Betta Stothart, a spokesperson for the Butler Conservation Fund in Maine, hikes out to Red Point at Cobscook Shores in Lubec. Making the crossing at the new preserve at low tide is important, since the 23-foot Downeast tides can come fast.  Deirdre Fleming photo

LUBEC — As Lynn Luginbuhl and Morris Earle Jr. walked across the stepping stones to Red Point island at low tide, the Vermont couple appreciated the raised man-made path that kept them out of the mud flats in Cobscook Bay. They also appreciated the wealth of coastline contained in the vast new parkland called Cobscook Shores that they just discovered.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Luginbuhl, who summers each year with her husband in Gouldsboro. “Everything is so nicely built. It’s remarkable. It’s so gratifying to see this conservation land provide this access.”

Signs went up three weeks ago welcoming the public to the 14 Cobscook Shores preserves in and around Lubec that were purchased four years ago by the Butler Conservation Fund – the philanthropic non-profit founded by Northeast Harbor summer resident Gilbert Butler.

It’s an area already rich in conservation land. But while many Maine land trusts and state agencies have protected land in the region and build trails for public use – what makes Cobscook Shores unique is the parkland’s National-Park-quality kiosks, trail crossings, benches and gazebos – not to mention the collective 13 miles of coastline across the entire trail system.

“That was a main criteria – how much shorefront could we protect,” said Carl Carlson, the Conservation Fund’s chief operating officer. “Mr. Butler really believes it is unique in what it has to offer in its natural beauty. He just loves Maine. It means a lot to him.”

Another aspect that sets Cobscook Shores apart from many public preserves – even from some National Parks – is that the very best scenery must be reached by hiking or biking within the preserves, or paddling up to the wild, rocky outlooks. At Cobscook Shores, visitors need to get out of their cars, away from the parking lot and out on the land or water to see the quintessential Downeast coastline, as well as eagles, osprey and cormorants.

This picnic spot at the new Red Point preserve takes some work to get to – but the view is the reward. Deirdre Fleming photo

“It takes some physical activity,” Carlson said. “Mr. Butler doesn’t want to promote automobile tourism. He lives on Mt. Desert Island and spends a lot of his time there, and he sees how the shores have been ruined by roadways, so his desire was to get people out and physically moving on the land.”

The preserves are connected by water routes in Cobscook Bay that allow paddlers to travel by kayak or stand-up paddleboard to all 14 destinations. Some water trails are suitable only for experienced paddlers and require caution where the hazardous tidal water – from the 23-foot Downeast tides – is strong or fast. The more dangerous water routes are marked on maps with swirling arrows. Less-experienced paddlers still can travel between some of the preserves by water, but following more protected routes with safer water crossings marked on maps with black dotted lines is advised.

While signs for Cobscook Shores went up in early August, work is still being done on the trails and buildings and the grand opening is not scheduled until Memorial Day next year. Trails need to be marked with trail markers or blazes; and three of the 14 properties still need to be developed with parking lots, signs, trails, screened pavilions and bathrooms. Yet, at the properties that are nearly completed, parking lots are filling up.

“There is no question more people will come here,” said Lubec native and summer resident David Stockford as he studied the maps at the Red Point kiosk. “This is well designed, well executed, and high quality. The preserves are all unique.”

Every one of the 14 preserves in the Cobscook Shores network has at least one screened-in gazebo offering a coastal view. Deirdre Fleming photo

The new Downeast parkland offers 8 miles of biking and walking trails as well as several hand-carry boat launches. All 14 Cobscook Shores properties contain similar elements, such as the kiosks, the National Park-style trail signage, the whimsical blue Cobscook Shores signs, numerous hidden picnic tables and benches, and at least one screened-in pavilion or gazebo.

“In a typical year here, those pavilions are worth their weight in gold with the bugs here,” said Floridian Fred Walton, who summers in Lubec and discovered Cobscook Shores in early August.

One of the preserves – at Huckins Beach – also offers camping with five tent sites, which can be used for free on a first-come-first-served basis.

The main trail at the central Red Point preserve off Route 189 has a stone-dust carriage-style path down to more rugged woods trails. Some meander along grass out to overlooks, while the trails on Red Point island, which is only accessible at low tide, offer rougher and steeper trails – every one leading to a panoramic view of the bay. Everywhere, eagles and osprey can be heard.

At this keystone preserve, it’s common to run across small groups exploring – but it takes only minutes to find a trail to solitude – and a coastal outlook, most with jagged cliffs or a rocky outcrop.

All of it is the brainchild of Butler, an avid kayaker who made his fortune as a financial investor and then founded the Conservation Fund 32 years ago to create outdoor trail networks in pristine, uncrowded outdoor destinations that are dear to him. The Conservation Fund has built trail networks in the New York Adirondacks and in South Carolina – but only Maine boasts two – with a second outside Millinocket. As a summer resident of Northeast Harbor for 70 years, Butler, 83, has a deep connection to Maine.

Gilbert Butler, shown here paddling in Alaska, is the force behind two unique trail systems in Maine. Photo courtesy of the Butler Conservation Fund

The Conservation Fund to date has spent $12 million on Cobscook Shores and $26 million the Penobscot River Trails near Millinocket, Carlson said. The cost of maintaining the trails, shelters and buildings will be paid for through the Conservation Fund’s endowment. Carlson declined to say how much that was worth, but according to the Conservation Fund website, as of 2015, its financial assets were around $134 million.

All of the Butler properties also serve a strong outdoor education component – with local schoolchildren bused in to learn to kayak, bike and Nordic ski. The Penobscot River Trails have serves 3,500 children to date. Cobscook Shores in the past two years served 350 schoolchildren annually.

While Butler is the architect behind the land purchases, trail centers and outdoor youth classes, there is no information panel explaining who he is. Many visiting the trails in early August had no idea how this parkland scattered throughout Lubec and Whiting came to be.

“He very much enjoys doing this work. He does not like attention,” Carlson said. “It happens all the time that he runs into people on these properties. He was (in Lubec three weeks ago) and spoke with several people. I guarantee they had no idea who he was.”

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