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Life on Matinicus Island

Life on Matinicus Island
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There were 188 people living on Matinicus in 1950, roughly half that 20 years later. There are probably not 35 today. The little one-room K-8 schoolhouse, viewed by just about everyone as the island’s truest pulse, has rarely had more than 10 or 12 students; in recent years the average has been more like half that. (In 2001 it had none at all, but stayed open officially–absorbing the costs required–to avert the bureaucratic death knell that closure would have meant.)

Those still left, their lobstering grounds now within range of any mainlander with a diesel engine, began drawing the lines tighter around the island–”protecting your bottom,” it was called. Threatening notes were left in bottles; trap buoys were tied with half-hitches to warn away encroachers; and sometimes, trap lines were cut.

Five years ago, a member of the Ames clan, who’d left Matinicus years before but never stopped lobstering its waters, began hiring someone else to work his traps. They warned him, then cut his traps. He responded by threatening a ramming; they put two shots across his bow.

“You have to understand: This bottom, for these guys, it’s like the family farm. It’s their legacy; they’ve been working it for generations,” says Marty Malloy, the lobster buyer, who lives on the island with his wife and twin boys. “You don’t just let someone come in and take that away from you.”

More time passed; the economy soured. By the summer of 2009, the price of lobster was at a 12-year low. On Matinicus, where the lines were drawing tighter, they told Vance Bunker that his son-in-law, a mainlander, was no longer welcome to set his traps.

“It used to be you fished here, you lived here,” Clayton Philbrook says. “That was the way it worked–before the boats got fast enough so a man could live in one place and fish in another. So now we got problems. We’ve had problems ever since.”

He’s in his late fifties, a big man with thick arms, a droopy, graying mustache, and a warm but very certain way of saying things. He is descended, he tells me, from a family of shipbuilders who first settled in Bath in the 1770s, migrated to the Penobscot Bay islands, and have been on Matinicus for just under 200 years.

There was a time, Philbrook says, when he had thoughts of leaving the island: He went to college, took courses in aerospace engineering (“I thought maybe I wanted to go into space”), switched to biology, then to photography–but nothing clicked. He came home and got a job as a sternman–an assistant–on another islander’s lobster boat, then other boats after that. Thirteen years ago, he bought his own. Along the way, he married an Ames girl. (“Some people talk about family trees; what we have here is a wreath.”) Their son, Nick, now 30 years old and a captain himself, has been lobstering since he was 8.

All this Philbrook explained to me one rainy spring morning, as we sat together in the cab of his pickup, parked that day at the Matinicus dock, the site of the shooting in July 2009. His boat, the Samantha J., was tied up alongside. For most of the morning, he’d been working on the engine, but the rain was a torrent now, so we were waiting it out in the truck.

At one point as we talked, another pickup pulled up in front of us, and a woman–June Pemberton, once a teacher on the island, now one of two women to captain a lobster boat–got out and began unloading traps. Without a word, Philbrook was out of the cab, and for the next several minutes the two unloaded traps together in the rain.

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