Sunday, April 20, 2014
By JOHN CHRISTIE
Great Wass Island projects farther out to sea than any other land mass in eastern Maine, which is a principal reason it's a nature lover's dream. Combine that with 1,540 acres of land preserved by the Nature Conservancy, a remote location well off tourists' traditional path and the prototypical working harbors of Jonesport and Beals, and a visit to the Great Wass Island Preserve should certainly be on your summer to-do list.
Growing up in Camden, we held in awe the basketball tradition of the tiny high school on Beals Island that consistently competed for the Eastern Maine Class S championship and included several members of related families.
Local mythology had it that the boys practiced in their clamming boots so that when they took them off they could jump higher than any of us mainlanders.
And the island is also the home of legendary generations of boatbuilders, including one Vinal Beal, the craftsman who built cedar-on-oak Jonesport lobster boats, distinguished by their high prow and a narrow beam that would turn the boat into the wind when the engine was at idle, making pot hauling that much easier. The 1949 vintage boat that we owned for years provoked us to head east a few decades ago for the lobster boat races down Moosabek Reach and under the bridge connecting Jonesport and Beals, where we drank in the local color and discovered Great Wass Island.
A right turn on Route 187 just past Columbia Falls on Route 1 will take you to Jonesport. Then across the bridge to Beals and a causeway to Great Wass. The parking lot for the preserve is well marked on the Great Wass Island Road, and from there you can explore on foot the spectacular property that comprises almost all of the southern part of the town of Beals.
Acquired by the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy in 1978, the preserve retains virtually all of its natural features, many of which have been recognized by the state's Critical Areas Program. The rough granite shoreline on the southern end of the island drops deeply off into the ocean, and the crashing waves often offer a dramatic display of the sea's strength as it batters the exposed shore.
You have two hiking choices from the parking area: the two-mile Little Cape Point Trail and the slightly shorter Mud Hole Trail. The former bears to the right and leads you to the shore at Cape Cove and Little Cape Point.
The cool, humid oceanic climate contribute to moss floored terrain through a mixed forest of spruce and fir, interspersed with ledges and the ubiquitous jack pine found in Maine's Down East forests. These hardy, stunted and twisted inhabitants of thin soil have a bonsai-like appearance and cannot be found south of Maine.
A unique "bog bridge" takes you through a rich swamp where pitcher plants and sundew thrive. Once at the shore, a short walk to the northeast takes you to the prominence at Little Cape Point.
The Mud Hole Trail, to the left leaving the parking area, takes you along a narrow, fjord-like cove, dotted with lobster buoys, and ends at Mud Hole Point, with its panorama of the islands in Eastern Bay.
A couple of longer hikes right along the shore, which can be a little rough in sections, join the Little Cape and Mud Hole Trails in one case and lead out to Red Head in the other.
Just Google Great Wass Island Preserve for an excellent map.
In addition to the scenery -- not that it isn't enough to lead you this far off the beaten path in Washington County -- the island is home to a variety of botanical rarities that cling to the bold headlands. Rarely seen elsewhere in Maine are beach-head iris, marsh felwort and bird's-eye primrose.
The bogs on Great Wass are thousands of years old, the result of sphagnum moss that was left in basins by the retreating glaciers. In these unique bogs can be found the rare baked-apple berry, a relative of the raspberry, and dragon's mouth orchid.
You're virtually guaranteed, as I've always been, to see spiraling osprey and bald eagles and large rafts of common eider ducks just offshore, and lots of other species of shore birds abound.
And what's a hike on the shore of a Maine island without seeing harbor seals hauling themselves out of the water to bask in the sun on the warm rocks and ledges?
A word of caution: Be prepared for fog and slippery going, which can make some of the hike difficult and even dangerous. But with good judgment -- and good weather -- your visit will be one you're unlikely to forget.
John Christie is an author and a year-round explorer of the Maine outdoors. He and his son, Josh, will share this space this summer to highlight places to enjoy the beauty only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: