The memorable second choice

In the summer of 1982 I was not quite 11 years old and I was excited. For the first time I was going to get to go away to Boy Scout Camp. My mom also told me that she had signed me up for the Audubon Youth Ecology Camp at Hog Island, Maine. I would be going there for 10 days then coming home for a week, then going on to Boy Scout camp for a week.

I was not that excited. It seemed like an obstacle between me and Scout camp, something to be endured while waiting to go to that awesome place where I’d get to swim, play games, participate in archery, earn merit badges, etc..

When the time to leave rolled around we packed up a foot locker and loaded it into the car for the drive up the coast from Massachusetts to Bremen, Maine. I was prepared to endure my time while thinking of all the fun things I’d be doing in a few weeks when Scout camp finally arrrived.

The truth, of course, was exactly the opposite. Nearly 30 years later I still recall my first glimpse of Hog Island across the mist shrouded bay as I was dropped off on the shore with the other kids. It’s seemed like another world, and it was. There was hiking, learning about the coastal ecology, boat trips, exploration, amazing meals, and nightly presentations and singing songs in the Fish House.

In the end, I can’t recall much of what I did at Boy Scout camp, to which I never returned, but I did go back to Hog Island in 1983 and 1984. After that I was too old for the youth camp, but I never forgot it.

Years later I thought to look it up again in hopes of sending my daughter in a few years. I was sad to see this camp is no more. I would pay dearly to have her go and experience the magic of that island in Maine.

The reach of the humanities

When I first came to Hog Island as a camper in 1981, I was far enough along on a humanities degree that my next big hurdle was to complete the “project” phase of the program. Since my focus was on conservation history, I figured hanging out on an island in Muscongus Bay for two weeks, as the Audubon Camp program was back then, would provide a wonderful time for a guy from the Midwest to reflect and, I was sure, discover the absolutely right topic for that culminating graduate project. I can remember that I was mildly disappointed when, after having prowled around the camp compound for only a few hours, the project idea jumped up from the island itself and grabbed me. And I never would have guessed that Emily Dickinson would be at the heart of it all. But she was.

Mabel Loomis Todd, celebrated as savior of the island, was also the original editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry back in the late 1880s.

The idea of attending the Audubon Camp in Maine came from a science teacher colleague who had attended the previous year on a scholarship from the local Audubon chapter. What a great idea, I thought, so I applied as well. I assumed that the Dayton Audubon Society targeted science teachers for their grants, so I held my breath until hearing that they had agreed to partially fund my humanities-based trip. I had also heard at just about that time in a graduate seminar on Dickinson that one of the students had visited Walt Whitman’s house while in Boston. Another great idea, I thought. I could stop by the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the way to Hog Island. And I did. But that is another story. Suffice it to say that I had been smitten by Miss Dickinson’s life and work and was pretty excited to be traveling through New England to her home with the coast of Maine as my destination.

So there I found myself on that first Sunday afternoon on Hog Island. I was poking around, investigating camp buildings, but was really drawn to sitting on the rocky outcrop just north of the Fish House overlooking the bay. Although lobster was beyond my teacher’s salary, the look of the bouys dotting the bay was lovely, as was the view of neighboring islands, the sound of a lapping tide on the shore, and the fresh feel of a downeast sea breeze. The long drive from Ohio had already been rewarded. When I got up from where I was sitting, I noticed a sign just behind me giving notice that Hog Island was also called the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary. Something about that name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Soon after, while prowling around the Fish House, it hit me. The woman whose picture was framed on the knotty pine wall and celebrated as savior of the island, Mabel Loomis Todd, was the same Mabel Loomis Todd who was the original editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry back in the late 1880s. Was it possible that my destination in Maine and my pilgrimage to the Dickinson homestead were connected? Indeed, they were.

To be sure, Emily Dickinson knew nothing of Hog Island. Mrs. Todd’s process of purchasing tracks of the island began years after Emily’s death and years after publication of Poems in 1890. Still, it is as clear to me now as was the Muscongus Bay air that Sunday afternoon, that the humanities played a key role in what would become the Audubon Camp in Maine.

With all of the fine natural history instruction and personal recreation that goes on at the Audubon Camp in Maine, it is good to see the humanities getting a share of the spotlight. Mabel, and Emily, I should think, would both be nodding in approval.

“The Epic of Hog”: The Todd-Bingham Family and the Establishment of the Audubon Ecology Camp in Maine is available through inter-library loan from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Tom Schaefer is a retired high school history teacher who completed his masters project on the history of Hog Island. Tom is former FOHI President and Editor of Across the Narrows.

Sea kayaking around Hog Island

Ever since my first summer at the Audubon Camp, I wondered if a sea kayaking session might someday be offered as a week-long session. Apparently, I was not the only one who was aware of the island’s sea kayaking potential because a few Camp Directors have toyed with the idea, but it wasn’t until this past summer that the first such session became a reality. Since the kayakers would be off-island most of the day, the island facilities would be available for an on-land session, so a Nature Photography session was offered at the same time. While the kayakers were busy paddling, the photographers had the island and its endless photo opportunities all to themselves.

There’s no better way to discover the Maine Coast than exploring it by kayak

The 1998 Nature Photography camp was led by professional photographer, and native Mainer, Mark Warner. Mark wanted to keep the numbers low so that each camper could have individual attention; thus, enrollment was limited to twelve. The course of study focused on everything from the basics of equipment care and selection to the technical aspects of using a camera in the field. The campers had a great time and Mark was a real addition to the staff.

The inaugural “Naturalizing by Sea Kayak” session had sixteen eager people sign up. Most were visiting Hog Island and trying out sea kayaks for the first time, while a few alumni were taking the course to reacquaint themselves with that Hog Island Magic we all know so well. We rented nineteen sea kayaks from a local outfitter and hired Muscongus Bay sea kayaking veteran Mark Digirolamo — a registered Maine guide and naturalist — to be our guide for the week. A few novice kayakers were anxious about what lay ahead of them and whether they would eventually get the hang of their sea kayak. Fortunately, Mark’s steady encouragement, teaching, and years of experience soon quieted their nerves.

On our first full day, I led a half-day Map and Compass class for half of the group and Mark led the required kayak introduction and safety class for the other half of the group. Mark’s session covered paddling techniques, wet exits, self and assisted rescues, nautical chart reading, tide awareness, and other essential kayaking skills. By day’s end, even the more apprehensive beginners were feeling so confident that after dinner we took a short paddle as a group. The next day began cool, and threatening rain as we headed south to Loud’s Island in groups of two for safety. Because of an approaching thunderstorm we sat on the sandy Loud’s beach in our rain gear, ate lunch, continued conversations, and were given a impromptu natural history lesson on life of the exposed intertidal zone led by Bonnie Bochan. In spite of the storm, the first full day of exploring went well and all were excited about the rest of the week.

At midweek the campers had a day off and took a long, pleasant boat ride aboard the PUFFIN IV to Monhegan Island. The day was spent exploring the many trails, sunning on high cliffs, and generally taking in the feel of a fabled island, supported and shared by tourists and lobstermen. On several occasions during the week we came across seals hauled-out on islands, sleeping and sunning themselves. We had opportunities to have close encounters with seas at high tide when the seals were generally in the water. While paddling we often had curious seals swimming near and sometimes startling us when they surfaced so close you could almost touch them with the kayak blade.

Our last day was an all-day paddle up Muscongus Bay and further up the Medomak River channel. That evening we offered a final paddle and a few of us were lucky enough to see the climbing pillars of hazy white light that could only be the ethereal and mysterious northern lights. There are moments when I think back on that week and the vision of the seals cavorting and splashing around us is both hazy and clear …. like a dream.

We’ll remember gazing at the intertidal zone waving rockweed and kelp; patterns of color and texture; taking breaks on sun-warmed rocks; talking about how beautiful the Maine coast is; good people; good food; night paddles; Hog Island each night; and the eerie glow of phosphoresence in the water, eye level with the eiders and seals

The island would remember me, too

Kate Torpie got in touch with FOHI after reading the Fall 2001 newsletter. Her fond memories of a night on the water at Hog Island moved her to write a poem some time ago, which has been reworked into this essay.

I’ve lived in Europe, driven all the way across this country, and even spent a week on a camel in the Sahara. I’ve seen incredible landscapes, but have never felt the magic that was so pervasive on Hog Island anywhere else. There was something more that I could feel. The pure breath of something untouched, maybe. Since I was younger than most of the campers (only 20), during my week there I bonded with the counselors and was often included in their escapades. Of all my memories, one night stands out.

We listened to the tide crackling in and out on the rocks and shells beneath our feet, and the sound of the wind trying to tell us secrets through the trees.

Two counselors and I walked cautiously hunched over, tiptoeing through the midnight forest. Everyone else had long since gone to bed. When we reached the shore and straightened up, I was surprised to find that each tree had taken on a presence that was both curious and singular against the blue-black sky. The night was no longer dark, but truly glowing.

I was totally taken aback as we stood still and closed our eyes. It was one of the most intimate moments I have ever shared with anyone. It was like sneaking into church, feeling that cold scented air, with no one knowing we were there except us and the spirit whose home we had welcomed ourselves into. We listened to the tide crackling in and out on the rocks and shells beneath our feet, and the sound of the wind trying to tell us secrets through the trees. Above us, gaseous nebulae tumbled the sky gold, purple, and mother-of-pearl.

We snuck out on a boat to listen from out on the water. I shivered in my sweatshirt. Turning to see how far we’d come, I noticed the trail of gold shivering too, in the bay behind us, phosphorescence kicked up by our oars. I felt safe. That trail, the pines strong as buttresses on the island behind us, their stance slightly interested in what we were up to.

When I need to remind myself of what really makes me happy, of what direction I should steer my life, I recall the stillness my soul felt as we sat there: slight watery rhythm lulling us deeper, our train of gold fading into memory, the word home repeating in my mind. I won’t forget that feeling, nor Hog Island. Somehow, I like to think that if I returned, the island would remember me, too.

Leaving Hog Island

Cathy Belisle visited Hog Island not once, but twice in 1999. She first came in June for an ornithology session and then returned with her daughters for a family camp in August.

I woke to the heavy sound of footsteps in the hallway and on the stairs, busily preparing for the journey home. These sounds intermittently masked the waking sounds of the dawn chorus. The gentle sound of waves tapping the shore in the morning calm was similarly over-shadowed. Only the noisy motors of the lobster boats driving past the buoys, setting their traps, could be heard over everything else.

The rising rays of sunlight streamed through my window where the blinds had been raised to let in the cool dampness of the night air. With the breeze came the scent of damp charcoal from last night’s fire on the beach mixed with the salty smell of the sea. It was different than on previous mornings and somehow signaled a change. All the activities were done and the corn and lobster cooked and eaten. Only the spent coals, the memories, and a feeling of completion remained.

Now, sitting outside in a cozy chair on the lawn between these beautiful old buildings on Hog Island, I am overcome by a sadness that is hard to put into words. I don’t want to forget a single sensation of this week. I struggle to clearly remember the breezes on the boat as we traveled to the islands, the call of the Broad-winged Hawk, the breathtaking views from Pemaquid Point, the blueberries stretching out over the hillside into the horizon, and the sounds of birds calling over the marsh. I also want to clearly remember the view of the water and the coast from this island, but my heart knows that no matter how long I sit out on the lawn and stare at the rocks and the water, the memory will fade once I’m gone.

I don’t want to forget a single sensation of this week. I will take a small piece of Hog Island with me when I go.

The peacefulness and tranquility, though, of these days here is something I can remember. I will remember the calm meditations that I have experienced here, along with the brief but meaningful connections I have made with the other people who came here and shared this experience with me.

I am also energized by having had the opportunity to share in the collective knowledge and work of a staff that is exceptional on both a professional and personal level. I know that my perspective will be just a little different as I move forward, because the experience and the learning have changed me. I will take a small piece of Hog Island with me when I go.