My introduction to Muscongus Bay was unexpected. In 1969 I was sailing with friends in their twenty-six-foot sloop when foul weather rolled in as we rounded Pemaquid Point. Seeking refuge in Round Pond Harbor, we dropped anchor to ride out the storm. Immediately I was taken by the simple peace and beauty of the small village and its protected harbor. We weathered the storm and put out to sea the following day, sailing past Pemaquid Light on the western point of Muscongus Bay, heading home to Mere Point in Brunswick.
When I returned four years later, I stayed. In the summer of 1973, my wife Ruth and I moved to Monhegan Island, the eastern-most point of Muscongus Bay, where we taught for two years in the one-room school and served as ministers of the island church. We had 14 children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, with one or two per grade. The winter island population was about 75 people. It was a remarkable community, and over the years I performed the marriages of nine of our 14 school children.
Sadly, I have also officiated at the funerals of many of the island people we knew back then. One was Ray Phillips, who built a house of driftwood and “stuff” on Manana, the tiny island just off Monhegan that forms the west side of Monhegan harbor. Ray lived alone on the island for 48 years along with his 28 sheep and a goose name Donald. In the spring of 1975, he slipped into the water while hauling his skiff on the rocky shore, contracted pneumonia, and died soon after. The Monhegan church was packed for this funeral. We buried him just below his small home with a simple plaque reading, “Ray Phillips – Shepherd of Manana.”
In 1975, Ruth and I moved on to Muscongus Island, also known as Louds. Edward Loud Poland offered to let us stay in his house and even to buy 10 acres of land “for whatever we could afford.” We ended up purchasing an old farm just across from the island church. We spent two remarkable years on that island. We fished for lobsters, dug clams, raked sea moss, built boats, did carpentry on the houses, and rowed ashore each weekend to minister to the Sheepscot village church. During those two years, we only missed three church services due to ice across the bay or storms too great to challenge. On some winter days as we came into Round Pond Harbor, Ruth sat with her legs over the bow of the boat breaking ice while I rowed.
As I ponder those wonderful years, so many memories come flooding back. The clam chowder, baked beans, and lobster suppers at Cecil and Elizabeth Prior’s farm on Muscongus Island, then retiring to Elizabeth’s parlor to sing songs and hymns into the evening. I remember cutting firewood over on Friendship Long Island for Ivan and Josephine Morse, an elderly couple who had lived their entire lives in their small home on the northeast side.
Late at night we sometimes rowed our peapod off Muscongus Island to watch the brilliance of the rising moon and the spectacular phosphorescence in the nighttime sea.
On the frigid, snowy evening of December 28, 1974, a lobster boat with me aboard struck a ledge off the southern end of Bar Island. As the boat sank beneath us, I found myself slipping into the freezing water uttering the words of the old gospel hymn, “Lord plant my feet on higher ground.” The words of the hymn seemed to come true as we washed up on the southern end of Muscongus Island bruised and beaten, but in considerably better shape than the boat, which was pounded to pieces.
Pulling lobster traps in thick fog early one July morning, I was sure I heard hymns being played on a piano. The strains of “Let the Lower Light be Burning” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save” rang across the water clear as a bell, but I could see nothing. I learned later they weren’t the songs of angels guiding me through that pea soup fog, but those of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. playing his piano balanced on the stern deck of a lobster boat en route to his vacation cabin on Marsh Island.
I remember the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes under full sail near Killickstone Island, and climbing the old fire tower on Burnt Island to look out across that magnificent vista. I remember herding sheep for Betsy Wyeth on Allen Island, beautiful walks on the nature trails at the Audubon camp on Hog Island, and endless trips in our dory to Bunny Zahn’s as we witnessed the slow demise of the schooner Cora Cressey in Hockamock Narrows.
I buried my beloved Ruth, who died in 2016, in a small cemetery on Muscongus Island to fulfill her personal desire to be in the place she loved, where she loved the life she lived.
The next summer I put out alone in a small sloop to sail among the islands in the bay we had learned to love. I walked on as many of the bay’s 78 islands as I could, reaching 39. I still sail Musongus Bay by myself for a period each summer to be among its rocks and shoals, its scents and shores, its beauty and blossoms, remembering the wonderful moments of the past, and living in the beauty of the present.
For 33 years I served as director of the Carpenter’s Boat Shop, a boatbuilding school in Pemaquid, not far from the bay. The Boat Shop is committed to building boats, nurturing lives, and serving others. Each year ten apprentices come seeking a safe and quiet harbor. To help our new apprentices get to know each other we often ask, “What is the most beautiful place to which you would like to travel?” They answer with places all over the world. My answer is always the same: Muscongus Bay.
Robert Ives has served as the minister on Monhegan Island, Louds (Muscongus) Island, and in New Harbor and Round Pond. For 33 years he directed the Carpenter’s Boat Shop and was Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Bowdoin College. He currently lives in Pemaquid Harbor with his wife Phyllis.
This piece is part of Voices from the Coast, a collection of writing, art, stories, and images offered in celebration of the Maine coast and launched in 2020, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year.
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