The Goslings possess that magical, so-close-but-so-far-away quality that make Casco Bay such a coveted place to live near and visit.
The islands’ sandy beaches in Harpswell offer panoramic views of Chebeague, Cliff and Whaleboat islands from the south, and views of Middle Bay to the north. They have enough quiet to hear the bark of the seals and enough solitude to make you feel like you’re at the edge of the world, even though you’re just a few miles – an easy paddle and a one hour’s sail – from Portland, Brunswick and Harpswell.
On Wednesday, the treasured islands got one step closer to becoming a permanent preserve, open and free to the public forever.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust won a $262,500 state grant that buoys its fundraising efforts to buy the islands, a trust spokesman said. That will be combined with $140,000 raised through private donations, as the trust seeks to raise $925,000 by the end of August in order to exercise its option to buy the Goslings.
Although the owners of the uninhabited islands, the LeMaistre family, have allowed paddlers and boaters to anchor and come ashore there for years, the purchase would ensure that “No Trespassing” signs will never be posted.
“This grant gives a critical boost to our efforts to keep the Goslings open to the public forever,” said Richard Knox, director of communications and public policy for the trust, which is based in Topsham.
Also Wednesday, the trust received a $75,000 grant to assist its efforts to buy 17 acres of Clapboard Island in Falmouth. The grant brings the trust to within $125,000 of the $1.6 million it needs to purchase the property. In order to complete that purchase, it must also sell a five-bedroom house on the island, now on the market for $749,000. The purchase would allow public access to the island for the first time in a century.
The grants are helping the heritage trust with its initiatives to purchase several other islands in Casco Bay.
As part of the Goslings purchase, the islands’ owner also has agreed to donate Irony Island, a one-acre spit of land north of the Goslings.
In December, a property owner of Lower Goose Island, just a few hundred feet north of West Gosling, donated a 44-acre conservation area on the southern part of the island to the trust. That same month, Lanes Island, a 28-acre island off Yarmouth, was gifted to the trust by the owners, Lisa and Leon Gorman. Leon Gorman is the grandson of Leon L. Bean, the founder of the retailing giant.
Along with 122-acre Whaleboat Island, the largest undeveloped island in Casco Bay and acquired by the trust in 2002, those purchases would create a hub of islands close to the mainland that are permanently protected and accessible for public recreation. They will help enhance the livability of the region, Knox said.
“They allow you to live in these communities and still feel like you’re in a wilderness setting,” he said. “It’s a unique thing that Maine has to offer that you can’t find in many places in the U.S.”
Though the Goslings are small – totaling just 14 acres – the acquisition is important because they’re already so heavily used, Knox said.
The islands are popular for excursions by newer paddlers because they don’t have to cross open water to get there, and because there are so many areas to get easily ashore in all tides without much skill or effort, said Brian Marcaurelle, program director for the Maine Island Trails Association.
“It’s a great island to bring your family to,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to expose the next, younger generation to these great places and help them see why it’s so important to protect them.”
The Goslings have become so prized by sailors – because of the abundance of places to anchor and the protection from the wind and currents – that some have dubbed it “Portland Yacht Club East.”
“It’s so close to Portland, but when you get there you feel so remote and like you have really gotten away,” said David Robinson, vice commodore of the club. Robinson said he sails his 42-foot boat “Starbird” to the island at least six times a season.
The grants came from the Land for Maine’s Future program, administered through the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The trust also was awarded $350,000 toward its $970,000 fundraising goal to acquire and care for 220 undeveloped acres along the Weskeag Marsh, an estuary between Thomaston and Rockland, by the end of 2014.
In addition, it received $262,500 for High Island, an 18-acre expanse between Long Cove and Tenants Harbor in Saint George. The trust is aiming to raise $760,000 by August 2015 to purchase the island.
While the effort to purchase and preserve the Goslings isn’t the biggest fundraising project for the heritage trust, it is one of the most time-crunched. The trust just learned of its option to buy the property at the end of 2013.
“This is a big mountain for us to climb, but we’re inspired by the community support,” Knox said.