Midway between the Cape Cod Canal and Penobscot Bay in Maine lies an archipelago that is both welcoming and just a little spooky.
The Isles of shoals consist of nine islands and several ledges. The islands of Smuttynose, Appledore and Star form a harbor protected from the north, south and east. Smuttynose and Appledore are in Maine, while Star is in New Hampshire. The state line runs through the middle of the anchorage.
Starr Island (above) is a Universalist-Unitarian retreat with a large hotel-like structure. It receives regular ferry service from the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making crew changes possible. The retreat allows shoreside excursions during daylight hours.
The holding is good, and despite the rocky view, the bottom is largely sand. There are a dozen or so moorings maintained by a mainland yacht club. These are available for overnight use by transients when club members are not around, and most are vacant during the week.
The Basques of northern Spain where secretive about their sources of codfish, but it is believed they operated a fishing station on the islands in the 1500s, maybe earlier. Capt. John Smith described the islands after visiting in 1614. Later the crew of a Spanish wreck were found frozen in place on the rocks at Smuttynose.
Legend has it that the pirate Blackbeard abandoned one of his wives on the isles; naturally her ghost still haunts the place, heard occassionally crying in the fog. Legend also has it that one of the resident fishermen became wealthy after finding Blackbeard’s horde of silver.
Celia Thaxter grew up on White Island, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. She became a famous 19th century poet, living on nearby Appledore, where she planted her famous garden, maintained to this day by a mainland garden club. Thaxter and the garden and the islands were subjects of paintings by famous artist Childe Hassam, a friend of hers.
The last man hanged in the state of Maine made the mistake of killing only two of the three women left alone on Smuttynose while their men were visiting the mainland. The survivor identified the killer as Louis Wagner. The story became the basis for Anita Shreve’s novel “The Weight of Water,” which became the basis for the stinker of a Sean Penn movie of the same name.
When the fog rolls into Gosport Harbor, as it often does in July and August, you can feel the chill of Shoals history in your bones. Welcome to Maine.