In the quiet, rocky forest of Blackwood Mountain, I sat on a bright blue bench and unfolded the brochure for Holbrook Island Sanctuary State Park in Brooksville. Ahead of me, the sapphire ocean peeked through straight, tall trunks of spruce trees. Wispy white clouds floated in the sky.
According to the map, a cemetery marked with a cross was located southeast of the mountain, nestled in the woods and reachable only by trail. We didn’t have a strict agenda, so I marked it as our next destination.
By “we,” I mean me and my canine companion, Juno. The short, steep hike up Backwood Mountain hadn’t been enough to tire her out. Not even close. So while I pored over the map, she impatiently shuffled around at the end of her leash, thrusting her nose into rotten logs and beds of soft moss.
Luckily for her, we had a lot more to explore that day. The mainland portion of the park, covering 1,230 acres, is home to 10 named and well-maintained trails peppered with historic and natural highlights. The trails total about 7.5 miles.
In addition, a much smaller network of trails crisscross nearby 115-acre Holbrook Island, which is also a part of the park. But it’s only accessible by boat.
I’d visited the property seven years prior with my late dog Oreo. But it had faded in my memory to mossy forests and a rocky shoreline. So on that day in early April, as I wandered the park’s many trails with Juno, much of the experience felt entirely new. Though every once in a while, I’d think, “Aha! I remember that.”
We descended the mountain on the newly extended Summit Trail, then navigated along the Mountain Loop and Connector Trail to Howard Cemetery. It contains 31 graves, according to a detailed document on Hancock County cemeteries posted online by the Maine Office of GIS.
One of the graves stood out to me right away. The tall tombstone was for John A. Howard, who was “lost on Georges in the gale of February 21, 1879” at just 16 years old. At the top of the stone is an etching of a ship being tossed by waves, and at the bottom are the words: “Let him sleep in his ocean bed. Let hope be amidst our sorrow. There is peace in the night of the early dead. It will yield to a glorious morrow.”
I wanted to learn more about John A. Howard, and it’s amazing what you can find online nowadays. February of 1879 is known as “the deadliest month” for the Gloucester Fishing Fleet, which consisted of schooners that would go out for months to fish cod on the Georges Bank. Over the span of only two days, 14 ships carrying 157 men disappeared in a storm, according to an article published by the New England Historical Society.
Was John A. Howard one of those men? In the 1882 publication called “The fishermen’s own book, comprising the list of men and vessels lost from the port of Gloucester, Mass.,” I found a John A. Howard among the 11-person crew of the schooner Joshua S. Sanborn. It was fishing the Georges Bank when it sank in the February 1879 storm.
As I read the names of his crewmates — Edward Waton, James Burge, Bertram Blake — I was struck with the peculiar feeling that I also get while reading the tombstones in old cemeteries. It’s not sadness exactly. It’s a somber wonderment, perhaps, and the desire to learn the stories behind the names.
Moving on from Howard Cemetery, Juno and I followed the Mountain Loop through a dense stand of balsam fir trees filled with chickadees, more than I’d ever seen in one place. They announced our intrusion with their recognizable call: “chickadee-dee-dee.” And some of the little birds landed on branches so close to me that I could almost reach out and touch them.
We then walked Backshore Trail and Goose Falls Trail, where I spotted more than 50 seals lounging on a seaweed-covered ledge offshore. With my camera, I zoomed in to watch them yawn, flop about and slap their flippers.
Along those trails, we visited two more cemeteries, both marked on the map and only accessible by foot. A fourth cemetery is marked on the trail map but doesn’t have an official trail leading to it. Many of the buried were of the Bakeman family, which explains why Backwood Mountain is also referred to as Bakeman Mountain. And farther south in Cape Rosier there’s a Bakeman Beach on Bakeman Cove.
But one of the most interesting gravestones of the day was back in the Howard Cemetery. Johnson Howard died on Oct. 30, 1870, at the age of 46. And his stone reads: “As a cloud of the sunset, slow melting in heaven. As a star that is lost when the daylight is given. As a glad dream of slumber, which wakens in bliss, she hath passed to the world of the holy from this.”
It’s an excerpt from the poem “A Lament” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), who lived in Massachusetts and advocated for the abolition of slavery. The Howard family must have been a fan of his writing.
It’s amazing the things you can discover during a day in the woods.