The last remaining residents of eagle island
Words by Cecily Pingree
Images by Jonathan Levitt
"In a place like this, you’d be sunk if you had that fear that you couldn't rely on yourself.”
Bob Quinn weaves north through the rough icy waters of February toward Eagle Island. The sun has nearly disappeared, and the marine radio blares out the weather report for the coming day. Bob has spent almost every day of his 78 years on the ocean, navigating rocky sea passages, rarely consulting his GPS. “It’s like walking or breathing,” Bob says. “With time, it’s just what you know.”
Eagle Island is one of a cluster of islands in the Penobscot Bay referred to as the Northerns, with names like Butter, Bear, Great Spruce, Sheep, and Oak Island. All have rocky shorelines, and the land is covered with juniper bushes and spruce. Most of them are inhabited by many more deer and ospreys than people. Eagle Island contributes just two people to the count of year-round residents: Bob and his wife, Helene.
Out on the water, Bob pulls the throttle back and slows his boat, the TM II, named after his daughter, Treena Marie. He climbs up to the bow and hauls up the mooring line, which is slightly frozen. He takes a minute to bend it back and forth so he can get it around the cleat, then rows to shore in a little rowboat, hauls it above the high-tide line, and heads up the hill to his house. As he pushes the door open, the wood-fired cook stove is humming. Helene, also in her 70s, has a supper of fried fish, green beans, and boiled potatoes nearly ready.
Bob and Helene Quinn have lived on Eagle Island for the majority of their lives. One might expect the only year-round residents of an island 12 miles from the mainland to be reclusive, but they are dynamic and engaging.
Of the more than 3,000 islands dotting Maine’s rugged coastline, only 15 are considered “year-round”—their populations range from 20 to 1,500 people. Eagle Island doesn’t technically qualify as a year-round island because there are so few inhabitants, but there has been someone from either Bob’s or Helene’s family living there for at least two centuries. They both are children of lighthouse keepers, which seems to deepen the island marrow of their bones.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the island was thriving with a population of boat builders, fishermen, and farmers. When the Eagle Island population peaked at 55 year-round residents, there was a one-room schoolhouse. In spite of the island’s small size, there was also a “hospitality house” called The Quinn House with beds, hot meals, and even a dance hall that had been built over an old boat shop.
“Life here is much more worldly than you’d expect. The cross-section of people and tasks here have really lent to a bigger and deeper life then I would have gotten in most other places.”
By the middle of the 20th century, Eagle’s population had begun to decline. The school closed right before Bob was due to start in 1942. His family moved away, and the island’s population shrank dramatically.
Helene grew up visiting her family members on the island; she recalls being “hooked on Eagle from the age of 10.” She
attended college, received her teaching degree, and became a substitute teacher in the neighboring school in Stonington, while raising her children. When Bob and Helene moved back to the island in the late ’80s, she had to reinvent herself. What would she do with her days?
“Life here is much more worldly than you’d expect,” Helene says. “The cross-section of people and tasks here have really lent to a bigger and deeper life then I would have gotten in most other places.”
In the summer, a handful of homeowners and renters visit the island. But come fall, when the winds shift to the northeast and the frost threatens, everyone drains their water pipes and heads back to their mainland homes. Bob and Helene remain in the Quinn House. Bob makes sure there are large stacks of wood for the winter months ahead and Helene fills jars with berry preserves and vegetables. If there’s a bumper crop of apples, she makes applesauce, apple jelly, and plenty of pies.
Helene adores reading; even sequestered on a tiny island, she is always thinking about the world around her. For years, she ran a bakery out of their house. She would rise at three in the morning to make sweet rolls, Anadama bread, and pies for the summer people of the island who would flock to her bakery. Helene would find visitors bursting into her kitchen when bakery hours were long over. In true island fashion, she would always find a slice of pie to feed them and then sit at the table to share a little conversation.
Bob is a tall and slender man who can tell a story with perfect timing. His well-worn clothing is full of stitches, homemade collars and patches sewn by Helene. He works the island and navigates the sea. He caretakes the summer cottages of Eagle Island and surrounding summer islands, runs the “mail boat,” which hauls goods, people, and mail to the Northern Islands, and has been a lobster fisherman for 50 years. Bob is innovative and thoughtful about the way things work, mechanics as much as nature. His creativity is in the way his life is lived, not in what it produces. He is philosophical in the same down-to-earth manner. “I go out in the morning and I like looking up the bay,” he says. “I like the quiet. I like to just listen. You can hear the quiet. You know, you can really hear it.”
THE DAILY GRIND
Bob and Helene’s daily lives are built around routines and the traditions of self-reliance and "making do" with what they have. Living within those parameters takes labor and ingenuity once common in rural America that now seem somewhat antiquated.
“When I have made something out of nothing, it’s rewarding.” Helene says. "In a place like this, you’d be sunk if you had that fear that you couldn’t rely on yourself.” She takes a deep breath and smiles. “If you rely on something too much and then it breaks down? I mean, imagine!”
“You reinvent yourself. That is what it is to be human, right?
North Haven, the closest nearby year-round island, which has a bustling population of 350, has a daily, 17-car ferry to the mainland. Even there, simple things like getting a broken washing machine fixed can take weeks or months. Imagine getting one repaired on an island with no electricity at all, reachable only by lobster boat. Better to do the wash by hand.
Bob and Helen say their aching bones are slowing them down and their memories are becoming gradually harder to retain, but they appear indefatigable. There is water to fetch daily from the well, boats to fix, barn boards to replace, lobster traps to haul, summer homes to check on and the mail run to keep on schedule. Many of these tasks make an important contribution to their income, and are essential to the two-month summer community, which swells the island population from two people to 40.
“When people ask me how do I do it, I say, ‘Do what?’ ” Helene says. “You reinvent yourself. That is what it is to be human, right? If things don’t work out, you reflect, and then you make it work. You change, you embrace another part of you. If I was a different personality, this life wouldn’t have worked for me.”
Bob and Helene know the day will come when they’ll have to move to the “shore,” as they call the mainland. It’s a painful thought. Their ancestors and the lives of the residents who came before them are marked and visible all over the island. Most of those ancestors are buried right down the road from their house. They struggle with the notion that one day the place will go dark in the winter, that they will be the ones to let their ancestors down after 200 years of year-round life. That is a large burden, but so is the reality of getting older.
“At our ages, we don’t move as efficiently—it’s just reality," Helene says. "When the wind shifts in the middle of the night in January and Bob needs to get up and move the boat around to the shelter side of the island, I need to go with him ‘cause I can’t let him be out there on the water by himself in those below-zero temperatures. So we both go out in the dark and the middle of the night. We can’t guarantee we can keep doing that.”
Daybreak comes, and Bob laces up his leather boots and throws on his weathered wool sweater. He grabs the canvas bag packed by Helene with a few ham sandwiches, some cookies, and a thermos of decaf tea and heads for the shore. Bob is headed to the mainland town of Sunset to grab the mail and a few items at the grocery store.
As he rows out to his lobster boat, he pauses and lifts the oars out of the water. “The real question is, will I have sense enough to leave when it’s time?” Bob breaks into laughter, then pauses for a moment. “I am going to hang on a little longer and keep walking up that hill just as long as I can.” He smiles and dips the oars back into the water.