On a Sinking Island
In the morning fog the captain moors his boat, the Osprey. We can’t see Great Duck Island, which is only 250 feet away. The 46-foot boat, which belongs to College of the Atlantic, is bringing professor John Anderson and four students back to the island this morning, 16 miles from Bar Harbor, Maine, to continue their bird research.
Great Duck Island
Two students get into an orange inflatable landing boat that’s tied to the Osprey’s stern. It’s packed with gear—watertight boxes and plastic jugs and backpacks and two long oars in case the outboard motor quits. Everything has to come to the island on this rubber craft: peanut butter, potable water, gasoline, lumber (three planks on this trip), and propane tanks.
The boat’s silhouette disappears in the fog, and moments later the fog thins so that the day is both occluded and bright at the same time. I can see the island’s little white boathouse, the only building on this shore, and the long ramp down to the water.
I board for the next landing. Arriving at the island, the orange craft runs right up the slippery ramp, which looks like a wet roller coaster track, and Anderson immediately walks me out about a quarter of a mile, no more, from the boathouse. Great Duck is a mile and a half long and all of 220 acres. At a time when gulls were hunted to near extinction, Great Duck was home to the last big gull colony on the East Coast. The Nature Conservancy acquired the island in 1998, and today shares it with the college, the state of Maine, and a private summer resident. The college owns about 12 acres, which includes the lighthouse, the head keeper’s house, and two boathouses.
We walk on an old track through a wind-thrown spruce forest until we come to a low meadow sitting before the next rise. Like a good teacher, Anderson lets me look things over, saying nothing, until I ask him for an explanation.
“You’re basically at sea level, where you’re standing right now,” he says. “This is very typical of a lot of the islands up and down the coast.” We are standing in a “surge channel” between two small granite domes. A natural seawall of cobbles keeps the sea out—for now. The sea has rushed in twice in the recent past, during a hurricane in the 1930s and when a big winter storm in the 1960s filled the channel for weeks.