A very nice day on Cliff Island

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With a pair of precocious boys as guides, we find beauty, fun and insights about life on this remote island in Casco Bay.

Make no mistake, Cliff Islanders are nice. Nine-year-old Rufus MacVane will tell you all about that.

“There’s Bobby, he’s a super nice guy. He helps people a lot and he’ll always wave to you. And then there’s Crowley. I call him Crowley, his real name is Dave. . . . He’s a really nice guy too. Everybody’s really nice here. He’ll always wave to you and he helps people. He puts in wharfs. And there’s Steve Little. He drives around in a golf cart, always helping with the ACE (the Athletics, Conservation and Education program). It’s a big thing out here. The guy who owns it is named Roger, another really nice guy . . .”

It’s probably not surprising that Rufus, a towheaded ball of energy who vacillates between rambunctious adolescent and meditative adult, can name off everyone who lives on the island he calls home in the summer. There are only about 10 families that live on Cliff year-round. And, at least according to Rufus, the MacVane roots go back deep into the island’s history.

I meet Rufus and his younger brother, Cole, at a spot called Stone Beach (or Rocky Beach depending on who you ask). For my friends and I, out on Cliff Island for a day trip, the only things on the itinerary were finding a nice spot to catch some sun, getting to know the island and enjoying a picnic. And we are just wrapping up the latter when the MacVane boys come stamping through the beach scrub, buckets in hands, bouncing eagerly down a narrow dirt path.

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“Hullo,” shouts Rufus when he sees us — three strangers putting bottles and utensils and Tupperware back into our tote bags — near the entrance to the path.

“What are you doing?” he asks with an endearing mix of childish curiosity and, simultaneously, the assertiveness of someone who’s just found you in his living room.

I tell him we just finished lunch, and then I explain my charge: I tell Rufus I write for newspapers and that, through some bit of fortune, I landed an assignment that has me visiting various islands in Casco Bay. This summer, I tell him, I’m spending the day on Cliff Island.

“So, what have you done so far?” he asks.

I think back. Most of our small cadre of travelers bailed that morning, leaving just myself and two friends to catch the 10 a.m. ferry from the Casco Bay Lines terminal on Portland’s waterfront. Four boats make the run to Cliff on summer weekends (compared to six on weekdays) and it happened that the ferry we took was a “mail boat,” meaning it made the rounds among the bay’s larger islands before arriving at Cliff.

Situated south of Chebeague and about 6 miles northeast of the Old Port, Cliff Island is the last stop for Casco Bay Lines ferries going down the bay. About equidistant from the Portland peninsula and the jutting fingers of Harpswell Neck, Cliff is on the outer fringe of the Calendar Islands, with only Jewell and Ragged islands along with a few outcroppings situated farther from the mainland. Compared to its nearest neighbors (Chebeague and Long) the island is relatively small. Though people say it’s shaped like an “H,” I think it looks more like a giant outrigger canoe sitting in the bay: one long landmass and a much smaller, parallel landmass connected by a low-lying strip.

While direct passage from downtown Portland to Cliff usually takes about an hour, our mail run trip took twice as long. On the way we had brief stops at Peaks, Little and Great Diamond, Long and Chebeague. Our longest layover, on Chebeague, was half an hour, and my friends and I took the opportunity to stretch our legs. Walking lazily through the 90-degree air to some unknown beach, we talked about the day’s plans. From everything we had read it seemed that Cliff, a part of the city of Portland, was a small and quiet community. We had read that there were a few good beaches, a tennis court, a general store and a one-room schoolhouse serving six students. We had read there was a small network of unpaved roads — in fact Cliff happens to be the largest island in the bay with no paved roads — and we had read that much of the island has been permanently protected through ACE and other conservation arrangements. So as we waited for the ferry to depart Chebeague and begin its final leg to Cliff, I confirmed our simple plans and checked our stocks of wine, water, bread, cheese and other snacks. Lunch, learning and lounging were about the only things on the docket when we arrived around noon on Cliff.

I say as much, though in fewer words, to Rufus. By this point he and I and 6-year-old Cole are walking out a long rocky promontory to where the boys had left their lobster trap. To be more accurate, the boys bound over the rocks like swift hermit crabs while I pick my way carefully, and even then contort into odd positions every time I slip on the abundant dulse and rockweed.

It is clear these kids are islanders. Shirtless and shoeless, with bleached hair and tanned skin, they conquer the wet coastline. Because I hope to photograph the brothers hauling up their trap, I do my best to keep up, calling out to them to continue our conversation as the distance between us grows.

When we reach the end of the headland and I catch up with the boys, Cole is scaling a barnacle-covered bluff while Rufus is inspecting the trap — submerged about a foot in a deep tidal pool — for lobsters or crabs.

“Nothing,” he says, frustrated. “But something got to the bait.” He scans the wire trap until he finds the answer. “Look,” he says, “it’s a hole in the bottom. That must be it.”

Clamping the metal in his young hands he closes the hole and then releases the trap, letting it sink back down to the bottom of the pool. As Cole watches from the bluff, Rufus takes a seat and pulls up the bucket of bait — pollack and mackerel he caught earlier that morning — and begins filling fresh bait bags.

“So, who else d’you talk to today?” he asks, looking up at me and squinting his eyes in the bright sun.

A new island store rises 

I think back. Pulled in by the sign advertising ice cream, my buddies and I had gone to the general store, just a few yards from the dock, as soon as we’d stepped off the boat. Jenn’s Cliff Island Store and Cafe, as we might have suspected, is the hub of the island community and a perfect place to talk to some knowledgeable locals. I tell Rufus about my conversation with one of the store’s proprietors (and Jenn’s boyfriend), island native Bill Green.

“We just opened up three weeks ago,” Bill told me. “We started this past winter working on it. It’s been really great.”

“The next eight weeks will be very busy,” he said optimistically.

Cliff Island, like all the inhabited islands in the bay, has a distinct communal identity and a distinct economy, which might seem odd given the island is technically a part of Portland. Bill explained that the ferry layovers were a godsend, delivering as many as 100 people at a time to his doorstep.

“Now that we have the store,” he said, “we’re going to have it open year-round. We’ll be able to have milk and staples for the island people, which they haven’t had in 20 years (since) the person who was here before; he was only open like eight weeks (out of the year), then he shut it down. So we’re trying to create more of a community-based operation.”

Bill, whose family “dates way back in the history of the island,” met Jennifer Blomquist five years ago. “She’s originally from Seattle,” he told me. “She’s not originally an islander, but she is now,” he said, laughing. “All of this is her undertaking,” and he lifted his arms to indicate the business in which we stood.

Bill made it clear the store isn’t just about retail success. It’s about helping neighbors and community building.

“There’s about 45 of us in the winter. In the summer there’s between 200 and 300 people . . . Probably, in the winter we’ll just be open part time, but you know everyone on this island is so close, if anyone needs anything all they have to do is call the house and I’ll come down and open up. We’re not keeping it open to make money, we’re keeping it open for the people on the island.

“My father is a great guy,” Bill went on. “He’s 84 years old and he’s the island constable. He’s got a little boat and he’s going to go to town once a week for us to pick up ice cream. And another fella that’s got a bigger boat is going to go once a week for us too . . . When our freight comes, all the people who live here, like the summer kids, they just jump right in and help bring all the stuff up to the store and get it inside.”

Rufus, who’s leaning his head to one side as I tell him about our encounter with Bill, responds, “Oh yeah, Bill is a really nice guy,” quickly adding, “Did you see Samantha and Olivia there?”

“I did,” I answer, knowing he’s referring to the two young women staffing the cafe part of Jenn’s Cliff Island Store and Cafe. By this point we are making our way back across the promontory to Rocky Beach.

“Don’t forget your shoes,” says 6-year-old Cole as we reach the spot where I had taken off my sneakers.

A changing island landscape

The MacVane kids split their time between Cliff Island, where their father, Heath, grew up, and Yarmouth. In the summer, the family is on the island “as much as we can be,” according to their mom, Casey.

Arriving back at the beach, Rufus tells me that “everyone wants to live on this island.”

“We have friends, they come out and they want to get a house here. That would convince you to come out here, right?”

I tell him yes, but I’m curious if he ever wonders about the effects on island life of all the visitors. It’s a dilemma that hasn’t failed to appear in my five years of doing these summer visits. On the one hand, these safe and tight-knit island communities represent bastions of hospitality, many of which rely on the summer influx of visitors to stoke their local economies. On the other hand, whether you’re talking about long-time summer islanders or year-rounders, most of the folks you find have come to these communities seeking refuge from the crowds. And despite how welcoming the locals are (and most I’ve met, as Rufus pointed out, are really nice), it’s impossible not to feel that underlying most everything is a sort of us-and-them mentality.

Crossing Rocky Beach, the boys sum it up eloquently.

“If too many people come out, you’d have too many cars,” says Rufus. “You’d have paved roads. And I think dirt feels a lot nicer on your feet and it just looks better than the black pavement.”

“I hate paved roads,” Cole adds.

When I later meet Casey MacVane she tells me, “It’s so nice that you guys were able to come out here today.” Whether she means the three picnicking Portlanders or specifically me in my capacity as writer is unclear, but it is obvious she welcomes visitors to the island she calls home. Still, when I mention busier, more populated Peaks Island and ask if it’s good if my story encourages more visitors to come to Cliff, she looks down and gives me only a reluctant smile.

Rufus, standing nearby, interjects. “Too many people frogging, frogs are gone. Too many people fishing, fish are gone.”

I think back to something store owner Bill Green said earlier.

“There’s only 45 of us in the winter, and it gets crowded quick” in the summer, he said. “I grew up with a bunch of kids whose families owned houses on the island and there was a lot more year-rounders back then.” Over time, he explained, “the older people started to pass away, the families sold the houses. People bought ’em and now they’re not year-round. They’re renting them weekly.”

The island is slowly becoming a vacation community, according to Bill. And one problem with that is when “people come out for a vacation, they don’t know that we’re part of the city of Portland. They see there’s no roads and they think there’s no rules or laws or anything. It can get nerve-wracking.”

The MacVane boys are leading us back to their house, not far from the ferry landing on Wharf Road. Heading down a windy dirt road, I ask Rufus what we should do with our remaining time on the island. “You could take photos of me jumping from the dock!” he exclaims.

Arriving at the MacVane homestead, we walk into a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Rufus calls to his mom through the front door, already wide open. Cole disappears down the road on his bike. Standing on the front porch, I watch as first grandmother then mother come down from the second floor.

Rufus is insistent on jumping and, after a quick conversation with Casey, he begins leading us down to the dock. As we walk, I realize we’ve become part of a procession. Cole has returned and several other young kids have joined us. Rufus, his natural leadership qualities coming through, is telling them that men from the newspaper are going to take photos as they leap from the pier. Casey is coming along and some other parents have joined us too. Including a gang of children already at the landing, their heads still wet from a recent dip, there are more than a dozen of us congregated on the dock.

Despite Bill’s concerns about the influx of visitors, this outsider doesn’t get the impression Cliff Island is approaching a tipping point any time soon. I talk to some of the adults at the landing; a comment by a year-round resident who doesn’t want to be identified backs that up. On Cliff, “you can just let your kids run around all day. Everyone knows everyone else here. This is still a very small community,” she says.

Seeming to prove her point are the gang of island kids at the landing, who take the “free-range kids” concept to an unabashed high.

Wanting to change into my bathing suit I ask if there’s a nearby public restroom.

Turns out there are no 24-hour public facilities on the island, though the cafe has a restroom for customers. “You can use the one in the community center,” says the unidentified resident. She motions behind her to the multi-purpose building beside the public tennis court that also serves as the island’s post office and historical society. “But that’s typically only open” when events are going on.

“Or you can just go behind the building. That’s what most people do.”

As I get back to the dock, I see that one of my friends has already taken the plunge. It’s chilly, he tells me, but it feels good. I hesitate with my first jump, an awkward cannonball.

“That’s pretty good,” Rufus tells me, as I come up the metal catwalk that connects the high wharf with an adjacent floating dock. He’s being kind and offers no further advice. In fact, that’s almost the last time I’ll see him and his cohorts. He’s done with jumping for the moment, and by the time I’m ready to take my second leap – an ill-executed dive – Rufus is running down Wharf Road with a gaggle of island kids, off to some new adventure not meant for us adults.

Island life: ‘Ups and downs for sure’

But to end the story here would be to miss another perspective of Cliff that’s just as real, just as true.

As we dive and swim and wait for the ferry to take us back to the mainland I recall my discussion with year-round islanders Samantha and Olivia Crowley, the employees at nearby Jenn’s Cliff Island Store and Cafe.

“We’ve lived here all our lives. It has its ups and downs for sure,” said 18-year-old Samantha. “Socially it can be challenging.”

The island’s single school runs kindergarten to grade 5, at which point the kids must start commuting to schools in Portland. (“I was the only one in fifth grade when I graduated,” 15-year-old Olivia noted.) This means that not just socially, but logistically, things get more difficult.

“Most of our friends are in Portland,” said Olivia. “We don’t have very many boats a day, so it’s hard to see them.”

She continued. “We start going to school in Portland in sixth grade, so we have to wake up to get on the 6:10 boat every morning. And if you do any sports or anything you don’t get home ’til 7.”

And you miss out, said Samantha, since “there are a lot of (school) activities that are after 5:45, which is the last boat. It’s a lot more logistics that we have to plan around.”

I asked if it’s worth it?

“Well, I’m probably moving off this fall to get a job in town,” said Samantha.

“You really can’t get a job in Portland, like a full-time job, and do the commuting thing,” Olivia adds.

“But yeah,” Samantha’s answer evolved, “I’ll probably come back. I mean, my family is here. It’s a great community because you know everybody and everybody knows you.”

Any downside to that, I ask?

“Oh yeah, everybody knows your business. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everybody knows everything about you.”

It’s clear that, like living anywhere, there are pros and cons to living on Cliff, accentuated by the island’s natural remoteness.

At 9, and perhaps because he’s not a full-time resident, our guide for our day on Cliff never seemed too bothered by the lack of social opportunities. Not yet, anyway. As personable as Rufus is, he was quick to say — and this might be what makes him a true islander — “I have my friends out here, but I’m not a fan of having too many people.”

As we walked along that slippery promontory earlier in the day, Rufus said about Cliff, “I think it’s great and I think that, you know, it’s way different than the mainland. (Not living on Cliff), I’d be a different person.”

I see Rufus one more time before returning to Portland, but there’s no time to ask any more questions or get more insights: Standing aft on the launching ferry, I watch as Rufus and three other island kids make a running, flailing, laughing leap off the high dock into our wake. 

Cliff Island favorites

Cliff Islanders offer their must-see things to do on a day trip to the island.

Olivia and Samantha Crowley: Head to the beaches 

Olivia recommends Rocky Beach. This long spit of land on the island’s southwestern edge — covered entirely in small, worn stones — offers scenic views of Peaks and Long islands, as well as the view looking down the bay toward South Portland. A nice place to sit and have lunch, it’s probably not the most comfortable spot to catch rays though. “It’s just all rocks,” says Olivia. “It’s kind of awesome.”

Get there by taking South Road (that’s your first right when you come off the ferry) and following the road until it turns left. Here, you’ll notice a path (and likely some locals’ bikes) leading off through the woods on your right. Take the path and you’ll quickly come to Rocky Beach.

If you’re looking for something more traditional (sand, anyone?), the Crowleys recommend heading to the other side of the island. Keep heading straight when you get off the ferry – you’ll pass the public tennis court on your left – and keep following the road when it turns left. Continue (you’ll technically be on Church Road now) until you reach Fishermans Cove. Here, the island sweeps south. Take the road, leading off to the right, that follows the island’s coastline. This is Beach Road.

“You can go down that way toward the ball fields and there are other sandier beaches,” says Olivia.

Nine-year-old Rufus MacVane: Do it all 

“I like to frog. I like to crab. I like to go out in the green machine.” (That’s the family punt, apparently.) “I love to fish. Fishing is a blast.”

But if you had to pick just one thing?

“A lot of people like frogging. You take some nets and go down to the frog pond across from my house . . . and you catch the frogs. People like crabbing too.”

And what if people don’t know how to get to your house?

“Jump off the ferry dock!”

For the less adventurous, Rufus also likes the events put on by ACE, the island’s Athletics, Conservation and Education program. (Check out the island community calendar here: www.cliffisland.com. Or visit the island Facebook page for info on upcoming events.)

Casey MacVane (mother of Rufus): Walk out to the bluffs

“I think: swim in the cove; jump off the ferry dock; and walk out to the bluffs.”

The cove that Casey is referring to is Fishermans Cove, adjacent to the sandy beaches mentioned by Rufus and Olivia. If you head that way and keep following Beach Road ’til its end, you’ll cross the island’s low-lying midsection and reach the bluffs. This is the uniquely shaped island’s outrigger — a long spit of cliffy, conserved land. Keep heading straight, make your way through the wall of trees and you’ll come out on the island’s easternmost side. A nice destination for an island hike or picnic with near-panoramic views of the Atlantic.

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