Trails and Wonders of Maine Report M01

Maine Greenway Trail – Report M01: The Mackworth Island Trail 1-2 miles

Background:

Mackworth Island is located about a mile and a half north of Portland Maine in Falmouth Maine off Route 1.

Permitted uses are hiking, dog walking (on lease), cross country skiing (weather permitting) and snow shoeing (winter only).

The island was a gift to the state of Maine by former governor Percival Baxter. As the home for the state school for the deaf, there is no camping or fires permitted on the island.

The gift of this island by Percival Baxter was one of many he made to protect some of the natural wonders of the state.

Mackworth Island Trail – Report M01

The trip to Mackworth Island begins as we enter from Route One coming north from Portland, Maine. There are no large signs to the Island so we look for a small blue sign for “The Baxter School for the Deaf”. This small sign is the only indication of a clear path to the island.

We take a right onto a two lane town street lined with the familiar wood framed houses that are the standard dwelling in this part of Maine. After the last houses on the street it continues out onto a causeway with Ocean on both sides. Today is a calm day with the tide out.

The causeway is a built out from both the mainland and island sides. It is paved with blacktop and fenced in with those aluminum railings that are designed to keep cars from accidentally falling in the water should the driver miss the road. This is a common occurrence during winter weather conditions along coastal roads.

In the center of the causeway there is a wooden bridge joining the mainland portion to the island portion. This allows the waters to flow freely around the island and most likely makes the causeways safer during nasty weather.

As we thump, thump, thump our way across the wooden bridge span we get a sense of the rustic nature of the island. Back on the pavement it is smooth sailing to the island.

Immediately on entering the island we are greeted by signs with restrictions and permissions. Just behind these is a guard shack with a guard on duty. We have arrived early and are allowed to park in the small parking lot. I am informed that when the lot is filled those who wish to visit the island must go back and park on the mainland. They can then walk the half mile across the causeway and then take the trail.

The parking lot is a small dirt lot with enough room for perhaps forty cars, though I did not count. On weekdays those arriving early in the day will most likely find parking available on the island.

Immediately adjacent to the parking lot is a stair case that descends down from the island to the shoreline. It is just one of many well placed stairs that allow access to the sand and rocks of the islands shoreline. I go down to check it out. I go down the steep stairs through the woods until I reach the bottom. I step off the stairs onto sand and slip between talk native rose bushes. I come out onto a nice little beach with a clear view of the islands north of Portland.

I turn around to return to the trail and there is no trail up. It is then you realize why some folks go out here to spend the day. On a slow day you can be the only one on one of the dozens of little enclaves around the island.

Of course the trail is still there, hidden by the mischievous floribunda of the island; giving one a sense of being the only person on the island, at least for a few minutes.

I return, after a few minutes more of enjoying the view, to the stairs back to the trail that leads to the mysteries of the island.

I climb the staircase back to the trail head at the east end of the parking lot to start my trek around the isle.

I am pleased to see that they have provided facilities at the trails start/end for those of us who travel less well than others. In addition they have maps and doggy bags (should you be walking your pup).

I head for the trail head only to be waylaid by temptation. My brother Dan, who is hiking with me, points out a maze that has been laid out for those who have things they would like to leave behind. I worry about everything, so I guess he felt we would have better conversations if I walked the maze.

It is a small maze which does not take long to walk. But just the thought of leaving behind all the cares of the day, I think it actually does one some good. If you have been wound up by a whirl wind vacation to Maine, it might make for a finer more relaxed trip. If it doesn’t the trip around the island will.

With the maze behind us we began our journey into the woods. At the end of the woods were some yellow field flowers with dozens of tiny blooms. Just a few feet beyond were sumac trees that reminded me of the ones behind our house in Bangor when I was a child.

From where we enter the woods, we have a beautiful view toward Falmouth just across nearly drained bay. It is early in the morning and the sky has a thin covering of soft clouds. It is the first of many views that would make any artist wish he or she could capture the moment.

As we enter the first leg of our journey we go through a short length of woods coming out to a point where we get a small glimpse of the school and a fantastic view of the northern tip of Portland.

From here we get to business with the trail leading along a path with Maine woods to the left and Casco Bay to the right. We are at least forty or fifty feet about the shoreline.

The trail is a packed gravel trail that remains this way the entire length. I am told this is a fairly recent improvement that has been made to a trail that used to be primarily a dirt path. It makes it suitable for adults, children, elder states folk and probably safe for the large wheel carriages.

Just as we are going along this wooded trail with glimpses of the sea through the trees, we come upon an opening toward the ocean. There bordered by large trees is a bench swing hanging from its own wooden posts. This was the first and perhaps the most elaborate sitting place we saw along the trail. It proved hard to go more than a quarter mile before seeing a bench or other sitting place.

This is good to know if your dear old dad or mom wants to take the hike with you. Just allow enough time, bring along something to eat and drink, and enjoy the hospitality. If you are dear old mom or dad it is okay to bring along a younger generation to enjoy the view with you.

The view from this bench is toward Portland’s East End and South Portland’s Harbor. It is a terrific view any time of day.

With all the scenery it can be difficult to make much time on this trail. It is probably not the best trail for those seeking a strenuous walk as there is just too much to see.

We proceeded on past some small ground flowers with large dark leaves and batches of small white buds. We passed through some oaks glades as we journeyed onward.

We passed a crooked staircase that led to an unseen shoreline somewhere below us. It was hard not to stop and climb down to see what the view from the shore was. Unfortunately I was on a schedule and had to be at my grandchildren’s school on time, so I had to pass on the climb.

Continuing through the woods we got our second glimpse of the school. Opposite this view a large deciduous tree was highlighted against ocean and sky. From here we move deeper into the wooded part of the island.

We continued our travel through woods, getting occasional glimpses of shoreline while passing beneath old ancient gnarled trees. Finally we found ourselves at a stone pier, jutting out into a sea of mud. At high tide there would be somewhere between thirteen and seventeen feet of water lapping at the stones. At low tide it looks like the sea is bowing to the land.

This pier has stairs on either side that lead down to the shore. A distance up the shore we can see a young person with head phones on; deeply engrossed in a book. Overhead sea gulls circle as a passing boat offers potential rewards for the aggressive.

Toward the woods side of the trail a large old weathered tree spreads its twisted branches skyward challenging the wind and sea. One can only imagine the storms whose furry have shaped this great tree through the decades.

The path leads us to another bench set between to white pines. From here there is a clear view of a number of small islands that begin the chain known as the calendar islands.

Small rocky islands dot the sea eastward of the trail. This spot on the trail was a favorite of my mother’s. One of my brother’s had taken her here on many occasions during here years as an artist. This was my first view of this place. It was one of those special moments we sometimes have in life; to see the beauty only seen before in paintings.

Below the bench the shoreline is draped in yellow/green seaweed with grey/blue rocks peeking out here and there. Today the sea is quiet with gentle ripples. According to my brother, our mother used to love it when the sea was frothing and pounding on the rocks. The wind would whip through the trees with a steady whistling sound and leave a mist of salt on everything it touched.

Sitting in the bench I look toward the sky and see a branch of the pine tree silhouetted in sharp dark outlines against a soft blue/grey sky. The long green needles provide a contrast in color while the branches and cones appear black against the sky.

Time to meander along less I miss my date with my granddaughter. Almost immediately we come upon one of the few signs about the bushes I see on this trip. There it is a Common Chokeberry with all the particulars of height and diameter. The plant associated with the sign is a lush soft green bush. It doesn’t have any berries at this time. I guess they may be a late summer or fall berry. The sign is dated from 1997. I love trails that identify the plants, birds and animals around them. I suspect that there are other signs though in our haste we probably missed them.

This very common bush is on the side of a trail leading from the path down to the waters edge. The view, like all the views along this trail, is anything but common.

Moving along the trail we notice a path off to the left (towards the woods) that leads to a small stone wall.

My brother knows what is there but encourages me to visit it without revealing what I will find. I apologize for revealing the contents but feel I must as not every reader will get a chance to visit Maine and this wonderful trail.

The stone wall forms a circular enclosure with a wooden gate on the side away from the sea. Passing through the gate I found a half dozen stones with bronze plaques of various sizes. As you may have guessed this was some type of memorial or cemetery.

There were no people buried here; at least as far as we could tell. One large brass plaque explains that in 1943 when Percival Baxter gave the island to the State of Maine, a condition was that the state would preserve this pet cemetery for Governor Baxter’s faithful pets in perpetuity.

It if was a dark rainy night and we were camping, this would have been good for stories like Maine author Steven King’s Pet Cemetery. But this was a nice sunny day so we avoided the darker undertones; except in brief passing statements.

Here we found markers for more than forty dogs and one horse. We didn’t look at all the markers so I don’t know if any cats, mice, birds or fish made the cut. What is very clear from the words on the markers is that Governor Baxter respected the loyalty of his pets and believed that they lived and died with dignity. So if you or your child feels a need to respect your pets in death you are in good company.

Governor Baxter’s pets from 1887 to 1945 were buried at this location. From 1945 to the present day the state has maintained this memorial to these loyal creatures that were an important part of his life.

We return to the trail with the sea at our right and the woods at our left. Starting with the cemetery the woods on the left are clearer and more like a traditional White Pine forest grove that you would find inland. The deep forest mat of pine needles is a barrier that most plants cannot break through. Those that due are denied sunlight by the thick canopy of green needles that absorb every morsel of sunlight before it filters to the forest floor.

It was kind of nice to be back in real Maine forest with the dim light coming from small clearings and an occasional opening left by a fallen tree or branch.

Opposite this was a grand view looking Northeast from the trail. Small islands in the foreground stood out as a soft sea fog covered whatever islands lay behind. Evergreen branches frame each view adding a special quality that reminds you that this is the Maine coast; a special place made famous by artists and poets.

All of a sudden we find ourselves in a village. A forest village like none most folks have ever seen. The village sign says it all. This is a village for Faeries built by any child who may wonder this way. It is a village that reminds us that before we were tall enough to go on the big rides at the fair, we had imaginations that knew no limits.
The village is special in that any child who passes this way is welcome to create a house for the faeries with natural materials. Given the coolness of Maine winters, this is also much appreciated by the faerie folk. Being small moving the wood necessary for shelter can be a bit of chore.

I suspect there must be places for a sizable lot of faeries here. The site covers a good part of the pine grove. Though the home sites are not opulent, they appear to be very serviceable by local standards. (Though they may not be up to city codes just yet)

You can see why a short hike can take me such a long time. My brother reminds me of my promise to my granddaughter.

The trail from here is wide between trees that have aged well. We are moving around the north side of the island now and back into mixed forest. More deciduous (drop their leaves) trees are on the trail. There are birch, oak, maple, beech and any number I know but can’t identify.

The woods here are thick with undergrowth again. We cross a small wooden bridge and pass by a bench. The view toward the north is beautiful with a thin sheet of water covering the muddy bay bottom. It has many of the qualities of a fine yet old mirror. The defects create reflections of shapes that the far shore has never known.

We locate an ancient tree that was once home to many carvings. Apparently this was a local favorite for generations. The tree has been dismembered. We don’t know if this was an intentional act or an act of some other kind. It is possible that someone has preserved the carving for posterity. If so, we should be able to find out where they are. If not we shall see.

As the tree has been cut up with a saw of some kind, we are hoping that it still exists. We could find no carvings among the pieces lying beside the remnants of the stump.

As we proceed along the island we are traveling opposite the mainland. The woods are thick and lush on this end of the trail. There are few glimpses of the water or of Falmouth. Here we locate another tree with a marker. This is an American Basswood. They can grow up to 100 feet tall and have a diameter of two to three feet. This is one of the trees I would never be able to identify. My son who is a carpenter could put me to shame on this one. His grandfather taught him how to recognize most Maine trees by the leaves, the grain or the bark. He can tell how each is best used to build things.

Back to the trail with us it is. The trail has many small openings which provide for forest glades. These are full of small blossoms with white, yellow or blue petals. The air is clean and has a soft forest scent with a touch of hemlock and roses.

We now see the causeway through the trees. It is a bittersweet feeling. I am elated that I will be keeping my promise to my granddaughter. I know that this may be my only chance to visit this island on this trip so it would nice to be able to spend more time.
Even on this last short leg of the trip there are surprises. We find a stone wall along the woods side of the trail holding in enough water to form a nice little frog pond. With it the vegetation around the pond is different than what we have seen up to here.

I will probably have to walk the trail in the other direction next time. This will give me time to spend on this other end of the trail. As it is, we passed by many interesting entrances to the shoreline.

On this end of the trail is the bicycle rack for those who bike out from Falmouth. I suspect they placed it here so that it could be seen from the guard shack.

The trail comes up to the road that leads to the parking lot. To our right we see the causeway with its wooden bridge in the center. To our left is the island guard shack providing the school and the visitors a sense of security!

We get in our car and exit the island. From here we will go to the stop sign, take a right and go a few miles up the road (route 1) to the Freeport Inn on the right for breakfast. It is always a large meal delicious home style meal. I suspect the best breakfast in Maine short of one prepared by family.

My brother thought I was crazy as they usually have a huge line. But when we got there everyone waiting wanted to sit inside. We sat on the porch and got seated within just a few minutes. The food and service was just as good.

If you decide to visit Mackworth Island it is just about a mile up route 1(Blue Star Memorial Highway) from Portland into Falmouth. It is not marked by much in the way of a sign. There is a small blue sign that identify the street (Andrews Avenue) to Baxter’s School for the Deaf. Follow the avenue across the causeway. The parking lot is to the right of the guard shack.

In the event the parking lot is full, you may return to Falmouth, park and either walk or bike over to the island. Whether you are a hiker, artist, tourist or just a lover of the outdoors this is a fantastic place to visit. For those seeking to see Maine’s wonders but have a very short time in the state, the island offers the opportunity to see several types of woodland, fields, rocky coast, sandy beaches, Maine folklore, Maine history and ocean views all in a few short hours.

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