Leigh Dorsey and Dameon Colbry of Belfast pose in front of a pile of trash they recently collected on George Head island while participating in the new Maine Island Trail Association Call to Oars initiative. Credit: Courtesy of Dameon Colbry

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Swept in by the tide, heaps of plastic bottles, styrofoam and broken fishing gear accumulate on Maine’s islands each year. To clean up this mess, the Maine Island Trail Association usually organizes annual trips, filling boats with volunteers armed with trash bags. But this year, COVID-19 put a halt to that program, and MITA — like many nonprofit conservation organizations — has had to rethink how it operates.

As a solution, the organization launched the new Call to Oars initiative this spring, inviting all recreational boaters to adopt Maine islands for the season and clean them up. So far, dozens of boaters have answered the call, logging more than 100 island cleanups. Still, MITA is looking for more people to participate.

“We want everyone who’s out enjoying the islands to take part and give back,” Brian Marcaurelle, program director for MITA, said. “In order to participate, all you have to do is go out and clean up some marine debris or move some brush out of a trail or campsite — whatever you think needs to be done from a stewardship perspective.”

America’s oldest recreational water trail, the Maine Island Trail was founded in 1988 by a group of people who wanted to encourage stewardship of the state’s many coastal islands. Over the years it has grown steadily. Today, the trail measures 375 miles long and includes more than 240 wild islands and mainland sites that are open to camping and day use.

To participate in the Call to Oars initiative, you don’t have to be a MITA member. There are no requirements for how much work you need to get done. But if you do any amount of stewardship on an island that’s a part of the Maine Island Trail, MITA would like to know about it so they can keep track of the progress on their interactive online map. Updated weekly, the map can help participants decide what island they want to adopt.

MITA provides a simple online stewardship form and encourages participants to share photos as well. And at the end of the season, the organization will share these reports with the 100-plus landowners whose property is a part of the trail.

“The Maine Island Trail is a credit to the generous spirit of people who are willing to share their property with strangers,” Marcaurelle said. “And it’s a testament to the users upholding their end of the bargain and treating these places well.”

You don’t need a big boat to participate. In fact, Belfast residents Leigh Dorsey and her partner Dameon Colbry recently rowed their small, lightweight rowboat 15 miles to their adopted island, George Head. South of Stonington, the island features forestland, bold cliffs, two grassy campsites and a sand beach with a long sand spit extending out to a neighboring island.

“We camped overnight, then spent the whole next day picking up trash,” Dorsey said. “It took about 12 hours. We were exhausted, but we were very proud of our giant pile of trash. It’s incredible how much we collected from one little island.”

The items they found along the island’s shore included lobstering gear, plastic bottles, balloons and a fuel tank from a boat. Unable to haul it all back on their rowboat, they left it in a neat pile well above the high tide mark, then sent the exact location to MITA so the organization could send a volunteer to pick it up with an 18-foot MITA skiff.

“MITA’s ability to go out and pick it up later is really important,” Dorsey said. “It means a lot more people can participate … I hope more people get into it because it’s super rewarding to see that pile of trash at the end of the day and know it’s not going to be in the ocean anymore.”

Volunteers pick up trash on June 20 on Wreck Island as participants of Maine Island Trail Association’s new Call to Oars initiative. Credit: Courtesy of Michael Daugherty

Rebecca and Michael Daugherty of Stonington often travel by sea kayak to pick trash off islands. As registered Maine kayak guides, they spend a lot of time introducing people to the many beautiful islands in their area.

“Right now, we’ve noticed there’s actually a lot of usage of the islands,” Rebecca Daugherty said. “There are more people camping than I’ve ever seen before. Kayaking and camping on islands is a great way to social distance … I think it’s important that the islands look natural and wild. When they’re covered in garbage, they don’t look like that.”

Many participants in the Call to Oars initiative adopted islands that they already wanted to explore and enjoy. For instance, Dana Wilfahrt of Portland adopted three islands off the coast of Boothbay that featured campsites she wanted to stay at.

“We’re so fortunate in Maine to have places to go that are distant from other people,” Wilfahrt said. “Being able to go and escape on these islands, it’s why people come here and it’s why we live here — to have access to these things. So maintaining them is really important.”

In many ways, the Call to Oars initiative is a resurrection of how MITA operated in its early years, before the organization had monitor skippers (lead volunteers who run MITA’s boats on a regular basis), a formal volunteer program or skiffs modified specifically for carrying groups of people to clean up trash.

“We want this to live beyond COVID,” Marcaurelle said. “Maine Island Trail was built on the spirit of giving back, and COVID has kind of thrust it back in the forefront for us. It’s always been the undercurrent of our stewardship.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.