Summah People—Some Ahn’t

The older you get, the shorter the summers are. By the time the Fourth of July rolls round, someone is sure to remind you that the days are already getting shorter. Now that summer is finally here, we can count our blessings. Perhaps in no other communities are summer’s blessings more complicated and more circumscribed than on Maine’s islands. There are approximately 5,000 year-round islanders inhabiting Maine’s 15 island communities. This number expands to an estimated 25,000 islanders in those same communities at the height of the summer. Some might think this increase is modest compared to Martha’s Vineyard, which swells to 100,000 on a peak summer weekend—and that number was before the Clintons made the island an annual destination. But still, watching a small community double in size and then double again over a period of weeks not only creates a greater diversity in the community; it also generates a diversity of opinion about its trade-offs.

Given the new and increased pressures on island communities from the changes they are now experiencing, it shouldn’t be surprising that tensions increase and tempers occasionally fray. From a year-round island perspective, it all comes down to that wonderful phrase I first heard an islander express two decades ago about the seasonal influx: “Summah people; some ahn’t.”

Not so long ago, Maine island summers used to be different. For one thing, summers used to last eight or nine weeks from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. Then they were over. You’d know when a critical mass had hit the island because the selection of cheeses in the island store would be more exotic, as would the selection of wine and beer. Mostly, it was August when space got tight in the ferry lines and parking was hard to come by. Those “from away” usually came from families who had returned to the same island, often for generations, and were received as old friends bringing news and new social interactions to an insular culture.

Some island communities absorb the summer increase more easily than others, but all have adopted strategies that make sense for them. Monhegan has wrestled with its summer fame for well over a half-century with mixed results, as tour boats carefully time their arrival and departure from the town wharf. Swan’s Island used to have a sign in the Bass Harbor ferry terminal “Swan’s Island Is Not For Everyone,” which politely discouraged casual visitors.

At a recent Cranberry Isles town meeting I attended on the topic of a purchase that would increase taxes for all property owners, a seasonal resident pointed out that the nonvoting tax- paying majority was essentially excluded from participating in an issue that would be decided by a few score year-round residents. A year-round islander responded that the meeting itself was a sincere effort to broaden the discussion on the issue at hand so that both the summer and winter residents could listen to each other. The meeting was a good beginning, but additional venues and opportunities for dialogue are going to become even more important.

Keeping the channels of communication open between the disparate communities of summer and winter islanders is critical to community civility. One good thing about ferries is that they force islanders from different walks of life together and reinforce the realization that we are all in the same boat.

August 2003