PORTRAIT OF PLACE
Exploring an island of many Maines
Perhaps there is something disorienting about large doses of fresh sea air, because a ferry ride to Peaks Island can feel like a portal to a different world. As Portland’s Old Port and Munjoy Hill shrink behind you, as you dodge fantastic oddities like Fort Gorges, Peaks Island comes into view, and it is impossible not to be overcome with a sense of adventure. This is an island in the Atlantic. People live here. And whether or not the idea appeals to you, you wonder what it would be like, and wonder who has made a life in this place.
If it’s unclear on the ferry ride who is day-tripping and who is making an everyday voyage, it becomes plain upon exiting the ramp and ascending the hill. The gaggle of teenaged girls go their separate ways at the fork in the road. The woman you noticed reading gives a smile and a wave to a guy by a truck; he has met the ferry to pick her up and take her home. People with carts full of groceries wrap up conversations in the middle of the road before making their way to their particular nooks of the island, while on this particular winter day Nicole and I charge past them, eager to explore the whole thing.
At any time of year, an adventurous visitor can experience a great many Maines on a simple afternoon walk or bike ride around the island’s periphery and within the systems of small roads braided throughout. And when it comes to homes, I don’t know of another place in New England, particularly on the ocean, where you might find such a variety within just several hundred acres. There are homes of Mainers with modern sensibilities—steep, angular houses maximizing light and view—along with well-preserved Capes, run-down camps, mobile homes, and mansions. The architectural makeup of Peaks Island is this varied—formed by the island’s many landscapes and its rich history.
Did you know that the island was once referred to as “the Coney Island of Maine”? When people commonly traveled by steamship and island shores were as accessible as any shores, vacationers visited a Peaks that doesn’t really exist anymore—one jammed with boardwalk, the site of grand hotels and theaters. After the roaring twenties, fires leveled the boardwalk, but there remain the colorful cottages built up around it—rows of boxes in mint green or pink or brown with narrow porches facing the dirt road and the elephantine oaks and the bit of bay between Peaks and the islands named for diamonds. Along that western rim there are also grander summer homes with wide porches and windows that fill up with sunset like pitchers of pink lemonade.
People who like more space, sky, and ocean love the openness and grandeur of the “backshore.” On this land, once owned by the military and protected by Peaks Island Land Preserve, are fewer, newer homes with Atlantic views and, behind them, a giant military fortress: Battery Steele. There is a birch forest and a patch of land like something lifted from Acadia, dark with pines and coated in their needles. On this half of Peaks, tucked in the interior, you’ll find log cabins with woodstoves smoking. This is a different Maine from the one you experience walking off the ferry and up the iconic slope ringing with “Hey there” and “How are you doing?” and “Would you like a ride?” This crowded, more hospitable part of the island looks out over Portland. Here is the post office, the gas pump, the library, the grocery store. The museum and gallery, hotels and ice cream shops. The view of the city is a comfort to me—a reminder of the island’s proximity to Maine’s largest city (a 20-minute ferry ride) and the meaningful distance from it. Although Peaks is technically a part of Portland, I find that it is rural in the way most rural places are rural: inconvenient to get to in its way, isolated and community oriented. It is a place where it is more possible to be alone and impossible to be unknown.
Something about that curious combination has always appealed to artists. Peaks Island is full of them. I know of talented painters and writers, illustrators and photographers. There is a French filmmaker living on the island right now. We caught him on the porch of his rental on the “backshore,” took his picture, learned his name, and heard about his love of Peaks and Portland (particularly its food). We saw the peripheral ocean view from his living room, the tide ruffling to a close in every window. There are also teachers, shopkeepers, and architects who make the daily trek to Portland. Many of these folks and others work in the Old Port or keep cars there to continue their commute. People will tell you how they came to the island if you ask, and I’ve found that many who live on Peaks year-round (there are well under 1,000 in total) grew up summering here.
The island school, which offers kindergarten through fifth grade (islanders attend middle and high school on the mainland), has let out. Around the corner of Welch Street and Island Avenue, a few kids are squealing, running, chasing each other, in T-shirts on this warmish December day. In Peaks Cafe most everyone is half reading, half listening or talking. The woman poaching eggs for a couple of regulars tells me that Peaks Island is the only place in America her Irish husband will live. It is also the only place in America she will live.
In general you hear more accents on Peaks Island than you might expect. Does something about this place appeal to a foreign sensibility? There is a certain haphazardness to the layout, a lawlessness when it comes to housing codes (some homes are merely inches apart) and something slightly un-American about all that irregularity. And yet there is also something so American about the range in style, size, and sophistication. The introduction of the larger Machigonne ferry about 15 years ago changed things. Area contractors will price a building project on Peaks Island at about what it would cost to build in Scarborough, say, or Falmouth. There isn’t an excess of land to build on, since a fair portion of the island has already been developed and much of the rest of it is protected, but there are lots, and some homes, for sale.
One of my favorite homes on the island stands on stilts on a beach. At high tide, the water walks up the porch steps of the house, creating a scene like something in a surrealistic painting. It is white with green trim. The windows are many and small. I also especially adore the homes edged in lacy trim like gingerbread houses and the tall brick home like a townhouse hanging on the edge of Island Avenue, looking out to Portland. The addition to this house is dreamy—a container of windows watching out over the bay.
Despite all of these different houses, despite the many Maines you find on Peaks, the island is entirely soaked in some special essence. There is a pioneering spirit in the people who live here, a willingness—even a want—to surrender certain conveniences for community values that are elsewhere becoming extinct, and to live a Maine kind of island life.