A Frosty View of Cape Porpoise Harbor
Now that the annual mud season’s muck and mire has replaced most of the snow-pack, it is easy to forget that less than a month ago winter was showing no signs of relinquishing its bitter hold along the Maine coast.
It was during the latter part of February when my family and I made a trip down to Kittery. Along our way, we stopped off at Cape Porpoise, which is a popular village of Kennebunkport and home to a charming working harbor.
In his 1891 book entitled, The Pine Tree Coast, author Samuel Adams Drake notes, “Cape Porpoise village is built around the shores of its harbor, which a cluster of large and small islands protects. On one of them stands the baby lighthouse of the coast. This harbor – or perhaps we should say harbors, since there are two basins – is remarkable for being the only one between Portsmouth and the Saco…”
During summertime this village is fully appreciated by the tourist, but on this day, there was scarcely a soul around.
Quite frankly, I could understand why, for though the sun was shining bright, the wind was blowing bitterly off the sea and coaxing wind chills downward into the single digits.
I recall how my wife Ann-Marie, our three children and I bundled up as we left our vehicle and put on a hardy demeanor in the face of this frigid draft, but truth be told, our smiles belied a wincing pain from the sting of the wind against any exposed skin.
Still, we were there to view Cape Porpoise during the winter and therefore would endure the elements, even for just a little while, to achieve our goal. Besides, was not the sun shining bright and the allure of Goat Island Light Station beckoning for more than a passing glance in the distance?
Goat Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1859 (the station was originally established in 1833), stands guard at the entrance to the harbor and appears as a white “punctuation mark” on a vast horizon of blue sea and sky.
Without a boat there is no way to reduce the divide between the shore and the island lighthouse, but in my mind anyway, I was going to try – so down to water’s edge I went.
The tide had started to ebb not long before, but there was still enough water lurking in the immediate tidal area to provide the rockweed with a buoyant lift.
For just a little while longer, the rockweed would sway a dance in thin waters as the sun shimmered along the surface and sent its rays to the bottom of the seabed for an illuminating view.
After gazing with great interest at the natural clutter along the ledges and how the sun’s light played carefree in its midst, I cast another glance toward the lighthouse and tried to imagine scenes that time has long obscured.
According to Samuel Adams Drake, though Cape Porpoise was the only harbor between Portsmouth and the Saco River entrance near Wood Island, there was great danger for vessels attempting to make a run for it during stormy weather. Drake pointed out that this area had been the scene of a number of shipwrecks, including the one he describes below.
“…during Thanksgiving week of the year 1886 two vessels went on the rocks of Cape Porpoise, while trying to make safe harbor. One of them struck at about nine o’clock at night. It was indeed a fearful night, when all landsmen were glad to keep within doors. When day broke on the dismal scene, scarce two pieces of the wreck were left hanging together. Fortunately there was no loss of life, though the sailors only kept themselves from freezing by walking up and down the island all through the long winter night, till at daybreak the lightkeeper discovered and took them off.”
New England lighthouse historian and author Jeremy D’Entremont confirms Drake’s assertion that Cape Porpoise has been unkind to many a vessel, noting, “Dangerous rocks near Goat Island continued to claim vessels, including 46 between 1865 and 1920. There was not one death in all the wrecks, partly due to the keepers at Goat Island picking up survivors near the island.”
Though shipwrecks like those of the 1800s and early 1900s are happenings of the past, Goat Island Lighthouse thankfully not only remains, but is one of the cultural cornerstones of this snug harbor community as well. The light station continues to serve as an aid to navigation and is the benefactor of care for its well-being by the nonprofit Kennebunkport Conservation Trust.
After spending a few more moments admiring the lighthouse, my family and I ventured back up to the parking area and over to the Cape Porpoise Pier, which is home to an active fishing community, though the fishermen and lobstermen were apparently smarter than us, for they were nowhere to be found on this bitter afternoon.
Lobster boats and dinghies were all being minded by their steadfast moorings, despite the tide’s best efforts to persuade the fleet to follow its lead. The windshields of some of the boats were laden with snow and frost, resisting the warm overtures of the sun to melt and run.
The scene about the harbor was beautiful and begging to be appreciated further, but winter was in no hospitable mood for such lazy lingering.
As we returned to our car, there was one more quote by Samuel Adams Drake that I recalled. In a manner that only Drake could convey, he notes in his 1891 classic, “Before leaving the neighborhood, it will be worth our while to take a look at the rocks of the north shore, which at low tide, spread out acres upon acres of jagged ledges, blackened as by fire, ripped up as by an earthquake, sometimes set upright in ragged rows, like grave-stones, sometimes resembling the broken tusks of some prehistoric monster that has been turned to stone, but can still bite and tear whatever the sea throws into its grinning jaws. Is it possible, we ask, that water alone, has done all this? And if so, what chance would the stoutest ship that ever floated have?”
Such descriptive prose was tempting to experience once again, but not on this frigid day. Besides, we needed to get back on the road to Kittery, which seemed like as good excuse as any to enjoy the warm confines of our car that we were all too happy to become reacquainted with!