I dragged a kayak onto a sliver of beach and stood on Malaga Island.

The small property in the New Meadows River off Phippsburg is the site of one of the worst chapters in Maine’s history.

I had started talking about what happened there with my middle school students in June 2019. Several colleagues and I had begun planning for this trip to the island in the fall of that year. Then, the pandemic. We endured the incredible challenges of teaching first during the lockdown and then a school year of worry, fear and uncertainty.

Finally, we were here, 10 teachers and a spouse, vaccinated and unmasked, able to smile at one another again.

Eli Lee-Msangi, left, and Yoon Soo Lee arrive at Malaga Island Preserve in July 2018. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald file

A milestone, in more ways than one.

I’m the librarian for the Augusta school district. The journey began with the selection of the novel “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy,” by Gary D. Schmidt, as the 2019-2020 community read for Cony Middle School. In the book, Phippsburg newcomer Turner Buckminster becomes friends with Lizzie, who lives on Malaga, a poor, mixed-race community. Turner soon learns that many of the townspeople despise the people of Malaga and think the place is an eyesore. They’d like to evict the residents and build a resort on the island.

In real life, the residents were ordered to leave in 1912; some of them were sent to the “Maine School for the Feeble-Minded.” Graves were dug up and the remains consolidated into fewer internments elsewhere. No resort was ever built and the island is now owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Since 2020 was our bicentennial year, we wanted a book with a Maine setting. The historical context was a bonus. In due course, we received a grant from the Maine Bicentennial Commission to fund a visit by the author.

All the students had received copies of the book in 2019. In the early part of 2020, the students and I discussed the book and they made alternative covers, which we displayed around the school. Next, we talked about the historical events behind the fictional story. I gave them copies of photographs of the residents, and they wrote responses to them. We were about to create a gallery with the finished products when school shut down because of the pandemic.

The first part of our return in the fall of 2020 was all about trying to adapt to the hybrid education model. But as we entered 2021, we started thinking about a virtual author visit. It wouldn’t be perfect. We had seventh graders who hadn’t read the book and eighth graders who had read it and done the enrichment activities at least a year before.

Well, we’d just have to do our best.

My library colleagues and I virtually visited all of the middle school homerooms to talk about the visit and read from the first chapter of the book. Then I virtually visited English classes with my revised Google Slides, talking about the book’s plot and the history of Malaga Island. The virtual author visit was scheduled for the week after April vacation.

COVID-19 case numbers were high then, and we had to work remotely the day before break as a result. I wondered if we could pull the visit off. After 10 minutes of trying to get everyone (at least 350 people) online and able to see and hear Schmidt, we were off. It was a wonderful author visit, followed by a writing workshop attended by a smaller group of interested students.

Staffers started planning our kayak trip in June. The guided, half-day trip would leave from the Sebasco Harbor Resort. We decided on the date. We paid the fee. Case numbers started going down. I passed my two-week mark and rejoiced at being fully vaccinated. Wearing masks outdoors was no longer even recommended. We got our lists of what to bring with us.

The big day arrived. I marveled as I packed towels and trail mix. We had first visualized this trip 22 months ago. How could it be that it was happening on a perfect weather day?

It was going to be 95 in Augusta, with endless blue skies. The best kind of day to be out on the water.

Indeed, all went well. I was nervous at the outset. I’ve been kayaking for a decade, but these were unfamiliar waters. I worried that there would be a strong current in the river, that the harbor might be rough. Apparently, it had been the day before, but on this day, we paddled on glass.

It was my first time in a two-person kayak. Was I strong enough for this? Would I have enough energy for a three-hour excursion?

I did, and I wasn’t even sore the next day. I will turn 65 in a few days, and it’s good to know I have no need to slow down yet.

On Malaga, our guide told us more about the tragedy that had happened there. We studied the photographs and newspaper articles he had brought with him. As always, the story saddened me, but I also felt at peace. Though Malaga is close to shore, we had taken the long way, around Harbor Island and by Bear Island, to get there. The long way, indeed.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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