Editor’s note: When he was a younger man, Crash Barry spent two years working as a sternman on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote island. This is another of his true stories.
The tide was halfway to high when I drove Captain Bert’s boat toward the dock and nearly crashed into a Volkswagen bus. I threw The Dotted Eye in reverse and backed down hard. Bert, who’d been astern, came running forward.
“What the hell?” he screamed. Then he spotted the VW parked 10 feet in front of his wharf, the rising sea lapping at the driver’s sideview mirror. “What the frig?”
Turns out Pierre, one of the island’s selectmen (called “assessors” on Matinicus), finally decided to clean up his dooryard, which meant getting rid of the bus that hadn’t run in a decade and had been cannibalized for all usable parts. Pierre wasn’t gonna pay a hundred bucks to ship the vehicle on the ferry just so it could be junked on the mainland. Instead, he disposed of it the island way.
Earlier in the day, at low tide, with help from his pals, Pierre had pushed and pulled and rolled the bus down the beach. He hadn’t intended to leave it in front of Bert’s wharf, he claimed. The bus got stuck in the mud, Pierre insisted. So he’d lashed an old hawser, with a buoy on the end, around the VW and called it good.
At high tide, Pierre returned in his brother-in-law’s boat and grabbed the floating buoy. He took in the slack and hitched the thick rope to the stern. Then he put the boat in gear and towed the submerged bus across the harbor bottom, dragged it around the Indian Ledge and out to the deeper backside of the breakwater.
Without ceremony, Pierre slashed the rope, freeing the VW, which sunk and joined the dozens (if not hundreds) of dead cars and trucks buried in this watery junkyard. The vehicles created an artificial reef shunned by the lobstermen, but not because of the batteries and oil left behind. They didn’t want their traps to get snagged on mufflers, or stuck in a trunk, or hung up on a smashed windshield. The lobsters, I’m sure, loved the junkyard during the warmer months, spending their time darting in and out of vehicles, taking naps on deteriorating bench seats and finding secret hideaways in glove boxes or wheel wells.
The problem with living 20 miles off shore on a remote Maine island is that humans generate huge amounts of trash and have no environmentally responsible place to put it. Back in 1991, everyone had a burn barrel for paper, cardboard and plastic. Empty tin and glass went out to haul with lobstermen, tossed overboard and never seen again.
But that’s a tough way to get rid of broken washers, dryers, stoves and fridges. Appliances generally ended up in the woods or dumped off the backside of the island, down the aptly named Steep Banks — the closest thing to a cliff on Matinicus — where a rusting white and avocado-green trail reached the water’s edge, visible to boats a mile away.
My second year on the island, I was living in a shack on the Lower Harbor. One summer Sunday morning, I watched Captain Red toss two full plastic trash bags into the water on the way to his mooring.
(Red, coincidently, was a badass. Taller, wider and stronger than me, he was probably the most dangerous fella on the island. Rumored to be linked to an outlaw motorcycle gang, he was a known liar, thief and assailant. He was also an asshole, as were his sons, so I didn’t confront the litterbug.)
Red left the harbor and I continued to splice and coil rope. The view, except for two bobbing bags of garbage, was fabulous. On Wheaton’s Island, just a stone’s throw away, a half-dozen sheep grazed among the abandoned buildings. Six miles beyond was the iconic Matinicus Rock lighthouse. Then I watched two sea kayakers paddle through the Gut and into the Lower Harbor, empowered by their successful voyage and enamored, I’m sure, by the seemingly rustic and pristine scene, only to be greeted by floating bags of trash.
The sea is filled with rubbish. We know this. Walk any Maine beach after a storm and you’ll find bleach jugs, empty bottles of Dawn, broken buoys, fish totes, wire messes of old traps bent and stove-up beyond repair, and Styrofoam. Lots and lots of Styrofoam.
More bothersome to me, though, is the invisible junk, secretly and slowly deteriorating on the ocean floor.