This is a piece I wrote for a journalism class at Boston University.
After the summer crowd disappears from getaways like Peaks Island off the coast of Maine, Block Island off Rhode Island, and Boston’s Harbor Islands, a sense of calm engulfs these small island communities as they sink deeper into winter. Once temperatures dip, only fractions of the summer population remain to endure cold weather and near-empty streets, leaving year-round residents to relish the peace. For residents of islands like these around New England, the undisturbed winter months are a welcome change following a bustling summer.
A distant life on New England islands might not appeal to everyone, but for people like Al Rilla, the caretaker of Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor, it offers serenity not often found on the mainland.
“I work hard all summer long for this opportunity to be out here on the island in the quiet,” he says.
Between early-May and mid-October this year, more than 70,000 people visited the Boston Harbor Islands. Spectacle Island occupies only 105 acres and is a 15-minute ferry ride from Boston, making it a top destination for many locals and visitors during the summer. Rilla, now in his fifth year as Spectacle’s caretaker, says he enjoys meeting all these day-trippers but notes when the seasons change, “winter is an adventure in itself.” Though he lives on the island year-round, between Columbus Day and late spring Rilla only has the company of his golden retriever, Max.
“You have to get up in the morning with a purpose,” he says of living alone. “You can’t just laze around here and veg out – that would not be a good idea.”
Of the 34 islands in Boston Harbor, only Spectacle has a year-round caretaker, though the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (D.C.R.) has tentative plans to add ones to Georges and Peddocks Islands.
The D.C.R. serves as Rilla’s lifeline to the mainland because he does not own a boat suited for icy waters. Each week, the D.C.R. shuttles Rilla to the mainland for restocking expeditions. Despite being Spectacle’s only resident for the winter, Rilla insists he never feels lonely.
“Even though the harbor is mostly water, it’s like a neighborhood,” he says. “You get to know everyone that does their business in the harbor and we all pull for each other.”
Being an island’s sole inhabitant like Rilla is rare, but throughout New England, thousands of others enjoy the tranquil settings of these off-coast residences. On Peaks Island in Casco Bay Harbor, approximately 850 people inhabit the 720-acre island three miles from downtown Portland year-round. During the summer, the population can grow to more than 5,000.
Marisa McIsaac, with the Peaks Island Business Association, says the change from hectic summer months to relaxing winter life is like night and day.
“Some people say, if you can’t survive the summer, you don’t deserve the winter,” she says.
On Peaks, as well as other islands around the New England, the dramatic season change means life slows down, allowing residents to recharge. In the winter, only select businesses stay open, fewer people walk or drive by, and life becomes very quiet.
“Generally by October everyone is tired of working so much and we are all ready for winter,” says MacIsaac.
Residents agree community involvement keeps the dreary winter mood at bay. On both Peaks and Block Island, a 10 square mile getaway 13 miles off R.I., vibrant populations of artists and retirees shape the types of activities available. People host gatherings, support local talent, or visit whatever businesses stay open.
For artists like Grace Luddy, living on Block Island during the winter allows her to devote herself entirely to her photography without fear of distractions.
“In the winter, I feel like the whole island is mine,” says Luddy, who lives on the island year-round with her husband and two dogs.
Block Island might seem like hers at times, but Luddy says she still feels like a vital part of the community.
“Being an artist is a way to get integrated to the community,” she says. “People stop me or call me to tell me about great waves they saw they think I could photograph.”
Yet, no matter how much residents participate in community life it can be tough to forget they live surrounded by water.
“I couldn’t survive the winter out here without going off a lot,” says Penny Riordan, an administrative assistant with the Block Island Chamber of Commerce.
Learning to live by the ferry schedule is a way of life, especially in the dead of winter. Inhabitants of Peaks Island benefit from frequent ferry service to Portland, which runs almost every hour from morning until late night throughout the winter. The Block Island ferry shuttles between the island and Point Judith in Narragansett, R.I. one to three times a day, so residents like Riordan can make trips to the mainland when needed. In times of bad weather, though, islanders could go without ferry service for days.
Despite summer visitors’ penchant for only the warmest of weather, Riordan says Block Island depends on their business to fuel island life year-round.
“If it weren’t for the tourism, none of us would be here,” she says. “July and August are so concentrated with tourists that it creates nonstop business.”
During the summer, Riordan estimates the island’s population swells to 20,000 in seasonal and permanent residents as well as day-trippers, while in the winter this number slims to about 950.
“You’re exhausted by the time Labor Day comes,” says Riordan. “We depend on tourists and we are happy to see them, but once they leave there’s finally time to catch your breath.”
Enjoying these secluded beach and forest environments off the coast appeals to a specific niche of individuals. Those willing to sacrifice chain restaurants and stores, congested highways, or city attractions can turn to places like Peaks and Block Island for a fresh take on life.
After all, says Marge Powers, a year-round resident of Peak’s Island and president of its healthcare center, “It takes a special type of person to live on an island, no matter where it is.”