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Middle Bay Islands: History, Beauty and a Lesson in Working Together

This is one in a series of articles about the author’s research into Harpswell Heritage Land Trust preserves and trails this year.

Photos by Nancy West

What is this treasure? There’s a pie riding on it. For the most intriguing idea, I’ll bake you a pie. You should know that a cherry pie that I baked for another land trust fetched $360 at auction (with a bushel of corn thrown in at the $250 mark). Email me your ideas.

The 10 cm Mystery Object was found at the Helen and Walter Norton Preserve on Birch Island during a beach clean-up. None of the crew collecting styrofoam and plastic that had washed ashore had a clue about its origins. Even David Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, was stymied.

The Norton Preserve is one of several Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) preserves on islands in Middle Bay. The others are the south end of White Island and all of Crow Island. You can reach them from boat landings at Mere Point, Simpson’s Point, and Lookout Point.

All these Preserves offer quiet and beauty to boaters, picnickers, artists, clammers, paddleboarders, ospreys, gulls, and fish. They also offer history. At the Norton Preserve, shell middens indicate Native American use. Later, the Durgin family resided, had a boatyard, and farmed the land. Their farmhouse became the main lodge of Camp Narragansett, operating from 1919 into the 1930s. Does the history of boatbuilding, farming, or camping cast a light on the mystery object?

White Island also has clamshell middens, though few humans lived there until the 1960’s. By owning the uplands, HHLT also protects the intertidal zone of clam flats, eelgrass beds, fish nurseries, and shallow, near-shore fishy areas. With the Preserve’s 16 acres of high and dry island, therefore, come 47 acres of protected mudflats and eel grass beds: that is, foraging territory for birds and marine life, with typically stunning Harpswellian views to the south through Middle Bay.

Crow Island’s history includes heroic Joshua Chamberlain, sustainer of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College, and owner of Charlemagne, his warhorse who is reputed to be buried on Crow Island. In 2002, the Preserve was a gift from the Holmes family who had acquired it from Chamberlain’s heirs. As the owner, David Holmes, wrote in a letter published in the Harpswell Anchor,

“Crow Island reposed for centuries in the town of Brunswick. A few years ago, a lobsterman left Allen’s wharf on Lookout Point in the dead of night, came down to Crow Island, threw a line around a big pine and started towing the island toward Harpswell. Unfortunately, the island ran aground north of White’s Island and west of Scrag where it rests today…Perhaps in the future, on a big bull tide, a southwest wind will blow the island back to Brunswick. Meanwhile, I now pay taxes on the island to Harpswell, which has the responsibility for providing schooling for my blue heron chicks, maintenance [of] Crow Island’s highways and fire protection.”

These three Preserves are worth visiting in their own right. For me, though, they also exemplify remarkable cooperation among conservation groups in Casco Bay. Just as bird watchers often keep life lists of birds they’ve seen, my husband and I keep a list of islands we’ve been to. Islands require boats, and the best are those that someone else owns and operates. (Remember that saying, “the two happiest days of your life are the day you buy a boat and the day you sell it”?) So we volunteered to pick up trash with the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) and were able to bag three islands in one day—Birch, Little Birch, and White.

Our task was to clean up marine debris. Our rewards were camaraderie, a sense of purpose, clean beaches, and lunch at the Norton Preserve. This was one example of HHLT and MITA working together. Another is that Crow Island and the Norton Preserve are camping spots on the Maine Island Trail. In addition to HHLT and MITA, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy protect islands in Middle Bay, creating a network of conservation and recreation opportunities.

The network of conservation and/or public access in Middle Bay extends to Little Birch Island (MIT); Upper Goose Island (conserved by The Nature Conservancy); the Goslings (preserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, MIT); Little French Island (preserved by the Freeport Conservation Trust, MIT); and Whaleboat Island (preserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust).

The conservation network extends beyond land into the waters of Middle Bay—and broader Casco Bay. For example, the Friends of Casco Bay protects the water. After 25 years of volunteers measuring water quality around Casco Bay, the organization currently monitors water quality every three weeks at Mere Point. You can help this effort by photographing water with a smart phone. You would do this on days when high tide is around noon and comparing the color you see to a color scale on a free phone app. Your Color By Numbers [https://www.cascobay.org/color/] participation would extend our knowledge of water quality in a long-lived scientific study of our marine environment.

Whether you have a dinghy, a stand up paddleboard, a kayak, or a cabin cruiser, you can find peace and quiet on HHLT’s three Middle Bay island Preserves. You can take a pie with you, but you’ll have to submit the most interesting entry by Halloween. I’ll post results in the article I write for HHLT’s November email newsletter. This could be your 15 minutes of fame. Contact me at NancyWWest@gmail.com.