Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By JOSH CHRISTIE
To the uninitiated, the Damariscotta River region might seem like a bust for hikers. It's a pretty area, for sure, but the rolling coastal hills don't scream "hike here."
Glidden Point’s shell middens on the Damariscotta River can be accessed by a side trail off the Glidden Point and Salt Bay Heritage Trail, a three-mile loop off Route 215 in Newcastle.
Staff file photo
It would be a shame to skip the region based on this first impression, however, as there's plenty of spots for day hikers to explore.
On both sides of the Damariscotta River, there are great spots for outdoor enthusiasts to spend a few hours. On the east bank of the river, the remains of the famous Whaleback Shell Midden greets curious explorers. On the west side, trails at Glidden Point and Dodge Point offer more serious hiking.
Located just north of Damariscotta on Route 1, the Whaleback Shell Midden is one of Maine's oldest man-made attractions. The midden is a massive construction of oyster shells built over a millennium ago.
Shell middens are enormous heaps of oyster shells built by coastal Native Americans. The whaleback midden in Damariscotta (named due to it's distinctive shape) was built by the Abenaki and Algonquin people that lived in the area before European colonists arrived.
While they're interesting to look at, in reality they're little more than very old garbage piles. Ancient peoples deposited oyster shells in heaps along the coast, along with other detritus like pots, tools and bones. The molecular makeup of oyster shells made the surrounding soil much less acidic, so instead of breaking down, these middens remained for centuries. Over the years, they got larger and larger, creating an all-natural time capsule.
Though there are shell middens all along the coast of America -- and, indeed, coastal regions around the world -- the ones in Damariscotta are among the largest.
The trail to the midden is a scenic loop that takes visitors through an apple orchard and along the shore of the Damariscotta River. At only half a mile long, the trail is an easy hike regardless of fitness level. Just beyond the head of the trail is an overlook offering views of the Great Salt Bay.
Down the river from the Whaleback Midden is Glidden Point and the Salt Bay Heritage Trail. With a trailhead on Route 215 in Newcastle, the three-mile loop is only minutes away from the Whaleback site. The gentle trail runs the gamut of coastal environments, taking hikers through marshland, forests, coastline, pastures and even an old sheep tunnel. A side trail provides access to Glidden Point's own ancient shell middens.
A bit further down the Boothbay Peninsula, the Dodge Point Public Reserved Land boasts 521 acres of public land, 8,000 feet of shoreline and beaches, and a trail network with six miles of hiking terrain. The four paths -- the challenging 1.2-mile Ravine Trail, the waterfront 1.5-mile Shore Trail, and the gentle 2-mile Old Farm Road Trail and .8-mile Timber Trail -- give hikers myriad options.
The trailhead for the Dodge Point trails is three miles south of downtown Damariscotta on River Road, and a map of all four trails is available at a kiosk in the parking area.
Much of the credit for the trails around Damariscotta goes to the Damariscotta River Association, a nonprofit group that protects and manages more than 2,900 acres of land and 22 miles of fresh and salt water shoreline in the area. The Glidden, Dodge and Whaleback sites are all managed either wholly or partially by the DRA.
The Damariscotta River Association covers far more trails and lands than the few mentioned here, and more information and maps can be found at the DRA headquarters in Damariscotta. The Salt Bay Farm Heritage Center is located at 110 Belvedere Road, and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. It's an outdoor attraction itself, with a mile of shorefront and swaths of field and marshland.
For the ambitious, it's possible to hike from Dodge Point down to McKay Road in Edgecomb, a five-mile trip each way. The route is part of the River-Link project, a joint effort by a number of land trusts and property owners to create a continuous recreational corridor between the Damariscotta and Sheepscot rivers. The project began in 2006, and will grow to include even more terrain.
Not every hike needs to be a mettle-testing ordeal with slopes and double-digit mileage. Sometimes, it's nice to relax and take in Maine's beautiful scenery and rich history.
The trails in the Damariscotta River region allow hikers to escape the crush of tourists just miles away and disappear into a different time, whether it's farmlands that are hundreds of years old or middens that are thousands.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares this column space with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: