Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Great Wass Island, 6/86

I went with Matt Walter to explore a section of coast peninsulas from Millbridge to Machias. The first campsite was at McLellan Park, a deserted Washington County amenity. It is located within the borders of Millbridge where the Narraguagus joins the ocean.

The absence of any other campers allowed us to pick the best site. Two little trails lead to the shore through a charmed understory carpet of sphagna and ericads shaded by birch and black spruce in wind and sea spume stunted scatterling clumps lining a pink granite slope of descending rounded slabs.

At night, to the south, we were treated to the spinning arc of Petit Manan Island lighthouse answered by the strobing spin of Nash Island lighthouse off to the east. Free from encroachments of urban light glare, the night sky wore an abundant array of stars.

The first day was given to a thirty-mile drive to Machias picking spots to visit on the way back. We passed a plaque marking the site of a Revolutionary War Naval engagement, just offshore, and a lot of trailer homes.

People here are often seduced from the self-reliance of their ancestors by blandishments of commerce offering low budget financing with easy monthly payments. And this is a place with abundant lumber where prior age's inhabitants mastered basic carpentry with ease. The trailers are drab, squat and shoddy. They are hard to repair and have a much shorter useful life than the frame homes that have stood a few centuries of weather extremes.

A few lost souls even abandoned old, beautiful homes to live in new shabby trailers parked on the lawn. Many of the older trailers wear rows of tires on the roofs to secure them from leakage.

We ended up at Beals Island by midday after exploring the Bucks Harbor side of Machias Bay. Beals is an island village consisting of itself and the larger Great Wass Island linked by a short causeway. We checked it out casually and found it to be delightful.

Beals is unique linguistic anomaly due to its long isolation from the adjacent mainland. A bridge linked it to Jonesport in the 1960's. It's a version of Maine English that is difficult for other Mainers to follow, let alone flatlanders from Boston. One of these islanders sold us a few lobsters at the Jonesport co-op while telling us about Great Wass.

It once belonged to a lobster gear seller named 'Okie'. When the tax burden for owning it exceeded his resources, he decided to donate it to the Nature Conservancy with a proviso allowing deer hunting.

Our informant drew some trail lines on our DeLorme guide. What a find! He also indicated the location of a cabin used by Okie's son Gordy and lobstermen in need of a safe storm moorage on the islands east side and told us it was okay to stay in the shack if we were considerate. We brought the lobsters back to camp at McLellan for a campfire supper.

The next dawning day was given to more detailed exploration. We drove the length of Ray's Point where locals of the most modest means still live on waterfront land that would be unaffordable in places closer to the convenience of tourists. Ripley Neck was our next stop. It's an old vacation home hamlet from the late 19th century featuring Victorian homes and a community well with exceptional water.

It's most charming feature is at the and of a dirt road that descends the necks east shoulder through a black spruce forest at the mid point. The road ends at a secluded stretch of cobble beach shore facing Pleasant Bay. A river made spit connects a small dory shaped islet to the shore that aligns a northward tip into the sea bound flow of the Pleasant. It's a perfect small tombolo and is favored by cormorants, gulls, ravens and roving ospreys.

Addison is the gateway hamlet to Cape Split, a two pronged point that carries South Addison on its eastern prong. This consists of a cluster of small old fisher cottages housing a mix of locals and artsy summer folks.

The Wass archipelago lies to the southeast. It includes Great Wass, Roque, Head Harbor and Steels Harbor Islands. Odd little island shacks can be found on all of them in varying states of repair. Shack etiquette throughout the region allows use of the structures if a nail or rope secures the doors. If they are padlocked, leave them alone.

Roque Island is owned by the Gardiner family and has a substantial family compound as well as an amazing beach. Its shape resembles a capitol H with the beach facing the Atlantic along the south midsection. The family allows day use of the beach and is active in state land conservation. It's reputed to be one of the finest pocket beaches in Maine.

We followed the road south from Beals and found the small Nature Conservancy parking lot for Little Cape trail. The trail winds through two and a half miles of the island's bog and ledge interior before arriving at Cape Cove on the uninhabited east side. Boardwalks and puncheons keep hikers dry through the wetter sections which support dense ericad thickets of sheep laurel and labrador tea.

The trail ends at a rare jack pine copse along the shore. Sure enough, the shack lay concealed by a thick spruce screen a few yards from the shore. It has bunk beds and other essentials for living through storms and cold winters.

A long ledge that drops four feet to the strand ledge of rose hued granite marks the trail end. The inland side wears lichens and sphagnum. The shoreward side displays the banding segments that define the Atlantic boreal littoral.

Tide ranges up here run to twenty feet making fairly wide zones for habitat. The beach also blends from sand to gravel to cobble along all bands to make a concentration of littoral niches for nearly every form of tide life common to this biome.

From the black algae spray zone one descends through barnacle worlds, wrack and periwinkle thickets, the dip and hump region of clam flat and tide pool to the immersed homes of blue mussels and kelp.

Matt decided to head back early while I opted to stay and hitch back later. Of course, I had a primeval ball. A seal visited at dawn's high tide when waves press to the ledge at the trails end. It frolicked like a happy sea pooch in search of shellfish. Eiders hovered warily over wave tips at the edge of visibility.

I made a foraged sea stew on my last day, a Saturday. Gordy and his wife came by for the weekend. I hiked out by the road to Addison 'til a clam digger gave me a ride and an invitation to his girlfriend's house in Harrington. She worked for a fish drying business. We sat up sipping whiskey 'til dawn and I made for the long hitch home after a short nap.