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Little Yarmouth Island: Full of surprises

One of a series of articles exploring the natural and human history of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s protected land. With each of these articles comes a public event. On July 15 there was a guided paddle to Little Yarmouth Island.

By Nancy West

Nancy West photo

Go to Little Yarmouth Island Preserve. You can paddle there easily after putting in at the Bethel Point boat ramp near Cundy’s Harbor. Crossing to Yarmouth Island is quick, and once you duck between Yarmouth Island and Little Yarmouth, you are in a world of your own. It’s the world of color that you’d expect of Casco Bay — blue sky and water; black, grey and white ledge; green pines; white and green male eiders; and blueberries.

Taken by Lindsay Trostle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4879740

It’s also a world of surprises. Three things caught my eye on my first paddle there — three surprises. Heading south between the Yarmouth Islands, something small rippled the water on its way to Little Yarmouth. Who knew that red squirrels swim? This one was on a mission. It made a beeline across the channel, it swam ashore, shook off the water, and scurried through sea grass to higher ground. Why? What was better about Little Yarmouth than Yarmouth? Was this a daily commute to its job of harvesting pinecones? Was this a young one heading out on its grand adventure seeking treasure in the west?

All silliness aside, the squirrel swam at mid tide. It didn’t choose to cross at low tide when the swim would have been shorter. And muddier. Little Yarmouth’s mudflats are one of its characteristics worthy of preserving: they harbor soft-shelled clams and European oysters. When Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) had the opportunity to acquire the Preserve, staff and volunteers successfully sought financial support from a National Coastal Wetlands Conservation grant, in partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. HHLT also successfully sought support from the Davis Conservation Foundation. And the owners sold it to HHLT at a bargain price. The commercially productive intertidal wetlands, feeding habitat for Bald Eagles and Roseate Terns nesting nearby, and feeding grounds for migrating birds were persuasive components of the grant proposals. The Preserve comprises 13.2 acres of uplands, apparently of interest to swimming red squirrels, and 27.6 acres of associated coastal and freshwater wetlands, lush foraging turf for birds, fish, and other Casco Bay creatures. Those natural features and stunning views make the Preserve a treat to visit, by squirrels and people.

The squirrel swam at mid tide. No mudflats to cross, and a distance that was manageable, with a soft scrabbly landing. The distance was about 140 meters. Think about this. My squirrel swam from Yarmouth Island to Little Yarmouth Island. It or an ancestor must also have swum from Sebascodegan Island to Yarmouth Island. That’s about 260 meters. And from the mainland to Sebascodegan Island: 40 meters at the Gurnet, a narrow but dicey crossing for a small rodent.

Or, my squirrel or its ancestor could have scampered across sea ice. Or been a pet carried by a child in boat. Or drifted on a log. (Of course, when you think about it, two squirrels of opposite gender must have made the trip.)

Nancy West photo

The drifting log hypothesis appeals to me because of the happy circumstance of the second surprise, a perfectly perched log at the south end of the island. It’s a long, smooth log balanced on ledge. Kids couldn’t ask for a better teeter-totter. Based on Google Earth images, the log must have drifted ashore in a monster of a storm between 2003 and 2010. Perhaps some of you remember the storm.

Nancy West photo

To the west of the log is this green stone, the last of the surprises. At first, I thought it was Styrofoam, one of the many pieces one sees along shorelines before a good soul collects it for appropriate disposal. However, it’s rock and it’s way out of place. It has nothing in common with the surrounding ledge. While geologists would describe it as out of place, “allochthonous,” Mainers would simply say it’s from away. And they’d be right. Obviously, unlike the teeter-totter, this rock didn’t float in from the high seas on its own. Did it arrive as ballast in a ship? Did it raft in on sea ice? Was it deposited by a glacier? Where is the nearest exposure of this rock in its native land (where it is “autochthonous”)? Knowing that could shed light on its history.

I suspect that other paddles to the Preserve will yield other surprises. I eagerly await another chance to visit—when there’s a gap in hosting our summer visitors—for the trip by kayak is a joy. You can navigate your way around rocks to landing sites with great views of islands and birds. Enjoy!

Notes:
If you’re in luck, you can park at the Bethel Point boat launch without a permit. There’s room for about three cars along the road. You can buy a permit from the Town of Harpswell to access designated spaces for two weeks. Your third option is to pay to park in the boatyard by the landing.

When you visit, please take a bag to collect plastic that has floated ashore. It’s easy for human visitors to haul away, bit by bit.