Eva Murray: Safely out to sea

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 1:00pm

At a few minutes after 6 this morning we had a gust of 65 miles an hour here at my house in the middle of the island. I tell you that because the wind speed measured by the Davis weather station on my roof is a lowball for the region surrounding this island; the Matinicus Rock wind speed is always a good deal higher (although remember to pay attention to readings in knots as opposed to mph; one “knot,” or nautical miles per hour, is about 1.15 statute miles per hour, or 15 percent different. 35 knots is about 40 mph.)

We’ve been getting steady gusts of over 50 mph and our telephone has been busy all morning; everybody wants to know what it’s like out here. Seasonal homeowners would really like to know whether their place is doing alright, but there is no way to go riding around looking at cottages just yet! The fellow who is plowing snow this week called the man who looks after the power company; they compared notes and made a few plans to go out together. Aside from them, and the cross-country-skiing postal clerk who went down to the P.O. briefly this morning to check on things, I very much doubt anybody is going anywhere.

That bit of skiing, by the way, was described as being “absolutely brutal,” as she had to eat the north wind for a long half mile while making her way to the island post office. Likely the trip back toward her place was a fast one!

I was on the mainland yesterday, during the proverbial “calm before the storm” — which is a real thing — and flew home with Kevin Waters of Penobscot Island Air along with a couple of islander’s grocery order from Shaws and a bag from the hardware store. Kevin asked if I had a sense of how many people were left on the island, and I had to admit I did not. Contrary to what most people assume, the population is not stable. The majority of Matinicus fishermen come and go all the time. There is no regulation against winter fishing; some do it, some don’t. Quite a few of them either have second homes on the mainland or take a long winter vacation. We often estimate around 40 folks here over the winter, but it isn’t the same 40 people every day, and it usually isn’t all “families.” Often the dad and the grown kids and/or sternmen are here about half the time hauling traps while mom and any young children are working and going to school on the mainland. It’s complicated.

Today, however, I think we’re down to about 20 neighbors. This is likely the low point for the year, between the weather, the usual bottoming-out of our strange population sine curve anyway, and the Super Bowl. Several of the younger lobstermen managed tickets to the big game in Arizona—to the tune of thousands of dollars each—and they bugged out ahead of this mess. Lobstering was clearly pretty respectable this fall; you can tell by advanced metrics like people buying Super Bowl tickets.

Of that 20 or so, a few are older and live alone, and a few are truly isolated, and a few camp where they are awfully exposed to the wind, but they’ve all been through this before. I call a few people and check on them, with the knowledge that they might be offended (so far that hasn’t happened!) The biggest complaint is kerosene heaters that cannot be kept running, between gusts blowing them out through the exhaust pipes and snow blocking the air intake. Alternate sources of heat are an essential here. One islander, all by herself on the north end, mentioned as we were on the phone that she had just got a peek at the ocean through the white-out. Of the sea to the east, the observation was, “Boy, has she got her petticoats up today!”

The forecasters had been talking about 20-foot seas. I can’t see the water from my house. What I can see are old spruce trees leaning hard over in each blow, threatening each time to come down, and bare spots of ground next to drifts as high as four feet. Despite the bitter wind, walking—meaning snowshoeing—may be easier than driving, but it wouldn’t be a very good idea.

At 11 a.m., with regular gusts of 50 mph, the power company guy called the plow truck guy and they discussed the roads. Nick had just been up and down the main road with the plow, which is just a pickup truck. It’s all about public works, although here, public works means “Nick” and “Paul” and anybody else willing or equipped to help; we have no full-time professionals, no municipal staff, no heavy equipment. With only a few miles of roads and a few miles of power lines, we do pretty well.

Each time we have a severe storm-- any time of year-- I hear at least one version of the idea that we are unsafe here and ought to leave the island. As long as nobody needs significant medical care, this is an easier place to ride out heavy weather than anywhere else I know. Food and fuel are plentiful, commuting is entirely unnecessary, and minor utility problems (such as trees down on power lines without pole damage, etc.) can be repaired as soon as the hurricane subsides. Anybody whose home should be damaged or made uncomfortable by the storm has friends to shelter with. Before any snow piled up, our island phone man hauled an extra barrel of fuel over to the telephone switch shack in case the microwave telephone system has to run off its generator for a while. During a phone call to Robin, that intrepid postal clerk who braved the hurricane for no good reason, the phone call dropped for a few seconds and then came back. Phone man said, “We’re on the Stonington link.” Our phone calls get bounced all over the bay anyway, so if we do lose telephone service, the problem is likely not on Matinicus.

I suppose there’s also amateur radio. I’m sure it won’t come to that, though we may have some fun, and gab a lot, and test out the system.

At a quarter to noon another freight train hits the house and we look at the weather station. It’s another gust of 57. I toss more wood in the stove, get another cup of coffee, and check that I can still get the Knox County repeater on my radio, meaning my antenna is still up.

The one thing we cannot do today is leave.


Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus.

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