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Maine’s Treasured Islands Offer More Access Than Ever

Midcoast, Maine— Before Google Earth, Maine had about 3,000 islands. Today, according to the Maine State Planning Office’s Coastal Program, Maine actually has 4,613 islands dotting the coast. Thanks to many generous people and dedicated conservation groups, those islands are more accessible than ever.

Ask any windjammer guest what the favorite part of their trip was, and they might tell you it was exploring Calderwood with its fragrant field of ferns, enjoying a lobster bake on Pond or hiking the trails on Isle au Haut. Knowing which islands are open for visits comes from years of experience on the coast, understanding and embracing the concept of stewardship, building relationships with private landowners and having roots in the coastal community. The Maine Windjammer Association captains have these qualities in spades and, as a result, have the deep pleasure of sharing many of these pristine islands with their guests.

As conservation groups develop strategies to preserve the islands, it’s clear that windjammers offer a great way to see them. Captain John Foss of the 92-foot schooner American Eagle says, “Sailing on windjammers is the low-impact way to see the coast. I like to think of them as platforms of opportunity to observe and experience nature.” Maine’s windjammers have provided that opportunity for decades and many of the vessels have been navigating these waters for 100 years or more.

The islands haven’t always been treasured as they are now. Historically, many of the islands were cut over for pulp wood and then forgotten. In the last 20 years, a real shift has taken place where conservationists have created land trusts that work with school groups and others to protect the shoreline. Some of these groups have done such good work that national conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have turned ownership of the islands over to local groups.

One such outfit is the Maine Island Trail Association that has spent the last 25 years developing strategies for thoughtful island use. Another is the Maine Coast Heritage Trust that has developed a slightly different approach in that they use their resources to purchase land when it comes up for sale.

Captain Foss has been closely involved with conservation efforts and understands the delicate balance between public and private ownership. He says, “One of the challenges is – where do property taxes go? It’s always nice to make islands available for public use, but how is the local town going to make their budget when this land goes off the tax rolls? That’s where the balance has to come between private and public benefit.”

As it happens, not only are the windjammers and the conservation groups aligned philosophically, they also share some history: many leaders in the conservation organizations can boast a season or two aboard a windjammer serving as crew. Where better to learn the principles of conservation than aboard the decks of a Maine windjammer – one of the greenest vacations available.

All of the windjammers crews are actively involved in supporting the efforts of local island trusts. On a daily basis, captains find themselves in a steward position: from removing trash and educating people about Maine’s wildlife to advising other boaters to steer clear of seal pups and assisting whale team rescues, the captains have plenty of experience guiding people on how to preserve Penobscot Bay’s wilderness. Captain Foss notes, “What we’re really trying to do is preserve the human experience. We’re looking for an aesthetic return on conservation. We want to preserve what’s unspoiled.”

As always, the island forests are in a state of transition. Captain Foss says, “What we’re enjoying on these islands is partly due to several generations of benign neglect. The last pulp wood from a Maine island loaded on a schooner to go up river to a mill was 60 years ago. So now we’re at that first-growth stage, the soft wood.” The islands are clad with emerald green spruce and fragrant balsam fir trees that poke through the morning mist. Eventually, the hard woods will come in, but for now, the islands are green year round.

With so many islands in their backyard, the Maine Windjammer Association captains need to be certain which islands are public and which are private. In addition, all been thoroughly trained in the “Leave No Trace” codes of conduct. Before rowing ashore to land on an island, guests are encouraged to tread lightly on these islands so that they may be enjoyed by generations to come.

For more information, contact the Maine Windjammer Association at 800-807-WIND or visit

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