Photos by C. Parrish.
Photos by C. Parrish.
When Dot Simpson, the oldest of nine children of a down-and-out lobsterman and his wife, came ashore to the mainland to go to work in the 1920s, her character had already been formed by growing up on the farthest offshore island on the East Coast of the United States.

Criehaven, a 440-acre island that sits more than 20 miles from the mainland on the outer edge of Penobscot Bay, faces the cold northern ocean with nothing but 3,000 miles of wind and weather between it and the coast of Spain.

To mariners, Criehaven is listed as Ragged Island, which, according to various sources, is shorthand for Ragged Ass Island, a name that could refer to the rocky headlands on Southwest Point or what happens when a boat ends up on Harbor Point, or how a passenger feels after crossing the gut in bad weather, when the seas seem to swallow a boat as it heads into the trough of a wave before emerging again at the crest.

Or it simply could be a bad translation of the Abenaki name: Racketash.

Dot, whose full name was Dorothy, was an island child, used to winter storms and rowing the shore to collect driftwood for firewood, holding her own in a fight with island boys, and hauling traps when she could. She knew how to make bait bags and handle a boat much better than she knew how to make biscuits or starch shirts. And she knew everyone on the island, pretty much everything about them, and had absorbed the island code of independent resourcefulness knitted together with strong community ties.

The island was part of who she was.

Dot also loved to read, as did her father, and she shared a passion for writing with her friend Liz Olgivie, a summer girl who came to the island with her mother.

Elisabeth Ogilvie became nationally established as a writer for her Tide Trilogy, three novels in which she wove together the history of Criehaven, her own experience on the island and Dot's stories to create the fictional Bennett's Island and the Bennett family, with strong-willed Joanna Bennett as the main character.

Bennett's Island was Criehaven by a fictionalized name and the Bennetts of the novels were mostly drawn from the extended Simpson family. Ogilvie, and then Dot Simpson, who also wrote about the island in several books, put Criehaven on the literary map as a place full of closely knit families, with a few rogues, and sometimes deep-seated rivalries.

The Island's True Child

A generation later, Dot's niece, Dorothy Elizabeth Simpson, edited Aunt Dot's manuscript The Island's True Child: A Memoir of Growing Up on Criehaven and turned attention to the island once more.

Dorothy's childhood story in the 1950s and 1960s is strikingly similar to that of her Aunt Dot's 50 years earlier. She grew up in much the same way: in poverty, the daughter of a lobsterman.

Dot was the oldest child in her family and was grown when her youngest brother, Neil, was born. Neil, who had five children of his own, including young Dorothy, moved the family from place to place as finances tightened and family disputes among the Simpson brothers grew stronger. Dorothy was too young to understand why the arguments were so bitter, but remembers some islanders putting up a chicken fence on the lane between the small, close-together houses on the eastern side of the harbor to keep the Simpson children away from the other kids.

The last house Dorothy Simpson lived in as a year-round island child in the 1960s was on the western side of the harbor, up from the village well. The clapboard island house had a cistern, a hand pump, and a wringer washing machine; it was quite a step up from the rickety trailer on the east side that had been hauled out to Criehaven on a barge. The house belonged to Aunt Dot and Aunt Liz, who became a literary team and worked on manuscripts together for over 50 years.

"We had gas heat, kerosene lights, no running water," said Dorothy, who didn't realize her family was poor and didn't know until much later how much Aunt Dot and Aunt Liz, who was not a true relation, had done for the Simpson family.

"As a kid, it was fine with me. I didn't know any different. We slept two or three to a bed when I was little and wore hats and socks to bed. Seems funny now, doesn't it? Wearing hats to bed? But it didn't then."

Like her Aunt Dot, Dorothy was adept at rowing, having bait bag fights with the island boys, and hauling traps. She never got seasick, even when she was in storm swells on her father's boat, nor did she know enough to be scared when the boat plunged so deeply into wave troughs in the gut, crossing from Matinicus, that her mother at the window of the Criehaven house wasn't sure the boat would surface. For Dorothy, it was a wild ride with walls of water pushing around the boat. She loved it.

More than anything, she wanted to be a lobster fisherman and stay on the island, but as tough as an island girl could be, Dorothy wasn't an island boy. She needed a skiff with a motor and some traps to start out, but it wasn't in the cards. Girls didn't haul for a living, even in the 1960s.

King Crie

Dorothy's memories of Criehaven are so strong that whenever she needs a source of strength, she can summon up the island. She often dreams she is floating over Criehaven, following the path out to Southwest Point or to the harbor.

"The island has changed a lot," Dorothy warned me when I said I wanted to see it for myself.

For starters, no one lives on Criehaven year-round anymore and hasn't for 40 years.

Still, there is a community that lives there, at least in the summer, although there is no central electricity or plumbing, no ferry, no post office, school, or store anymore. There used to be, but no longer. There are no rooms for rent, no place for travelers to sleep or eat. No telephone cable and unreliable cell phone service.

Officially, Criehaven is not even a town. It is unincorporated. The island has no police, no state ferry, no clinic, no doctor and, God help the Crie islanders, no fire department, either.

That wasn't always true.

The name Criehaven came with settler Robert Crie in the mid-19th century, who arrived at the age of 19 with his young wife, Harriet Hall from Camden, built a log cabin, then a homestead that was added on over time to become a large farmhouse as he became a prosperous farmer of 220 acres by the 1880 census, with 110 sheep. He produced more than 12 tons of hay that year.

At around that time, Crie got into the fish business and built packing sheds to salt cod that he shipped to Boston. He housed the packers in the same harborside building, in rooms above the packing floor. Crie had bought up most of the island by then, started a store and a school, incorporated the town under state law, opened a post office and ferry service, and established a constable to keep law and order.

During his 50 years on the island, Crie turned the island into a fiefdom. He was able to decide the fates of his workers and their families, largely by deciding who could buy property on the island and who couldn't. Locally, he was known as King Crie.

His death left somewhat of a vacuum, though the island continued to grow in population, with 67 people in the 1930 census. But fires on the steamboat wharf, storms, and other factors led to the dissolution of the organized town after only 29 years. In 1925 the island became an unorganized territory: it is under Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) authority today. The Criehaven islanders are on their own in a way they weren't 150 years ago.

I had read Ogilvie's Tide Trilogy and Dot Simpson's books for young readers and her memoir, so I had a sense of what the island on the edge of the world had been like for two generations and I wanted to see for myself if it still retained what had captivated Ogilvie and shaped Dot and Dorothy, or whether it had become just a forgotten place with a few summer people, a quiet island tucked away from the world. The Ogilvie fame had faded, and many people in Rockland have heard of Criehaven but don't quite know where it is, and many people in Camden look blank when the name is mentioned.

By Plane or by Boat

The only way to stay on Criehaven is to be invited and the only way to get there if you don't have a private boat is to hop a ride on a lobster boat for a two-hour ride or fly in a small plane from the mainland and land on the short grass airstrip and hope the grass isn't dewy.

It wasn't hard to arrange a flight, but finding an invitation to stay could be harder. It was difficult to know how a newspaper writer would be received on Criehaven and whether they would have any interest in my probing into their social history. In spite of the Bennett's Island fame and their reputation for hospitality, I knew it was a very private place.

Talking to somebody who knew somebody, I ended up with Carmen Norton on the other end of a scratchy phone line.

"You want to write about it? Well, let me see what I can do," said Carmen. She called me back later to tell me she had set something up and not to bring any food for dinner because there were plenty of lobsters, anyway, and there was a community supper at the library on Thursday night and I would be expected.

After the small plane landed, Carmen drove up on a four-wheeler, wearing big sunglasses with white frames, a sun hat and gold jewelry, making me smile and forget for a second that I was at the edge of the world. That Carmen was a woman who got things done, I already had no doubt. I dropped my bag and cooler in the back, climbed aboard and we set off up a narrow lane crowded with beach roses and out onto a cobble beach at the head of the harbor. The crescent-shaped beach created a natural seawall between the harbor and a marsh filled with flowers. Skiffs were bobbing out in the harbor, but the lobster fishermen were apparently out hauling and we bumped past the wharves and up the lane to the village well, where Carmen slowed.

A few women who were gathered around the well drawing water with a big silver bucket waved as we passed, chatting while big dogs loped around the green, playing.

"They already know who you are," Carmen shouted over the noise of the engine.

"You'll have to come to poker tonight," said Carmen when she dropped me off in front of Jane Hills' house. "Anson will bring some lobsters over."

If I had expected a quiet island with kerosene lamps where people kept to themselves, I was already suprised. Criehaven was turning out to be unpredictable. Only a couple of houses still had no electricity; almost everyone had solar power and propane refrigerators, though most still had outhouses.

Fresh water, it turned out, was the most coveted resource. Most houses had cisterns that captured rainwater from the roof and drew their drinking water from the village well.

Hills, a teacher on the mainland, had been summering on the island for three decades. It hadn't been a particularly social island when she had first come, she said, but had become more so over time.

"Mostly because of Carmen," said Jane. There was a canasta game at the library in the afternoon, and the poker game later. The community supper was the following night and a foot spa for the women was coming up. Apparently the sewing circles had gone by the wayside, but not the social instincts that went with them.

Some Criehaven generations had been peaceful. Others, not. The Simpson brothers had divided the island with animosity, according to some, with the invisible barrier at the harbor beach. It was a line that some dare not cross. And there had been others who had sown discord, including some that came to fish for lobster that were unwelcome by islanders.

But, for this phase of island life, the 40 or so island dwellers - including the 10 lobster fishermen among them - seemed to have settled into equilibrium. There are no lobster wars on Criehaven, more than one island lobsterman told me.

Just as Carmen had become the unofficial social manager, Brenda Reed had become the unofficial Criehaven trail steward. She passed Jane's lugging a chainsaw on her way up to the knoll in the woods. Brenda, who lives on the narrow lane on the eastern side of the harbor with a wharf over the harbor, instead of a front yard, had taken over clearing the trails out to Bull Cove and keeping the trail to Southwest Point open.

"If you want to really see the island and you like to hike and you don't mind rough going, take the trail to Bull Cove and walk the outside of the island to Southwest Point," said Brenda. "You'll see the trail back, once you get around the point. I've hung two buoys up in the trees so you can see where it starts."

Bull Cove to Southwest Point

The island was small - just .7 of a mile long - but the thick spruce forests had reached old age and the deadfall cluttered the south side. Brenda had cut and stacked much of the spruce - or someone had - up by the cemetery. I wandered past that and out to the edge of a meadow. The Crie homestead was still there, looking not much different than it had a century ago, from the old photographs. I turned back down into the hush of the deep woods and into the deadfall, littered like pickup sticks among moss-covered ground and standing live trees. It was cooler in the woods, and very dim. A winter wren sang its long and varied song nearby, like a soloist.

The spruce forests of the offshore islands are not a natural phenomenon: most of the islands were cleared of forests and many grazed sheep. The forests that grew back when the agriculture ended was all one age, as if planted like a crop: a kind of baby-boom forest of spruce. Forests don't naturally grow like that; they are naturally like large families with various characters and a wide range of ages. And now, this baby-boom spruce had reached old age and would die off within a short time span. As one bunch of trees fell, it opened the forest to the force of the wind that created more deadfall. Brenda had opened the trails, but there was no denying the fire danger of the old spruce forest as it fell.

When I reached Bull Cove, the eider ducks were in, muttering in the sparkling cove. I made my way to the rugged cliffs and walked at the top of them, then down again to the lower rock ridges, above the rockweed line, then up again, against the close-growing wild rose bushes, all in bloom, acres and acres of roses. Occasionally I followed a path into the thicket of roses.

It was thick and sometimes so thorny where the roses grew tight against each other, and so shadowy dark among the spruces and moss, that it seemed still possible to get lost, even on an island so small. Small animals kept darting away at my crashing through the roses, which suprised me; I had heard there were no squirrels, no foxes, no chipmunks, no deer on Criehaven.

Even though the day was clear and hot and almost without a breeze, there was still a horn sounding on Matinicus Rock, a low island a couple of miles farther out with just rocks and shrubs, a lighthouse and a lot of nesting seabirds and a couple of seabird biologists to watch them.

A lone lobsterboat was hauling off the point, with nothing beyond but the sparkling sea and a hazy horizon.

The Tripp Fire

"Did I see a rabbit on my way past the red house?" I asked Jane after I settled back at her kitchen for a cup of tea.

"Did you see only one?" she asked. Someone had brought them to the island years back to have as backyard food or pets and they had got loose and done what rabbits do: proliferate.

"They come in and shoot them in the spring," she said. "They would take over. There are still way too many."

There were rats, too, that had come off a Prock Marine barge, said Hills. And muskrats, also introduced and now an absolute plague. But there were no mice or skunks. The introduced wildlife had no predators to speak of and they had become an incurable nuisance as well as an example of the impact of one rash act on an island so small.

And then I asked what would happen if there was a fire.

"There was one right here in my house," Jane said. It was a gas leak and the island had come together to put it out and managed to do it. Jane had to redo the house, but not rebuild from the ground up.

"There was a fire last month at the Tripps," she said. "The thing was, all the fishermen were ashore having a meeting with the Gulf of Maine people about the whales and the tide was high, so the boats were at the wharves, not on the moorings."

The Tripps' house is right next to the library, where the fishermen were meeting, and they ran out to their boats and grabbed their fire extinguishers and put the gas fire out before it took serious hold. The houses in the village are close together, many are old and most are made of wood.

The taxes are low, said Jane, because there are no services. But the risks are high.

The Poker Game

The poker game was set for seven in the evening at the social center of town: the Criehaven Library. So I went down to watch. It was timeless, with the soft light in the rundown building which is part untended lending library and was once the old store and post office, but now is really a relic of times gone by and has become the central gathering place on the island by default - since the clubhouse burnt down.

Carmen was there with her husband, Anson, who had brought lobster over for Jane to cook for supper. It was the freshest, cleanest lobster I had ever tasted: salty and sweet.

Anson was playing cards quietly, so was young Travis Stone, who was more clearly intent on winning and was pulling in some chips, but the real contest was between Larry the builder, Carmen, Betsy and a vistor who had never played poker before, but was game enough to throw in her twenty bucks to get a stake.

I tried to talk lobstering, but it was impossible. The game was too intense.

Carmen was winning, then Larry the builder, then Travis was losing his pile of chips when I left and went out into the night.

The moon was full and the houses had mostly gone to sleep, so there were no lights to block the stars. Across the meadow, from the deep woods, the hay-scented fern was lingering on the light breeze, a smell of apricots mixing with the scent of roses and a clean salty smell as the heat rose from the day and mixed with the cooler air of night. Generators that had been on earlier were now off and the only sounds were my feet on the cobbles and the waves lapping and the faintest clinking from the moored lobster boats in the harbor.

Back at the library, in an odd twist of beginner's luck, the visitor, who was merely trying to get out of the game and go off to sleep, bet the bucket and wiped everybody clean off the table - much to her dismay. She donated the winnings to the library in the hopes of keeping island peace.

"It's always been a social island," said Dorothy, later. "We were always playing pool at the clubhouse, having dinners, usually with music. And the people would come over from Matinicus for the dances."

Lobster Fishing

But I wanted to know about lobstering. That was the key to the vitality of the island life and why it hadn't turned into a sleepy island of summer people on vacation. It seemed counter to reason that a seasonal island could maintain itself as a viable lobstering island.

The truth is, Criehaven is no summer island. Some fishermen come out as early as March to get their gear ready and finish up around the first of the year, according to islander Sue Smith.

Amongst themselves, the Criehaven islanders defend their fishing grounds from instrusion by other lobstermen, just as the lobstermen do on the year-round islands of Vinalhaven and Matinicus.

"You have to," said Charlie Stone, a longtime Criehaven lobsterman whose son, Travis, fishes 50 traps off Criehaven. When Travis finishes high school, he'll have a full license but won't be able to fish Criehaven. He would have to fish the mainland coast. Travis doesn't want to be a fisherman, anyway. He plans on an engineering degree. His sister, who just graduated from college, hauled through high school and college but recently let her lobster license lapse.

Charlie drew a map of the fishing grounds off Criehaven, where they began and ended, the ledges and points that marked the territory. The Criehaven lobstermen all knew them, as did the Matinicus lobstermen.

"We're not Matinicus," said Charlie, referring obliquely to the disputes on the nearby island that had led to bloodshed in recent years. "We get along. We get along fine with them. Sure, they push the line. We do, too. If you find an outsider in your territory, you tie the buoy up so they'll know they drifted over. They do it to us, too. Then you have 24 hours to move your traps."

And what happens if you don't?

Charlie grinned at me. He knew I already knew the answer.

"You can't be weak, you have to maintain your territory," he said. "It's the way fishing is."

Lobster fishing, all up and down the coast, has unwritten codes that are common knowledge. The agreements go back a long way.

Even the letter from LURC allowing one of the Criehaven islanders special permission to build a house on the eastern side of the harbor so the family can continue to fish there as they have for 40 years, said the lobsterman was accepted as a Criehaven island fisherman according to "long-standing local tradition that limits who can commercially fish from the island." The lobsterman had just happened to lose his dwelling on the harbor due to a death in the family. He wasn't in the will and it wasn't his home. And he needed a home on Criehaven, if he was to continue to fish.

After a long and burdensome regulatory nightmare with LURC, the building permit had been issued. For this generation, at least, lobstering would continue as it had.

But the catch is down this year on Criehaven as of mid-July, according to the Criehaven lobstermen. Some blame an outbreak of stringy algae that is fouling the lines.

Others say the offshore fleet, coming from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and elsewhere and fishing just three miles farther out past Criehaven, is lowering the islanders' catch because the offshore boats can keep bigger lobsters. There is no upper size limit in federal waters as there is in Maine, and the big ones can be sold in Massachusetts, but are illegal in Maine.

At the community dinner which was on a fine summer evening, I sat beside a woman in her thirties, who spent all her childhood summers on the island and now lives in the Portland area. She was a baker and was up on the island to visit her mother for a few days. She had her young daughter, Ella, with her, whose hair was like a dandelion fluff.

"It hasn't really changed since I was a girl," said Ella's mother. She nodded when I said something about everyone having electricity now and that the island looked prosperous, not in any sense a deserted or forgotten island. She agreed there had been changes and upgrades.

"But really," she said, nodding to the diners sitting on the picnic tables and lounging on the porch of the library with paper plates in hand, sharing the meal and talking to each other about fishing, weather and politics.

"When you get right down to it," she said. "It is exactly the same."

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