Secluded beaches, one backed by a dune of sea-polished stones, the other abutting a freshwater pond. Sea ledges adorned with petroglyphs. A roiling falls that was a haunting, even evil place to native people. Scenic rivers that offer a choice of calm and still waters and are lined for several miles with biking and walking trails.
This isn’t an exotic tropical locale. It’s a sampling of the abundant and increasingly accessible natural beauty and outdoor recreation in and around Machias, the shire town of Washington County and the anchor of a community that encompasses East Machias and Machiasport (all Machias until 1826).
In the 1800s, the Machias area was a thriving center for lumbering, shipbuilding and trade. The community celebrated its 250th anniversary last year, and its well-preserved past has long drawn visitors to historic sites that tell the gripping story of the Revolutionary War’s first naval battle, waged in Machias Bay off what is now Machiasport. The upstart patriots won!
But during the past few decades, along with the rest of coastal Washington County, Machias has experienced a gradual expansion of low-key ecotourism that’s been helped along by conservation efforts in Maine’s poorest county. More people are venturing here, yet paddlers and hikers often have even the most popular routes to themselves. The highlight of a getaway may be watching eagles soar over marshland or heath, or the quiet of villages that can seem little changed from centuries ago.
“Most of our guests who are coming up from (southern) Maine and Massachusetts have been to Bar Harbor and want to get a little bit away from the more touristy types of attractions,” said Julie Barker who, with her husband, David, also a Machias native, owns and operates The Inn at Schoppee Farm, a large hipped roof Federal home by the U.S. 1 (Main Street) causeway overlooking the Machias River, and Helen’s Restaurant across the water (the Downeast institution burned down in early July, but owners plan to rebuild, hopefully by spring). “They’re coming up this way to see more of what the ‘old Maine’ is like. The coast is unspoiled.”
With cove-chiseled bays and a landscape meshed with streams, rivers, and large and small freshwater lakes, the Machias area has emerged as one of Maine’s premier paddling destinations, and the top one in this region. Nowhere else in the state can you find so much fresh water so close to the coast, which along here has “some of the best sea kayaking in Maine,” said Rob Scribner, owner of Sunrise Canoe and Kayak in Machias.
The state’s 85-mile recreational Down East Sunrise Trail, which opened several years ago, travels through the Machias area. ATV riders, bikers, walkers, runners, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and even horseback riders share the compacted gravel rail-trail. A section runs along the edge of in-town Machias, linking Downeast Coastal Conservancy’s new “Two Rivers” preserves on the Middle and Machias rivers. Both have waterfront hiking trails.
State lands near Machias also offer recreation on the diverse and abundant local waters: Roque Bluffs State Park south of Machias; Rocky Lake Public Reserved Land above East Machias, on former paper company property and most recently expanded in 2004; and the 76-mile Machias River Corridor, which includes boat launches and primitive campgrounds and was created through a conservation effort started in the 1990s. Greater Machias is also home to numerous town beaches, boat launches and parks.
Located midway along Washington County’s coastal swath, Machias is a great base for exploring farther afield in what’s being marketed as the “Bold Coast,” for the cliffs lining the shore east of Machias between Cutler and Lubec. The state’s new 125-mile Bold Coast Scenic Byway passes through Machias and East Machias on U.S. 1. Though Machiasport isn’t on the byway, make time to explore this serene peninsular town. Scenic views of the Machias River estuary and Machias Bay await along Route 92, which heads off U.S. 1 just across from downtown Machias.
Though downtown has a few rundown buildings, you’ll also find several spruced up storefronts selling wine, antiques, pottery, art and gifts. More is happening in the old commercial district. New for summer: Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce walking tours (to run into the fall) and free outdoor movies on Saturday nights at the old train station. Green flags signal stops on First Friday Art Walks (July 11 because of July 4).
Since the 1970s, the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival (Aug. 15-17 this year) has drawn crowds downtown to celebrate Down East’s wild blueberry industry. The 10th annual history-themed Margaretta Days, named for the armed British schooner captured in the famous sea battle, was held in June at the University of Maine at Machias. The Harvest Fair and Wine Tasting Festival on the last weekend of September was launched a few years ago. For more than 100 years, people have come to Machias to check out the 1770 Burnham Tavern Museum, where the assault on the Margaretta was planned. Visitors to the mustard-colored, gambrel-roofed building learn about the “Lexington of the Sea” as well as life Down East in our country’s infancy.
Also on the south side of downtown, the Machias River roils over ledges and boulders at low but loud Bad Little Falls. This is also the name of the small park with a walking bridge over the falls and a viewing platform in the midst of the stair-stepped drops. The moniker is a translation of “Machias,” a Passamaquoddy Indian word presumed to refer to the dangerous rapids, though the true meaning is akin to “little falls in the evil place,” notes Marcus LiBrizzi, an English professor at the university, in his book “Dark Woods, Chill Waters: Ghost Tales from Down East Maine.”
The Middle and Machias rivers converge just north of downtown, where the rail-trail crosses the causeway en route to one of its flattest and prettiest stretches, the four-mile leg from here to East Machias. This is a good choice for families with kids, as is paddling on the wide, calm waters of the Middle River above the causeway.
Inland from Machias and East Machias the landscape is streaked with freshwater lakes—Gardner, Hadley, Rocky and Bog are some of the most popular—that lure fisherman and paddlers. Waterways wend from lake to sea.
“Within 20 minutes of downtown I can be sea kayaking or paddling on a pristine lake,” said Scribner. “We have two great rivers (Machias and East Machias). Machias is sort of a wild river (no dams). That’s a treasure in itself—to have a wild river and a compete watershed in your backyard.”
East Machias’ town center rises on hills flanking both sides of a narrow, boulder-strewn stretch of the East Machias River. A bridge leads from the rail-trail to narrow Mill Park along the opposite bank. A sign lists successive mills that stood here, and old mill parts are displayed, sculpture-like. The village’s two bridges create a nice walking loop. As in neighboring Machias and Machiasport, wonderful federal and Victorian-era architecture is all about. Not to be missed: Washington Academy’s 1823 main building and the soaring 1836 First Congregational Church.
Above Machiasport, the East Machias River flows into the Machias River, which widens on its way to Machias Bay five miles downriver from the county seat. Islands are scattered beyond the bay’s many points and headlands, yet open water is always near. On Scribner’s sea kayak tours, paddlers are enthralled by the Native American petroglyphs—the bay has the largest concentration on the East Coast (specific locations aren’t mapped). They also love to soak up to details of the Margaretta battle while traversing the waters off Round Island where the ship was captured. What Scribner describes as “drastically changing shoreline” extends to smaller Little Kennebec and Englishman bays to the west.
On Englishman Bay’s Schoppee Point, the beach at 274-acre Roque Bluffs State Park is lined with rugosa “beach” roses. The half-mile long arcing strip of sand and pebbles is smooth for these parts. Visitors may momentarily feel they really are in a tropical locale, until that brisk Down East breeze picks up. Since 2000, the park—nine miles from downtown Machias in the town of Roque Bluffs—has established a large trail network and begun renting kayaks on the freshwater pond that invites swimmers to warmer water just across the road from the beach.
Another “hidden gem” is Jasper Beach, similar in size to Roque Bluffs’ and about the same distance from downtown. A town park on Howard Cove near the end of Machiasport, this “pocket beach” is named for the smooth jasper-like reddish rhyolite volcanic rocks that abound here along with quartz and granite. Visitors climb a dune of stones to reach the water. Watch for slippery rocks if venturing near the sea caves at the far end. The salt marsh and lagoons that way are safer to poke about.
In Machiasport town center, homes sit along a twisty section of Route 92 and a few lanes. Perched by the bay in an early 1800s federal home and an 1850 commercial structure next door, the Machiasport Historical Society Museum is a window into home life and commerce during the area’s heyday. Also attesting to Machiasport’s past prominence is Italianate 1873 Liberty Hall and its massive belvedere. Formerly the town hall and community center, it’s undergoing restoration but may open this summer for private tours and special events. Ft. O’Brien State Historic Site, overlooking the battle site, is on the other side of the hamlet. Views stretch for several miles across the bay.
The fishing village of Bucks Harbor is below the town center. Tiny Starboard is at the end of the peninsula. From the rock beach where Route 92 ends you can see Foster Island’s castle-like rental summer home and, further out to sea, Libby Island Light, also visible from the state park. Of course, that’s assuming fog—more common here than on southerly reaches of Maine’s coast—hasn’t settled in. Not to worry if it does: that’s part of Down East’s mystique.
These bits were gleaned exploring and writing about coastal Washington County since 2000. My husband and son, Michael and Dima Hodsdon, have added their two cents. We sojourn these parts from property in Steuben where my mother-in-law grew up. Her mother hailed from East Machias.
Look Left Downtown! As U.S. 1 curves into downtown Machias from the south and crosses the falls on the Machias River, it’s easy to miss Water Street on the left and, just beyond, Colonial Way (Route 192), a very sharp left. Along the “Way” are Burnham Tavern Museum; Downeast Coastal Conservancy, with a window display on its preserves; and Whole Life Natural Market, where we like to enjoy a snack and coffee in the hip café or take it to go. A stairway between the conservancy and food store leads down to a few shops on Water Street. On Main Street next to Woodwind Gallery, Machias Hardware’s sidewalk sign invites passersby to stop into what is in part an old-fashioned mercantile store, selling such goods as crockery, bagged candy, and craft items to keep vacationers busy on rainy days.
Saving Salmon: Maine has the country’s only remaining wild Atlantic salmon populations, most on rivers Down East. To learn about protecting and restoring these fisheries, stop into Downeast Salmon Federation’s East Machias Aquatic Research Center next to the Down East Sunrise Trail. A placard at Bad Little Falls Park in Machias also has information.
Spooky Fun: From the park, take the riverside walking trail a short distance to a narrow footpath on the right, then head uphill to tucked-away O‘Brien Cemetery. Fittingly, the grave of Jeremiah O’Brien, leader of the town’s famous Revolutionary War naval battle, greets visitors. A few tombstones down, a quote from a lawyer bemoans the loss of his wife: “Tears do not restore her, therefore do I weep.” For more wisdom, keep climbing the hillside graveyard, one of Down East’s best.
Food and Lodging: University of Maine at Machias’ presence helps support the local lodging industry. Machias itself has a small inn and several motels, and there is a nice mix of B&Bs in the surrounding area, a couple of which offer fine dining. Vacation rentals are found on saltwater, riverfront and lakefront. In-town Machias has a handful of family-friendly restaurants and fast-food places.
Food fun: Yes, Machias Wild Blueberry Festival in mid-August has a pie-eating contest.
Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, www.machiaschamber.org, 255-4402, 11 Main St. (U.S. 1), Machias
Town of Machiasport, www.machiasport.org
Downeast Coastal Conservancy, www.downeastcoastalconservancy.org, 255-2400, 6 Colonial Way (Route 192), Machias