The Good, the Challenging, & the Endlessly Beautiful
A peek into life on North Haven Island
The Fox Islands lie in the heart of Penobscot Bay. Vinalhaven, the larger of the two, is home to a thriving lobster fishery and, through much of the nineteenth century, was one of the largest granite quarrying centers in Maine. A stone’s throw from Vinalhaven, across the narrow Fox Island Thoroughfare, North Haven Island tells a different story. Today, evidence of North Haven’s agricultural heritage lies in the open fields with views of the Camden Hills and in the old farmhouses and barns dotting the roads. Rusticators flocked to this bucolic haven in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, establishing its reputation as a well-heeled summer colony. Many homes have been passed on from generation to generation on North Haven, and by now the social and economic ties between year-round folks and summer folks are longstanding, and relationships oftentimes run deep.
“Every island’s character is shaped by its history, ferry schedule, and the ease with which people can move here,” says Hannah Pingree, who grew up on North Haven and returned after spending her early 20s in New York City. She’s now raising her two children on the island. North Haven and Vinalhaven are similar in that they’re both well over an hour from downtown Rockland, serviced by ferries that run back and forth just three times a day. This makes it nearly impossible to commute to a mainland job (most people work on the islands as fishermen, farmers, artists, small business owners, and caretakers). But these places have been differently shaped by their unique landscapes, histories, and residents. Also, Vinalhaven’s year-round population is about three times that of North Haven’s, which has hovered around 350 for the past few decades.
In order to thrive, a community of this size depends on input from all of its members, and a neighborly sense of duty is ingrained in those who grow up here. Participation in local nonprofit boards, delivering meals to the elderly, volunteering at the community center—such activities are the rule here rather the exception. Amenities that people on the mainland take for granted, such as grocery stores, schools, and restaurants, are challenging to sustain but critical to the community’s viability.
For young families, the community’s investment in its young people is part of the island’s attraction, and new businesses like the acclaimed Nebo Lodge (where Hannah is business manager) and the new year-round pizza place and market Calderwood Hall (owned and operated by Hannah’s sister, Cecily Pingree) make it much more livable. “This community really values kids,” says Hannah, citing the generosity of the summer community in helping fund the Waterman’s Community Center, the North Haven Community School, where students receive an extraordinary amount of attention (her daughter is one of four in her kindergarten class), and a grant that guarantees $10,000 to $11,000 per year in tuition assistance to all of the school’s graduates who go on to college.
Still, it takes a certain amount of grit and patience to live on the island. Rough seas often mean canceled ferry trips and canceled plans. “We are more dependent on the weather than most,” says Pingree. The difficult thing about living on North Haven? Nature still rules here. The wonderful thing about living on North Haven? Nature still rules here. It insists on being reckoned with, emerging in paintings and poems made by the countless artists who have been enraptured with this beautiful place.
For it is, without a doubt, a beautiful place. North Haven has undeveloped land, vast meadows, and sprawling woods. Beyond the darling downtown, the island offers 30 miles of rural roads leading to villages with enchanted names like Sleepyville, Crabtree Point, and Pulpit Harbor, with homes ranging from grand mansions to campers. It is surrounded by legendary sailing waters and spotted with beaches and campsites, like those on Mullen Head Park on the northeastern corner of the island.
“I don’t know what it is about this place, but it exudes a certain kind of magic,” says Eva Hopkins, who grew up on North Haven and, after 10 years on the mainland, has returned with her sweetheart to live on the island year-round. Hopkins is well aware of the challenges of island life—namely the cost of living and the shortage of affordable housing—but North Haven’s magic is calling, and she’s answering it. The family of her father, artist Eric Hopkins, has lived on the Fox Islands for over 200 years, since an ancestor was awarded land on Vinalhaven for his service in the Revolutionary War. “There is a local saying that North Haven is the center of the universe,” says Eva, who, while traveling and attending school out of state, regularly encountered people with some connection to the island. “A game of six degrees of separation often becomes a game of one or two,” she says.
Love for North Haven runs deep, and it can be found near and far—from Hollywood, California, to Oxford, England, and back to the North Haven Grocery on Pulpit Harbor Road. It can even be found in the journals of master poet Elizabeth Bishop, who in the early 1970s penned the lines “To have no personal moods at all, to have / only the same moods that the weather / has / here on North Haven Island—that / would be / the (perfect) temperament, for the rest / of life the rest of life.…” To which islanders might add, “So long as the ferry is running.”