Dec 23, 2023

A Tiny Cabin, a Little Island and a Big Change: ‘Am I Crazy?’

The Great Read

A New Jersey woman now lives alone part of the year on a remote island in Maine that Stephen King called ‘a novel here, just waiting to be written.’

Credit...Greta Rybus for The New York Times

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By Steven Kurutz

“Duck Ledges Island,” the listing read, “offered in its entirety.”

The accompanying photos showed a scene of stark beauty: a tiny spit of rock sitting in clear blue waters, with a little cabin on it and nothing else — not even a single tree — to block the 360-degree views of ocean and sky.

The island was in Wohoa Bay, in Downeast Maine, along a section of rocky coastline known as the Bold Coast.

To anyone who has fantasized about their own private island getaway — and who hasn’t, judging by the way such idylls capture worldwide attention? — the ad for Duck Ledges, when it appeared last June, was a clarion call. One of the people who answered it was Charlotte Gale.

A licensed massage therapist from New Jersey, Ms. Gale had a rough couple of years. Her business vanished overnight with the pandemic and the lockdowns. She had to sell her house, she said, with its Victorian garden she’d grown and tended over a decade.

Ms. Gale moved to a rental in Hoboken, planning to stay for a couple of years while she figured out her next step. But then her landlord raised her rent by $770 a month.

She had some money from the sale of her home and began searching online listings for a simple cottage with space for a garden, in a nearby state like Delaware or Connecticut. Nothing stood out. No place seemed special.

Then she widened her search to Maine and saw Duck Ledges.

By that point, the listing had gone viral, and the island’s owner, Billy Milliken, was fielding calls from all over. But Mr. Milliken had a unique request, as Ms. Gale learned when she answered the ad. The buyer had to spend one night on the island before making an offer. There is no running water and nothing but seals and ducks and birds to keep you company.

Days later, Ms. Gale stood at the marina in tiny Jonesport, a working lobster fishing village with no resort hotels, little dining other than a pizza shop and not a mall or chain retailer for miles. Culture shock for a Jersey Girl.

Christine Crowley, Ms. Gale’s real estate agent, remembers her on the dock that day, waiting for Mr. Milliken to take her out to the island in his boat.

“She had with her just one bag,” Ms. Crowley said. “She was wearing shorts. She had on flip-flops or sandals. She was a little hesitant at first. She started to get a little bit of cold feet. She said, ‘Am I crazy? Can I do this?’ I said, ‘You need to stay somewhere tonight.’”

When Ms. Gale got to the one-and-a-half-acre island, she took in her surroundings — the cedar-clad cabin standing there improbably yet invitingly; the flat rock ledges where seals sunbathe; the little sandy beaches and tide pools. It was a summer day with clear blue skies — “the most perfect top 10 day,” as Ms. Gale would later say.

She was not on the island 10 minutes before she pulled out her phone.

“As soon as Billy and his friend dropped her off, Charlotte called me almost immediately,” Ms. Crowley, who had stayed on shore, recalled. “She said, ‘I want it. I’ve got to have it.’”

The story of Duck Ledges goes back thousands of years, to when glaciers, as they retreated and melted, scraped the earth, forming rocky outcroppings along the Maine coast. But the more recent history dates to the 1970s, when a man built a primitive dwelling on the island consisting of a wooden shack joined to a metal house trailer. For years, local fisherman used the trailer as a landmark to navigate.

The next owner was a high-school science teacher from Massachusetts named Gordon Estabrooks, who spent many summers on the island observing nature. In 2006, the senior Mr. Estabrooks put the island up for sale, asking Mr. Milliken, a local real estate agent and part-time fisherman, to handle the deal.

A woman came to see the island and wanted to buy it. But the woman’s boyfriend was dressed in military fatigues, Mr. Milliken said, and when he took the couple out in his boat, the man emptied two duffel bags filled with guns. As Mr. Milliken recalled it, Mr. Estabrooks told him, “‘Billy, I can’t sell it to her. He’s going to go out there and kill things. Why don’t you buy it?’”

Several islands in Maine are owned by the Downeast Coastal Conservancy or Maine Coast Heritage Trust and are off limits to private development. But because there was already a structure present on Duck Ledges, the town of Addison, which has jurisdiction over the island, allowed Mr. Milliken and a business partner to tear down the shanty and build a 550-square-foot cabin.

Mr. Milliken had a dory and brought the material out in one load, landing in high tide because there was no dock. “We framed it up on weekends in the course of that first summer,” he said. He and his partner saw Duck Ledges as an investment and sold the island to a man from Boothbay Harbor, Maine, who had fond memories of adventuring on an island as a kid with his friends. The new owner had an open-door policy.

“I spent more time out there when he bought it than when I had it,” Mr. Milliken said. “I’d take people out several times a year, for free, and share it with them. I’ve had my family out there several times with lobster bakes.”

Mr. Milliken came to see Duck Ledges as a special place to be shared with others and protected — he stayed clear of visiting before June, for instance, until after the seabirds that nest on the island had gone.

When Duck Ledges went up for sale again in 2019, Mr. Milliken bought it back. But he didn’t use it as much as in years past, and when he bought another island in the area, where he planned to build a proper house with running water designed by an architect, he suddenly found himself with too many islands.

His condition that a buyer stay overnight on Duck Ledges was something he felt as a moral obligation. “Sometimes the island is challenging, sometimes it’s encumbering,” he said. “I wanted somebody to know that the rocks are slippery. That you have to time your travel. You have to be good with a boat. My primary objective was for the buyer to make a fully-formed decision.”

Still, news of his unusual requirement piqued public interest, including from Stephen King who posted on Twitter, “There’s a novel here, just waiting to be written.”

Although Mr. Milliken had higher offers, he was impressed that Ms. Gale packed little more than a backpack for her stay, and thought she would approach the place with a spirit of generosity. “It was never about money,” he said. “It was all about the good will and sharing.”

Ms. Gale paid $339,000.

Three elements must come together to visit Duck Ledges: the wind, the weather and the tides.

If the winds are gusting at 30 knots, you don’t go. If thick fog is blanketing the bay, you don’t go. If it’s low tide, you can go, but you’ll be walking across 100 feet of slippery, seaweed-covered rocks because there’s no dock. You never go in winter unless necessary.

Ideally, you visit in June, July or August on a sunny, “flat-ass calm day,” as the locals call it, and preferably in a flat-bottomed boat that can land right up on one of the ledges.

One morning last month, Ms. Gale stood at the Jonesport marina, holding a cooler filled with food that she was bringing to the island. Ms. Gale does not own a boat — a serious impediment for an island owner.

Instead, she has been relying primarily on two locals — Harry and Laura Fish, a brother and sister who run a charter company called Coastal Cruises. They drop her off and pick her up when she calls them (the island has good cell service). Mr. Fish, who with his white beard and yellow raincoat resembled the Gorton’s fisherman, stood waiting at the dock edge in his 19-foot Sundance.

It was not a perfect top 10 day. It was cold and raining, with a thin fog hanging over the bay. And the weather had been lousy, more or less, since Ms. Gale arrived in Jonesport, in April. This was her first full summer as the island’s owner. She had rented a place in town and was visiting Duck Ledges frequently.

Ms. Fish said local reaction to Ms. Gale had been one of surprise. “A single woman bought the island? That little island? And she’s going to stay out there?” she said, paraphrasing the chatter.

But Ms. Gale had given massages to many of the townspeople, including Ms. Fish, and had otherwise proved herself intrepid among the locals. Her longest stay alone on the island has been four consecutive nights; she routinely stays overnight. And she was unfazed by the current storm as Mr. Fish motored slowly and expertly across the bay.

As the salt spray and rain hit Ms. Gale in her face and her blue rain coat, she put on a cheery smile and pointed out the colorful lobster buoys floating everywhere in the water, likening them to confetti. As the boat passed Hardwood Island, a larger privately-owned island covered with spruce trees, Ms. Gale said that she had been extended an invitation by its owner, along with owners of other islands in Maine, now that she belongs to an uncommon club.

“Everyone said, ‘We want to come to your island, and we want you to come to ours,’” said Ms. Gale, who has long auburn hair, a full face and an outgoing, talkative personality. (She declined to give her age.)

After a few minutes more, Duck Ledges and its tiny cabin came into view on the horizon. Mr. Fish instructed Ms. Gale to drape a rubber mat over the front of his boat, a homemade contraption to keep the rocks from scraping it.

It was mid-tide. Ms. Gale hopped over the side and onto a large rock, then gingerly walked to higher ground with the cooler.

On a clear day, you can see the shore from Duck Ledges. But Ms. Gale’s little island is not sheltered behind another island; it’s exposed to the elements, and when Mr. Fish motored away, there was a sense of being at the mercy of nature. If bad weather struck, a day trip could well turn into three days before a boat could return.

“Don’t let it fool you that you see civilization to the west and east,” Mr. Milliken had said. “Look to the south to that wild openness that’s going to be upon you.”

The money Ms. Gale paid for the island might well have been spent on a year-round residence, she said. She has little connection to Maine, beyond a few high school summers spent at the family house of a friend in Kennebunkport and some summer vacations to Southern Maine as an adult.

Standing on the island, there was a sense that Ms. Gale was still coming to terms with her impractical, even rash, decision, and figuring out what to do with the island now that it was hers.

“I was in one of those places,” she said. “Just randomness. It was random bizarreness.”

She went on, “It’s devastating to lose your business and have to sell your home. But I thought, ‘It’s new beginnings, new chapters.’ I saw the island and thought, ‘What’s the chance to own a little gem like this?’”

Ms. Gale, who embraces the healing properties of Solfeggio frequencies and other new age beliefs, had already determined that her island has magical properties. She believes the minerals in the salt water can nourish the skin and has been taking bottles of it back to shore. Far from feeling vulnerable, she feels protected on the island, which she calls by its other name Wohoa Bay Island, because that’s how it appeared in the listing, she said, and because she wanted to highlight the water, rather than the ducks or seals that sunbathe on the ledges.

“What you feel here is the gentleness of the grace of nature,” she said. “Instead of feeling small in this vastness, being on the island makes you feel that you are part of the vastness.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Gale has a gas-powered Yeti generator and a backup generator, plenty of food and fresh water in case she’s stuck for a few days — remember there is no running water — and the comfort of a sturdily built cabin that has survived many storms.

She has decorated with a couch, a table, a vintage-style metal cooler and framed art; and the interior, with its simple décor and windows on all sides looking out on the water, has the coziness of a ship’s cabin. There is a loft for sleeping. There is a composting toilet behind the cabin (there’s no indoor plumbing, either).

Inside, Ms. Gale fired up a Camp Chef propane stove and boiled a pot of water for tea. Then she cooked a lunch of pasta with fresh-caught lobster brought over in the cooler. The day had turned pleasant despite the weather.

Less successful has been Ms. Gale’s attempts at establishing a garden. The bulbs she planted around the island all rotted — too much moisture. She has lugged over some perennials in containers and placed them around the cabin instead.

Her most dramatic addition has been three antique cast-iron garden urns, each painted white and so heavy that a large boat and a crew of men had to be hired to get them onto the island. Ms. Gale had the Victorian-style urns placed at high points, including a rock at the tip of the island — an unusual beacon for boaters.

“It is a far cry from driftwood and lobster buoys,” laughed Ms. Fish of typical down east décor. “I’ve taken boatloads of flowers out there. Charlotte said she wants to recreate on this little island what she misses from her home.”

“I wanted a little Versailles in there,” Ms. Gale said.

Ms. Gale said she will return to New Jersey this winter. She recently signed a lease for a rental at the beach.

As for this summer, she plans to welcome family and friends to Duck Ledges. She is also hosting several people who contacted her after reading media stories about her purchase last summer.

Ms. Gale is charging these visitors around $250 per night, she said, and her creation of a website for the island — along with the new name — suggests an attempt at branding of sorts. She says she wants to market it for advertising and movie shoots. But Duck Ledges is unlikely to become an Airbnb or a popular shooting location — it’s simply too far afield and planning a trip there is too unpredictable, even for Ms. Gale.

“I have never found change scary. I have never found uncharted waters scary,” Ms. Gale reflected, but added of this swerve in her life, “I think it surprised me, even.”

Ms. Gale said she sometimes feels on the island like a child playing.

“That’s who bought the island — my child,” she said. “Because as an adult it would have made no sense.”

Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details. More about Steven Kurutz