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Cruising Casco Bay on the Mailboat


When you're visiting Portland, Maine, you can't help but be aware it's a port, with ocean-going ships, warehouses and more. But it also has a more local aspect, the Casco Bay Lines, which serves a string of inhabited islands in the bay.


On previous visits we've taken the ferry to the most-inhabited, Peak's Island, and walked its back roads and shores, but this time we decided to take a look at more of the bay, and found the perfect solution: a 3-hour cruise on the mailboat, a custom-built ferry that carries cargo and passengers to all the islands on a looping route through the bay.


Of course, it might actually be anywhere from 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours, depending on how many islands that day, and how much cargo. It's got a regular circuit, but also stops occasionally at other islands that have service by ferries than can't handle big cargo.

IMG_8524 naragansetbayshippingThe mailboat, Maquoit II by name, was built for cargo. It's got cargo space on all three decks, and a big crane-and-winch set-up on top that can lift loads (including a vehicle) from any of them. We're not talking just crates of soda; on our run, there were crated refrigerators and a huge pump being delivered.


But it's not that Casco Bay Lines, which is a public transit system, doesn't know it's got a tourist attraction; they market the mailboat to tourists and provide commentary by the captain on its two-a-day sailings. Fares are reasonable: $16 adults, $8 kids, $14 seniors, and dogs on leashes $4.10. 

DSC00549It's sort of like a hop-on/hop-off bus on water. If you time it right, you actually could hop on and hop off, but you'd have to pick one island, go on the morning boat and return in the afternoon...or stay overnight. Several of the islands on the route have hotels or B&Bs, and some of our fellow passengers were headed to them.

DSC00557DSC00574Leaving Portland, you get a real sense of how much Portland is a port, with waterfront warehouses, restaurants, piers and the two-berth cruise ship port and the tugboat pier.

DSC00569Almost the first sight out of the harbor is Fort Gorges, sitting on an island of its own. It's a real tale of government procurement. It was planned and authorized just after the War of 1812 to complete a ring of forts protecting Portland. But nothing was done until 1857, when construction started. Most of the work was done after the Civil War started, but by the end of the war modern cannon and ships had made it obsolete. Its only military use was to store naval mines during World War II. The city owns it now, and visitors are allowed, but it's strictly BYOB (bring your own boat).


The first stop on the route is Little Diamond, followed by Great Diamond, Chebauge, Long Island and finally Cliff Island. We made a stop on the way back at Peaks Island to deliver construction materials. In general the islands are residential and recreation, but there are quite a few commercial fishers out there, and numbers of marine-related businesses.

Above, a raft of lobster traps; below, fish processor at pier

But the ferries, aside from us visitors, mainly carry commuters to and from Portland, and act as a school bus for island children. The permanent population of the islands is so small that most only have elementary schools; from middle school on, the boat is the bus.


And the mail truck. And the UPS truck. And the Fedex carrier. And the Amazon drop-off and more. It's believed to be, possibly, the oldest continuously-running mailboat contract in the country. Above, some of the cargo.


Casco Bay Lines, the operator, is actually the Casco Bay Islands Transportation District, which was set up in 1981, after the century-and-some old history of ferries appeared to be about to end when the company went broke. The District is governed by a board with ten members elected on the islands and two appointed by the state.


Along with the island scenery, and the lovely sunshine, there's also room for geology lessons; some of the islands have exposed rocky shores that allow a view of the mineral traces, and the signs of different kinds of rock, and the metamorphic changes that have left them with slanted layers.


Rocks rather than beaches are the norm on the Casco Bay Islands, which doesn't, of course, keep people out of the water. But some would rather look and create their own comfort for watching, as below.


But if you'd like to go into, or out on the water, there are plenty of opportunities, such as this kayaking class. Birds, of course, need no special facilities such as the boats and piers the mere humans need.


Before we get too far past it, it's time for a view of one of Maine's true oddities: the smallest official lighthouse in the United States. It's Echo Point light on Little Diamond, but it's known popularly as Pocahantas Light, six feet tall. Or short. Looks like a lawn ornament, but it's not a toy!

DSC00593The name supposedly comes from a connection with an Englishman who lived on Little Diamond and had something to do with Jamestown, Virginia. I've searched all afternoon, and can't find the story the captain told. If anyone knows...


The last scheduled stop on the run is at Cliff Island, where the captain assured us there would be enough time to hop off the boat and visit the general store for a snack. He told us to keep an eye out for crew members at the store, which is just past the pier headhouse; when the last crew member headed for the boat, we had best do so, too!


The ice cream was delicious, if hurried, because it seemed as if the entire boat was lined up with us. But there was time.


On the way back, we passed Cushing Island, where the captain pointed out this formation to it; locally it's known as Indian Head, but I thought it looked more like Dick Tracy...


And a final stop on the way back, for a Peaks Island delivery; here's the approach to the pier, with the Peaks ferry just leaving...



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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