March 15, 2010

A WILD IDEA

DEIRDRE FLEMING

— By

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: The Damariscotta RIver Association Director of Lands Protection and Stewardship Steven Hufnagel discusses the preservation of the Great Salt Bay at the bay off Route 1 in Damariscotta on August 18, 2008

Tim Greenway

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: In the foreground the restored freshwater marsh with the Great Salt Bay behind the marsh in Damariscotta on August 18, 2008.

Tim Greenway

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

EDGECOMB — The trail lies only miles from Route 1, yet is deep enough in the woods to offer a buffer from the busy summer sounds.

And because of the care taken to keep this tract of forestland ''wild,'' it is reminiscent of some of the more remote parts of Maine.

''It's like the western Maine mountains, isn't it?'' said a beaming Steven Hufnagel of the Damariscotta River Association as he moved along the trail.

Indeed, the footpath begins like a dress rehearsal for the Appalachian Trail.

What Hufnagel was searching for with distracted intensity was an unexpected piece of the past within the 95-acre Sherman Lake Preserve.

Hufnagel hurried along the logging road and suddenly dove into a young forest. He pushed aside branches until he had found a large old oak left from farm days long ago.

With the help of this personal landmark, he backtracked through the woods until he found what he sought: a huge pile of plywood and shingles laying on, of all things, an old piano.

The old farmhouse ruins offered a flash into the past and an exciting sojourn off the trail. Odd and spectacular as the historic spectacle was, it was emblematic of the 20-mile heritage area around Great Salt Bay that the association has helped protect.

Like so much of the protected 2,900 acres, the Sherman Lake parcel remains remarkably untouched with signs of wildlife everywhere, and is a visual reminder of another time.

The entire Great Salt Bay area is a nationally significant, historic natural spot that holds prehistoric shell middens -- ghostly white piles of shells created by shellfish harvests centuries ago. Some of the midden piles are more than 2,000 years old.

The area is rich with natural wonders: eagles nesting near an historic downtown street; an unusual salt marsh lush with a spongy multicolored bog; mud flats that are home to horseshoe crabs.

What's more, the association is on the brink of offering something entirely unique in Maine -- a trail that would lead from downtown Damariscotta two miles to the Great Salt Bay Farm, throwing open the doorway from urban sprawl to green space.

''That's the vision. And we're not that far way,'' Hufnagel said.

The trail into town is only about five years from becoming a reality, said the association's executive director, Mark DesMeules.

''I would say we might be, for a highly developed coastal community, the single best example of a community that has the opportunity to integrate the preserve land to the downtown community. This is incredible -- we can connect and interconnect the downtown with open space,'' DesMeules said. ''We've been offering more recreational opportunities in the past few years. And that's about to increase.''

With the publication of its newest map this summer, the association is trying to spread the word about the public access offered to this unusual, wild outdoors area.

The association's headquarters is housed in one of the area's original saltwater farms that dates back to the 1700s. On Great Salt Bay Farm, the Great Salt Bay lies over meadows, freshwater mounds and marshes.

But what lies beyond is equally remarkable.

Over several parcels along Route 1 is the Marsh River Bog Preserve, with its whimsical stalks of cotton grass carpeting prime duck nesting grounds that are accessible by a new boardwalk.

Just beyond this small parcel off Route 1 sits Great Salt Bay Preserve, a 500-acre parcel that has a three-mile hike, much of which runs over bog bridges.

And a few more miles south on Route 1 (and only a mile down River Road along the Damariscotta River) is Baker Forest, just before the wild and little-known Sherman Lake Preserve.

''It's kind of a hidden gem,'' Hufnagel said of the preserve that houses the fallen farmhouse.

All of these preserves also are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including osprey, seals, horseshoe crabs, eagles, common terns and alewife.

The balance between protecting wildlife and welcoming the public is more than doable, DesMeules said.

''When people say can you have both, my response is, we have both. If you alienate people from the very beautiful areas that need to be protected because of wildlife, you lose the support that you need,'' he said.

In fact, the overwhelming community support for the preserves and trails that have been protected and developed is key to the association's success, DesMeules said. The association's membership has grown from 500 to 1,500 in the past six years.

''Why is that? I'll tell you: Because the people went out, they could find these places, they knew where they were, they had brochures to understand what they were looking at, and then they said, 'What they're doing is worthwhile,' '' DesMeules said.

And the association has only just begun.

''The vision beyond Great Salt Bay Farm is to create a footpath and bike path that encircles the entire Great Salt Bay and then returns to town on the other side,'' DesMeules said. ''That is a vision that is very achievable. I would say it's a five-year vision.''

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: A cranberry rests in a ??? leaf in the Marsh River Bog Preserve in Damariscotta on August 18, 2008

Tim Greenway

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: A ???? flower in the Marsh River Bog Preserve in Damariscotta on August 18, 2008

Tim Greenway

 


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