Revisiting Roque and Mistake Islands

The beach that stretches for over a mile on Roque. The white sand there looks like it’s imported from the Bahamas. Photo by Tim Plouff

By Tim Plouff
For Points East
It was to be a glorious summer day in Maine, and the promise of making new discoveries – as always, to us – was as exciting as the forecast. Our boating friends Allison and Andy Moorwood had proposed a trip Downeast to Jonesport, Maine, which we knew to be just over an hour’s drive from our rendezvous point in Ellsworth. As preparations progressed early that morning, however, one tire on the trailer definitely did not look like the others. A tire gauge read 21 psi – half of what was normal. We had a leaker.

Leaving early, we chased four tire stores, before Jason, The Tire Warehouse manager, said he could remedy our issue. And he did. Swoosh, whirr, buzz and the spare was mounted onto the trailer, while a new spare replaced the now dead original tire – the one with a screw poking out of the edge of the bead. Jason saved the day!

We took the lead heading east out of Ellsworth on Rte. 1, our Toyota Tundra pulling our 21-foot SeaRay, while Andy’s Ford Powerstroke yanked on his heavier 23’ Glacier Bay catamaran. Our boating partners Diane and Nat Smith were ready for the day, too, with paper charts, updated chartplotters, and phone apps. These were all the navigational aids we unfortunately lacked when we had last visited Jonesport with the Smiths, exactly 11 years previously.

While our launch timeframe was later than normal – much closer to mid-day – we hoped to work with the late-day tide to make retrieval easier. We needn’t have worried, as the all-tide ramp at Jonesport looked like it could handle our long trailers with no issue. However, the noon launch meant that all of the parking spots were occupied. Fortunately, the gravel lot next to a nearby church afforded us ample parking space and was only a short walk.

After clearing the busy ramp we motored beyond the giant man-made breakwater into Moosabec Reach and headed further east to Roque Island.

Unlike our previous visit, which had been an exercise in dumb-luck and contained several fortuitous guesses on aids to navigation, this time we had electronic navigation systems in spades that allowed carefree travel through the Reach despite countless ledges. Like the Deer Isle Thoroughfare and other granite prop-catchers along the Maine coast, Jonesport has more than its share of humbling outcroppings.

In less than 15 minutes we crossed Chandler Bay and reached the circuitous entrance to Roque Thoroughfare, a narrow channel leading around Little and Great Spruce Islands. The main attraction in the Thoroughfare is the crescent-shaped sand beach that stretches for over a mile on Roque. Though it’s a beach borrowed (long ago, during the glacial age) from the granite islands nearby, the sand there looks like it was shipped up from the Bahamas.

When we arrived at Roque Island, seven or eight boats were already anchored. We set the hook about a 100’ from shore and Andy rafted up alongside as we quickly headed to the beach.

Roque is a private island, with public access only to its pristine beach. That said, because the beach is so large, visitors have plenty of “space” – you never feel like you’re tripping over someone else. Allison and Andy’s Labradoodle was definitely feeling this vibe, and raced up and down the fine sands with abandon.

After dining aboard, two Back Cove Yachts entered the anchoring pool as we were about to leave. Nat noted the insignia flag on the larger boat and hailed the owner: “Is that the Blue Hill Yacht Club flag?”

“Why yes, it is,” was the response as Diane quickly told the nattily attired captain that they also hailed from East Blue Hill. “We just motored up from Southwest Harbor, a beautiful trip,” the captain declared, as we all drooled with envy at his sleek, made-in-Maine motor yacht.

Andy encouraged me to lead us out of Roque’s retreat past Double Shot Island; this despite a couple of mental lapses the previous weekend that allowed us to admire several basking seals much closer than we should have. As we exited the outer harbor and headed southwest past the Black Rock Ledges, I remained vigilant of the depths and unforgiving granite as the chart plotter reported 53-degree water temps – just a bit too cool for spray over the rail. On this pristine day, the sea cooperated.

Eventually, we passed the bold coastline of Head Harbor Island and Steele Harbor Island and ran the narrow Main Channel Way into Eastern Bay. From there it was around to the north of Mistake Island where there’s an exposed bar that provides island access for anyone with a tender. It was a long row to shore, but the reward was immense.

The main attraction there is Moose Peak Light, the most prominent lighthouse in the region and one with a very interesting history. Facing the seas on 27-acre Mistake since 1826, the brick and mortar tower rests five miles south of Jonesport, high on a granite ledge that – despite its height – isn’t high enough to adequately protect the light. Alexander Milliken lobbied for the original light and then worked it for decades, on an island with no fresh water and no soil for a garden. A giant storm destroyed the first wooden bridge that connected the light to the original keeper’s house. In 1888 the whole tower, after constant assault by the sea, was replaced and enlarged.

In 1931, Moose Peak Light earned, according to the United States Lighthouse Service, the distinction as “the foggiest spot in the United States.” With 1,562 fog-bound hours recorded, the new “record” didn’t even equal the 16-year average of 1,607 hours of fog.

In 1972, Moose Peak Light became automated, and the keeper-houses (there were two) were abandoned. This led the U.S. Coast Guard in 1982 to determine that they should be removed . . . by exercising some demolition training. Unfortunately, the training was poorly executed, as the planned implosion became a massive explosion that destroyed the houses and heavily damaged the lighthouse hundreds of feet away.

In 2010, the Coast Guard put the lighthouse portion of the island up for auction (2/3 of Mistake is owned by the Nature Conservancy), but then rejected the town of Jonesport’s high bid. A second auction found the property being transferred to a private citizen. Today, a young couple is trying to raise funds to repair the lighthouse tower and maintain the grounds. With a wooden boardwalk running the whole length of the island – a treat all by itself – there is no shortage of work to perform.

After meeting the young couple at the sandbar, and hearing more of the island’s unique history, we retreated to our boats to head further west. We watched two kayakers set up camp on nearby Water Island – a single bush the island’s sole vegetation – and then exited Mud Hole Channel into the open ocean around lower Great Wass Island. Even on this mostly calm evening the rolling surf was crashing into the giant crevices at Red Head, which made for an amazing visual.

At Crumple Island we headed due north toward Western Bay. At this point navigational aids and lobster buoys indicated that the tide was filling fast; a scenario that would aid the pulling out of our boats.

With Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain looming on a distant western horizon just below the setting sun, we pushed further north around Norton Island and back into Moosabec Reach: We’d just completed a clockwise loop. The residents of Beals Island are getting a new bridge connecting them to Jonesport; it parallels the existing spans, and we cruised under both on a rising tide. We pulled the boats easily with tons of memories and plenty of new digital photos. Trailer-boating the coast of Maine: It never gets old, even when you’re re-visiting prior destinations.


Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard-V-8-power Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak (“place of breaking waves”) since 2005. He writes the weekly “On the Road Review” automotive column for “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.