Chasing Periwinkles in Maine’s Sunrise County

A beautiful late winter sunrise creeps over the tall spruce trees of Roque Bluffs, as the calm waters of Englishman Bay spill onto the vast crescent-shaped beach and begin to turn pink in the glow of the rising sun.

The massive tides that define Washington County were at their lowest point during my recent visit to this tiny spot between Jonesport and Machiasport. Dead low tide gave me a true glimpse of the beach, which is a vast and truly spectacular stretch of sand. The moon, silver and nearly full, was setting to the west of the beach, and the wind is light and refreshing, a small but sure sign of spring’s imminent arrival. I walk to the western end of the beach where Shoppee Point juts out into the bay. From this angle, the mythical shores of Roque Island seem tantalizingly close!

Closer to shore and to the east of Roque Island lies Shoppee Island, which at dead low tide can be reached via a rocky bar that winds and twists on its way to the southern shore of the island. I roughly calculate the tides in my head and decide that I have about twenty minutes before my path back is fully submerged. I don’t feel like swimming — not in early March, anyway! I hurry across the bar, hopping from rock to rock until I reach the shore of Shoppee Island.

As I explore the island, I hear a voice ask me, “What you doing here, bud?” I quickly realize that I am not alone, but in the company of Stephen Hudson, a Machias resident deeply engaged in searching for periwinkles, that small but edible sea snail. Hudson sells the snails in Lubec. “I can usually get forty cents for the small ones, but up to ninety cents for the big ones,” he says, as he lights up a cigarette. “The big ones are about the size of a nickel and I can make a hundred dollars a day with those.”

Hudson, like so many other residents of Washington County, uses the sea to make a living. He hauls traps in Cutler and Bucks Harbor, and shrimps and scallops on the side. “‘Winkling,” as the locals call it, is a year round pursuit for him.

“I ‘Winkle up to Lubec, Cutler, down the Cross Island Narrows, and even Jonesport if I need to,” he explains. “I make pretty good money hauling traps, but this here just helps me get by, and I love working on the ocean.” Hudson, who has three boys to support, does what he can to make it Down East. “Ain’t nothing here but the ocean,” he jokes. “Wouldn’t be nowhere’s else, though; it’s quiet and nobody bothers ya.”

After chatting for a bit more, we race back across the bar, which is slowly disappearing beneath our feet. I wish him luck, and watch as he lugs his heavy sack of periwinkles down the road to his truck.

Good work if you can get it, and up here at the eastern end of the country, you can get it almost anywhere.