SEARSPORT, Maine — Twenty people gathered in the shadow of the Old Vestry of the Penobscot Marine Museum. Fresh morning air, cool and salty, flowed through Searsport, a town deeply connected to the ocean. Clam-digging tools leaned against the back of a truck, revealing the morning’s agenda.
“These guys can go down so fast you can hardly dig them,” said Bob Ramsdell, Chairman of the Searsport Shellfish Management Committee, as he plopped a live razor clam into a bucket of brine.
A hen clam squirted a stream of water as Ramsdell pulled it from the bucket, and questions started to fly.
Each person in the group had devoted their Tuesdays and Thursdays in May to the Penobscot Bay Stewardship Program, a series of talks and field trips to learn about the ecology and environmental resources of the region.
Tuesday, May 8, was dedicated to Searsport and Sears Island — which naturally led to lessons about ships, shellfish, historical buildings and fishing.
After the stragglers had arrived, the group carpooled to Sears Island to start off the day exploring the clam flats with Bob Ramsdell and delving into the history of one of the state’s most accessible islands with his wife, Marietta Ramsdell.
“It’s a new group every year, and they learn new things,” said Bob Ramsdell, one of the first people to participate in the Penobscot Bay Stewardship Program, which began in 1995.
The program, sponsored by the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, is free. But there’s a catch. After completing the monthlong course, stewards are expected to complete 30 hours of volunteer work in a year. After completing the program in 1995, Bob Ramsdell volunteered at Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland, driving trucks of salmon to streams around the state. He had so much fun that he continued to volunteer at the hatchery for 10 years.
“For someone new to Belfast, it was probably the best connector I had to the bay, Belfast and the community,” said Penny Albert, who moved to Belfast from Fort Kent two years ago. Last year, Albert attended the program, and this year, she’s one of the five stewards on the program’s steering committee.
“Almost everyone here is new to Belfast — from away,” Albert said.
“Oh no, we used to be from away,” chimed in Don Cox of Belfast. “We’re from here now.”
Cox, a student of the program this year, is joined by outdoor enthusiasts from Lincolnville, Belfast, Northport, Searsport, Swanville, Camden and Morrill.
“Stewardship is a major concern for Christians — stewardship of the Earth,” said student Alan Shumway, who moved to the area in October and is now the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast. “This seemed like a great opportunity to learn about the community and the land.”
Sears Island, for a long time, was accessed by boat or sandbar at low tide. Throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, farming families inhabited the island, an ideal spot for grazing animals and fishing. But after a fire destroyed the buildings in 1917, farming on the island disappeared.
In the late 1980s, a causeway was constructed, and the undeveloped oasis quickly became a popular spot for camping and fishing. RVs rolled down the island road until the late 1990s, when the state erected a barrier at the end of the causeway, allowing only foot and bicycle traffic on the island.
Through a gap in this concrete and metal barrier, the stewardship group filtered, leaving their vehicles behind. Led by Bob Ramsdell, they descended from the island road to the beach on the eastern shore. Shells crunched underfoot as they made their way to squares of netting partially buried in the sand — an experimental plot to record the growth rate of soft-shell clams, he explained.
Again, he was peppered with questions. Several of the students had never harvested shellfish before and wanted to give it a try.
Searsport has about 14 miles of waterfront, though not all is accessible, and Sears Island itself has about five miles of shoreline — a lot of space to find open clam flats containing delicious soft-shell, hard-shell, surf and razor clams. Or as some Mainers might call them, steamers, quahogs, hen clams and jackknife clams, respectively.
Each town has their own rules for clam digging.
In Searsport with a recreational license, people can legally harvest one peck (a two gallon bucket) a day, and night clam digging isn’t allowed. This year, starting June 1, the town clerk can issue 113 recreational shellfish annual licenses. People have been known to line up outside the town office starting at 5 a.m. for the 8 a.m. opening. But for those looking to just try out clam digging for a day or two, a 72-hour license is available throughout the summer.
Before leaving the beach, a student asked about mussels. People don’t require a permit to harvest mussels, said Cloe Chunn, a steward on the steering committee.
“It’s my husband’s favorite thing to do,” she said. “His birthday is Feb. 10, and we were out doing that. We even picked them on Christmas Eve this year.”
Along with Chunn and Albert, this year’s steering committee includes Liz Fitzsimmons, Karin Whittman and Maynard Clemmons. They take turns organizing the programs and contacting presenters, many of which are drawn from the growing list of Penobscot Bay Stewards.
“We had so much fun last year that some of the participants continued to do field trips after the program was over,” said Fitzsimmons. “I learned so much when I took this class. We all live around Penobscot Bay, but I think the program opens our eyes and allows us to look at the region in a new way. I’m involved in the history of it, and now I know more about the ecology and biology of it.”
At a big, twisted apple tree, the group left the beach for the Homestead Trail, which curves through the northeast quadrant of the island, leading to the stone foundations of an old homestead and back to the road.
“We’ve restored old trails and maintained them,” said Marietta Ramsdell of the Friends of Sears Island, a nonprofit group that cares for the conserved portion of the island. “And we’re always looking for volunteers.”
In 2009, 601 acres of the 936-acre, state-owned island, became conserved land held by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Marietta Ramsdell weaved island history with its current, natural state, a habitat for white-tailed deer, porcupine, coyote and, as a stop along the migratory flyway, 168 species of birds. Her sentences were broken up by the piercing call of an osprey.
Minutes later, the stately raptor soared overhead.
“He caught a fish,” observed Gary Gulezian of Lincolnville as he followed the bird with his binoculars. He and fellow student and birder Cathy Morgan of Belfast chatted about black and white warblers as the group backtracked to the beach.
“We were just here Saturday bird watching,” said Morgan, who is on the board of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition and joined the program to further her involvement in environmental programs and volunteerism. “That’s where I put my time and energy — the environment.”
Back at the museum, Morgan wrapped her cold hands around a cup of steaming coffee as she waited for Captain Dave Gelinas to start his presentation on the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association.
“I’ve never been to Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge or the Island Institute,” she said, running her finger down the month’s schedule of programs. “When we go to Damariscotta, I’ve never seen the alewives running, so I hope they’re running next week.”
For information about the Belfast Stewardship Program, visit www.belfastbaywatershed.org/penobscot-bay-stewardship-program; Searsport Shellfish Committee, www.searsport.maine.gov; and Friends of Sears Island, www.friendsofsearsisland.org.