Isolation Adventures: Mackworth Island Fairies

Looking back across Casco Bay towards Portland, ME, from the beach of Mackworth Island.

On Friday, we made the decision to get out of Newark, NJ. My day job had gone remote, my classes had gone online, and I could do that from anywhere. I also knew that without a private place to do the work, the roommate and I would inevitably have a conflict, and if I were confined to the apartment when New Jersey eventually stopped all movement like Italy, there wasn’t enough space to keep me sane. So after much discussion about risk factors — it was not unlikely that I might have already picked up COVID-19 on the New York City subway — we decamped to my parents’ house in Maine, arriving in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, this got my parents disinvited from my niece’s birthday party on Sunday, but we decided to make the best of our free Sunday, potentially our last free Sunday before COVID-19 began to shut down the state, to take a walk by the sea, where the Presumpscot River meets Casco Bay.

Most of the island is private property belonging to the Governor Baxter School for The Deaf (formerly known as the Maine School for The Deaf) and a bird sanctuary.

The perimeter of the island is a path maintained by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, but after we had snagged the last spot in the parking lot (there’s a nice apologetic sign that says if there are no places left, please come back another time), we did a typically contrarian thing. We skipped the path to walk right down on the beach, which was nicely exposed at low tide.

It was pretty windy at first, but when the wind died down, it was surprisingly comfortable in the bright sunlight. We didn’t find anything interesting in the little tide pools, though there were a lot of beautiful clam, oyster and mussel shells scattered across the rocks and kelp.

Eventually, our beach walk was interrupted by a granite pier, which we think may be where my brother was married when he eloped — we recognized a wooden porch-style swing on the edge of the woods from their wedding photography. We decided we’d have to get him and his wife to take us back another time and show us. We clambered back up onto the perimeter path, which is where we found the other two things that Mackworth Island is famous for.

Some people take their pets very seriously.

Percival Baxter was a Bowdoin College alumnus and the Governor of Maine in the 1920s, son of a fish-canning magnate who was six-time mayor of Portland. Percival’s summer home on Mackworth Island is now a school for the deaf, but he left another legacy there, too.

In addition to being a prodigious foe to the Ku Klux Klan as it was gaining a foothold in Maine, Percival was also a great dog lover, and bred Irish setters. When his dog Garry died while Baxter was governor, he ordered the flag at the State House lowered to half staff, which angered some veterans’ groups.

And all of his dogs were buried with headstones in a small pet cemetery on Baxter Island. Apparently there are pet cemeteries all over Maine, including in Saco in southern Maine, and in Acadia National Park up the coast. I guess it makes sense that Maine’s favorite son, Stephen King, would have written a book about one.

It was a beautiful spot to lay one’s beloved companions of forty years to rest … grassy, sunny, just steps from the water’s edge.

Fairy Colonies (and a few stray Loners)

When we were little, this was one of our favorite summer activities. We made them in the woods out behind our house growing up, and one time out at Camp Gi-Sco-Ha in Hanover, PA, it was the whole program for our weekend. Mom even painted a little sign on a slate that had come off our roof explaining that we were leaving a fairy village behind.

She’s the one who taught us about fairy houses in the first place. When she was a little girl spending her own summers up here in Maine, just one lake over from where she now lives, building fairy houses was one of her favorite pastimes. That’s probably why we always made fairy houses over at Auntie Viv’s cabin on the lake little Mom spent her summers on.

So it was fabulously fun to come around a corner on the Mackworth Island perimeter trail to find little residences fashioned up against the tree roots and in overhangs and under rock ledges.

But the very best fairy house was the one with the spray of bright red berries at the door, and at the very edge of the island in accordance with the very best maxim of real estate: Location, location, location!

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