Harborside man wills home to nature sanctuary

Posted Feb. 15, 2012, at 1:37 p.m.

Stone foundations lie half exposed in the young woods surrounding John H. Ashmore’s home — a large, green 1970s house trailer sitting on his half-acre parcel of Harborside, Brooksville. Moss covers the remains of homesteads once inhabited by friendly neighbors. Trees have taken root in soil once tilled for farming.

Today, much of Harborside — a piece of mainland jutting out into Penobscot Bay between Islesboro and Deer Isle — is preserved forestland, the Holbrook Island Sanctuary State Park.

Ashmore, a man born and raised in Hancock, lives on the edge of this sanctuary. Technically, it cuts across his front lawn.

And when he passes away, he has decided to donate the land to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to become part of the sanctuary. On Jan. 20, he traveled to Augusta to sign the papers and seal the deal.

“My [late] wife and I talked about this a couple years ago,” Ashmore said. “This is one more piece of land to make the park more accessible to people.”

For years, hikers have walked across his lawn to access the Fresh Pond trail head, marked by a wooden sign just to the left of his tool shop.

At 70 years old, Ashmore plans to continue living at this very spot, surrounded by wilderness and visited occasionally by a park ranger or Park Manager Tammy Bishop. The property will transfer after his passing.

“We’ve seen the state park grow up beside us,” Ashmore said. “There was a lot of learning on everyone’s part.”

The park was formed by Anita Harris, a longtime area resident who began acquiring land in Brooksville for a sanctuary in the 1960s. A nature lover, Harris donated 1,230 acres to the state in 1971 in order to “preserve for the future a piece of the unspoiled Maine that [she] used to know,” according to Friends of Holbrook Island Sanctuary.

Ashmore purchased his abutting piece of land in 1968, when “the price was right.” For him, the half acre represents 44 years of memories, including the joys and struggles of raising a family with his wife Pamela, who passed away nearly two years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. They were married for 41 years.

“Pam and I went down to walk the trails in the winter and fall sometimes. In the spring, we’d go down to the pond to look at the pink pond lilies,” he said, sitting in an armchair under “the gallery,” a wall covered with framed photographs of his family — Pam, his two sons, Robert and Doug, his four teenage grandchildren.

Over the years, Ashmore has kept his eye on the south end of the park, far from park headquarters, which is located on the ocean at the north end of the park.

He sees visitors enter the Fresh Pond Trail at least once a week during the winter and nearly every day in the summer. And if someone drives past his house to the parking area at sunset and doesn’t shortly return, he’s apt to call up the park manager (The park is open 9 a.m.-sunset).

Ashmore also takes it upon himself to tend to the old cemetery just a few hundred yards from his house. The historical location includes the fragile stone graves of men who fought in the Civil War. Ashmore — who served 35 years in the military, including two years in the Vietnam War — makes a point to honor these men.

“I keep the blueberry bushes leveled down so the stones are clear, and I put the flags up there on Memorial Day — like they’re supposed to be,” he said matter-of-factly.

After serving in Vietnam, Ashmore went to work at the copper and zinc mines in Harborside. And when mining dwindled in the area, he worked for the bridge maintenance division of the Department of Transportation. Though he retired in 1997, he keeps busy with various civic organizations and his hobbies, ice fishing, ATV riding and ham radio operation.

Living in the middle of a state park that is off-limits to hunters, he has seen his share of wildlife.

“I came home one day and my wife said to me, ‘Oh, there was a bear in the flower garden. He sat right down in the flowers,’” said Ashmore, smiling. “You can see anything you might expect out here for wildlife — bear, bobcats, osprey, snapping turtles.”

On Valentine’s Day, before going out to dinner with a close friend, Ashmore took a walk down to Fresh Pond, noting the scatter of rabbit tracks and the trail of a lone coyote, its tracks spotted with blood from an injured foot. And as he suspected, the beavers had further flooded the forest by building up their dams.

“That’s unusual,” he said, pointing down at a few gnawed off trees on the edge of the frozen pond. “They usually don’t cut down spruce.”

From the 1.4-mile Fresh Pond Trail starting at Ashmore’s house, hikers can walk around the large pond in a loop that connects to several other trails: Beaver Flowage Trail (1.1 miles), Aaron Trail (1.6 miles) and Iceworks Trail (2 miles).

Ashmore is too busy to spend much time wandering the network, but he notes the changes in the land with interest.

His family has some history with the Maine state parks. Both his parents, Arthur H. Ashmore Jr. and Effie Ashmore, hailed from Hancock County and worked for the Maine park system for almost 20 years. Arthur was a ranger and park manager at Rangeley, Mt. Blue and Cobscook state parks, while Effie was park receptionist at Rangeley and Cobscook.

One of the lesser-known state parks, Holbrook Island Sanctuary is an area of varied ecosystems, including an offshore island and ever-changing pond. The network of trails, about 7.5 miles in length, offers opportunities for hiking, watching wildlife, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The park is also a popular place for swimmers and paddlers.

Ashmore started the process of donating his land during the summer. It wasn’t as simple as signing a sheet of paper. The process took about six months. His sons, each with a family and home of their own, understand why their father is choosing to donate the land rather than pass it down to them.

He isn’t the first person in Harborside to donate his land to the park. In fact, he knows of several people living nearby that have willed their homes to the sanctuary. Their land, too, will be left in the hands of nature when they die.

Many of the houses that once stood on the sanctuary land have been burned down, said Ashmore. He imagines that his home, too, will be demolished.

“Everything has gone back to the land,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me because we all do eventually — go back to the land.”

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