Four years passed before I returned to Eastport, a small, “down east” island town mostly surrounded by Cobscook and Passamaquoddy, two “sub bays” (inlets) of the Bay of Fundy. When I reached the causeway in late morning on July 14, 2022, the tide was out—way out—so I was driving a winding road between thick mud flats stretched far and wide—much farther and wider than these photos show because the tide was already seeping back in when I took these on a different day. Hard to believe, but I knew from previous visits that, within a few hours, blue waves would completely cover all that mud. There is probably a good metaphor somewhere in those contrasting images.
I rounded the last curve, passed the Welcome to Eastport sign, then headed downhill on Washington Street towards the fishing pier. Check-in time at Bunting Tosser, where Gracie and I would be staying, was not until early afternoon, so I turned onto Water Street for a short drive through ”downtown,” basically three blocks lined on either side with brick buildings dating mostly to 1887. The bagel bakery with its sea-view patio had closed, and so had the well-stocked pet store where we’d found a cozy pet bed for Gracie on a previous trip. Pandemic casualities? The lobster shack out by the long-abandoned sardine cannery was gone, too, but most of the shops, galleries, and eateries I remembered were open and people were strolling the sidewalks.
Near the fishing pier, I spotted Rosie’s Hot Dogs, a tiny, mustard yellow building perched just above the pinkish granite boulders of the sea wall and flanked by two weather-beaten picnic tables for customers. With the welcome mid-70s temperatures, non-brutal sunshine, and soft breezes, this would do well for lunch. Rosie’s has been serving up the basics since 1972—really good dogs, locally “granite-ground” mustard, homemade chili, fries, and onion rings.
While I watched white gulls winging overhead and waited for my order to be called, I slid in at one of the picnic tables and remembered how surprised I’d been back in the summer of 2020 to come across a national news photo of Rosie’s little dog stand totally dwarfed by the backdrop of a huge—I mean really huge, as in 16 decks high and almost 800 feet long—cruise ship docked just across the pier. Maersk-type container ships and tankers sometimes chug past town on their way to the other side of the island to unload at the industrial pier, but cruise ships, especially ones with passenger capacity literally equal to the population of the town (about 1300), were not regular visitors.
The Riviera had been stuck in Miami ever since the government’s pandemic-induced no-sail order, but by June 2020, with hurricane season on the horizon, the ship headed north in search of calmer weather. By the time it arrived at the Eastport pier, all passengers were gone, but the ship’s skeleton crew of 131 (men and women employees hailing from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Europe) had been confined aboard for more than two months, and their isolation would continue for another six weeks at the edge of Eastport. Two years later, it is still jarring to remember the serious restrictions of those early pandemic months.
I don’t have space here for the whole story, but you can easily google “The COVID Cruise Ship and the Maine Fishing Town” or go to downeast.com and search for the October 2020 issue of Down East Magazine. You might enjoy reading Jaed Coffin’s excellent, heartwarming article about the socially distanced ways local residents and quarantined crew members connected and experienced friendship over those many weeks. An excellent read, with great photos.
Here’s one detail, paraphrased from Coffin’s article: At dusk on July 31, 2020, when the Riviera finally prepared to leave Eastport for La Spezia, Italy, where the crew could finally disembark, the town organized a brief farewell concert and allowed about 30 local citizens to gather—spaced six feet apart—on the pier. Against a backdrop of purple and orange skies, Ross and Brandy Argir, a local fiddle and guitar duo, played Celtic melodies. Then someone on the ship began “shout-singing” John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and someone on the pier picked it up with, “to the place I belong.” The crew waved from the many decks, and a few hundred Eastport residents waved back from all along the farther pier, the harborside footpath, and the waterfront amphitheater as three horn blasts sounded and the Riviera slid out into the deep channel.
By the time I’d finished that memory, along with my hot dog, and nibbled a few onion rings from a really large basketful, it was just about time to check in at Bunting Tosser. A little boy, sitting with his family at the other end of the picnic table, had been entertaining Gracie with his toy airplane and was quite happy to relieve me of the rest of my onion rings.
On previous Eastport visits, Barney and I had stayed at The Commons, upstairs over an upscale gift shop at the other end of the harbor footpath, but Gracie was not welcome there, so I’d reserved Bunting Tosser, upstairs over the Full Fathom Five Gallery on the corner of Water Street and Boynton, across from the other end of the footpath. In online photos, it looked like a great place, and the couple who owned the gallery and rented the units seemed very nice in our email exchanges. Still, you never know how things will turn out in person.
The dulled and unassuming brown outside door at 6 Boynton Street was unlocked, and I’d been given the code for the lockbox next to the inside door for Bunting Tosser. When I opened that inside door, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself looking into a beautifully decorated open room with several seating areas, oodles of windows already open to the sea breezes, and a welcoming note and folder of information on the black granite kitchen counter. Hardwood and tile floors, red brick walls, two well-appointed bedrooms, a full bath with walk-in shower, and a large, private patio with grill and evening lighting completed the place.
You might be wondering, as I was, about the term Bunting Tosser. I didn’t get around to looking it up before the trip, but as we settled in, that was one of the first things I did. It’s British, a casual term for sailors in the Royal Navy who used to communicate with other ships by “tossing” various signal flags. Bunting refers to the sturdy worsted cloth used to make those flags. Today, “bunting” refers to any small decorative flags or streamers strung on a line, like those used to decorate on the Fourth of July and other patriotic days.
As for Full Fathom Five, the name of the gallery downstairs, the reference for this phrase is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Ariel describes a shipwreck and the supposed drowning of Prince Ferdinand’s father: “Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are coral made….” And by the way, full fathom five is about 30 feet deep.
Gracie and I had no trouble feeling at home in this place. Next morning, we would drive back over to the Bangor airport to pick up my son Roger, his wife Meredith, and my grandson Robbie for a fun-filled visit of several days.