A Tiny Cabin Is This Writer's Off the Grid Getaway
Living on one of the outermost inhabited islands on the American eastern seaboard requires a vigilance in numbers, and the villagers of the community of Criehaven (technically Ragged Island) take their record-keeping seriously, but not too seriously. The library—still littered with evidence of a raucous game of Texas hold ’em—is a fine example. In addition to portraits of the Crie and Simpson families, early residents of the 0.7-square-mile island 20 miles off the Maine coast, one mile south of Matinicus Island, there are photo albums dating back to the early 1970s documenting island life. There’s also a copy of the "2010 census," a cartoonish rendering of the 20 family homes on the island. In it, a series of circumflex rooflines populate the page, save for an aberrant addition on the eastern end: a simple backslash of a roof, under which is written "Welcome Porters!"
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Bruce Porter, a journalist and retired professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has owned a roughly three-quarter-acre lot on this remote, off-the-grid island for years, but it’s taken nearly a lifetime for him to build anything. The Porters first came to Criehaven in 1971, the summer his oldest daughters, Alex and Nell, turned two and six, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he seriously considered building. "I was getting older and older, and I thought, If not now, when?" Bruce recalls.
Over the course of 30-plus years, Bruce devised and abandoned countless plans for what to put there, including a Sisyphean scheme that involved shipping a tiny cabin from the Adirondacks. The lot, however, mainly sat empty and unused. It wasn’t until Bruce divorced, remarried, and adopted his third daughter, Hana, that he finally resolved to build. By that time, Alex had grown up and become an architectural designer, founding her own practice, Alex Scott Porter Design, and Bruce’s last and best plan was to have her design something. He’d envisioned an unobtrusive abode that would blend with the local color, to which Alex replied, "Well, Dad, if you want something like a Maine farmhouse, you don’t need me!"
Despite the aesthetic differences, their first real hurdle was finding the borders of the lot, which had come to be known as "the floating acre" among the local fishermen. Nobody was exactly sure of the property lines, so as soon as she graduated from architecture school in 1997, Alex flew to the island with a surveyor. (In bad weather, chartering a flight to Criehaven is the cheapest and easiest way to get there.)
After determining the site lines, Alex, Bruce, and their contractor, Josh Howell, spent one stormy afternoon in June 2008 siting the house. From the shelter of a pup tent, Alex rendered the house in CAD on a laptop while Bruce and Howell braved the rain with a compass. The difficulty of this task made it clear that building on the island would require foresight and exhaustive precision. "I wanted the interior to be super simple, using local material," Alex explains. "We did everything on a 24-inch grid. I’m in New York and Josh is up here in Maine, so I tried to make it very easy; you could always tell what size everything was going to be." Additionally, over 90 percent of the building material had to be organized and shipped to the island on an amphibious vehicle, or "sea truck." Compared to mainland projects, much of the construction work of the home was done without the aid of power tools, and the primary vehicle used to haul supplies on-site was
a converted riding lawnmower.
Time, it seems, has had a curious effect on Criehaven. Technologically speaking, it has moved backward, not forward. When the year-round population of ten lobstering families held tight, there was a telephone line and a power generator (plus a schoolhouse, post office, and general store). Over the years those services withered, leaving the island’s transient residents to their own devices. Personal generators are now the norm, but the Porters have challenged this by installing solar panels and an on-demand water heater. Bruce’s motivation for incorporating these systems, however, was more practical than ideological. After watching a friend haul propane tanks over from Matinicus then schlep them on foot to his house, Bruce was determined to make island life a bit more leisurely. Fortunately, Howell, an avid outdoorsman, armed with an equally intrepid crew, was up to the challenge of building in harsh conditions. The Porters would have been hard-pressed to find a better man for the job. As Bruce recalls with both horror and admiration, "Josh and the workers would drink straight from the cistern!"
In their defense, the water was—and is—quite clean. The catchment system operates in conjunction with a clever mechanical contraption called a roof washer, which collects and disposes of the first five gallons of sullied rainwater before directing it into the cistern. The water is then siphoned from the center of the tank, ensuring that any sediment collected on the surface and bottom does not infiltrate the drinking water. Even when the system is taxed by unrelenting sunshine and a slew of summer visitors, the cistern remains half-full and the bathroom—equipped with a composting toilet (see sidebar)—smells pleasantly of pine.
Four solar panels, affixed to the southeast-facing porch, collect a surplus of energy—easily a week’s worth when stored in auxiliary batteries—and the DC-powered solar fridge is efficient enough to run indiscriminately. "I still can’t get over the fact that I can get an ice cube from the sun," Bruce quips—which isn’t to say he doesn’t appreciate it or the luxury of having a hot outdoor shower thanks to the on-demand, gravity-driven water heater, one of only two appliances to operate off propane (the other is the stove). "There was a general feeling that this house wasn’t going to work," he laughs. "But everything works great, just like a normal house!"
With the cabin up and running for its first season, there’s the lingering question of how frequently it’ll be used. According to Bruce, "It’s best being out there for a time—I’m thinking about going out for a month to write," which may seem like a drop in the bucket, considering the number of years "the floating acre" sat vacant. But to be sure, every drop counts.