By: Greg Reid
My objective was simple: See a few islands in southern Casco Bay where boaters can visit without intruding on private property. Learn who manages these places and how one determines the rules of use.
You would have had little trouble telling the frequent boaters from their guests one recent warm and muggy morning off Mere Point in Brunswick. Boaters like Amanda Devine and Caitlin Gerber move gracefully from dock to boat, boat to dingy and dingy to the shallows. Their guests? Not so much. Devine and Gerber’s graceful ease on the water comes from almost daily practice, hopping on and off their 19-foot Pacific skiff, a rugged welded aluminum boat you don’t often see in Maine. As stewards for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the women spend a good deal of time doing the work that makes the trust’s properties seem unspoiled if not undiscovered.
“Part of our job is to understand the different uses of these places and to strike a balance between preservation, the demands of recreational use and the demands of the islands’ ecosystems,” Devine says. Now in her fifth year with the trust, she says that, by and large, “people tend to use islands the way they should be used.”
Based in Topsham, the trust works to conserve and care for Maine’s coastland and islands. With more than 300 islands under its care, the group works with land trusts, coastal communities and other partners to champion preservation efforts.
While most of the group’s properties are Down East, the trust has a growing presence in Casco Bay. It was in the news earlier this year, when the family of Leon Gorman, grandson of Leon L. Bean, donated Lanes Island, near Yarmouth harbor. In the 1930s, L.L. Bean himself hunted ducks on the 28-acre island, and today rare birds nest there.
Since the acquisition, the trust has been studying the island’s ecosystem and traditional use of the island’s resources by local visitors, such as clam and bloodworm diggers. The idea is to develop a use plan with balance.
“We try to maintain access to the wonderful places that have traditionally been accessible,” says Jane Arbuckle, the trust’s director of stewardship. “Increasingly, we want to manage projects in ways that properly address economic-use benefits, recreational-use benefits and ecological priorities.”
In addition to the acquisition of Lanes Island in early 2014, the trust announced efforts to acquire the northern half of Clapboard Island, which is visible from Falmouth Foreside. The trust contends that acquiring the Clapboard parcel, a $1.6 million project, would prevent development and provide public access to 15 acres of the island for the first time in more than 100 years.
There is no one way the trust acquires properties and establishes easements. Arbuckle says trust staff actively researches potential parcels of land, and owners recognize the trust’s mission and step forward to donate properties. 81 percent of the trust’s easement acquisitions through 2009 were established through donations.
Our first stop was to be Whaleboat Island, located between Chebeague Island and the southern end of Harpswell Neck. At 122 acres, it is the largest undeveloped island in the region. Its name was inspired, the story goes, by its long, linear shape that resembles the small craft dispatched by 19th-century whaling ships. The parcel was acquired by Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2002 with donations from area residents and the funds from the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program.
After a 10-minute ride, we anchor in the small cove on the island’s northeastern shore. There, Gerber disembarks on her bright pink kayak. She is a resident of Chebeague Island and a recent graduate of the Muskie School of Public Service. As a summer steward, she combines her undergraduate love of marine biology with a desire to influence preservation efforts.
This morning, her objective is to observe the types of seaweed to be found along the trust’s local properties. She stuffs a trash bag into the kayak as well. She’ll find more than seaweed in her travels. With Gerber on her way, we prepared the dinghy, a five-foot inflatable raft. After three trips, our party is ashore. My son, Aidan, went first, then me, and, finally, Fritz, Devine’s friendly shepherd mix. There are no established trails on the island, but we follow a footpath that weaves its way up from the beach.
“On the Fourth of July weekend, this will be filled with people,” Devine says, looking out on the grassy meadow bordered by dense shrubs, and, farther on, spruce and fir woods. “People camp here or play Frisbee or soccer.”
We stop at a small kiosk so Devine can sign the logbook of the Maine Island Trail Association, which oversees a 375-mile “water trail” connecting more than 200 island and mainland sites open for day visits and overnight camping. We also observe two Styrofoam blocks, each about the size of a small beach cooler. Visitors from Westbrook wrote that they carried the blocks from the beach; might the stewards dispose of them?
Guidelines for use are posted here as well. Among them: Camp at established campsites; limit stay to two nights; keep fires below the high tide line; completely extinguish all fires; carry out all trash, including pet and human waste and toilet paper; keep pets under control. Devine tells us it’s not uncommon to see ospreys and bald eagles here. The shrub habitat on the island is valuable feeding and resting place for migrating songbirds, and warblers nest in the spruce forest. You’d never know it at first glance, but explore long enough and you’ll find evidence of past settlement: stonewalls, a well and even the crumbling remains of a foundation.
We continue on to the crest of the hill, standing ankle-deep in strawberry and blueberry patches. Down the west face of the hill is a rocky shoreline and a 20-foot, bone-white fallen tree trunk, worn smooth from exposure. Chebeague sits in the hazy distance. My son pauses in his exploration to ask whether deer might inhabit islands like this one. He’s surprised to learn that yes, deer swim quite well. He goes on his way and I tell Devine that this trip is a real treat for him. Between after-school activities, youth sports and summer camps, we don’t spend a lot of time out in nature.
“It’s important that he can come to a place like this,” Devine said. “Coming to these places is something that people living on the bay have always done. We’re trying to ensure that they continue to have access and can continue to enjoy them.”
We explore a while and eventually make it back aboard the boat. We skirt the southernmost tip of the island before turning north. Three quarters of the way along the western shore, we come upon Gerber. She comes aboard, trash bag and clipboard and all. We pull up the kayak and head for the day’s main event.
This summer, the Goslings are one of the front-burner topics for trust staff. For decades, the islands’ owners have allowed people from all walks of life to enjoy these undeveloped jewels, with their easy anchorages and white beaches, in the shadow of Upper and Lower Goose islands. The owners hope to sell the Goslings to the trust to conserve them and to ensure the continuation of that tradition of public access.
Owners have given the trust until September to raise $925,000 to purchase the islands. This is no small project. In addition to the Goslings, the owners will donate nearby Irony Island, and another landowner, on Lower Goose Island, will donate an easement on 44 more acres, creating a hub of conserved land available for public enjoyment. Otherwise, the islands will be sold on the open market, possibly jeopardizing the likelihood of continued access.
It is unpleasant possibilities like that one that lead people like Scott Bodwell of Brunswick to give time and energy to the trust. Bodwell, who runs an engineering consulting firm, has been enjoying the bay since high school in the 1970s. He’s often out boating or kayaking these waters.
“My priority is preservation, and within that the privilege of having access to these conserved lands,” he says. “The idea being that when you do go to these locations, it feels undisturbed. And you leave it the way you found it.”
Bodwell is a volunteer steward of White Island, a parcel he brought to the trust’s attention some years ago. His duties include periodically inspecting the island, picking up trash and “making sure nothing’s being abused.”
We approach West Gosling, coasting into the shallows and grounding the boat in the stony sand. Gerber and Fritz stay with the boat, and we head to a tree-lined clearing. West Gosling is close enough to the mainland to see its share of use. We’re standing on well-worn ground; perhaps a recent tent site.
Thirty yards away, Devine spies a fire pit in the sand. That’s a no-no on the Goslings, so we set about dismantling it, tossing the rocks into the water. You can see why people would camp and even build a fire here. Despite the heat of the day, we’re feeling a cool breeze, looking out on a beautiful beach with the knowledge that rocks and woods behind us await exploration. It’s a marvelous place to cross sandbars and shell beaches and watch for terns, bald eagles and seals.
We make our way to the kiosk, and Devine signs the visitor log. She reads from the latest entry, in which people report a pleasant stay and list some of the wildlife observed. Devine’s face brightens and she reads with an excited laugh, “‘We’re looking forward to making a donation for your purchase!’”
The news makes the ride back to Mere Point a happy one. “The coast of Maine is a unique area in the United States,” Bodwell says. “We should do anything we can to preserve the beauty of it without letting it get overused and overdeveloped. I feel so lucky to have (the trust) looking out for these places.”
Greg Reid is a freelance writer in Portland. You can find his work at ScribblingMadly.com and follow him on Twitter @gregreid820.