As the boat cruised around Treat Island, 45 passengers shuffled around the deck to get a good view of the isle’s evergreen-covered hills, gravel beaches and open meadows. Located off the coast of Eastport, the 71-acre island, conserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, was one of the first stops on the recent MCHT tour of Cobscook Bay.
“It was once owned by Upham Treat, who caught herring in weirs and smoked them,” MCHT regional steward Deirdre Whitehead said as she stood at the stern of the boat with a microphone. “He was also instrumental in starting canning, processing and aquaculture in the middle 1800s.”
The boat tour, which sold out in one day, is one of many summer trips MCHT offers to its members and the general public each year. These trips are an opportunity for people to visit some of MCHT’s conserved properties and learn about the organization’s ongoing conservation projects.
“The Maine coast in particular is at risk of getting closed off,” MCHT Director of Communications Rich Knox said. “About 1 percent of the coast is open to commercial and public recreational access that’s guaranteed. We’re trying to keep the coast open to people.”
Since it was founded in 1970, MCHT has conserved 150,000 acres and 322 islands along the Maine coast, establishing more than 100 public preserves from Kittery to Lubec. All of these preserves are open to the public to visit for free, offering a wide variety of recreational opportunities including camping, hiking, boating and hunting.
From their four offices scattered along the Maine coast, MCHT is continually working with communities to conserve and steward places of historical, cultural, ecological and economic importance. The nonprofit also supports the state’s many local land trusts through its Maine Land Trust Network program and by collaborating with those land trusts to conserve land and complete conservation-related projects.
“It’s incredible,” Knox said. “At any given time we probably have a hundred projects and landowners we’re working with to negotiate gifts of land or purchases or the creation of easements. On average we’re completing 25 land conservation projects a year.”
During the boat tour of Cobscook Bay, three MCHT staff members took turns speaking about the history and ecology of the area. The route highlighted several MCHT preserves and conservation easements.
“When we get a new preserve, we try to find out everything we can about it,” Whitehead said. “We do a natural resource inventory and look into its history.”
The history of Treat Island, acquired by MCHT in 2009, captivated Whitehead when she began researching it a decade ago — so much so that she continues to dig up information about the island to this day, reading local records and old books about the island’s early inhabitants.
She’s found the written history of the island dates back to 1784, when a trading post was established on the island by Revolutionary War Col. John Allan. Known for recruiting local Indian tribes to stand with the Patriots against the British, Allen was buried on Treat Island. A a 1.2-mile trail network leads to a monument at his grave. The trail network also features stunning views of the ocean, where visitors often spot whales, porpoises, seals and eagles.
Cobscook Bay, Whitehead explained, has the highest density of nesting bald eagles in the northeastern United States, and a high diversity of plant and animal live there because of its extreme tidal range. Each tide brings in a fresh supply of nutrients, which support growth of seaweed and algae, which is then eaten by shellfish and other sea creatures.
Continuing past the island, the recent Cobscook Bay tour navigated past Shackford Head, named after one of the town’s earliest settlers, Revolutionary War Capt. John Shackford. Today, it’s conserved as Shackford Head State Park, 90 acres with more than 3 miles of public trails.
Turning north, the boat then visited the 14-acre Matthews Island, an MCHT preserve that is accessible from Eastport when a land bridge emerges for 2.5 hours on either side of low tide. The island is named after Capt. Charles Matthews, who purchased the island in 1798 and raised his eight children there.
From there, the boat struck east, then north, to the edge of Sipp Bay, named for Scipeo Dalton, an African-American man who lived with his wife in a cabin in the area in 1790.
“He was a freed slave, and he and his wife were on the first census of Washington County,” Whitehead said.
The Passamaquoddy called the place Kci-puna-muhkatik, “big frostfish (tomcod) spawning place,” and they used to fish the bay by canoe. In 2010 and 2011, MCHT acquired two parcels of land on the shallow bay and established the 92-acre Sipp Bay Preserve, which features 1.5 miles of trails and a beautiful picnic spot.
Backtracking out of the tranquil bay, the tour headed south, to Reversing Falls, an area off the coast of Pembroke where water builds up as it rushes over an underwater ledge between Mahar Point and Falls Island, creating what appears to be a waterfall, as well as whirlpools and swells. The tour boat’s captain, George “Butch” Harris, expertly steered through the frothing water and swift currents, then turned the boat back toward Eastport.
“The first time we did this trip was three years ago,” MCHT Outreach Coordinator Ceci Danforth said. “And we’ve done it every year since. People love it because not a lot of them get to go up in the inner reaches of Cobscook Bay. … It’s a great opportunity to get people out to the preserves so they can see what’s available. These preserves are open year-round to the public.”
The tour also was an opportunity for MCHT staff to talk about conservation projects that are underway but in need of more funding. For example, MCHT just purchased its largest property yet — 2,352 acres of land on Rocky Lake in Whiting — and it’s working to raise $300,000 to develop and manage the property for camping, paddling and hiking.
In addition, MCHT is working on improving fish passage and establishing portage sites on the Orange River, which flows out of Rocky Lake and winds its way east to Cobscook Bay. MCHT also is tackling conservation projects all along the Maine coast, including the acquisition of Clark Island in St. George, and Woodward Point in Casco Bay.
“This work takes a lot of time and effort and money to get done, and it takes communities that understand the benefits of this land,” Knox said. “Sometimes it takes years to to bring these projects to fruition.”
An open house of Treat Island, with shuttles to and from the island from Eastport and Lubec, is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 15, and will feature optional history walk by Whitehead. The shuttle, out and back, will cost $10 per person or $25 per family.
“The open house is really focused on local people, people with families and kids,” Whitehead said. “And for those who don’t want to do the history walk, they’re free to just wander around and do whatever they want.”
To learn about MCHT’s upcoming field trips and events, visit https://mcht.org/trips-events. Upcoming trips include a Boot Head Beach cleanup July 26 in Lubec, a Clark Island open house Aug. 19 in St. George, a Casco Bay sunset cocktail cruise Sept. 13 and a Treat Island open house Sept. 15.
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