Sunday, March 9, 2014
By KEITH EDWARDS
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
RICHMOND — A trip across the Kennebec River to Swan Island and its peaceful, unique mix of history and nature has often been referred to as a trip back in time.
That trip can now be made in your own canoe or kayak, no reservations required.
For the first time, self-access day-tripping is allowed on the island, which is a state wildlife management area.
Until this summer, reservations had to be made in advance with a phone call to an office in Sidney, and the trip out across the river usually involved waiting to be picked up in Richmond by a state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife motorboat.
Now paddlers can approach the island the same way many native Americans and early European settlers may have way back in the 1600s — unannounced.
And from many approaches to the four-mile-long island, off the bow of their small watercraft, they’ll see the same unspoiled stretches of wild rice, tidal flats, towering pines and abundant wildlife seen by their forebears.
“It seemed like a no-brainer. It made sense to me to let people paddle over and come explore on their own,” said Kendall Marden, regional wildlife biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, whose region includes Swan Island.
Marden is one of two IF&W representatives on the island. The other, Keith Burgeson, is an environmental educator working on the island through Americorps’ Maine Conservation Corps.
Reservations are still required to camp on the island. Camping is available at 10 primitive shelters scattered around a field on the east side of the island, overlooking the adjacent Little Swan Island.
But all day-trippers have to do is paddle over to the island and fill out a registration form found inside one of two wooden boxes on the island — one at the boat landing and one at the campground. Day-trippers must pay $8, though children 3 years and younger may visit for free, with adult supervision. The registration form and fee are then deposited in the box and visitors are free to explore the island’s trails, ponds and fields on their own.
The island has many hidden gems.
Peaceful interior trails traverse numerous habitats and elevations, from tidal flats to woods to ponds to streams to fields.
And several historic buildings remain on the island from its days as the town of Perkins, later Perkins Township. The remaining buildings include the Gardiner-Dumaresq House, a saltbox-style home built between 1758 and 1763 by Dr. Sylvester Gardiner as a wedding present for his newly married daughter.
In 1775, Benedict Arnold’s expedition stopped at the island on its way up the Kennebec to attack Québec. It is believed Arnold, Aaron Burr and General Henry Dearborn stayed a night at the Gardiner-Dumaresq House.
Some of the other remaining buildings on the island are in ill-repair, though volunteers including the Friends of Swan Island are working to save some of the historic structures.
The island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Residents began leaving the island after the Richmond-Swan Island-Dresden ferry service closed down in 1936, according to a history of the island. Using federal wildlife funds, the state bought farms on the island.
By the early 1950s, the only remaining private land on the island was its cemetery, which was willed to the state in 1988. The cemetery, its white picket fence barely holding on in sections, remains on the island. A map at the site shows who is buried where.
“With the wildlife and history, it seems like such a unique place to camp,” said Kelley Glidden, of Topsham, who was camping on the island recently with Jason Finnemore, while both were on vacation.
The pair canoed out to the island and set up camp for two nights on the edge of a field. Finnemore chopped wood for their campfire as they chatted with Marden, Burgeson and Jo Hersom, a program coordinator for the Maine Conservation Corps who happened to be on the island doing a site visit.
Burgeson lives on the island for the summer. Marden, who is also responsible for areas in addition to Swan Island, commutes from his home in Albion.
Camping on the island is $14 per night, and reservations must be made in advance by calling 547-5322 or filling out a reservation form available at the IF&W website at http://www.maine.gov/ifw/education/swanisland/index.htm.
Making it easier to access the island for day-tripping grew out of the recommendations of a legislative task force charged with looking for ways to improve uses of the island not directly related to wildlife, such as public recreation.
Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, a member of the task force, said he hopes the new, easier day-tripping option will draw more people to Swan Island, making better use of the resource and perhaps helping the local economy as visitors spend money locally on their way to or from the island.
“At this point, the island is underutilized. It can accommodate an increase in visitors while still respecting the wildlife,” Goodall said. “There are some really good trails out there, opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, camping, it’s beautiful out there. And one of the great things about the island is it’s in southern Maine, so close to population centers. Increasing use is something I think everyone would like to see, within reason. I just think it’s a great asset.”
Frequent visitors can also buy a self-access season pass, for an individual or their entire family. An individual pass is $40, a family pass $75.
Marden said they’d only sold three season passes so far.
One of those passes — the first — was to Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a member of the stakeholders group.
“Swan Island is a paradise for paddling and hiking, easily rivaling Mt. Battie, Morse’s Mountain, Bradbury Mountain or Wolfe's Neck State Park in natural beauty alone — and with a deep historic element, as well,” Berry said in an e-mail. “I am thrilled we can now paddle over anytime to enjoy it.”
Officials note a key for the island is striking a balance between its wildlife and use by people.
Marden noted the funding to initially purchase the island — which, with Little Swan and surrounding tidal flats, makes up the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area — was dedicated to wildlife management. And the mission of IF&W is also wildlife management.
Thus, the main focus of the island must remain on its wildlife.
“The primary purpose is wildlife conservation and, secondly, recreation, if it doesn’t interfere with the wildlife habitat,” Marden said. “It’s a big balancing act, with this unique public recreation component.”
Trails on the island have signs informing visitors about the plant and animal life around them.
Among the game preserve’s wildlife are deer, turkey, coyote and three pairs of nesting bald eagles — one on Little Swan Island, one on the northern end of Swan Island and one on the southern end of Swan Island.
Marden said two of the three eagle nests produced young this year: one in one nest, two in another.
“Any species you see on the mainland, we have out here,” Marden said. “(Bureson) saw a bobcat the other day.”
The island also has its own historic fire tower — though it’s a fairly new arrival to the island. The tower was originally erected in 1931 on Frye Mountain in Waldo County. It was sitting, idle and unprotected, on Frye Mountain since it was no longer used for fire prevention after 1991.
It was flown to its new home on Swan Island by helicopter in 2005. It now serves as a wildlife viewing tower.
It’s all part of the unique mix found sitting a short paddle away, at the head of Merrymeeting Bay.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647