The horizon was a ragged mess of whitecaps. Waves crashed against offshore ledges. Thick white clouds crawled in, carrying snow. Yet as we hiked along the shore of Great Wass Island, the land sheltered us from the frigid wind. And the sun emerged, throwing our shadows onto the granite bedrock.
If we’d been on the other side of the island — or if the wind had been coming from another direction — we would have been pretty darn cold. But we’d gotten lucky.
I often find myself feeling lucky when spending time outdoors.
On that blustery November day, I was hiking with a friend, Chris Bennett, who also happens to be a talented photographer. He knew I was on the lookout for seabirds. But I don’t think he was quite prepared for how enthusiastic I can be about wildlife.
Great Wass Island Preserve, owned and maintained by The Nature Conservancy, has recently become one of Chris’ favorite spots along the Maine coast. I can see why.
The island is located in eastern Maine, in the town of Beals, near Jonesport. It’s accessible by a bridge, so you can drive your car right there. I’m surprised I hadn’t visited before.
From the preserve’s spacious gravel parking lot, we ducked into the woods on a hiking trail that carried us over narrow bog bridges to a trail intersection. There we turned left to walk the 4 1/2-mile loop clockwise.
The loop is a combination of three intersecting trails: Mud Hole Trail, Shoreline Trail and Little Cape Point Trail. Marked with blue blazes, about half of the route travels right along the edge of the water, over granite bedrock that drops steeply into the ocean. This geological feature is evidence of the Fundian Fault, a long crack in the Earth’s crust that extends from the Bay of Fundy to the coast of New Hampshire, according to The Nature Conservancy.
Great Wass Island projects farther out to sea than any other land mass in eastern Maine. But that’s not the only reason it’s special. The island is home to a variety of rare plants, including the beach head iris, marsh felwort and bird’s-eye primrose.
The island also supports one of the state’s largest stands of coastal jack pine trees, which can grow in thin soil. As we walked through the stand on Nov. 20, we stopped to inspect the trees’ curved cones and twisted branches. Beneath them grew fluffy balls of reindeer lichen.
The 1,579-acre preserve was formed when The Nature Conservancy acquired the land in 1978. Dogs aren’t permitted, but that makes it an even better place to observe wildlife, which we saw plenty of that day.
Not long after reaching the water, Chris pointed out the glistening gray head of a seal peeking above the waves. And it wasn’t alone. A second seal emerged soon after, and I could have sworn they were following us as we picked our way along the shore.
Birds bobbed just offshore. Among them, I identified groups of common mergansers, black scoters and herring gulls. I also spotted a few loons, which were dark gray and white in their winter plumage. Gone were the dramatic spots, stripes and iridescent feathers of summer.
Across the water, Moose Peak Lighthouse stood on the eastern tip of Mistake Island. The weathered, white, conical tower looked like something out of a movie. In fact, it reminded me of the fictional Maine lighthouse featured in “The Lighthouse,” a 2019 film set in the late 19th century.
Moose Peak Lighthouse was commissioned in 1827, and something about it just looks haunted. And who doesn’t love a haunted lighthouse?
The hike involved a lot of rock hopping. An occasional swath of ice added to the challenge. And while looking for crabs, I nearly face-planted in some slippery seaweed. At that point, I decided I should probably pick up the pace before I drove Chris crazy.
However, soon after, I stopped to sit in a patch of especially fine sand. It looked like it came straight off a tropical beach. I couldn’t resist.
We said goodbye to the ocean as the trail headed back into the woods, but that wasn’t the end of our coastal Maine safari. As we threaded through a mostly evergreen forest, two white-tailed deer crashed through the underbrush. Their fluffy white tails waved at us as they quickly avoided being photographed.
Just a bit farther along, we saw another deer munching on vegetation out in a bog. It lifted its head, studied us, then got back to eating. Apparently, we were far enough away to not pose a threat.
We returned to the parking lot to find just one other vehicle. And throughout the day, we’d only met three other people. However, the preserve can get busy during the summer months.
If you’re thinking of visiting, there are a few simple rules to follow. Bikes and motorized vehicles aren’t permitted on the trails. Campfires are prohibited. Stay on the trail. Carry out your trash. The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset. And again, leave your dog at home.
To learn more about this preserve and many others throughout Maine, check out The Nature Conservancy website at nature.org.