I am one of those lucky folks who get to explore some of the numerous islands that dot Casco Bay. Through the help of family and friends, hard work, vision, and literal blood, sweat and (hopefully not so many) tears, friends of mine have taken the historic Fort Scammel side of House Island and turned it into a rustic island destination. It’s not open to the public quite yet, but I’ve had the good fortune to camp there many a night, in constant awe of the beautiful vistas and the flora and fauna that make their home there.
The fort side of the island, called Fortland by the current owners, has a rich history dating back to when the military installation was established in 1808. It’s named after Col. Alexander Scammel, a Revolutionary War general killed during the seige of Yorktown. In the late 1870s, government funding for coastal defense projects dried up, and work to modify Fort Scammel, including plans to build a battery on the north end, was never completed (you can see the unfinished walls along the north side). By 1903, the fort was listed as without armament and “Not garrisoned. A completed work of the old type,” the official report stated. “Magazines dry with one exception. Woodwork decayed. In place scarp wall has separated from body of work; otherwise in good condition.”
In the absence of soldiers, the odd-looking and fast-growing sumac eventually overtook the island’s fortifications. House Island is host to lots of birds, a weasel or two, some ghosts, and a few edible plants. I was surprised to see sumac growing in such abundance, and suspected it was invasive. Turns out that not only is sumac native to Maine, it’s a hardy and beneficial shrub that attract pollinators with its vividly red, fuzzy, edible berries.
Naturally, I’m going to make a cocktail with it. The surreal sumac plants on House Island are Staghorn Sumac. Native people would crush the berries and make tea by letting the berries brew in a warm day’s sun. My mind jumped right to infusing vodka.
Thank you, Brek, Travis, Stefan and Katrina, of Fortland (fortlandmaine.com), for letting me forage, experiment, and get delightfully drunk on your beautiful island.
3 Tbs dried sumac
1 750 ml bottle of vodka
2 oz sumac-infused vodka
1 1/2 oz lime juice
1 3/4 oz cranberry juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
Slightly crush the dried sumac berries and add to the bottle of high-proof vodka; let it infuse for a few hours. Strain with cheesecloth to catch the fuzz and berries. Pour 2 oz of the infused vodka and the rest of the ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake and pour over ice. Use a couple berries as garnish, but mint (which also grows well in Maine) would work well, too.