Jen Blood here, very excited to be writing my first official post with Maine Crime Writers. To learn more about who I am and the writing I’ve done, you can check out this interview I did with the inimitable Susan Vaughan back in April of 2013. But I thought to get a real idea of who I am and where I come from, I’d take a few minutes here to talk about the day my dad and I took a leaky rowboat out to research the island on which my Erin Solomon series is based. And nearly drowned.
It was 1998 or ’99 when I was getting the lay of the land while I wrote All the Blue-Eyed Angels, the first novel in the Solomon series. In the book, there’s an alleged cult suicide on an island a few miles from Littlehope, Maine — a town based on a midcoast fishing village called Friendship. Naturally, that meant I needed to find an actual island in the vicinity so that I could get the flora and fauna and general creepy vibe just right. Conveniently enough, Friendship Long Island is less than a mile from the Friendship pier, and seemed to suit my purposes beautifully.
Since I had no boat, however, I decided to ask my dad to give me a hand finding one so that we could go out some afternoon and check out the island. Being the good dad that he is, he agreed.
So, now, a little background on my father: Originally from Massachusetts, my dad is a not-terribly-tall man with a booming voice and a big laugh and a penchant for finding trouble whether he’s looking for it or not. He’s got a good heart, but not a lot of patience for the mundane practicalities of everyday.
I arrived at the Friendship pier at around 8:30 in the morning on the day we were to head over to the island. Somehow I had thought my dad would be able to find an actual boat boat — with a motor, maybe even a cabin. I don’t know where I thought he’d get that boat, but it’s what I’d gotten in my head. Instead, on an overcast morning in June, I showed up to find my old man waiting for me in a leaky rowboat with one life preserver.
“You ready, Jenny? I think this thing’ll float,” said he.
But because I truly am my father’s daughter, and I really did want to get out to that island, I agreed that it looked generally seaworthy… and Friendship Long Island was less than a mile out. What could possibly go wrong?
It was cool and overcast that day, as early June often is in Maine. I had a disposable camera with me, and Dad rowed while I took shots of harbor seals and whitecaps, all the while bailing out the growing pool of water at my feet with a plastic gallon jug.
It was high tide when we reached the island. The fog had lifted and the sun was strong — which was good, because my toes had gone numb after having been submerged in seawater for the full trek out. Neither Dad nor I had thought to bring food. Or water. Or a map. We found a rough trail and I continued to take pictures, plotting in my mind where the Payson Church might have stood, or what the wind might have been like on the day it burned to the ground.
Friendship Long Island is about three miles long — a lot of that rough terrain and thick brush, especially back in ’99. I honestly remember very little of the island itself. I know that we came upon a house at one point, and Dad knocked on the door and someone let us in. I remember in a hazy sort of way that I asked some questions about the island and whoever we came across answered and my father beamed because I was a Writer and we were Researchers, doing what Researchers do. I remember picking berries. I remember getting a sunburn. And then, I remember that the clouds had returned and the winds had picked up and we needed to get going if we ever hoped to make it back to the mainland.
We set out.
In case you’re not familiar with the open seas, a rowboat on the ocean isn’t the ideal way to travel, at least not to my way of thinking. For one thing, rowboats are cumbersome beasts – tough to topple, true, but they make any trek in rough water a slog. When you’re in a rowboat on rough water and the seas are getting dark and the skies are getting darker and, for all intents and purposes, there is a hole in the bottom of your boat, that slog becomes downright menacing.
By the time we were about three quarters of the way back to the mainland, we’d taken on way more water than I could feasibly bail out. My legs were submerged to the knees, as were Dad’s. It started to rain.
“You think anybody else has adventures like us?” I remember my father asking me then. My teeth were chattering. I was fairly sure we’d have to swim if we ever wanted to hit dry land again. My disposable camera had fallen in the water at some point in the journey, and the film ultimately proved unusable. I shook my head.
“I’m pretty sure anybody else would’ve had the sense to get a bigger boat.”
He laughed – that big, booming laugh that should come from a much larger man. “That’d make for a boring story, don’t you think?” he said.
Seventeen years later, I usually remember things like water and snacks and an extra pair of dry socks when I’m headed into the wild blue. I don’t go out in the open ocean in leaky rowboats. My dad is 71. He’s hard of hearing. He has high blood pressure, and COPD from a lifetime of smoking two packs a day — a habit he kicked a couple of years ago. He, too, tends to avoid leaky rowboats these days. The value he’s always placed on a good story, however, continues to stick with me. Given the choice between that and dry feet, I still think I’d have to pick the story.
That was a fun (in a terrifying kind of way) post. Thanks!
Thanks, Peggy — It was a fun (in a terrifying kind of way) trip!
Welcome to MCW, Jen! This is a terrific story. I lived on Peaks for many years, and while I didn’t know your Dad particularly well, I recognized him right away from that photo. Pleasant Avenue, right?
Hi Brenda, Glad you liked the story and thanks for the welcome, I’m very pleased to be here! Yes, my dad had a place on Pleasant Ave for about ten years. I have lots of fond memories of that island.
Rowing is one of the joys of my life. I love the quiet that allows you to get close to birds and animals … the feel of the oars in my hands. I almost always wear sneakers to get in the boat .. but then take them off, to row barefoot. And I’ve done a lot of bailing in my life, most of it with one of those plastic cartons ice cream comes in. But .. I’d never try to row to an island in Casco Bay. Too many boats with engines. Too many strong currents. Your blog just convinced me rowing on a river is much safer … even if it doesn’t result in that kind of research! Glad to have you here, Jen!
Delighted to be here, Lea — and your way of rowing sounds just lovely! Muscongus Bay is considerably quieter than Casco Bay, but it definitely had its moments while we were out there. Barefoot river rowing sounds like the way to go.
Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Jen!
I had a similar adventure going to an island Lake Champlain in my youth! Your story brought it all back.
Thanks, Barb! Rowing Lake Champlain, eh? I’m sure there’s a great story there. It’s always fun getting to know fellow writers… We’ve all had the weirdest adventures!
What’s a good Maine tale without a hint of danger? When I was a kid, I saved up until I had enough to buy an 8 foot rowboat and for a couple summers, I practically lived in that boat, rowing out to various parts of Sennebec Lake and fishing until the sun went down. Some of those times have found their way into stories some 45 years later. Great post.
Welcome, Jen. Great story! I was briefly stranded in a small motorboat on Long Island Sound (NY) once. Not leaking, fortunately, but still unnerving.