On the Rocks

On this tiny island off the coast of Maine, a single cottage grips the stony shore and embraces the sea. The family who lives here revels in its isolation.

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The lone stone house that Massachusetts natives Charles and Barbara saw boarded up 35 years ago defied every description they knew of a New England vacation cottage.

Instead of quaint and clapboard, it looked like a relic—a forsaken, weather-beaten island fort defiantly gripping a shore of granite boulders. The Atlantic crashed on ledges a few hundred feet away. Behind the house, a glade of spruces made up a quiet lee, nurturing ancient-looking yellow lichen growing on the old walls.

The 1-acre island used to be a hunting retreat, they learned in 1962, and the house, vacant for 20 years, had no electricity or modern plumbing. With its back to the mainland, the house seemed more one with nature than civilization. It was a beacon for osprey, loons, eider ducks, pilot whales, and harbor seals feeding in its aquatic front yard.

“We were told the owner was the builder’s niece, the last of the line,” remembers Barbara, “and that she was so sentimental about the place, there was no chance she’d sell.”

Undeterred, Charles tracked down the owner. “What convinced her to sell,” remembers Charles, “was how much a young couple with three boys loved the place and would use it the entire summer when her own family had only ever used it sparingly.”

Not once during their intensive rehabilitation of the house the following spring did Charles and Barbara stop marveling at the island’s enchantments and regret their purchase. They supplemented the brackish well water with gallon jugs of drinking water, and arranged for an under-channel hose hookup to the town water main a half mile away. Charles did the simple plumbing for a bathroom with a shower in the stone lean-to addition out back.

A sale in a New York City apartment building provided them with their gas refrigerator. “I bought three of them for $5 and kept two as spares,” he says, smiling at his foresight, because today he’s on his third—the previous two having been “ripped out and hurled through the back door by winter ocean storms.” Propane canisters fuel the refrigerator, cookstove, water heater, and a few lamps. They have learned to live summers without amenities.

The hardest part of getting down to basics, Barbara says, is getting everything they need “from the car to the boat, across the channel to the float, then lugging it the quarter mile between the float and the house.” They have become selective in what they tote.

But keeping food, clothing, and furnishings to basics has brought Charles and Barbara joy; they felt more self-reliant and in sync with the island environment. Their sun-washed, stonewalled rooms don’t need much to be useful and still look elegant. Barbara has gradually replaced the furniture claimed by storms with wicker and flea-market finds. She doesn’t get attached to things so vulnerable to the elements.

Keeping life simple extends to their social schedule as well: Charles and Barbara leave only to retrieve mail. They sail or swim; have dinner and cocktails on the porch; retire at sunset to read.

“We’re childlike in our love of this place,” Barbara says. “It’s the only place we’ve ever lived that’s so private, and we try hard to keep it that way. It’s such a short time each year that we have it.”

Susan Stiles Dowell has spent summers on the Maine coast near Charles and Barbara’s cottage since she was a child. She still sails by their island and admires their natural self-sufficiency.

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