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Hermit Island: Sand dollars and a time warp along Maine’s coast

The author’s family revels in the perfect sand at Hermit Island’s Sand Dune Beach.

BRIAN IRWIN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The author’s family revels in the perfect sand at Hermit Island’s Sand Dune Beach.

HERMIT ISLAND — In 1907 Sumner Sewall, 10, and his friends rowed across an inlet to a barren island just south of Phippsburg. Dunes dotted the shoreline as they made their way to a man’s cabin. Purportedly he was an odd old man. He kept a few sheep. He had no family. He kept to himself, a hermit. The boys would row over in the shallow light of evening, sneak up on his abode, and spy on him. Eventually the man died, his home disintegrated, and the island, coined Hermit Island by the young Sewall, developed into a rustic, no-amenities campground on the lapping shores of the Atlantic.

But Hermit Island didn’t start as a campground. Although the powdery sand, sea grass, and lily pads floating in a frog-choked pond frame an idyllic camping backdrop, the island was first developed as a lobster impoundment. Sewall, who grew up to become an airline executive and served as governor from 1941-45, returned to his maritime roots. He partnered with his two sons to purchase the island in 1948 so they could build a small dam, trap lobsters, and sell them in the spring when they’d grown plump. Over time taxes climbed, revenue dropped, and to make ends meet, they laid out 14 campsites along the ocean to supplement their income. Hermit Island Campground was born.

With no expensive boardwalk rides nor greasy funnel cake, the Hermit Island beach experience is simple and pure.

Brian Irwin

With no expensive boardwalk rides nor greasy funnel cake, the Hermit Island beach experience is simple and pure.

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Today there are 270 camping sites on an island where little else has changed. There’s still no power or running water, no RVs or boxy trailers. Such rigs aren’t allowed, only tents and pickup trucks.

“We kept it this way to preserve the land, to do as little damage as possible and try to maintain the natural beauty of what’s there,” says Nick Sewall, Sumner’s son and current owner. “We wanted to change as little as possible when we built the sites.”

Camping here is like stepping back in time. A tiny store sells ice and local lobster; you have to bring everything else with you. The campground is tightly organized, with sites in shallow depressions between dunes, organically-trimmed spaces within thick vegetation, or on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. They are surprisingly private and all have easy foot or bike access to hiking trails that ripple to the island’s uninhabited north end.

Pocket beaches dot the shoreline, some flanked by corrugated sheets of granite peppered with barnacles, seaweed, and urchins. Crabs scamper from flooded pothole to pothole at low tide, making this a child’s wonderland of tidal pools. Gentle waves and protected waters make this an ideal destination for sea kayaking.

The island has somewhat of a cult following. Testimonials are rare, since most guests are repeat visitors who want to protect their resource. Many fear that if this place becomes popular, it may turn into a developed resort. And although increased popularity could make the reservation system even more competitive, it’s the tax structure that has the island at risk.

“The biggest threat to Hermit Island are climbing taxes,” says Sewall. “Nearby property is selling for such exorbitant prices that their tax rates are influencing ours. It’s getting to the point where it may be too expensive to keep [the campground] running as is. It’s threatening our livelihood.”

Sewall anticipates that within a decade he may have to consider other options, including selling or developing part of the land. Yet “changing anything at Hermit Island would be an absolute last resort,” he said.

Fresh off the beach my daughter Ella, 6, asked, “Can we go to SS1?” As it turns out, our four kids had identified a system of “Secret Spot” locations, nothing more than a sequentially numbered series of enclaves under various bushes, in the dunes, and in the brush. There were four, all within 20 yards of camp, each adorned with the typical accoutrements of a child’s fort, such as imaginary fairy houses and rock collections.

It takes a certain thirst for simplicity to leave your bed, computer, and microwave, pack your car, and sleep on the ground in a tent for a weekend or a week. Some campgrounds offer activities to stave off boredom: arcades, hot tubs, mini-golf. On Hermit Island “SS2’’ is your arcade. Sun-baked tidal pools are your hot tub. You make your own mini-golf course in the hardened sand. It’s vacationing stripped down, nothing but you, your family, gawking shorebirds, and a feeling that visitors have been protecting for 65 years.

Last year my wife, Lori, and I were fast asleep before our Saturday morning departure for Hermit. At 4:30 our bedroom door swung open. Morgan, 5, stood on the threshold, fully dressed and beaming. She softly spoke. “OK guys. I’m ready to go to Hermit Island. I just need to go to the bathroom before we get in the car.”

Later in the fading sunset our campfire crackled, warming our family’s favorite camping meal. As gravy popped on the campstove and I sipped wine from an aluminum mug, our children ran into the campsite, carrying buckets of sand dollars, razor clam shells, and driftwood. Ella clambered over the dune, asking, “Can we come here every year?” The squeals and giggles faded into the nearby vegetation as it became apparent to Lori and me: Hermit Island had become an annual tradition.

Brian Irwin can be reached at irwin08.bi@gmail.com.
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