CRANBERRY ISLES, Maine — Jobs and school can be difficult to get to during the colder months after seasonal residents have left this offshore islands community, and the number of daily passenger ferry runs has dropped significantly.
As a result, the town recently instituted a new year-round commuter boat service to Mount Desert Island, which is connected to the mainland by Route 3.
Cranberry Isles is made up of five islands, only two of which have consistent year-round populations. Little Cranberry, also known as Islesford, has about 70 people throughout the winter, and Great Cranberry has roughly half as many, according to Richard Beal, the town’s first selectman.
For many who work nonfishing jobs through the winter or families with children in high school, moving to MDI between October and May each year has been necessary to meet those daily obligations.
But last March, at the town’s annual town meeting, residents voted to subsidize a year-round commuter ferry service that can bring high school students and those with day jobs to Northeast Harbor in the morning and back in the evening. The idea, according to town officials, was to help sustain the town’s year-round island population by making jobs and secondary schooling more accessible. There is a K-8 school on Islesford that now has 10 pupils between kindergarten and eighth grade, Beal said.
The new commuter ferry service leaves the islands at 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. and leaves Northeast Harbor for the return trip at 5 p.m.
The year-round ferry service provided by Beal & Bunker will continue as well. Beal & Bunker, which carries passengers and the U.S. Postal Service mail to and from the islands throughout the year, leaves the islands no earlier than 8 a.m. year round and, during the winter, makes its last return trip to the islands at 3:30 p.m.
Beal said Thursday that about eight people have been using the new commuter service each weekday from Islesford. On Great Cranberry, where more than half of the year-round population is 55 years old or older, riders have been fewer and less consistent, he said.
“We’re just starting up,” Beal said. “It seems to be clicking in.”
The commuter ferry also makes life a little easier for islanders who head to the mainland for shorter visits, Beal said. People can get to morning appointments earlier and then have an easier time getting back out to the islands by noon on the Beal & Bunker mail boat or, if an afternoon appointment runs late they can still get home on the 5 p.m. commuter ferry.
“Now it’s so much easier,” he said.
The commuter service will be split during the year by two different operators, according to Beal. Downeast Windjammer Cruises uses the Island Queen for the service in the fall and winter, he said, and in the spring and summer the runs will be picked up by the Elizabeth T., operated by Downeast Friendship Sloop Charters.
The two operators are splitting the $46,000 subsidy local voters approved for the service last March. Riders still have to pay fares for each ride, however, $6 for island residents and $8 for nonresidents.
Beal said the town is hoping to get $11,000 from the Maine Department of Transportation to help fund the commuter service.