Even after dozens of visits over the years, I still find that Damariscove Island is pleasantly mysterious in a way unmatched by Maine’s other offshore islands. A weekend visit to this windswept isle just a few miles south of the boating Mecca of Boothbay Harbor always gives me a new, generally more optimistic perspective on whatever curveballs life has been throwing in my direction.
Damariscove’s magnetism predates the European discovery of the New England coast. The well-protected harbor at the southern end of the two-mile-long island was used by the old Abenaki tribes, and perhaps the enigmatic 5,000-year-old Red Paint People as well. By the time Europeans began using the island as a seasonal fishing camp in the 16th century, summer weekends at Damariscove were already an established tradition, albeit for reasons other than a nice sail to windward.
Fishing always was, and still is, an important fixture on Damariscove. Lobstermen continue to use the harbor as a staging area for traps, bait and related items. For years, one lobsterman even lived on the island year-round aboard the wooden hull of an old sailboat that was permanently anchored in the calm waters of the anchorage’s inner pool. And while he has since moved on, the whales, dolphins, herons, seals and other wildlife on and around Damariscove remain regular visitors.
During my most recent visit to the island, Damariscove was devoid of visitors, pelagic or otherwise. On a perfect early June day, I had the place all to myself. Once ashore, I found there was plenty to observe and contemplate, and I felt very far indeed from the madding crowds ashore.
First, there were the ruined homesteads of the once bustling offshore community that endured here for more than 100 years. On the island’s west side, settlers cut large blocks of granite by hand for their own use and for sale to other settlers on the mainland. A pier made of that same granite still survives in the inner harbor. Contemplating all that stone, I thought Damariscove’s former residents must have had no concept of “leisure time,” apart from sleeping. You can still see the flower beds of irises and daffodils they planted among granite-lined cellar holes and bayberry thickets. Walking the island’s rough trails, I marveled at the islanders’ self-sufficiency.
The island’s rough-hewn museum, which is run by the Boothbay Region Land Trust (BRLT: bbrlt.org) is another fascinating place to spend some time. Displays of old whaling and fishing implements, and unique flora and fauna are just some of the items worthy of contemplation. The BRLT also maintains a number of moorings for cruisers and sponsors a team of live-in caretakers who keep on eye on the island during the summer.
The BRLT has been in charge of the island since 2005, following 20 years of stewardship by The Nature Conservancy. Careful maintenance of the island is vital because it is a popular tourist destination. Fortunately, except for the old U.S. Lifesaving Station on the island’s southern tip (now privately owned), visitors can still almost always find a spot on Damariscove to be alone with their thoughts and the surrounding sea.
Photo by Ken Textor