By Tom Groening
Candis Joyce, 57, is director of the Swan’s Island Educational Society (SIES), which is housed in a bright, attractive building constructed in 2011, and which, despite its name, functions as a combination library, museum, historical society, and learning center. In October 2015, when we talked, Joyce was winding down from the lobstering season, because in addition to heading up the SIES, she also works as a stern man two days a week on an islander’s boat.
She’s raised two children who were schooled on the island, and now has two grandchildren, the oldest attending the island school. She grew up in Rockland as Candis Jellison, the daughter of a successful fisherman. Her father had ties to the island, and the family moved there when Joyce finished high school.
“We made the final trip from packing up the house in Rockland the day after I graduated from high school in 1976,” she remembers.
How do you think living on an island has shaped you as a person?
I think I’ve become much more community-centric. I find myself thinking about how things will help the community, rather than how they will help me or my family.
I think about when I first realized what the Swan’s Island Educational Society was as an organization. I just took the job because my kids were getting older and I thought it would be fun. My mother-in-law was involved in the organization, and I just spent a few hours behind the desk. Then I realized what a library really was—that it was a historical institution, that we actually preserve the island’s history. And those two things together really formed a very powerful focus for me, because we not only provided information for the community, but we also collected historical information, stored it, and figured out ways to present it to people for them to enjoy.
I think living here—that’s probably one of the biggest benefits I personally have received. And I wouldn’t have been able to say that years ago.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding, or misconception, people have about island life?
That the locals aren’t very intelligent. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Not the majority of people from away, but there is a significant group of people that appears to think islanders are not capable of helping themselves. And that’s not true.
The other piece that I find very intriguing is that summer people come here when it’s nice—when people usually go on vacation—and they wonder where we all are. Why we don’t show up at committee meetings. Why we don’t take part in events. Well, that’s because that’s when we go to work.
You know, you get up at four o’clock in the morning, and you need to go to sleep at eight o’clock at night, and you’re just trying to maintain what you have to do. I’ve run into it many times.
The seasonal residents on Swan’s Island really would like to see us make some improvements—the town office, our government structure—and they want to know what, why, and how this all happens. And islanders just know how things work.
But summer people come to Swan’s Island because they like it the way it is. We aren’t commercialized, we aren’t full of tourists. Basically, they like it quiet; they like that it’s a fishing community.
And there’s a good handful of the year-round community who can’t see how fortunate we are with the seasonal residents that we have.
How do you get your groceries and other essentials?
We have a food co-op out here. I kind of see what’s left over from the case lots, and I’ll take a couple of pounds of butter, or whatever. Some of us order Crown of Maine [a farm-to-table food service] through the store, and they get a standard mark-up for dividing up the case lots of squash, or whatever we decide to order, and then we go pick it up at the store.
Our new store owners, Brian and Kathy, are great, and they’ll accommodate you with special orders.
I have an Amazon Prime account [which provides free shipping]; I use Amazon Pantry. And when I do go to the mainland, I go to Hannaford, and I love the Belfast Co-op. I’m a member!
I try to do as much [buying] on the island as I possibly can. I know Amazon isn’t exactly “island,” but it’s $30 to go to the mainland. Plus gas. Plus at least one meal. And you have to add that to the cost of your groceries on the mainland. I’m not going to spend that much to go to the mainland to buy a bottle of ketchup.
How many lobsters do you think you eat a year?
Not many. Actually, we still have some shrink-wrapped lobster in the freezer from last year that we haven’t eaten. But I’m sure before we take traps up [at the season’s end] we’ll get some, and put it in the freezer.
My son usually has lobster on the Fourth of July, and we might have lobster once or twice . . . maybe five or six times [a year].
After being in a lobster boat all day, I look at lobsters, and think, “Oh, man, that would be really great for supper.” But by the time everything gets sold, and we’re wondering if we want to take a couple of them home, we don’t want to cook them and clean them [laughs].
So how many times do you go to the mainland in a year? How many ferry trips?
I don’t know. Over the past couple of years, it’s been more often. I used to go off if I had an appointment, then I’d do some grocery shopping. Or, my ex-husband and I, what we used to do was take the kids off and go to Subway and go to the movies on the weekend; that happened a few times a year.
But now, since I’ve reconnected with friends in Rockland, I tend to end up over there too much [laughs]. And I’m trying not to do that this year, because it costs a lot of money.
Do you ever think about moving off-island?
[Nods]. To get a job. I think the thing that’s causing the most anxiety in my life is not having a full time income. And benefits would be great. Yep.
What do you think is this island’s biggest problem—biggest threat? Gentrification, drugs, inability to make a living here . . . ?
There are some of us who would like to continue living here who don’t have the option of being a stern man, or don’t have family that can help support them financially. They find themselves newly divorced, or there’s illness in the family. There’s not that second job that can help them support the household.
If you get a full-time job with benefits, you hang on to it, tooth and nail.
Drugs are definitely a problem out here. You put kids in a boat, and they’re making $20,000, $30,000 a year, more than their high school teachers. And they get an ache or a pain, or somebody says, here’s this, and they get hooked on opiates, and they’ve got the money to pay for them. It’s hideous, what it does to people.
Twenty years from now, what do you think will be the biggest changes that will be apparent here on the island?
I’m hoping that you wouldn’t see a lot of difference. That it would still be a working harbor, that people would still be able to have whatever they want in their own front yard. We wouldn’t have any zoning except those things that really help us protect the land and water.
I would like to see a wider economic base and a little bit more visionary leadership in the town, to look at ways to encourage people to move here. And part of that’s going to be much, much better Internet service and lower utility rates.
Visually, I would hope there would not be a lot of change. But I guess the only thing I would like to see is more of the houses lit up, year-round. And to do that, we’re really going to have to come together as a community and have some hard conversations about what it means to be Swan’s Island, and how we keep that same social, cultural structure, while we’re in the 21st century.
Last question: What’s the most annoying question islanders get asked by summer folks and visitors?
Do you really want to know?
They’ll ask, “Do you have running water and electricity?” In here at the library, they’ll come and say, “Do you have a computer?”