Christina Hassett is living out a lot of people’s fantasy, living on an uninhabited island with beautiful sandy beaches. But her paradise is Casco Bay and she’s actually working, as the Maine Island Trail Association’s (MITA) steward of Little Chebeague Island. She’s there to create and maintain trail systems – MITA Program Director Brian Marcaurelle credits her as an integral part of the association’s efforts to reopen the island for recreational use after years of benign neglect and an invasion by a non-native species – to help steer visitors to beauty spots and to (gently) encourage sustainable tourism. We talked to her about the island’s secrets and what she does in the off-season.

DEFINING SELF: Hassett, who grew up in Yarmouth, went to the University of Maine at Orono to study ecology and environmental science. In the summer of 2009, while still in school, she and her sister applied for jobs as the co-caretakers of Jewell Island for the Maine Island Trail Association. “We got quite lucky and got the job.” Only two years apart, “we’re pretty close and we have always shared a room,” so sharing an island was a breeze. They liked it so much they went back for a second summer. When Hassett graduated in 2011, she wasn’t ready for a classic career track. “I was kind of looking for something a little different.” Boats had always appealed to her, and she found just the right kind of different at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop Apprenticeship Program in Pemaquid, where she learned to build small wooden boats, starting with a Monhegan skiff. “It was very influential for me and helped kind of define who I became.”

EXTRA CURRICULAR: The program was tuition-free (sales of the boats the apprentices build fund it, along with grants) and Hassett relished the lack of “monetary exchange.” In the evenings, the students were free to use the workshop to work on their own projects. Hassett whipped up a kayak and she knew a few students who turned out harps along with boats. She formed fast friendships with students from all over the country. “Coming out of college, I was a little aimless in some sense and being surrounded by a lot of varied, interesting individuals really opened me up.”

BOATING LIFE: The program ran from September until June, at which point she returned to the Maine Island Trail Association for seasonal work, running a general stewardship program up and down the coast and then eventually, landing the stewardship gig on Little Chebeague. Off-seasons are devoted to boatbuilding, and she’s worked for two major Maine boatbuilders, Hinckley and Hodgdon. It’s not an easy field, but she wants to pursue it full time. “In Maine, you really have to have kind of a niche. Within wooden boat building there are so many skilled boatbuilders.” And that’s where she’d like to end up; steel hulled or carbon fiber boats don’t have the same charm. She’s also got a house to rebuild when she’s not on Little Chebeague; she and her boyfriend purchased a 1901 Cape in South Portland’s Ferry Village last year and are in the midst of a down-to-the-studs kind of renovation. Her marine carpentry skills are helping with tasks like planing old flooring and “giving it a little new life.” Remodel aside, it must be deluxe compared to living in a tent on an island, right? Not necessarily. “Little Chebeague is just so simple.” And that can be easy.

LIKE A JUNGLE OUT THERE: As beautiful as the 86-acre island is (Little Chebeague is the second most popular island in the 200-island strong Maine Island Trail Association), it does have its issues. Like the Oriental bittersweet, an invasive species that rampages over the island. “The island is basically covered in this stuff,” she said. “It is kind of like a jungle.” The Maine Island Trail Association has no expectation of getting rid of it all, it’s just too pervasive and the root system too far reaching. “There have been times when I have been pulling up a root and I end up following it all around the island.” The state of Maine, which owns the island, has lent a hand using licensed herbicides, and volunteer groups have helped clear out patches. But the bittersweet comes roaring back in a matter of weeks. “We’re trying just to optimize the recreational potential of the island,” by keeping the trail system open.

BITTER TO THE ROOT: What’s the story behind the invasion? “There are a couple of theories.” In the first, maybe the people who summered there in the 1800s, or someone on the staff at the old hotel (long gone to fire) brought it out as an ornamental. Bittersweet is pretty, in small doses. The second theory is that the Navy, which bought out the summer residents during World War II, planted it as a way to have cover. They used the island for firefighting exercises and did some serious recreating as well. There was a skeet range and a bowling alley. There are remains of cottages to be seen but the bittersweet makes it hard to hunt for signs of say, the Navy’s old baseball diamond. “What I wouldn’t give just to clearcut to see where these spots were.” The Navy-planted-it theory is just a rumor, she hastened to add. Either way, the bittersweet marches on and has already killed some trees. Not by choking but by stealing light. “It just hogs the sunlight and it’s a slow death.”

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Other problems include a thriving tick population (check yourself after a visit) and browntail moth invasion brutal enough to have driven Hassett from her campsite last summer. “Infested. I think I left early one weekend; it was kind of me or them.” She’s had one Lyme scare and yes, she’s anxious about the other tick-borne diseases being found in Maine. The prevalence of ticks on Maine islands may keep some visitors away. “I have talked to some people who say that has influenced their decision about where to recreate.” But Little Chebeague remains popular. “On Memorial Day, I think I had 35 people camping along the beach.” She typically visits campsites at around 6 p.m., the “sweet spot” in time when she can encourage campers to build their campfires below the high tide line. “I just make very friendly suggestions because I am not a warden per se, and I don’t have any authority to try to kick anyone off.” Generally, it’s all good. “People are happy to be out there and to have access to these beautiful areas.”

DESIGN FOR SUSTAINABLE LIVING: Her island work impacts her own life, off-season. “Working in a field where you are close up with the natural world, ecologically speaking it does and has affected my behavior in other aspects of my life.” A for instance: “I am more prone to drive less and bike more.” She believes people who visit Little Chebeague may feel the same way. “MITA was founded on the principle that those who use the islands will care for them and that is what they have seen. People kind of take it on as their civic duty.” And as awful as that bittersweet is, it teaches a lesson. “It puts into stark realization that these small human actions can have monumental consequences which are not realized until many years down the road.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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