Through Rain, Sleet and Five-foot Swells...

Monday, June 22, 1998, Great Pond, Maine - It's ten o'clock and Donna Doucette is running late. She backs her van near the boat dock and loads her cargo for the day's deliveries.

"Monday's always have a heavy load," she says, hauling the second of two mail bags off the dock and into the mail boat. After loading a large, cloth basket of mail on board, we pull out from the dock. The sky is gray and moody over Great Pond.

There are only two or three water mail delivery routes in the U.S. and this one, on the Belgrade Lakes in Southwestern Maine, is quite possibly the oldest, dating back to at least just after World War II. A local campground and marina owner named Dave Webster ran the mail boat route that year and would continue for the next forty-five years until his retirement in 1991.

Webster became a fixture on the lake and a part of its history. Playright Ernest Thompson's mother lives on Great Pond and when Thompson wrote the play On Golden Pond (made into a movie in 1981 with Henry and Jane Fonda) it is said that he patterned the character of the mail carrier after Dave Webster.

Replacing Dave has not been easy. "Everybody who takes this job says it's the greatest job they've ever had," says Debbie Gardner, a co-owner of the marina. "But, for some reason, they never come back a second year."

Donna Doucette at the wheel of one of the few remaining U.S. Mail boats in the country. She has become an important part of the lives of the residents of this small resort town in Maine. .

We head out to our first stop as Doucette checks her maps and scans the first few deliveries. Today we will deliver mail to about sixty people, less than half of the 140 deliveries she may make during the peak of the summer. This can make for a long day, especially when the wind is against her.

As we deliver through the day, I notice that most boxes on the older docks have been pretty well hammered by boats. The owners have apparently designed mailboxes that swivel, swing or simply break away when nailed by a vessel.

Doucette has done well so far. "They said; 'you're bound to take out at least two docks and three mailboxes this year,'" she tells me. "I'm batting zero so far and I plan to keep it that way."

"The biggest thing, Mark," Doucette tells me, "is don't hit the boats."

About the only contact the campers at the Pine Island Boys Camp have with the outside world is through the U.S. Mail, and that makes Donna Doucette a popular visitor six days each week.

Here, two camp employees juggle the large mail delivery between boats and the camp dock during a drop complicated by rough waters.

There are a few islands on Great Pond that are accessible only by boat, so the water deliveries, offered from June through September, are very helpful. But not everybody on the lake has a box on the water. The Postal Service is not obligated to deliver mail by boat and apparently provides this service for the tradition, goodwill and public relations.

Doucette works for a contractor for the U.S. Post Office and so she doesn't wear a uniform, but she did have to undergo a strict, federal background check to get the job. The marina sells passage on the boat, so Doucette also had to pass a Coast Guard captain's test.

It isn't all sunshine and fresh air, however. Doucette is required to deliver the mail six days each week even in pretty harsh weather. About the only climate conditions that will keep her off the water are those that truly endanger her or others, including lightning storms or dangerously high winds. "I was out in five-foot swells just last week."

Doucette offers all the services of a "land-based" mail carrier and here is delivering a priority mail package, waiting for the recipient to sign the receipt.

Sailing past a line of cabins, she looks carefully to see if any red flags are up on the boxes. There are none and we continue to our next drop. Doucette seems to like everything about her job. "I love people, I love the outdoors, I love Maine - I will always come back to Maine," she says. But it seems to be the people that she enjoys the most, saying hello to everyone as they walk down to their docks to greet her.

For many residents of Great Pond, Maine, the day doesn't really begin until Donna Doucette brings them their mail and maybe the newspaper, but always a bright smile and a cheery "hello!"

It's several miles to the next drop - Pine Island Boys Camp - Doucette tucks herself in against the cold wind and pulls a sandwich out from a duffel bag - also in the bag are two sets of rain gear. "Did you bring lunch?" She offers me half her sandwich. Not your ordinary mail carrier, here.

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