Standing on the Eastern Prom and looking across Portland Harbor toward Peaks Island, it’s hard to avoid dreaming of an idyllic island life—a feeling that intensifies with each trip on a soul-cleansing, 15-minute ferry ride from Portland’s tourist-teeming waterfront to one of Casco Bay’s many islands. (I defy anyone to ignore the real estate postings in the Casco Bay Lines
But how practical is it? For a dose of reality, I asked Scott Nash, a Peaks Island dweller and nationally recognized illustrator. Nash—also a designer, writer, and chair of Maine College of Art’s
illustration department—has owned a house on Peaks with his wife, Nancy, for 19 years. (Learn about Scott's illustrations and his commercial studio, Nashbox
Here’s Scott’s enthusiastic take on island life:
On coming to the island
“We were making the transition from Boston 19 years ago, and we were considering Portland. I remember my wife (the project manager at Nashbox) bringing up the possibility of living on an island, and I said, 'There’s no way I am living on an island. I want to be in the city.’
“But, while I was on a fishing trip in Rangeley, Nancy took a bike trip on Peaks and saw a house she loved. So, she said, in no uncertain terms, that we were going to look at houses on the island.
“I wasn’t exactly kicking and screaming, but the idea of being isolated from the city was terrifying for me. But we came out here and actually found a lot of artists, musicians, and professionals living on Peaks—and I found it appealing that the ferry trip was only 15 minutes.
“Renovating the house took some time, which was a nice way to transition from Boston, and once I got over my jitters about being isolated, I came to love the island, which seems very much part of the city.”
On the locale
"Peaks (which is 763 acres and has almost 900 year-round residents) is a well-populated, civilized and convenient island, and much more of a commuter island (than others on the loop), because of its proximity to downtown.
“The island has an interesting density, with houses close to the shore, and conservation land on the backside and in the middle of the island, which provides us with a sort of wilderness. It's funny that the island has a design that modern planners have suggested should be used to create a town. Quite by accident, Peaks is designed that way.
"We live five minutes up the hill from the pier in a dense neighborhood of modest, beautifully crafted houses that are quite quaint.
"I feel like I’m producing here, and that’s where we want to be – making things.
"I run on the island every day and never get tired of it, which is hard to believe. The views are always changing, and I even carry a small camera to take pictures that inspire me.
“(On the mainland) we have designed things (the studio, MECA, shopping) to be within walking distance when we head into town. We call it our magical circle, where we can do a lot of our business and shopping. We do own a car in town, which we keep at a friends’ house.”
(While renovating his house, Scott found that the term four-season is rather relative, with insulation in one wall consisting of old magazines.
The island once housed a massive Army battery to protect Portland Harbor, and the concrete fortifications are popular exploration spots, and have even served as a venue for theater projects.
Nash notes the interesting island lore surrounding the fort, such as the unsubstantiated theory that the Army was responsible for the island’s lack of rodents, thanks to a military-grade rodentcide spurred by the desire to prevent gnawed wires. He remains dubious about tales of buried ordnance.)
On the impact on his work
“I thrive on the active—getting out and seeking inspiration and stoking my need to connect with culture and the art world, which I get in town. But I also have an affinity for nature and for reflection. Peaks affords both of those. It offers the duality of experience of both sides—the active and the reflective.
“It’s very calm out here at night, especially (off-season). But later today I will be heading into town, where I will be interacting with people at the studio. It’s important for an artist to get involvement and engagement, and also to have the opportunity for peace and reflection.
“The logistics of living on the island keep you straight and really adds structure to your live. It’s not as difficult as one would think. There are certain times it is advantageous to have a ferry to catch, because it forces you to move things along. We tend to be very efficient, and our meetings don’t spill over.
“Also, the support of the islanders for my book (The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate
) has been priceless to me. The fourth and fifth graders all read it and then asked me to be part of their reading group. Now they keep me focused on writing the next one. That experience is a fantastic opportunity for the kids to meet an author up close, to see real artists making their dreams a reality.”
On the challenges
”If you live on the island you live under the tyranny of the ferry, which can cramp your style a bit, especially during the off-season, with the last boat leaving for Peaks at 10:30.
“That can be trying, especially on the social end of things. I might be in town on a Monday night listening to music and need to leave early to catch a ferry, knowing that I will miss another hour or two of good music.
“But there are some ways to buffer the ferry challenge – by staying with friends or at the office. Most people on Peaks have someone they can stay with (on the mainland).
“There’s also the social challenge of small-town living that E.B. White talked about. He noted that living in the city can be cacophonous and oppressive, by that there is a peace in the anonymity, and the way that connections are glancing.
“But island life, like living in Brooklin, Maine (where White summered), demands more from people. We all long for community. But while community is wonderful, out here everyone does know each other’s business, and that can be oppressive, especially in winter. But that’s the case in any small town.
“Everyone knows your schedule – Monday night, music; Wednesday, yoga class, etc. But there is also the rare and wonderful sense of family, albeit with all the quirks, that we forget doesn't always exist on the mainland. Nothing beats coming home from a long day and finding the surprise of a home-made pie on your dining room table, or the comfort of a community when one is in sorrow.
“The ferry is a never-ending, random combination of neighbors, and a ferry ride can start normally enough with a discussion of the weather, yet end with the inspiration of an unexpected life story.
“The last few summers have been a bit crazy. Summers out here our first 16 years weren’t bad, but things have gotten busy. Usually, visitors tend to stay on the outer perimeter, and we are blissfully ignorant of the crowds. But then we head toward the pier and discover throngs of people. (The Island Institute
lists the summer population at 2,000-4,000.)
“Someone recently joked that Peaks is officially over capacity. It does seem to be getting more popular as a destination.”
On the big picture
“This is an island particularly well suited to what I see it as the future for artists and for creative individuals. The life of an artist these days is frenetic and diverse. We are increasingly entrepreneurial and have our own business, often more than one business. It’s a lifestyle specific to Peaks that really suits the multi–faceted lives that we lead.
“We have access to all of our communications needs. We have all the luxuries. But being out here really affords more time to do what I want to do, which is to make stuff. Other colleagues say the same thing. It’s a good lifestyle to work on projects here, with the downtown nearby, allowing a compartmentalized life that affords greater opportunity to create. I feel like I’m producing here, and that’s where we want to be – making things.”
One of the pleasures of living in Portland is that the five islands on the Casco Bay Lines ferry run make daydreams about island life possible.
Here are a few resources to learn more: