LITTLE WHALEBOAT ISLAND — From a rocky beach on the north shore of this 22-acre island, I could watch an orange smear of a near-solstice sun melting into the western mainland. Four hours later, with the half-moon set, glimpses of the Milky Way streaked the darkness overhead. It was hard to find time to sleep because in another four hours, the sun, somehow, already had scurried east and was peeking above Harpswell Neck.

Some of the shortest nights of the year are still upon us. And there are few better places to marvel at the changing sky than on a remote Maine island.

Mainers and visitors will be able to enjoy these views forever. With the planned purchase of Little Whaleboat Island, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and its partners will have created a protected constellation of island destinations in upper Casco Bay. Within sight of each other and in reach of small boats and ocean kayaks, Little Whaleboat, (Great) Whaleboat and The Goslings form a recreation and conservation triad in a growing region where no trespassing signs can put special places like these off limits.

“In my mind,” said Keith Fletcher, project manager at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, “it’s a birthright of every Mainer to be able to go to a wild island and enjoy it.”

The interconnected mudflats, beaches and ledges that make up Little Whaleboat Island in Harpswell are visible from the air at low tide. (Great) Whaleboat Island and Harpswell Neck are seen in the background. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust has launched a campaign to buy and protect Little Whaleboat for public access, part of an evolving network of preserves it is assembling in Casco Bay. Redbird Media Group photo

The trust is leading an effort to raise $1.3 million by December to buy the island from a family corporation that has acted as a benevolent steward for many years. The campaign is about halfway there, with fundraising slowed last year because of the pandemic. The group plans to announce a significant donation later this month, and step up a publicity campaign to get across the finish line.

The three islands will join other trust preserves in the bay with remote island destinations, including Lanes Island at the mouth of the Royal River in Yarmouth and the east side of Clapboard Island in Falmouth. The organization has been working with local land trusts and others for roughly 15 years to stitch together a collection of preserves around the bay, including some on the coastal mainland.

“But it’s a rare event for a whole island to become available,” Fletcher said.

Aaron Turkel paddles back to Little Whaleboat at sunset. Tux Turkel photo

I’ve landed small boats on dozens of islands in Casco Bay over the years, and Little Whaleboat is among my favorites. It’s the diversity of experience; there’s a lot happening on 20 or so acres.

Little Whaleboat is actually a cluster of islands and rocky ledges connected – or sometimes not – by the ever-changing tide. Coves and a sandy spit on the northern side that are protected from prevailing summer winds offer easy access for kayaks and small motor boats. Vessels with deeper draft can anchor off and crew can row ashore.

I didn’t know until the fundraising campaign that each of the four distinct islands making up Little Whaleboat have names. The dominant island is West. The two smaller masses facing the mainland are Nate and Tuck, named by the family that owns the property. East, which faces (Great) Whaleboat and Harpswell, is not for sale and will remain privately owned.

The interior of West is heavily wooded and home today to resident osprey. I remember when those tall trees hosted a great blue heron rookery. One late summer day, I bushwacked in to show my older kids the clusters of stick nests. We spotted broken eggs on the ground and even the remains of tiny fledglings that didn’t survive. The colony abandoned this rookery years ago, perhaps for another nesting site in the bay.

Wild roses carpet a sandy spit that overlooks a small cove and island on Little Whaleboat Island. Tux Turkel photo

While native people used the Casco Bay islands for thousands of years, white settlers built houses on (Great) Whaleboat during the 19th century. I’m not sure if they ever occupied Little Whaleboat, but I did once find a stone-lined well near the northern tip. Even now, what looks like a tile drain pipe is sticking out of the ground in that area.

Modern visitors can spend the night at two low-impact campsites managed by the Maine Island Trail Association. The site near the north point is especially beautiful – in a clearing with flat ground, steps from ledges and a rocky beach. This is a fine place for viewing the night sky because the tree canopy blocks the glow of Greater Portland. My oldest son and I tented here on a clear June day, midweek. Except for a cruising sailboat that anchored overnight in the northeast cove, we had the place to ourselves.

MITA’s logbook records from 2019 show that 238 visitors took the time to register their visit to the island. Of those, 153 were day-trippers and 85 were campers. Powerboats brought out 153 visitors, while 43 of them paddled and 42 arrived by sailboat.

After a night camping on Little Whaleboat Island, Portland Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel heads back to the mainland. Aaron Turkel photo

The north campsite looks across 2 miles of water to The Goslings, a trio of islands that includes Irony Island and is known for its sandy beaches and popular anchorage. To the east, Whaleboat is a quick hop away. At 122 acres, Whaleboat is the largest wild island in the bay. It features an elevated meadow with panoramic views that extend to Mount Washington on clear days.

The Goslings can get busy, resembling an aquatic Woodstock on a hot summer weekend. Whaleboat is more chill, with campsites at two separate locations. But the meadow approach drains out with the falling tide, making for a tricky landing in a power boat. Having Little Whaleboat formally in the mix will expand recreational options and spread out activity.

“It creates a great synergy,” said Doug Welch, MITA’s executive director. “You can make a nice weekend with kids of hitting the three islands and sleeping on two of them.”

Securing Little Whaleboat will give the Maine Coast Heritage Trust seven preserves in Casco Bay. Historic Malaga Island in Phippsburg, site of a mixed-race fishing community in the late 19th century, and Woodward Point in Brunswick, once a saltwater farm and accessible from the mainland, round out the offerings.

Fletcher said these acquisitions are part of a planned, focused effort by the trust and its partners to protect a series of coastal resources for both wildlife and recreation in the bay.

“We want to have a system in place,” he said. “Between Whaleboat, Lanes, The Goslings and the others, we’re really starting to put together some wonderful places for people to enjoy.”


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