First up for the Buckfield Junior/Senior High School baseball team, a three-plus-hour rollick across the winding, pothole-dotted back roads of Maine.

Then, a ferry. After loading the vessel, the team makes the final leg — a 75-minute ride — over western Penobscot Bay’s following seas and rolling waves to one of Maine’s largest and most inhabited islands — Vinalhaven.

Basking harbor seals and ringing bell buoys greet visitors as the ferry approaches Carver’s Harbor, a working village and the lifeblood of this 1,200-person island.

Upon arrival, there’s still one last leg of the journey: a ride on a school bus. The Bucks step from the ferry to the bus at 11:40, just 20 minutes before the scheduled start of a daytime doubleheader, two games that, combined, will take less time to play than the team’s voyage — one way.

And they still have to get home.

It’s all part of one of the most challenging and adventurous road trips of the season, a trip a pair of local schools make like clockwork each year, in several different sports seasons.

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“It’s unique,” said Buckfield baseball coach Kyle Rines, equipped with a camera, baseball gear piles of plans and paperwork. “It’s a good experience. The biggest thing is to enjoy it. Not many schools get to do what we do because of our size. So we want to enjoy the trip. But once you get over there, you have to be able to turn the switch.”

Athletic endeavors to Vinalhaven are adventures local teams have been making for decades. Dan Jack, the longtime Buckfield softball coach and now an assistant, first made the trip as a basketball player. His daughter, Sandy Albert, the current varsity softball coach, also went as a basketball player. On this trip, her son Jacob, made his first trip with the baseball team.

“I made it in 1973 and she went in the 90’s,” Jack said. “Now he’s going in 2015. It’s all in the family. So that’s nice. It’s a great experience. I remember my first time. It seemed like a special trip.”

Another baseball player, Jared Eastman, has a similar history. The senior has made the trip a half dozen times. He’s watched his cousin play basketball and gone there himself to play various sports. He’s among those that have made the journey twice this year, with the basketball team in January and now for baseball.

“It’s kind of a family tradition for us,” Eastman said. “My Dad and my uncle and my cousin, they all went to Buckfield. So they’ve all been out here. So it’s just carried on through the generations. That’s what I like about it. It’s something different that you can’t really get at other schools.”

Also in the East-West Conference, Rangeley Lakes Regional School faces similar travel concerns, and its coaches and athletes have similar tales to tell.

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For Heidi Deery, moving to Rangeley in high school was a culture shock on its own. Then came her first basketball game on an island, this one on North Haven, where they played in an old grange hall with a heating grate in the corner of the court that was in play.

“I was from Scarborough,” Deery said. “It was completely different. I couldn’t even imagine it — that we were going to ride two hours on a bus to Rockland and then get on a ferry.”

She’s made plenty of trips to the islands — Vinalhaven, North Haven and Islesboro — as a coach, and shared that experience with many generations of athletes, including her own daughter, Seve Deery-DeRaps, a Rangeley senior.

“How many kids in Maine can say they’ve been to Islesboro, North Haven and Vinalhaven Island?” Deery said. “Other than Class D kids, there’s not many kids that can say that.”

Tough logistics

In recent years, mainland teams in the EWC have made more trips to the islands schools. Vinalhaven, which used to have only basketball, now fields soccer, softball and baseball teams. Islesboro offers soccer and basketball. North Haven has basketball, but some of its athletes compete alongside those from Vinalhaven.

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Buckfield has played soccer at Islesboro, while Rangeley played Islesboro and North Haven in basketball this winter at neutral sites. The trip to Vinalhaven is the most prevalent of journeys for the Bucks and Lakers.

“As a parent, I think it’s a great opportunity and as a coach, we try to provide a little rundown of the history of the islands before we go,” Deery said. “So it makes it as much of an educational opportunity as possible.”

From ferry schedules to sleeping arrangements, in many cases the simplest part of the trip is playing the game.

“The weather is a big part of it,” Rines said. “For basketball, the ferry trip is a lot more cold than it is right now or in the fall. The difference with baseball is we don’t stay overnight. We’re there to play two games. Then we come right back. It’s a rough day but I think it’s almost easier than soccer or basketball, because you can do it in one day.”

It’s about 80 miles from Buckfield to the ferry terminal in Rockland, though there is no direct route connecting the two points. It’s a 130-mile journey from Rangeley that takes about three hours. The ferry trip of 15 miles across the bay takes about 75 minutes.

The last boat leaving the island is at 4:30. The North Haven ferry also leaves from Rockland and runs the 12½-mile trip in 70 minutes, with the last ferry leaving at 3:45. The Islesboro ferry departs from Lincolnville, a 20-minute trip across three miles. The last ferry departs at 4:30 p.m.

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For basketball and soccer, teams often go over Friday and stay overnight. They’ll play a game Friday and another Saturday morning before returning home.

“It kind of makes you feel like a professional player,” Eastman said. “You’re travelling so far and you’re missing a lot of school. You’re playing on the weekends. It’s a cool feeling.”

It also presents challenges for visiting teams. Coaches are responsible for their players around the clock.

“You’re responsible for kid’s lives on a ferry and on an island where you might not even know anybody and you don’t have cell phone service,” Deery said. “I’ve been fortunate that, most of the times, I’ve had great rapport with the ADs and the coaches. They’ve been helpful and given us what we need. We try to do the same thing here.”

Decades ago, accommodations were the houses of opposing players. Albert stayed at the home of a girls’ basketball player she’d never met.

“We’d have to play against each other the next day,” Albert said.

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More recently, Vinalhaven put visiting teams up in cabins, or at a motel. But that, too, has changed as costs have increased. Now, the visiting boys’ teams sleep in the school gym, while the girls’ squads bunk down in the library.

“It’s not very comfortable,” Rines said, “so in some sense, Vinalhaven gets some sort of a home-court advantage.”

In the fall, there are options for parents to stay overnight. During the winter, lodging is limited, making it tougher for teams’ fans.

“If you go over there on a Friday, you can’t get back after the game because there’s no ferry,” Deery said. “If there’s no place to stay, people won’t go. You can understand why some teams might say, ‘We’re not going if we can’t bring our fans.’”

Visiting players have found it daunting to play on the islands.

“They definitely have a big crowd that comes,” said Buckfield junior softball player Ashley Campbell, who played basketball there last winter. “We don’t have as many people. It’s intimidating and it’s hard.”

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Travel issues

Every once in a while, the unforeseen happens. Rines said they’ve had a player get injured that had to take an earlier ferry to the mainland to get to a hospital. On another trip, the ferry had to take a detour to reach Carver’s Harbor. The trip around Green Island and Heron Neck Lighthouse was scenic, but made them two hours late. Sometimes, weather can make the ferry trip rough.

Last weekend, the baseball team was scheduled for a noon start with the second game scheduled for 2 p.m. The Bucks stepped ashore 20 minutes before game time. By the time they were shuttled to the school , it was almost noon. They had a brief time to warm up and the game started about 12:15.

The softball team, meanwhile, had games scheduled for 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in Thomaston, because the Vikings’ field is being redone. Vinalhaven’s softball team didn’t arrive in Rockland until about 10:30 a.m. The Bucks were left waiting for the start of the game, and then had to wait at the ferry terminal for more than two hours until the baseball team returned on the final ferry of the day.

Overnight stays mean less travel in one day and more time to enjoy the island. Doing a baseball doubleheader makes it a more tedious day, but a relatively quick over-and-back.

“I don’t know if I like that as much,” Eastman said. “I’m not going to miss sleeping in the gym, though. I don’t usually sleep well, especially when we play right away in the morning. But this way isn’t as fun because we head over and then come right back.”

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Of course, one of the tougher problems to fight on mandatory ferry rides is seasickness.

Though schools in the EWC are accustomed to lengthy excursions, ginger pills, used to counter sea sickness, aren’t usually part of those journeys. While some athletes might feel the excitement of playing on the island, some feel a little queasy along the way.

After a long bus ride to Rockland, a ferry trip across the bay can take a toll on one’s disposition

“I was very sick,” she said. “I couldn’t be inside, but it was wicked cold. It was in January. I couldn’t go down underneath because I’d get sick. So I had to stay outside the whole time.”

With a neutral-site game last weekend, Buckfield softball did not board the ferry with the baseball team.  That was okay as far as Campbell was concerned.  This past January, she got sick on the way over and played a Friday basketball night game soon after arriving.

“It was horrible,” Campbell said. “I was slow and sick and pale and not good.”

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Freshman Ethan Jackson heard all about players getting sea sick and wondered about his own well-being as the ferry began its crossing out of Rockland Harbor last week. The seas were relatively calm and only a small swell moved across the bay.

“I’m excited to just go to a different island,” Jackson said. “It seems pretty nice. It’s like my second time ever on a ferry.”

“I was really looking forward to it,” Jacob Albert said. “I’ve never been on a ferry before in my life. I haven’t really been on the ocean. I’ve been at the beach like at Popham Beach.”

Not all bad

As challenging as the overnight stays are, there are some benefits for the players and teams. It gives them more time to bond, and a little extra time to visit the island.

“I was a little nervous at first, but once we got out there, it was really fun,” said freshman Zach Grover, who made his first trip this winter with basketball.

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For coaches, the challenge is finding a way to have them ready for the game while finding time to enjoy the experience.

“You have to be realistic,” Rines said. “You have to have some sort of curfew, but you want them to enjoy themselves. We usually go for a walk on the island or to a store or something like that. But we want to be in bed by a certain time. You’ve got to allow for some sort of release. There’s a lot of strategy behind what you do when you wake up and when you go to sleep and how you manage curfew.”

Of course, there’s also the unexpected — and the pranks. On one trip, kids filled a teammate’s sleeping bag with water. Last fall, players stole one of the coach’s pillows.

“When I was in high school, we had a kid that was quite the gymnast,” Rines recalled. “He thought it would be a good idea to hang over the side of the ferry. He’s one of my good friends. He pulled himself back up. I use that with the teams that I’ve coached and tell them that that is what we’re not going to do.”

Changing times

During her coaching career at Rangeley, Deery and her Lakers have developed a rivalry with Vinalhaven. Both programs have a history of success in Western Class D. She got to know Dennis and Torry Pratt. He was the boys’ coach and athletic director, and she coached the girls’ program. Both are now retired.

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“They were caretakers for a big huge place out there,” Deery said. “We got to stay out there. It was just really fun. They always made homemade chowder and it was a great time.”

The Lakers and Vikings have met 10 times in the tournament. Rangeley has won all but one meeting, the only loss coming in the 1983 regional final. 

“The years that Torry coached were some of our most memorable battles,” Deery said. “Torry and I are friends. Nobody was rooting harder for their own teams than us but afterward we were like, ‘We should have done this or should have done that.’ Although we had a great rivalry, we could also enjoy and respect each other’s professionalism as coaches and work together.”

But change is coming in like the rising tide. With the recent shift in the class structure in basketball, the future of trips to the islands is uncertain.

Buckfield and Richmond will now be in Class C South (formerly West). The Bucks are trying to create a schedule that would maintain traditional EWC foes, which would still include island schools.

Rangeley remains in Class D South. This past winter, the Lakers, for the first time, played all three island schools, meeting Islesboro and North Haven on neutral sites. With the recent changes, that may become a common occurrence.

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“Now, because Class D is getting so small, we’re looking at playing all three island teams in the same season,” Deery said. “We’re looking at hosting one, going somewhere else and then doing a home-and-away trip to a third island. I don’t know how it will be next year trying to play three island schools.”

No one affiliated with the schools wants to see the trips eliminated. As sizable as the challenges are, the rewards extend well beyond the results of the sporting events themselves.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids,” Deery said. “For 24 hours you think about how other people live. Although we are very rurally located and isolated, we can drive to a hospital and drive to Wal-Mart.

“As much as we don’t necessarily look forward to going (to the islands), it’s always a good trip. The kids always have a good time.”

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