This column was first published June 24, 2006

Last Saturday I volunteered for my second Down East island cleanup with Maine Island Trail Association members, and again had the distinct displeasure of picking up another 5-gallon pail of used motor oil.

A few years ago I went along with a MITA crew to Stevens Island, one of the publicly owned islands on the trail, and our cleanup crew found a 5-gallon bucket of motor oil.

Fortunately, in each case the containers were not compromised and their messy, black contents were not oozing over the landscape or into the ocean. I can’t help but wonder what kind of person discards something like this into the ocean.

They’re probably the same people who heave bleach bottles and empty oil cans overboard. Or the ones who toss plastic buckets into the sea, or lawn furniture, or tires, or PVC pipe, or a 20-pound propane cylinder.

Then there’s the array of plastic soft drink and water bottles and foam coffee cups, liquor bottles and beer cans, balloons and ribbons, plastic bags and cigarette butts. And that’s not even considering all the commercial fishing gear that washes up on shore – lobster buoys, line, traps, and wood debris from smashed docks and floats.

I’m always amazed at the amount of debris we find – and this from islands that are cleaned up fall and spring. If you venture out along a shoreline that isn’t regularly cleaned up, be prepared to be flabbergasted. A hike down Petit Manan peninsula last year was an eye-opener for me. As we got to the most southern end, I couldn’t believe the amount of washed-up lobster fishing gear. There were more than 100 wire traps, most bent like pretzels, washed up by storms.

MITA’s Down East cleanup capped a series of island cleanups from the Casco Bay area to the Western Rivers, Penobscot Bay, Deer Isle, and Mount Desert areas. Volunteers, ferried by boats, fan out over the 100-plus islands, private and public, picking up trash of all sorts. The strange assortment of junk is then brought back to shore and disposed of properly. It’s a spring and fall ritual of the organization.

Our four-boat armada last weekend hit the better part of some 20 islands in the area from Bois Bubert Island in Narraguagus Bay to Cross Island near Cutler. We brought home enough trash to fill three of the boats to the gunnels (ashore we combined our booty and loaded it onto the boats on their trailers).

This spring 50 volunteers have contributed 340 hours to help clean up 80 islands. They’ve collected 145 trash bags of trash as well as several large miscellaneous items including foam flotation billets, numerous 5-gallon buckets, five automobile tires, a full-sized refrigerator (Jewell Island in Casco Bay), and a 5-foot plastic alligator.

Aside from feeling good about leaving the place a little better off than it was before we came, the cleanup trips are always a great nature-watching platform. My usual kayaking snail pace is magnified several-fold and the distances covered grow as well. As we made our way east around Great Wass’ southernmost tip, headed toward Moose Peak Light, we were buzzed twice by a pair of razorbills. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen razorbills. The last time was at Petit Manan Island when I ventured out with U.S. Fish and Wildlife folks to look at nesting terns and laughing gulls. There were visiting puffins, razorbills, and murres.

Last weekend there was the usual cast of herring gulls, terns, black-backed gulls, black guillemots in their spring tuxedoes, cormorants, loons and one eagle sitting in a lone tree on Little Water Island. The seas were favorable and the skies mostly clear for a change. It made for a most enjoyable outing.

When you think about it, it’s comforting to know that at least one organization is working tirelessly to assure us the chance to visit some of the islands along our coast. With all the development pressures of the recent past and the stinginess of some landowners, it wouldn’t be long before island visits would be out of the question. Too often we see new island owners post their trophy purchase off limits to the likes of you and me. Thank you, MITA, for working with island owners and the state to keep some places accessible.

If you plan to visit any of the public islands, keep in mind the principles of Leave No Trace. Plan ahead (know what to expect for campsites; keep group size small; use stoves, not fires to cook; plan meals so you don’t have extra trash and garbage, and pack out what you have left over), walk on durable surfaces (put your tent on an established campsite, not in the grass), pack out human waste, don’t pick flowers or break off branches, don’t have a campfire (try the Girl Scout/Boy Scout fire in a can), respect wildlife (don’t approach seal pups or tramp around on nesting sites), and be considerate of others (keep noise down, share your space, and haul your gear and boats out of sight).

Puffin Visitor Center opening

Next weekend marks the opening of Audubon’s Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland and you are invited.

The grand opening will feature a ribbon-cutting ceremony with a human-size Captain Puffin and all-day activities that include a puffin-calling contest hosted by Maine radio personality Robert “Humble Farmer” Skoglund.

I received an e-mail last week describing the center as a joint project of the National Audubon Society and Maine Audubon. The center is located at 311 Main Street, Rockland. It is an easy-access storefront center where you can learn about Audubon’s Project Puffin and other seabird-conservation projects in Maine and to find out where and how to see Maine birds and other wildlife.

Among the center’s educational exhibits is a continuous, big-screen Web broadcast of real-time images and sounds of puffins transmitted by a robotic on-island “puffin cam” that visitors can operate remotely from the center.

“We hope our visitors will enjoy themselves at the center and gain a greater appreciation of the birds that live on the oceans,” said Dr. Stephen Kress, founder and director of 33-year-old Project Puffin. The project restored puffin colonies that had disappeared in Maine – the only place the birds nest in the United States – and continues seabird restoration work on Gulf of Maine islands for many species.

“For Audubon, the center represents the possibilities of a new phase of public support for the conservation of seabirds and other marine wildlife,” Kress said. “Visitors to the center will leave with the understanding that these birds are depending on people to take action to ensure their survival. The techniques developed for bringing seabirds back to Maine islands have worldwide applications. This is increasingly urgent as one-quarter of all seabird species are globally threatened with extinction.”

Here’s what’s on tap Saturday:

. 9 a.m.-noon, at the pocket park on the corner of Park Drive and Main Street: Bring kids and cameras to meet “Captain Puffin,” Downeast Energy’s super-size puffin.

. 9:30 a.m., at the park: Project Puffin director Dr. Stephen Kress and other guests will speak briefly before joining a half-block “puffin parade” to the visitor center.

. 10 a.m., at the visitor center, 311 Main Street: ribbon-cutting.

. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., tour the visitor center: See live puffins on streaming video, climb into the puffin burrow, and meet special guests such as nature photographer Bill Scholtz and award-winning wildlife documentary filmmaker Dan Breton, whose short film, “Project Puffin,” you can then watch.

. 11 a.m., at the park: first-ever Maine puffin-calling contest hosted by Maine radio-show host and St. George resident Robert “Humble Farmer” Skoglund.

. 11:30 a.m.-noon, 12:30-1 p.m., 2:30-3 p.m., at the park: activities with environmental educators Seabird Sue and Puffin Pete. Make masks, mobiles, and more.

For more information about the day or the center, call 596-5566.

In addition to support from Audubon, local businesses, and private donors, the visitor center has received a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. State and local organizations and agencies advising the Project Puffin Visitor Center include: the Farnsworth Art Museum, Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, Island Institute, Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Rockland-Thomaston Chamber of Commerce.

Upside-down kayak course

You remember Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” don’t you? How about 20 ways to deal with an upside-down kayak?

For $125 you can sign up for a one-day course that covers the American Canoe Association introduction to flatwater and kayak safety and rescue skills that will be taught by Bob Myron. It will be done July 1 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Whites Beach, Brunswick. Myron said you’ll get to practice in a warm-water environment and cover many aspects of kayak rescue from entry level to advanced – some of which you can master on the day of the course. Others will be demonstrated for you to practice on your favorite water body.

Call Myron at 720-0257 to sign up or to get more information.

Jeff Strout’s column is published each Saturdays.