The sign for Bustins Island greets you as you arrive at the small ferry landing. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

Lyn McElwee pauses thoughtfully before answering the question I pose to her, which has been forming in my mind all day – actually, for the last 10 years.

“Hmm. I’m not sure,” she responds. “I don’t know. Maybe just let them experience it through your eyes.”

Lyn is not the type to be short on answers. She is one of the part-time “post mistresses” on Bustins Island, our setting for this story. She is, like many of the 200-odd summer residents here, an engaged member of the island community. She designed the island’s newest rain garden. She holds the keys to the historical society. She can tell you all about Archie Ross, the colorful ship captain who, for more than 50 years, ran the only ferry between Bustins and Freeport proper – which was before he retired and the island association decided to invest in its own cooperative ferry business.

This is all to say that Lyn is an excellent docent and a fount of local knowledge. It would be wrong and simplistic to say that Lyn typifies the Bustins Islander or, for that matter, any islander. Part of what fuels the Maine “islander” narrative, ironically, is the fact that each island community is unique and that, generally speaking, island residents themselves can be stubbornly individualistic.

Lyn’s roots run deep on this quiet, densely forested isle 15 minutes southeast of the Harraseeket River’s mouth, and in her I found a sort of spokesperson for the Bustins community. And with fate being the only force to introduce us on this sunny August day, I explain to her the conundrum that’s been clouding my thoughts since five minutes into the ferry ride.

Boats float in the harbor off South Freeport, where the ferry leaves to Bustins Island. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

“Some islands,” I say, “they all but advertise their openness for visitors and tourists. I’m thinking of Peaks. Some islands in Casco Bay, you basically need an invitation to set foot on them. But with Bustins­ . . .”

“We’re somewhere in the middle,” Lyn interjects.

I nod and continue: “I’ve spoken to other people about this today. Everyone wants to show off this place . . .”

“Oh yes,” she confirms.

“. . . but at the same time, no one wants me to encourage a lot of visitors.”

“We love to share our island, we love guests,” she begins.

But I can see the tension on Lyn’s face as she considers the rest of her answer, exposing the same dilemma I’ve struggled to parse and explain for nearly 10 years. And I know from my own experience with these island communities that the quandary is woven into the very fabric of island life.

THE OBSERVER EFFECT

I need to zoom out and fill in the periphery. In 2010 I was sent to spend the day on Peaks Island, a well-known day-trip destination and the most populous of the Casco Bay islands, to write a “go-and-do” for the Sun Journal. Such stories are meant to provide information and perspective that would encourage a reader to go out and do something — in this case to spend a day on Peaks.

Lyn McElwee, one of two “post mistresses” on the island, stands in the Bustins unofficial post office. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

That story was followed in 2012 with a day trip (which almost turned into an overnight stay after I missed the last ferry home) on Chebeague Island, then Long Island the following year, Great Diamond the next, and then Cliff Island, followed by Casco Bay kayaking on the Maine Island Trail, then a visit to Cousins Island, and finally Mackworth Island last year. Over 10 years, this summer series has explored the various island environments and communities in Casco Bay.

To be sure, the pieces were never intended to be hard-hitting. They weren’t gritty exposes of island life and island politics. On the contrary, they were meant to be easy-to-digest previews in advance of a reader’s own island trip. And I like to think that in the nine stories so far told, I’ve illustrated the charming and dynamic communities with color and levity and a dose of humanity, giving readers more perspective on their world.

But it’s been impossible not to relay the sentiment of islanders and the communities they represent, including when those sentiments have been antithetical to the very suggestion implicit in my stories: to go visit an island.

I remember six years ago speaking to Scott Wood, owner of Boathouse Beverage and a lifelong resident of Casco Bay’s Long Island. “When I was young, you didn’t see somebody you didn’t know,” he said, but “we are moving toward Peaks, slowly.”

The art of isolation: Standing on a lonely spit of rock is one of the most ornate “cottages” on Bustins, nicknamed “the nubble.” Elif Sevda Demircan photo

His voice was languid and resigned. Contained in that short sentence was the cyclical history of many Maine islands, a discomforting trajectory, and the conundrum that only now I can fully articulate: The islands of Casco Bay are beautiful and special places that give life to rich communities, and those communities – out of a sense of pride and a generosity of spirit, I suppose – want to share that beauty. But to share too much diminishes not only the environment but the very sense of community that makes these places so special.

It’s the observer effect, the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. It happens to desirable cities like Portland and national parks like Acadia. It happens to favorite fishing holes and once-secluded swimming spots. And it can happen to Casco Bay islands.

SINCERE HOSPITALITY

To be sure, there is no lack of hospitality on Bustins Island. On the ferry ride over, the photographer and I are obvious outsiders – the Lilly B is staffed mainly by islanders and the passengers are almost unanimously island residents. But within literal seconds of stepping aboard, residents are striking up conversations, asking us about our plans and what brings us to Bustins.

After explaining the assignment, we’re quickly introduced to Chris Martens.

“I’ve been on the island since I was 2 weeks old,” she tells me. “I grew up in Massachusetts, I now live in Maine. I’m a commercial fisherman actually,” out of Ogunquit.

The island’s community center schedule is chock full. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

Chris winters in Northport, but she is equally a resident of the Bustins community, a village corporation within the municipality of Freeport.

The village’s annual meeting has just taken place this morning, Chris says, and there’s a dance for the island kids coming up. “It’s just a kids’ one tonight,” she says. “It’s old-fashioned, you know, bingo and hokey pokey. . . . Everybody loves the square dance for the kids, and it’s a memory that all these people that are older have. . . . That’s why my granddaughters are here tonight.”

One of Chris’s granddaughters, Madelaine Martens, is working on the ferry today. “I do all the ticket sales, tying up at the dock, just whatever,” she explains.

Madelaine is pensive when asked to describe the island. “It’s very unique,” she says, slowly. “I don’t know. I’ve grown up with all my cousins out there, third cousins, fourth cousins. It’s pretty cool to get to know them­ . . .”

“Often their great-grandparents knew each other,” Chris adds.

“You see the same people,” Madelaine continues. “You leave and you come back and it’s like nothing’s changed. You pick up right where you left off.”

The wind whips the flag flying from Chris Martens’ porch. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

From this chance meeting on the ferry, Chris becomes our point of contact and our first tour guide. She is a former chair of the Bustins Planning Board. But, then, it seems everyone is involved in island government.

Chris encourages us to visit the Historical Society. “If you need help,” she says, “I’ll find someone who can get you a key.” She invites us to her cottage and, as her grandchildren play on the floor, she searches for a book, “History of Bustins Island, Casco Bay, 1660 – 1960” by George Richardson.

Standing on the porch, she points to a gray house just a bit farther along the shore path. That was Richardson’s cottage, she explains.

“I know I had a copy here,” she says. But it’s disappeared. Instead, she presents us with a map of the island, color-coded by the age of the cottages, and she gives us instructions to our next destination, a rocky bit of coastline where we can eat our lunch.

PRIDE AND PROTECTION

The island is small and easily walkable with a loop road winding around its edge. (I nearly cringe, writing such a go-and-do-worthy sentence.) We’ve been told to look out for the tennis courts and the golf course, “amenities for island residents,” Chris calls them. We find them quickly – they’re hard to miss on his small island.

In the afternoon heat, the photographer and I take advantage of the high tide and cool off in a little, rocky cove. Coming back down the loop road, we run into a group of residents working on a rain garden, meant to hold in moisture, stop rainwater runoff, and feed bees and butterflies.

A young Bustins resident pushes his bike up the walkway of the island’s Historical Society. The unofficial post office is to his left. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

“We worked on this with the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District,” says Charlotte Kahn, who works on the Planning Board and the Landscaping Committee.  “We’re one of seven or eight fire-wise communities in the state of Maine,” she says.

Charlotte explains why the interior of the island is so lush and undeveloped. It’s part of the “resource protection area,” donated parcels that are now off limits to development. It’s just one of the ways the island community protects its freshwater aquifer, guards against runoff and erosion, and mitigates fire danger.

This is also where we meet Lyn, who holds the keys to the Historical Society.

“Our biggest fear is fires, because we have no water under pressure on the island,” Lyn tells us, standing in front of the new rain garden. “And all the cottages are about 100-plus years old, so they’re all tinderboxes.”

Our introduction to Lyn, unbeknown to us as we linger at the garden, will further extend the island welcome and open access to even more of its charms. But it is impossible for me to recall such an assignment with more warm welcomes than we received here on Bustins.

On the shore road, passing a group we had first encountered on the ferry, we were peppered with questions.

“How’s it been so far?”

“Did you find the beach?”

“Did you go swimming?”

The island’s Historical Society, a point of pride for residents, contains several rooms full of objects from island homes going back through the decades. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

No one was shy. Everyone had a story to share, a fact about the island, a point of pride. There was a palpable desire to share this place and the things that make it special.

One example stood out: We met Janice Boyko on the ferry landing. She and her husband, Jim, were about to meet up with some friends to take a trip on their boat into Casco Bay, roiling with small breakers at that moment.

“Do you two need to use a bathroom?” she asked us. “Do you just want a place to sit down? Come on, come with us over to the cottage.”

Janice walked us down the shore path to her cottage. Inside, Jim offered us seltzer water and then, when we declined, he pointed to the fridge. “Help yourself,” he said. Jim and Janice then left to head into the choppy waters of the bay, but they told us – a reporter and photographer they had known for 10 minutes – to make ourselves at home, feel free to finish our picnic at their cottage and use the bathroom if we needed.

FINISHING THE CIRCLE

Our journey around Bustins Island is very literally finished with Lyn, our final tour guide. We walk with her down the last bit of shore path yet to be explored, to her cottage, handed down by her great uncle, renovated and rerenovated­ over many summers, by many hands.

Aboard the Lilly B to Bustins Island. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

Again we are invited inside and again we receive a warm welcome, this time from Lyn’s dog. Outside, she tells us there was once a resort on the island and a steam-powered ferry that brought droves of day-trippers and folks from away.

Lyn might be called an island historian. She takes us to the post office (it’s actually a contract postal unit, not an official post office, she explains), she shows us the lending library and the “real” library (though it’s closed today), and she points out the candy counter (the “favorite thing for the island kids”).

We go next door, to the Historical Society. Lyn shows us – and even lets me play – the piano used by Cole Porter back when he was a camper at the island’s all-boys summer camp, a camp run by arctic explorer Admiral Donald MacMillan.

Room by room, Lyn presents the large collection of the historical society. Old appliances, stoves and decor from different cottages and bygone eras. The checkout counter and metal advertisements from when the Historical Society was the island store. The models of past island ferries (Archie Ross’s is there, as well as the Lilly B). And a quilt on the far wall, made with patches from dozens of island residents.

I am getting close to posing my question to Lyn. All day we have been met with truly exceptional warmth and all day, with the same half-joking tone, we’ve heard nearly the same caveat: “Now, don’t tell anyone about this.”

Lyn McElwee stands before the island quilt hanging in the Historical Society, a work of collaboration between many past and current island residents. Elif Sevda Demircan photo

Here, inside the Historical Society, I realize that I’ve been primed to understand this dilemma. When we were deciding which of the remaining Casco Bay islands to profile this year, I initially researched Cushing, which lies to the south of Portland. But it quickly became clear the community there values its peace and quiet more. To get access to that privately owned island, one needs to be invited.

Maybe an invitation is appropriate for Bustins as well, and yet, here we are, welcomed into homes, offered to partake in the island amenities, given tours and unbridled hospitality. There is a limit, I’m sure, though no one has said it, and I imagine it is somewhere around the point at which the character of this place itself starts to shift. It makes me aware of how lucky we are to find special places while they’re still special.

I’ll eventually ask Lyn about this. And I’ll get her very practical response: “We love to share our island, we love guests. Maybe just let them experience it through your eyes.”­ But I’ll do that later. For now, the photographer and I admire the quilt and the historical society’s carefully curated pieces. We soak in the warmth and generosity.

“A lot of people have spent a lot of time pulling this together,” Lyn says. She gestures around the main exhibit room and her arms cast a shadow as wide as the island itself.

Max Mogensen is a Maine-based writer and the owner of Maine Creative. 

 

A boy rides his bike along the main loop road around the island, near the ferry landing. Elif Sevda Demircan photo


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