motored into the Western Way between Seawall and Great Cranberry Island. Two working lobster boats pushed past us while the steady stream of barges carrying construction vehicles to the islands off MDI shuffled their expensive cargoes east and west.

The fog south of the island was clearly thickening. Perhaps today would be a good day to activate the tracking on the chartplotter – just to make things a little easier coming home, in case you know what goes bad. We zero in on a constant 180-190 degree heading, and steer directly for Frenchboro, once past the big gong west of Bunker Ledge. The Western Way is usually rougher than surrounding waters, as the bottom is shallower and the passage narrower, so the wind and the tide combine to create a bit more wave action than a normal forecast. Today is no exception, but once out of the way, the seas actually get taller and a large swell creates conditions that require a much slower pace. We back down from running on plane to nine knots – to save the boat and our knees. We soon pass the service boat heading to the local fish-farms, and then past Great Gott Island – without seeing any part of it. Our 12-mile ride out to Frenchboro is going to take a while.

And then it really changes. We wave to a lobster boat crew pulling traps in the bucking seas off of Horseshoe Ledge, the sea foaming against the exposed granite. Amidst the rolling waves and floating seaweed, I miss seeing a black toggle buoy and get the line hanging between it and the trap buoy wrapped tight against the prop and lower unit – stalling the engine before I can get to neutral. We are dead in a rolling sea, my little Searay getting knocked around like socks in a dryer. The boat is bobbing up and down too dangerously to risk hanging head-first over the swim platform, so we each don our life vests and I climb into the inflatable. Several attempts to pull the line free almost jams my upper body between the pitching boat and the rubber inflatable. I don’t even feel the cold salty water – I’m more worried about not getting my arm sliced up by the prop.

We have no choice but to cut the line. One swipe does the trick and the toggle is loose, while the main line to the trap remains, protecting the fisherman’s work. I climb over the rocking transom just as a large wave slams the boat and almost knocks me over the side. She starts right up and we regain headway speed, and control – just as the fishing crew comes by to check on us. Thankfully, the lobster fishermen are more aware out there than people think – they always deserve a hearty wave and the respect to stay out of their way. Now, it’s time for us to get out of there.

Another 15-minutes pass and finally, a dark shape appears out of the white fog – we can see Northeast Point on Frenchboro. We pass Yellow Head and glide into Eastern Cove under calming seas, a nice anchorage protected by the large, parallel stone beaches connecting the main island to Rich’s Head. The anchor bites hard on the first attempt just ahead of a large cruising vessel with three anchors deployed. Perhaps they made the same crossing ahead of us, or, they have been here before.

We pack our gear into the inflatable and head for the bouldered coastline; it’s low tide so we haul the rubber boat way up the beach. Neither of us is keen on making the swim after a long hike, so let’s be smart, right?

This is my fifth or sixth visit to Frenchboro, usually under sunny skies that allow you to bask in some of the best scenery anywhere on the Maine Coast. With Mount Desert Island and Acadia north, Swans Island and Marshall Island to the west, and the Azores somewhere over the horizon, Frenchboro is remote, majestic, and worth the effort.

Scott is also a veteran visitor, and has covered all of the 13.5-miles of trails. We elect to take the overland hike up the hill in the center of the island, to Beaver Pond and the Village, and then return using the southern shore along Bluff Head back to the boat.

The residents and visitors alike have always reveled in the island’s unique characteristics and natural virtues. In 1999, a previous owner of much of the island announced the land was for sale. The townspeople worked with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, The Island Institute and the Seacoast Mission to secure funding to protect the island and its heritage from development, but also to maintain the remoteness and beauty of the island. Three million dollars later, plus a subsequent effort to secure Rich’s Head in 2011, the spectacular eastern end of the island, has created a 1,159-acre preserve full of wildlife, natural and man-made trails, plus views unlike anything on the mainland.

Passing one entourage of young women – the only people we see during our entire visit, we cover the mossy trail around Beaver Pond imagining that the residents probably retrieved ice from this area decades ago. Past the island cemetery – atop a hill looking towards town – we go down the road into the village, past the town office, the post office, over to the ferry terminal, and then around the picture-perfect harbor. Several sailing vessels have hunkered down on some guest moorings in Lunt Harbor, apparently hoping to wait out the fog. Such is cruising the coast of Maine.

There is a small lobster pound/deli at Lunt’s Dock, with limited hours, but no stores. Carry in/carry out is the order of the day for visiting Frenchboro.

The beaches however deliver an unlimited bounty of sea-tortured “gift-shop” souvenirs for those hearty enough to search for colorful items, and eager enough to carry them as you walk undulating trails along rocky bluffs and softwood forests. Our view is constrained today, yet the hiking is excellent. The smells and the sounds remind you of the ocean’s beauty.

Our ride back to Southwest Harbor is without incident, the building winds and filling tide at our backs, the fog less intimidating. Entering Western Way, the oppressive heat and humidity slam our faces after the coolness of the fog. We can see the building thunderheads forming over the island. A quick retrieval and clean up has us off the ramp fifteen minutes before the boat gets another bath, completely rinsing the fog, sea-spray, and that day’s adventure off of my boat. A great adventure will, however stick with us much longer.

 

Tim is recently retired from 30 years in the energy industry, the last ten years as the wholesale salesperson for propane, heating oil, and gasoline for Dead River Company throughout northern New England. He has also written the weekly On the Road Review automotive column for 27-years for The Ellsworth American, and other newspapers. Tim and his wife Kathryn, the navigator, live lake-side in Otis, Maine, (30-minutes from Acadia National Park) while they trailer-boat up and down the Maine Coast with a 2000 SeaRay 21-foot express cruiser, Tegoak.