"(W)hen the morning broke, I saw not far to seaward a great island that was backed like a whale" wrote David Ingraham, a sailor who voyaged to Monhegan with Giovanni da Verrazano in 1525. Nearly 500 years later, that description aptly applies to this deep sea island. Monhegan still greets visitors approaching from the mainland with the profile of a great leviathan, and often anticipates the roll of an actual finback or a pod of blackfish out in the cold Gulf of Maine.
Verrazano made the first recorded European landfall on Monhegan, but Native Americans here thousands of years before his arrival. The voyages of the Cabots may have brought them within sight of the Island, and before them those Greenlanders ranging south to Vineland could well have come this way. Indeed, there are what some have claimed are runic inscriptions above a spring on Manana Island - the tail of Monhegan's whale - though their authenticity remains in dispute. What is clear is that Monhegan was visited throughout most of the 16th century and on into the 17th by European exploring expeditions and seasonal fishermen who made use of its secure harbor and resources. The chronicler of the Waymouth voyage in 1605 describes Monhegan Island as "the most fortunate euer yet discovered", with its fresh water and primeval forest lying so far out to sea:
"This iland is woody, grouen with Firre, Birch, Oke and Beech, as farre as we saw along the shore; and so likely to be within. On the verge grow Gooseberries, Strawberries, Wild pease and Wild rose bushes. The water issued forth down the Rocky cliffes in many places; and much fowle of diuers kind breed vpon the shore and rocks....While we were at shore, our men aboard with a few hooks got above thirty great Cods and Haddocks, which gaue vs a taste of the great plenty of fish which we found afterward wheresoeuer we went vpon the coast."
Captain John Smith visited Monhegan in 1614 and marveled at its "high, craggy Cliffs, Rocks, stony Isles, that I wondered such great trees could growe vpon so hard foundations." Monhegan's woodlands have changed greatly since those times; the beech and oak were hewn for pasture, then replaced by spruce and balsam fir that now give way to a parasitic mistletoe that brings the vaulted woods low and releases the deciduous understory. The fabled fisheries of Maine are but a shadow of their former abundance, where according to Smith "the Saluages compare their store in the Sea, to the haires on their heads." I shall have more to say on these matter in subsequent posts, but to understand what has been lost requires discovering it anew, in the eyes of those first voyagers who came to this most fortunate Isle, and those like my children making the pilgrimage afresh toward the whale-backed shore.