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Stover’s Point Preserve: A picnic spot and much more

One of a series of articles exploring the natural and human history of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s protected land.

West family picnic at Point No Point, 1960. The author wears stripes. (Photo by Janet West)

Stover’s Point Preserve makes me long for a picnic on the beach (even in February, when we first visited). Picnic weather is a matter of time and patience. Many of us recall family picnics in special places. For me, picnics celebrated summer visits by grandmothers from across the continent. Our place was Point No Point, on Puget Sound. Yours may well be Stover’s Point. Are you wistful?

When I think about the 18th and 19th century Stover’s Point, I wonder what visitors ate on the rare days they could relax at the beach. Ham? Probably not. Wouldn’t last season’s ham be gone by August? Seafood? It was certainly available, but would it be a treat? Rather than speculating, I did some research at the Cundy’s Harbor Library. I found a gem: Harpswell’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, lovingly recalling his family picnics on nearby Pond Island. Early 20th century, but it suffices because of his lyrical description:

“There are many kinds of picnics. But my kind is the only kind that satisfies so well that it does for a whole year.”

“To begin with, you must have the Maine coast. But more than that—a particular part of the Maine coast, Casco Bay with its islands…. And you must have my kind of family—one in which there are enough babies sprinkled among the grownups to keep a panoramic camera busy…. They must be babies who take life as a sunrise or a circus, or both together, even when they still go on all fours.”

“Throw into the picnic all the sandwiches, ginger-ale, coffee, salads, fruit, cakes, and doughnuts you please, for nothing can spoil the mess….“

But then, Coffin describes the main event:

“Now begins the ritual of our chowder. First you cut salt pork into ribbons and throw it in. When it begins to seethe, throw in halved onions and fry them till they squirm like hissing adders. Dowse in a jugful of water on the blue fumes. Cut up the codfish and throw them in, heads and fins and all. Sprinkle in salt by the fistful and pepper by the pound. Slice potatoes, and in with them. Keep the mess stirred up. Give everybody a stick. Let everybody stir. Too many cooks are the making of this broth. The more cinders and bark and pebbles you get into the kettle, the tastier the pottage. You stir in everything you can find, the spray from the sea, the iodine of kelp, the smell of bayberry bushes scorching in the sun. Even the wind and the blue day get into the chowder sooner or later. It is a wedding of sun and sea.”

After the chowder comes lobster broiling on coals. And then roasted clams.

A panorama at Stover’s Point, with rocky ledge visible on shore (Photo by Nancy West)

I wonder if many generations of the Stovers in Harpswell have cut loose and baked clams and oysters and lobsters on their namesake point. If you look on a map, chart, or satellite image or ramble through your memories of Casco Bay, you’ll see that Stover’s Point is an unusual place. While there are other picnic-worthy beaches, there aren’t many, if any, spits reaching into a sound. Why, and will it always be there?

Above: Ledge at the point that slows waves from the northeast. Google Earth 9/5/15. Below: Nautical chart showing the bay wider north of Stover’s Point. NOAA: Casco Bay, 13290.

Logically, the rocky ledge exposed at low tide is involved. Like the prow of a ship, the ledge buttresses against scouring from waves and currents from the northeast. The spit behind is armored with cobbles. Another factor may be that the channel widens to the north. Probably the ledge and wide channel slow the current on the west side of the channel, calming the water and decreasing its ability to erode sediment. Where it’s calmest, behind the beach, sediment is deposited and protected. Everyday tidal currents swash sediments along the shore and into the salt marsh. Storm surges wash fine-grained sediment around to settle in the quiet water behind the berm. Then marsh grasses bind it in place with their roots, their stems baffling currents and stilling the water. That’s the basic geology to explain why this picnic beach exists. Will it be there in the future?

Above: 1742 map of Harpswell. Maine Memory Network. Middle: Aerial image of Stover’s Point. Google Earth 4/26/1997. Below: Aerial image. Google Earth 5/9/2016.

We know that the sandy, gravelly, cobble beach is long-lived: A 1742 map shows the spit just as it looks today. You can investigate short-term beach stability since 1997 by comparing these Google Earth images.

A study in 2001 by three Bowdoin students analyzed the stability of Stover’s Point from a study of aerial photos and cobble size along ten transects. They found that the outside shape of the beach was unchanged between 1894 and 2001. However, they reported that the shape of the marsh behind the beach changed in the 1960s when sand was mined for fill, as told to them by a local resident. Stover’s Point was deeded to The Nature Conservancy in 1970, which ended its potential as a sand and gravel source. It was later transferred to the Harpswell Garden Club, and then to Harpswell Heritage Land Trust in 2000.

I suspect you’re wondering about the future durability of Stover’s Point. The town of Harpswell has models for changes due to sea level rise. We know that in Portland, sea level rose 7.5 inches in the century after 1912. That’s a rise of one foot every 160 years. Data shows that the rate has been 30 percent faster in the last two decades. Harpswell has published two models of predicted changes. The first shows areas to be flooded with a rise in the Highest Annual Tide. The spit will be mostly under water in a storm. The other predicts changes in shoreline, including changes in the salt marsh. Models predict that while existing salt marsh will disappear from the point, they will develop on the south end.

Above: Model of Stover’s with a rising highest annual tide. Red shows inundation from a one foot rise, orange two feet, yellow three feet, and green six feet. Below: Changes in shoreline from a one foot rise. Blue denotes existing wetlands, yellow shows lost wetlands, pink show problematic infrastructure, and orange marks new wetlands.

The salt marsh traps sediments, making a shallow warm water zone with a reputation for delightful swimming. The beach was recently added to the Healthy Maine Beaches program and water quality will be monitored weekly this summer (2018). The Town of Harpswell, in collaboration with Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, will test the water for bacteria and measure salinity and temperature. Reports about swimming safety will be available here, and the beach will be posted if water is unhealthy for swimming.

People of all ages enjoy Stover’s Point Preserve, especially in the summertime. It is one of few spots in Harpswell where you can enjoy the beach and calm, warmish ocean swimming. But with this use comes an impact to the vital natural habitat. Please do your part to keep Stover’s clean and healthy by picking up your trash, parking on gravel areas only, and respecting the posted rules. Many neighbors and visitors to the preserve do their part by frequently cleaning up trash they find there.

You can help Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) protect this special place by contacting them if you see anything that concerns you. You are welcome to call the office at 207-721-1121, contact Priscilla Seimer via email at steward@hhltmaine.org or use this simple online form: http://hhltmaine.org/help-stovers/. Friends and neighbors of Stover’s Point work with HHLT to retain the point’s charm as a place for family picnics that warm our hearts.

Bohlen, C.; Stelk, M.; Craig, M.; and Gerber, C. 2014. Sea Level Rise and Casco Bay Wetlands: A Look at Potential Impacts, Harpswell edition, revised. http://www.cascobayestuary.org/publication/sea-level-rise-casco-bays-wetlands-look-potential-impacts-harpswell-edition/ Captured 3 April 2018.

Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. 2015. “Climate Trends in the Casco Bay Region.” http://www.cascobayestuary.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/CBEP-Climate-Trends-in-the-Casco-Bay-Region-1.pdf Captured 3 April 2018.

Coffin, Robert P. Tristram. 1944. Mainstays of Maine. “Codfish Chowder and Sun.” New York: The MacMillan Company. pp. 113 – 122.

Fick, S.; Mountcastle, S.; and McCombs, L. 2001. “Harpswell Heritage Land Trust: Geologic Stability of Stover’s Point. Bowdoin Geology Department. 16 pp.