BAR HARBOR, Maine — Life for humans on a 3-acre rocky ledge 25 miles out in the ocean can never really be called normal, but officials and students at College of the Atlantic are hoping their seasonal activity on the remote, treeless outcropping soon will resume as it has for the past several summers.
The summer programs that College of the Atlantic holds each year on Mount Desert Rock faced a significant challenge last summer when Hurricane Bill, passing by the Gulf of Maine, churned up exceptionally heavy surf along Maine’s rocky coast.
On Mount Desert Island, the hurricane’s waves claimed the life of 7-year- old Clio Axilrod, a girl from New York City who was swept into the ocean with others while she and her family were watching the roiling waters near Thunder Hole.
On Mount Desert Rock, the highest point of which is only a few feet above the high-tide mark, the rough seas decimated some of the college’s buildings, which had been evacuated of COA staff and students as the storm approached. Entire walls of the boathouse and generator shed were washed away into the ocean. The storm surge flooded the house, tossing furniture and appliances around inside like pieces of pressed foam. Heavy equipment in some of the outbuildings such as an I-beam, a chain hoist and an air compressor simply vanished forever into the raging waves.
But not all was lost or damaged. Despite the first floor being trashed, the house remained structurally sound. The 70-foot-high lighthouse tower, built in 1847 with brick and granite walls four feet thick, was unscathed.
Because these two structures remain, and either are usable or can be made so again, the college has decided that research and classes on Mount Desert Rock can continue. For the past couple of weeks, work crews have been spending days at a time on the island, trying to make repairs to the house so research can resume in mid-July and classes can be held in August.
“The race is on, as it were,” Sean Todd, marine science professor at COA and director of the college’s Allied Whale program, said Wednesday. “It’s going well.”
After assessing the storm’s damage last year, college officials canceled the remainder of last year’s ocean and marine mammal research programs at the field station and secured the facility for the winter while they decided how to go forward. COA knew the scientific and educational values of the facility and its programs were too great to let them fade in the hurricane’s wake, they said.
The programs COA offers on the remote island are almost unheard of at the undergraduate level and are in growing demand, according to COA officials.
“As the need grows for research and data on oceans and climate, offshore wind resources, marine mammals and the Gulf of Maine fisheries, the station is an increasingly valuable regional and national resource,” COA President David Hales said in a prepared statement in the weeks after the hurricane had passed. “COA is com-mitted to ongoing research and educational programming in each of these areas.”
Running these programs on a remote island 25 miles out to sea is more expensive than running them from a conventional classroom setting, however. Even maintaining the buildings on Mount Desert Rock is no easy task.
There is no dock or sheltered shore access on the small island, so all supplies have to be taken ashore in small boats as the weather allows. The time and effort it takes in getting onto the island turns usually simple tasks such as painting into logistical challenges and expensive endeavors.
According to Todd, the college is spending between $50,000 and $80,000 just to make the house livable for the summer. The island boardwalks have to be rebuilt, as do the house’s exterior stairs and porches. Everything inside the house has to be replaced, including furniture and the propane-powered appliances. The station’s radio equipment might be salvageable, he said.
The destroyed generator shed and boathouse are not being rebuilt this year, Todd said. Those are considered lower priorities and will be rebuilt as time and resources allow.
The facility was insured, according to Todd, but the insurer determined the damage was caused by flooding, which was not covered in the college’s policy. Getting any insurer to cover buildings that are so close to the water, he said, is extremely difficult. Todd said that if the damage been caused by wind, the college could re-cover some of its expenses in rebuilding on Mount Desert Rock through its policy.
But how the repairs are paid for is not as important as making sure the programs on Mount Desert Rock continue, Todd said. The college intends to solicit donations to help ensure the filed station and its programs have a future, he said.
“The college is committed to paying for this,” the professor said. “We haven’t started fundraising yet.”