It is a gift for those of us living in Portland that if ever the city seems too small, the neighborhoods of the peninsula too familiar, there is another one, an island neighborhood, just a 20-minute ferry ride away. Peaks Island is where I go to spend a morning or afternoon by myself in a place that feels both extremely close to home—as if I’m adventuring into the heart of it—and delightfully far away. I can’t count the number of times I have taken the ferry ride just to spend those 40 minutes on the water, for a mere eight-dollar roundtrip during peak season. On other days, during lunch breaks when I don’t have the time to take the boat back and forth, I like to sit on the pier that extends from the terminal and watch islanders board the ferry with their packed cars or carts full of groceries, to be reminded that it is possible to get away on a moment’s notice, by means of public transportation, to a different piece of Portland. It reminds me that it is possible, in Maine, to live an urban existence from an island home.
Unlike some other Maine islands, Peaks does not feel remote. You can chalk it up to the short distance to and from the mainland—just three miles—or the relative frequency of the 15 or so ferry trips a day. Perhaps the reason is simply that Peaks Island is, officially, a part of the city of Portland.
“I like to think of Peaks Island as a neighborhood that was once connected to the peninsula, and just floated off one day,” says Scott Nash, an illustrator who has lived on the island for 20 years. Itdoes seem that way, like a happily lost neighborhood, rather than an isolated island that is culturally detached from Portland. Despite the number of day trippers who venture into Casco Bay in the summertime, it hardly feels touristy at all, and despite the sought-after coastal location it can even be a little rough around the edges. Many houses on the island are well worn, obviously lived in. Yards are often filled with works in progress—art projects and household projects alike. You might notice a notebook, forgotten mug of tea, or Tupperware of soup topped with a note, left by a neighbor on someone’s porch steps. The island has some of what other neighborhoods in Portland have— restaurants, a couple of inns, a seasonal ice cream shop, a small grocery store—but it is more residential than anything else, rural, even, with substantial public woods and beaches. This is due, in large part, to unique events in Peaks Island’s history.
From the early 1900s through World War II, the Peaks Island Military Reservation occupied the back side of the island. When the military moved out in 1948, conservationists made a point of protecting much of that land from development.
Peaks is also shaped—both physically and culturally—by the fact that families have been summering there for centuries. In the months of July and August, the population more than doubles from around 850 people to between 2,000 and 4,000 (including day trippers). Once known as the Coney Island of Maine, in the late part of the nineteenth century Peaks was home to numerous hotels, theaters, and amusement parks—all served by several steamboat lines. Today Peaks Island is defined more by its lack of commercial activity. It is an ideal place for people—year-round residents and second-homeowners alike—who happily forgo certain conveniences to spend time interacting with their neighbors and with nature.
Many year-round islanders live within walking distance to the ferry, which drops passengers off at the renovated Casco Bay Lines terminal in the Old Port. Portland’s downtown shops, world-renowned restaurants, specialty grocery stores, and larger chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are all within walking distance of the terminal. While some islanders prefer to buy food and other supplies in bulk, many (especially those who commute to the mainland daily) shop meal by meal, filling canvas bags with produce and meat and cheeses and fresh breads from Rosemont Market and Bakery and Micucci Grocery, stopping by the island market for the forgotten liter of milk or carton of eggs. It is common to keep a car in a garage near the terminal on the mainland, in addition to an “island car” to get from point A to point B on Peaks. Although many venture into downtown Portland regularly, the island’s post office, grocery store, and library, as well as various other commercial outlets and public services, are critical to maintaining a robust year-round population. The island’s public school system goes through fifth grade. From sixth grade through twelfth, students can commute to schools on the mainland.
Part of the unique appeal of Peaks is that it contains contradictions—the rural versus urban way of life foremost among them. The roads splintering off from the ferry terminal are more populated, lined with mostly winterized homes built close together. There are pockets of breezy cottages along beaches, or perched on inclines with water views. Along the island’s backshore, where nature dominates the landscape, elegant, modern homes rise up in glass and steel. On Peaks Island, a person can enjoy a rugged existence down a winding country road, and, if she works downtown, still manage to avoid getting in a car as well as any Manhattanite.
For decades, Peaks Island has attracted all types of people looking for the best of both worlds—the peace and quiet and beauty of rural living combined with the cultural offerings of a city. Island living isn’t for everyone, but Peaks isn’t your typical island. Peaks isn’t really your typical anything. “It’s sort of redefined my sense of ideal,” says Scott Nash. For him, and many others who live there, it is the perfectly imperfect place, both a part of the city, and away from it all.
What the Locals Say:
Alison Goodwin and Peter Nielsen
The painter and the founder and president of the Circus Conservatory of America were married on Peaks Island, then spent the next two decades working and raising their children in Vermont. When Portland was determined to be the best location for the conservatory, the nation’s first of its kind, Goodwin and Nielsen looked into a variety of neighborhoods in the Portland area, from Willard Beach in South Portland to the West End and Deering Center. Still undecided, they were visiting the island on their wedding anniversary when they had the thought, “Why don’t we just live here?” The rural qualities of Peaks attracted the couple, who had spent decades in Vermont and were used to a certain amount of space.
“I wanted to live in Portland, but I didn’t want to live in the city,” says Nielsen. They both love the commute—the opportunity to spend 20 minutes on the water, twice a day—and the routine the ferry schedule fosters. There’s no dawdling when it comes to leaving the house or leaving work. “You have no choice,” says Nielsen. “In order to get to the office or home at a certain time, you’ve got to get on that boat.” Like Nielsen, Goodwin relishes the ability to bypass suburbia (via ferry) entirely.
Looking out from her fifth-floor studio on Congress Street, Goodwin’s urban view is like something from a Hopper painting. But at the end of the day, without stepping in a car, she arrives home to the island, where she takes a walk through woods and along beaches with her husband.
Mira Ptacin and Andrew Jackson
Soon after writer Mira Ptacin and her husband, Andrew Jackson, a project manager with the Szanton Company, moved to Peaks Island from New York City, Ptacin became pregnant with their first child. “We would open the door and see boxes of used baby clothes,” Ptacin says. “Sleds. Boots. A rocking chair. A box of cookies. No note. The concept of pay it forward is big on Peaks Island.”
In the three years they’ve lived on Peaks, the generosity of the community has not waned. Like every other islander I spoke with, community is very important to Ptacin. It has to be when you live on an island because the challenges you face are unique; you must be willing to ask your neighbors for help, and you must be willing to offer it. Ptacin’s son is now in preschool, which has provided mother and son with new opportunities to grow closer to other islanders. Ptacin describes the community as eclectic, but says that everyone shares something in common: they all want to live on Peaks Island. She has made friends of all ages, who spend their time doing all kinds of things. Ptacin teaches at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, which takes her into town a few days a week. Otherwise, given all there is to see, all there is to do outside, she might stay on the island for weeks at a time. “The seasons are always changing,” Ptacin says. “People will make random art projects in the woods that are biodegradable. Everything is constantly evolving. I’ve never gotten sick of it.”
Scott Nash and Nancy Gibson-Nash
When the couple moved from Boston to Peaks Island over 20 years ago they joked that it should be renamed “Illustrator Island.” Illustrators themselves, they found all kinds of artists living in the woods, along the shore, and in the clusters of houses near the ferry terminal. They felt at home in this quirky, bohemian, urban-oriented place. “There’s nothing perfect about Peaks Island, and that’s what I love about it. It’s not picture- perfect, or overly manicured. People are real, honest,” says Nash. “They will drop by your house unannounced. Weekends are more or less reserved for that. It’s called the Peaks Pop In.” He enjoys this connection to his island neighbors, but he is by no means disconnected from the rest of Portland. Since moving to Peaks, Nash has maintained an office in downtown Portland. The couple loves live music and are regulars at music and arts venues like Space Gallery. Sometimes, Nash admits, it is frustrating to have to leave a great performance to catch the last ferry home (which leaves on weekdays in the off-season at 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). But waking up on Peaks Island more than makes up for it. He runs the nearly five- mile loop around the island every day and is, after all of these years, astounded by its beauty and the wealth of open, undeveloped space protected by the Peaks Island Land Preserve.
Will Winkelman and Kathy Hanley
Architect Will Winkelman was already living in an old island home when he met his wife, librarian and steel sculptor Kathy Hanley, in 1985. They renovated the house, and then, several years later, ended up building a home surrounded by conservation land on the more sparsely populated backshore. “We see amazing natural beauty every day,” says Hanley. “We watch birds out our window and in the marsh. We see great blue herons often, an occasional eagle and snowy owl.”
The couple, who raised their son on the island, love how accessible nature is on Peaks. It gets them outside in every season, in all kinds of weather. For Winkelman, the daily challenges of island living—like taking the ferry to the mainland during the work week—are welcome ones: “Life on Peaks requires a little more work, more planning, resourcefulness, and patience. There is something about that that I like. I wouldn’t want my life to be too easy or ordinary.” For him, and for many others, getting off of the island on a regular basis helps maintain sanity. The commute, from his perspective, is another perk. “When I tell people unfamiliar with the island that I commute on a ferry, they usually comment about how cold it must be in the winter,” Winkelman says. “Of course, the reality is that, when on the ferry, we usually ride in a nicely heated cabin reading the Times.” And just like that, after a short 20 minutes, he arrives “in a vibrant part of a great little city.”