RICHMOND — The new 35-foot aluminum ferry that shuttles day-trippers, campers, youth groups, bicycles and even maintenance trucks and tractors to Swan Island can take up to 55 visitors in one trip across the Kennebec River.

It would have taken the 54-year-old ferry it replaced this summer four slow trips to do the same job.

Now island staffers and other supporters are working to put that increased capacity, and the more modern ferry’s other abilities, to full use in introducing more people to the wildlife, scenery, serenity, history, recreational and educational opportunities on the wooded state wildlife management area in the Kennebec at the head of Merrymeeting Bay, between Richmond and Dresden.

John Pratte, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who is responsible for overseeing the island and its two summer staffers, said they try to have an event every couple of weeks to draw families, especially those with young children, to experience the outdoors there.

“One of our goals is to make people more aware of the island,” said Pratte, who lives in Richmond, which is also the location of the ferry landing used to reach Swan Island. “We’re seeing, with each passing generation, fewer people engaging in these outdoor activities.”

Pratte said research shows that fewer children are spending time outdoors. It’s his hope that if they learn to appreciate nature, they will grow up to be adults who “are more passionate about our natural resources and seeing that they are well-protected for future generations.”

The island now offers frequent weekend programs, such as wildlife tours and educational speakers. A recent family field day drew about 100 participants, plus 23 instructors and other volunteers, who helped teach archery, fishing, trapping, paddling and other outdoor skills.

“We haven’t done an event like that in the past because we weren’t able to make the logistics work,” Pratte said.

Getting that many people onto the island with the old 15-passenger ferry, then getting them to the opposite side of the island to the campground and educational area, wasn’t logistically workable, Pratte said. Nor was the older, smaller ferry much good for the many school groups that visit in spring and fall.

While most regular visitors still take the ferry from Richmond to the island dock across the river, the ferry upgrade and re-purposed docks placed at the campground this summer allow big groups to be taken directly to the campground.

“The old ferry was much less seaworthy and much slower,” said John A. “Jay” Robbins Jr., a Richmond historian and president of Friends of Swan Island. “The smaller boat and truck limited the number of folks that could be moved. Groups of 40-plus are now easily accommodated. It is now possible to envision a gathering of up to 100 at the campground. Increased visitation generates money to sustain the island infrastructure, including staffing needed to mow and plant, which is crucial to the wildlife management needs.”

Robbins and Pratte also said bringing visitors onto the river and around the tip of the island to the opposite side provides them with more of an adventuresome feeling than just taking the boat from one side of the river to the other.

KAYAK RENTALS

The new, approximately $70,000 ferry replaces both the previous ferry, which will be auctioned off, and the large barge used to haul trucks and heavy equipment to and from the island, both of which were built in 1961.

The new ferry is big enough to haul both people and vehicles and heavy equipment, including a dump truck occasionally used to haul firewood and complete maintenance projects, Pratte said. So there is now no need for the barge, which was purchased by the Woolwich-based Reed and Reed construction company.

Pratte said both the 54-year-old barge and the old ferry needed work, which, together, could have cost nearly as much as the new, dual-use ferry built last winter by Iowa-based Kann Manufacturing, the low bidder.

Another addition to the 1,755-acre, 4-mile-long island is canoe and kayak rentals, with kayaks donated by L.L. Bean and Cabela’s, and canoes purchased with Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund money raised by the sale of instant lottery scratch tickets.

Pat Casson, of Lewiston, and two friends from Colorado and Pennsylvania recently launched rented kayaks to circumnavigate the adjacent Little Swan Island from the campground.

“I always drove by here and thought someday I want to go and see what Swan Island is all about,” Casson said. “Then I went online and saw they have kayaks, and thought, ‘Oh boy, let’s go.'”

A large osprey circled over the group as they paddled away from the campground dock, just downriver from an area where, just a few weeks ago, a harbor seal was spotted feeding on fish.

Striped bass and massive sturgeon also can be seen jumping. There are eagle nests on Swan Island and Little Swan Island.

Pratte said coyotes also are on the island, which has more than 7 miles of hiking trails and a stocked, kids-only fishing pond.

EASY ACCESS

Pratte said there are three major aspects to the island: wildlife management, educational programming and the island’s history. He hopes to increase attendance enough to cover the cost of summer workers.

Previously, having to step down into the old ferry proved an obstacle to people with limited mobility or disabilities. The new ferry is level with the docks.

Pratte said a visitor in a wheelchair came onto the island for a family field day, and Robbins said attendees at an Arnold Expedition Historical Society meeting earlier this summer included one member on crutches and two others, one more than 90 years old, using canes.

Pratte said further plans include stabilizing and improving the Richmond ferry landing and continuing to seek ways to draw more people to the island.

Robbins said the Friends of Swan Island received grant funding and are in the process of placing 12 interpretive signs, explaining each of the buildings and their history, former owners and architectural highlights. They describe how residents there made a living before the state, beginning in the 1940s, began acquiring island property to turn it into a wildlife management area.

“The history may not be the aspect that draws people, but you see evidence of island history everywhere,” Robbins said. “The idea that an island community arose from nature and its resources, flourished for over 100 years, growing to about 15 families and 100 people, then disappeared back to nature, does seem to intrigue those who make it to the island.”