Hurricane Island: Offshore, Offline, and Off the Grid
When you land at Hurricane Island’s granite wharves, you immediately sense that this is a place that encourages big dreams.
By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Sean Thomas
The Hurricane Island Foundation, which aims to reinvigorate experiential science education for Maine’s high school students, has a big vision for the future, but its new residents also understand its past. More than a century ago, on a gray November day in 1914, the island’s once-thriving granite company, where upwards of 600 people had lived and worked, abruptly announced that all operations would permanently cease and the last boat would leave that day. A victim of changing economics and technology, the island’s quarries were too expensive to operate as cement eroded the market for granite.
Fifty years after the island’s first community disappeared, the island was reborn as the headquarters of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School under the leadership of a 30-year-old math instructor from Groton School, Peter Willauer. For the next 40 years, Hurricane Island was again a thriving community with two dozen tent platforms, a dining hall, a large boathouse, and a handful of cabins built on the granite foundations the stonecutters had left behind.
For five seasons during those Outward Bound years, I served as the staff naturalist on Hurricane Island, although my salary for most of this period was paid by the U.S. Forest Service, which had hired me to establish baseline ecological plots on Hurricane and nearby islands. In exchange for room and board (a tent platform and rice and beans) and support from Outward Bound’s small private navy, I taught Outward Bound students foraging skills for their three-day “solos,” when they camped on their own without food, and delivered natural history lectures to roughly a thousand students a year. It never occurred to me that I could make a living traveling around to Maine’s islands, but that’s exactly what I learned I could do and what I did for the next 30 years after leaving Hurricane Island.
In 2006, Outward Bound also abandoned Hurricane Island, after deciding its mainland base in St. George was less expensive and a more efficient base of operations for its programs. The two dozen or so buildings the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School left behind provided stupendous new denning sites for the island’s exploding mink population. What the mink did not ravage, nature did. Hurricane’s owner, Dr. Jim Gaston, a New York City surgeon who had inherited the island from his father, was distressed and called Peter Willauer. In 2010 Willauer negotiated a new 40-year lease with the Gaston family for use of the island by the nonprofit Hurricane Island Foundation.
Willauer quickly assembled a board of trustees and advisors, many of whom had spent a significant portion of their earlier lives as staff members of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School and who wanted to see the twice-abandoned community revived. In 2012, Barney Hallowell, who had worked on Outward Bound’s waterfront before starting his career as a teacher and then principal on nearby North Haven, was hired to lead the effort. But they were all a bit like the proverbial dog that caught the bus. Now what?
Part of the answer comes into focus when I arrive at the island’s main float. Fixated on a lobster bait tray with a makeshift sorting device are science interns Bailey Moritz, who will be a senior at Bowdoin College this fall, and Jacqueline Rosa, a graduate of the University of Maine’s marine science program. The two of them are busy plucking an astounding array of marine life from nylon-mesh “spat” bags recently retrieved from a research site across the bay to determine whether a protected marine refuge site can boost local scallop production.
We walk up to the main galley building. Nearby Josie Gates, Hurricane Island Foundation’s education program director, has established a straw bale garden, one of three gardens she tends to help the community living on the island feed itself. Gates has scooped out melon-sized pockets from the dozen or so bales and spaded in clumps of soil, which is scarce on this steep-sloped granite island.
The straw bale garden is suitable for fruiting vegetables, Gates explains, like peppers, squash, broccoli, and tomatoes, and is an economical way to create a garden on top of bare rock—or in the center of a city, for that matter. We are joined by the island’s chef, who says with a smile, “We are all just living off a couple of inches of decaying matter—just trying to stay on the right side of the sod.” Gates points up the hill to a bigger garden on the west side of the island, which she also manages. It provides the galley with lettuces, kale, radishes, beets, and rhubarb, while an herb garden out the back door of the kitchen is the chef’s province.
Upstairs over the galley, I meet Caitlin Cleaver, director of science and research for the Hurricane Island Foundation, who introduces me to some of her colleagues gathered around a small conference table— Jenn Page, Alice Anderson, and Chloe Tremper, all of whom have distinguished academic pedigrees and are overflowing with a heady mix of serious purpose and gritty determination.
Cleaver and her colleagues and their interns describe their various roles for the centerpiece of Hurricane’s educational programs—the Center for Science and Leadership. The center’s goal is to help change the way science is taught in Maineclassrooms. That means getting students out of classrooms, disconnecting them from omnipresent digital communications, and introducing them, in Cleaver’s words, “to the kind of science that can answer questions about species coastal and island communities depend on.”
As an example, Cleaver describes the background of the scallop research project I saw when I landed. The project began after a call to the Island Institute in 2013 from fisherman Tad Miller of Tenants Harbor, where Cleaver was working. Miller wanted to know whether the state’s new scallop management plan, which relies on dividing the coast into three large zones that are opened and closed on a rotating basis, actually boosts scallop populations in those areas, and he needed researchers to set up a study. Was she interested? Cleaver dove in—literally—and two years ago completed the baseline underwater collection ofsamples from spat bags suspended at different depths in 70 feet of water in October and November before scallop harvesting began December 1.
Recently Hallowell and Cleaver recruited Dr. Jennifer Page, another talented scientist, to their team. Page got the science bug at an early age and while still a student at Bangor High School, she enrolled in an invertebrate zoology course at nearby University of Maine. A year later, as a college student, Page began studying the ecology of marine worms, which Page describes as “engineers that turn over marine sediments like earthworms to stimulate new ecosystem production.” After getting her PhD from Georgia Tech, Page eventually returned to her alma mater at Bangor High School to teach biology and use research to stimulate high school students’ interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Now at Hurricane Island’s Center for Science and Leadership, Page said her new job “combines all the things I love, not just science and education, but also living in a community focused on sustainability.”
Typically, the largest imports to island communities are food and energy. But one of the first strategic decisions the new leaders of the Hurricane Island Foundation made when they landed on the twice-abandoned island was not to use a diesel-fuel-belching generator to provide electricity for the new community. Instead the island would operate off the grid. Everything from the sophisticated water pumps and filters required for the island’s drinking system to lights, hot water for showers, composting toilets, and power for computers and internet communications would be provided by solar power and batteries. A wind power feasibility study has also been completed; wind could provide power on foggy days or when the sun is low in the sky but the wind is blowing smartly.
Alice Anderson, who graduated from the College of the Atlantic in 2012 with a science education and communications focus, is responsible for helping to tell the island’s sustainability story. Anderson pointed out the window to the large solar array mounted on the boathouse building, which, in combination with a large battery bank provides electricity for all the nearby buildings, including the new 30-bed dormitory and classroom space that has recently been renovated on the second floor of the boathouse. Anderson also pointed up the hill to a shower building, which, in addition to solar heated showers, also houses an updated facility based on one a British plumber, Thomas Crapper, designed centuries ago as a “water closet.” These units utilize composting systems that reduce the island’s dependence on water and, according to Anderson, “result in a beneficial byproduct of human waste.” In addition, she explains, “All gray water from showers and our kitchen is filtered through a state-approved constructed wetland, and we have an extensive composting system for all food waste produced in the kitchen.”
Part of the point of island life, Hurricane Island’s enthusiastic science educators and community members emphasize, is not just to study the environment, but to learn to live within the limits prescribed by its isolated off-the-grid setting. “We encourage program participants to think critically about how their behaviors can impact the environment,” says Anderson, “and how to be better stewards of the natural world.” Everyone I meet on the island, from the cook in the galley to the island’s waterfront crew and numerous interns, is intent on creating a community they describe as “a living laboratory” that incorporates both low-tech and advanced systems, where students and visitors experience the meaning of island life through common daily interactions.
Cleaver, Page, Anderson, and their colleagues all share a big vision for future science education based on the species- rich marine environment that not only surrounds Hurricane Island, but also washes the entire coast of Maine. The marine ecology course they offered this summer for high school students was oversubscribed and increasing numbers of school groups that visit the island in the am spring indicate a large pent-up demand among students for hands-on learning. The Island Ecology course, I am happy to report, recently foraged enough edible beach peas, wild salad greens, shellfish, and berries from the island’s shores and surrounding water to serve a complete dinner for 50 islanders. Offshore, offline, off the grid is their educational mantra.
As we discuss their visions of a science— and leadership-based future, Hurricane’s team of scientists interacts seamlessly with each other, often completing one another’s sentences. Working across different disciplines and backgrounds, they are bringing new energy to teaching the next generation of students how to integrate an understanding of science into their day- to-day lives. As Jenn Page said about the Hurricane Island community, “People here really care about working together. But it’s very intense, because everything is new and we are all wearing a lot of hats.”
I end my visit by circumnavigating the island on its perimeter trail that I have been on hundreds of times—although very rarely during the past three decades—trying to absorb all I have seen and heard of this old island’s new life. While hiking, I cannot help but retrieve buried memories with almost every foothold up and down the island’s steep slopes. Spruce still grow incongruously up through the middle of stone foundations, dense patches of seaside rose still fill the lungs with an unmistakable island fragrance, and the ascending trill of a Swainson’s thrush still vibrates in the ear.
As we unplug, so are we recharged. Everything here has changed; but nothing is different.
This article was originally published by maine. magazine. Maine Media Collective © 2016