Birders, beachgoers, clamdiggers and history buffs — you’ll find them all on Sears Island, a 936-acre treasure conserved and open for public recreation off the coast of Searsport. One of the largest undeveloped islands on the Eastern Seaboard, Sears Island has a fascinating history, is rich in natural resources, and is connected to mainland Searsport by a causeway, making it easily accessible for visitors year round.
“It’s wonderful right now because at least 601 acres is always protected, to be used for low impact recreation and education and enjoyment,” said Susan White, President of Friends of Sears Island, a nonprofit organization with the mission to protect the natural and cultural resources of the island while maintaining free public access for a wide variety of activities, from hunting to horseback riding.
In the 1990s, the State of Maine purchased Sears Island with potential future development in mind, but after several years of public hearings and negotiations, a conservation easement was placed on nearly two thirds of the island — 601 acres — in 2009. Friends of Sears Island accepted responsibility for stewardship of the property, in partnership with Maine Coast Heritage Trust and help from the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition.
Today, vehicles are not permitted on the island. Visitors park on the causeway leading to the island, then explore by foot or bike from there.
The island is home to about 6 miles of named and well-maintained hiking trails, as well as a gravel road that runs from the causeway to a communications tower at the south end of the island, and a 1.5-mile paved road that runs from the causeway to a jetty that was built on the western shore of the island in the late ‘80s. In addition, at low tide, visitors often walk along the shore of the island, traversing about five miles of beaches made up of a mixture of sand, mud-flats, rock and shells.
Currently, Friends of Sears Island is seeking funding for the creation of interpretive displays that would be scattered throughout the island, offering information about various historical sites and a variety of habitats and natural features.
“We have some historical resources there, and it would be nice if we could point them out,” White said.
The island’s cultural history dates back thousands of years ago, when the indigenous people of Maine regularly camped on the island to hunt and fish. They called the island “Wassumkeag,” a word that described its bright sands.
When European families began settling on the island in the 17th century, it was transformed as land was cleared for timber and farmland. After four generations of ownership by the David Sears family, the island’s official name became Sears Island, some years after the town was named Searsport.
The houses on the island were abandoned throughout the 1920s as farming waned, and all buildings were removed by 1934, White said, though foundations and old wells remain. Old rock walls and heirloom apple trees also remain, scattered throughout the forest, reminding visitors of the island’s agricultural history.
To share the history and natural resources of the island, Friends of Sears Island organizes a variety of public programs. This year, between May and October, the group organized 18 programs on various topics on the island, and those programs saw about 350 participants.
“They ran the gamut,” White said. “They went from mushroom walks and wildflower walks, to geology and archeology. One of the most attended walks was in August during Searsport Heritage Days when we gave an archeology walk.”
The group is also expanding the scope of their public programming. For example, this summer they offered a yoga and tai chi program on one of the island’s beaches, as well as a tree identification program and a monarch butterfly program designed specifically for children.
“I think we’re going to continue to add children’s programming and also wellness programming because our goal is to offer programs for all ages,” White said. “I really feel like this year we did that. I led a hike early in the year for a seniors group who wanted to know about the history of the island.”
The most common recreational uses of the island are picnicking, swimming, hiking, fishing, clamming and hunting.
Driving directions: From downtown Searsport, drive northeast on Route 1 to Sears Island Road (which will be on the right if driving from the town of Searsport). Continue on Sears Island Road across the causeway to the island. Park on the causeway. Note the parking restrictions close to the gate. Not far past the gate is a kiosk displaying an island map. Brochures, which include the island map, are usually available at the kiosk and online at friendsofsearsisland.org.
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