Serve, conserve and preserve

By Tim Plouff
For Points East

European explorers have been visiting the hundreds of rugged islands off the rockbound coast of Maine for the past four centuries. They came for adventure and commerce and to start anew on a continent inhabited only by Native Americans.

They sailed across the Atlantic for the fishing – and fish were plentiful – and they wanted to farm and savor freedom in a new land. They cut trees from the islands, as well as from the mainland, for great ships, and they chiseled granite as the country grew.

While building themselves homes, barns and communities on the islands, in the 1800s and the early 1900s, immigrants arrived to mine slabs of stone for a burgeoning America. Whole towns sprang up on some of Maine’s islands during the quarrying boom, until the advent of concrete shocked the granite economy into dormancy, and the towns all but disappeared overnight. Yet Maine’s islands are once again alive with visitors. Now they come by pleasure boat – kayaks by the dozens, sailing craft and powerboats – while Maine’s schooner fleet and Downeast fishermen visit the state’s hundreds of islands for both pleasure and work.

Thanks to the work of dozens of conservation organizations such as Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), as well as advocacy groups like the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA, www.mita.org), hundreds of historic and beautiful islands are accessible to the public. Billed as America’s first water trail, MITA, this year, is celebrating its 30th year of fostering “thoughtful use and volunteer stewardship for the Maine islands.”

Through conservation easements, plus outright purchase or donation, everyday visitors can pretend to be a Viking or an English explorer and walk the same ground our ancestors did hundreds of years ago. You can often find evidence of how early settlers labored to survive, while we ironically visit to entertain ourselves.

After visiting so many Maine islands for over 25 years – by paddle and powerboat – and witnessing the roster of accessible islands expand year after year, it occurred to me that I needed to learn more about the workings behind the maintenance of the trails, the amenities, the landmarks, and the general access we so often take advantage of. And I just happened to know the guy to make this happen.

Terry Towne and I first met when he was the code-enforcement officer for the Town of Mount Desert (Somesville). My then employer needed permits to renovate and expand a gas station/store/garage/hardware shop that was an institution in Somesville, Maine, at the time. Not everyone was in favor of our plan, some 21 years ago. Terry provided the appropriate “no’s and go’s” to make the project happen.

Shortly thereafter, Terry got a business offer he couldn’t refuse: join the staff at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with an office already near his existing workplace. They seduced Terry, claiming they could use his skills as a moderator, teacher, carpenter, mentor, forester, botanist, ornithologist, geologist, fundraiser, and guide. Plus his significant involvement in local political goings-on would be a real asset. And, by the way, that 50-ton captain’s license might come in handy, too. The hook was set. He claims that he has “the best job in Maine.”

With this information in hand, I invited myself to spend a day with Terry as he executed his normal tasks servicing Maine’s conserved islands. He was nicer than necessary, even with the burden of chaperoning a greenhorn for the day.

Our mid-July departure should have brought warm, clear skies – a perfect Maine summer day. Mother Nature, however, was still in cool, ugly May weather mode, with a dungeon of fog for good measure. Let’s just say that Bass Harbor has dozens of working lobsterboats, but this day we would only hear them and not see them.

Boarding Clara E, a custom-built 1994 Ellis 28-footer lobster yacht the Trust acquired secondhand for reasonable money, Terry introduced me to Mary Raikes, his seasoned accomplice working through her second year on the steward’s crew for MDI-area islands. Hailing from Otter Creek, on the other side of Mount Desert Island, Mary showed a steady determination and awareness that belied her young years. She also exhibited a love of the ocean and the islands that’s apparently prerequisite for this career.

In a flash, the gear was stowed, the lines separated from the up-harbor dock, and the Yanmar diesel pushed Clara E through the gray harbor, past working boats taking a day off. As Terry fiddled with the Garmin radar screen, questions poured from the visitor before the skipper’s coffee was cool enough to drink.

Three island visits were on the task-list today, as Terry directed wide-ranging conservation efforts that included trail creation and maintenance, eelgrass plantings in coordination with the MDI Biological Lab, bird-nest monitoring, and removal of invasive plants. Clara E chugged along at 12 to 13 knots, the crew backed up the radar/chartplotter’s electronic surveillance with visual confirmations, and we passed several working boats on the approach to the southeast-landing zone for Pond Island. The island was less than 300 feet away, and we could barely see it.

Pond Island, near the northern end of Jericho Bay, is just north of Casco Passage, off the tip of Swans Island. Over 240 acres in size, this cherry-shaped island has a large semi-circle cove at the northern tip, a salt pond, several marshes, and long stretches of sandy beaches. At the south end, near the beach where Clara E had set her hook, moon low tides revealed a sandbar that connected to nearby Opechee Island.

At this distinctive point on the beach, Mary started weed-whacking the grass trail up through the field to the meadow that MCHT is restoring. Pond Island once hosted a family and their farm. Now that Terry has had crews on the island, with tractors, to remove the alders and brush, the stone and granite foundation for the house and a huge barn have become visible. Several acres had been cleared, yet semi-annual maintenance would continue so that future visitors can enjoy the apple trees, the view and the history. “The emphasis is to restore the island to what it once was, and that includes the view enjoyed by the inhabitants,” Terry told me.

From the top of this knoll, the view wasn’t much this day, yet subsequent visits put a real exclamation point on the trust’s perspective: The view south and east was incredible. To walk the shore of Pond Island at low tide is well worth the effort to get ashore. Positioned between Brooklin to the west and Tremont to the east, Pond offered heady contemplation points, with wide-lens views at every rest stop.

With Mary working far harder than we were, we clamored aboard Clara E for a swift hop farther west to Green Island, just south of the Deer Island Thorofare. Word had reached Trust offices that a tree had been uprooted in the trail that circles this former quarrying island, creating a potential hazard for hikers.

Avoiding the steep granite pier and wood ladders installed by one of the tour boats that visit Green’s inviting swimming hole, Terry anchored off the southwest corner of the tiny cove. From below came a huge backpack with the Swiss-Army-Knife version of island-maintenance tools sticking out of multitudinous pockets. Primary to this visit was the chainsaw, fuel, spare bar, spare chain, plus the safety gear required to work hard on an island that lacks support should one get clumsy about his conservation efforts.

Terry shouldered the whole pack – easily 50 pounds of assorted hardware – and we went ashore at the small stone beach. After checking the information kiosk and the visitor’s log sheets, Mary and Terry hit the trail to find the offending tree.

Their information was correct: a 24-inch-diameter hemlock had become uprooted in the middle of the soft, mossy trail. The root-ball was truly an obstacle, while the rest of the tree hung treacherously above. Donning chaps, helmet and gloves, the aging hemlock was no match for Terry’s Husqvarna. With tree soon separated from roots, each settled enough to no longer be hazards. Nature would claim one or both in short order. We trundled back to the boat without further mechanical interruption to the solitude.

Due to the remote nature of many of the islands – and their direct line of contact with wild ocean storms – tree-cutting is a primary job for both creating and maintaining trust trails. MCHT has 81 miles of island and preserve trails to monitor, so chainsaw work is never-ending.

The saw is also a primary tool when building the numerous bog bridges over sensitive wetlands. Using locally sourced cedar from Hancock County and Thorndike, Maine, Terry says building bog-bridges requires some of the hardest, yet most rewarding, work for the crews. “Carrying eight-foot cedar bridging with pulp hooks warms you up pretty fast on some of the longer trails,” Towne remarked. “We try to do that when it’s cooler, and before the bugs come out.”

The fog had yet to lift an iota, so Terry and Mary agreed that we should make our last destination Eastern Mark Island, to check on the blue heron rookery. As soon as Clara E’s diesel silenced, an eerie barking sound rolled over the silent waters just off the island’s tip. It was a loud barking sound like nothing I’d ever heard before. We swiftly loaded into the inflatable and motored ashore, dragging the boat over the seaweed-covered approach.

We silently walked through the brush and undergrowth to the middle of the island, where the birds talked excitedly in tones that made us think of “Jurassic Park.” An eagle was trying to find a snack, but the young herons were large enough to protest being a meal, but not quite mature enough to fly as they jumped from branch to branch, all while loudly protesting. We counted 12 herons in the trees, with some adults flying in the vicinity. Their cries were chilling to the ear.

Content that the rookery was otherwise undisturbed, and that the signs warning visitors to wait until August to visit this island were still visible, we surveyed the shore for debris, looked in wonder at the large erratic rock propped up on the three smaller rocks as if it was a granite stool, and then departed for Bass Harbor.

“From the outset, MCHT has played a highly prominent role in the national land-trust movement,” former executive director Ben Emory stated a few years ago. With 322 islands protected, 129 preserves along the Maine coast, and over 150,000-acres of island and mainland conserved land, stewards like Terry Towne and Mary Raikes have no shortage of work. “Tomorrow, we have more cedar planks to move to Black Island to finish the new trail through the quarry to the southern end of the island,” Terry said. “Thursday, we’ll meet with the other two crews on MDI to help replant some more eelgrass to help restore the hundreds of acres of lost eelgrass in Frenchman Bay. And we have to finish the tent platforms on Little Black Island.”

From tiny Fort Island to 985-acre Marshall Island – one of the largest undeveloped islands on the whole East Coast – MCHT has worked for almost 50 years to protect and provide access to cherished parts of the Maine Coast. “This place belongs to all of us,” said Terry Towne. “Help us take care of it.”

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 Shell gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.

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