It’s a very long drive from Boston to Cobscook Shores, a parkland that opened on Memorial Day in Maine’s extreme northeasterly corner. For those in possession of a small plane, you can set down on Lubec’s grassy airstrip. Or, for amphibious craft, there’s Lubec’s harbor.
For the rest of us, drive we must — which is a bit unfortunate. Gilbert Butler, the philanthropist behind this stunning new preserve, knows too well how our car culture can overrun many a scenic place, notably Mount Desert two hours to the south, where Butler, a keen kayaker and outdoorsman, has a home.
The long haul to Cobscook Shores is nevertheless so worth it. The preserve, a scenic treasure trove of 14 separate parcels acquired and managed by the Butler Conservation Fund, is designed especially for bikers, hikers, and paddlers. So, expect to leave your car at the visitor center at Old Farm Point each day, or at smaller lots close to a boat-launch site, and use bike, kayak, canoe, or legs to enter the dramatic landscape of Cobscook Bay and its spectacular estuaries, Whiting Bay, Straight Bay, South Bay, and Johnson Bay. There are endless routes to explore, past woodlands, meadows and orchards, leading to the cliffs and rocky beaches of one of the most “complicated shorelines in the world,” a geologist observed in 1886.
The Cobscook bays may be a well-kept secret among humans but not among shore birds, mammals, fish, or bivalves. Here, where powerful 25-foot tides keep the waters racing in and out, distributing nutrients, eagles, scallops and phytoplankton thrive. It’s recognized as one of the most prolific marine ecosystems in the country.
“No cars, no boat engines, no voices,” writes Tamsin Venn about Cobscook Bay in her definitive guide “Sea Kayaking Along the New England Coast.” “Only the sound of the wind and the birds, maybe a loon’s gurgle, maybe a clammer in an aluminum skiff, and no sense of imminent intrusion.”
The preserve’s parks are mostly dispersed along three long necks — Crows, Denbow, and Seward — and biking the length of any of these outreaches makes for a satisfying 5-plus-mile ride on roads mostly free of cars. At the neck’s end, whether at Race Point, Huckins Beach, or Pike Lands, you can rack your bike, take to foot, and explore coastal trails for hours.
Cobscook Shores, with 500 acres, seems much, much larger, and that’s because its parcels are surrounded by lands overseen by many other conservation groups. US Fish & Wildlife, the State of Maine, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Downeast Coastal Conservancy, and municipalities have been working to protect Cobscook shoreline for decades. Many thousands of preserved acres stretch from Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in the west to Treat Island in the east. The overall number of trails for public use is truly impressive.
“That’s one of the reasons we like the area. We can buy a relatively small piece but gain the leverage of having other conserved properties around us,” said Carl Carlson, director of parklands for the Butler Conservation Fund, which supports environmental projects worldwide. You can walk from Pike Lands Cove, a Butler property with one of the most diverse apple orchards in New England, to the adjacent Downeast Coastal Conservancy property, where rugged woodland terrain descends to the coast — one small example of what this big preservation pie has to offer.
“We’re allies,” said Jon Southern, DCC’s executive director, of the various land groups in the region. “Preserving land — it’s more important than ever,” especially given the threat of development and climbing real estate sales. It isn’t just about parkland, he and others stressed. Given how many people in the area make their living off natural resources, protecting traditional access points for clammers and fisherman is of critical importance.
For kayakers lured to this “complicated” coastline, again, Cobscook Shores is all the richer for its neighbors. For instance, you can launch from Whiting Bay Beach, a Butler park, and paddle over to the beautiful shores of Cobscook Bay State Park; or venture from Old Farm Point out through Johnson Bay to Treat Island, a MCHT property where the Passamaquoddy regularly camped.
Just be aware of the strong tides and currents, and plan carefully, or you might find yourself caught in whirlpools or stranded on mudflats. In her guide, Venn gives fair warning: “Cobscook is a Maliseet-Passamaquoddy word meaning ‘boiling tide,’ while Passamaquoddy means ‘people of the undertow.’”
The remoteness of this beautiful area has protected it. Will greater public access spoil it? Butler and his team part the curtain, but with great restraint. At the visitor center, there are maps but no food. Expect to carry-in and carry-out any provisions. Parkland rules include no RVs in parking lots; no radios, drones or loud noise. At trailheads, you’ll find the bare essentials: information signs, bike racks, and porta-potties.
Exactly when the coastal views are so fantastic, you just want to sit and stare, often there’s a strategically placed bench. Not just any bench, but a handsome slab of Douglas fir suspended on two black metal posts. Other simple, elegant, unobtrusive touches are 9-foot-square screened pavilions for picnicking, hemlock bog crossings, and sturdy steps down to beaches.
“Our vision is conservation through public access,” said Carlson. “We want to see people coming out and falling in love with the land, because no one is going to care about it if they don’t have access to it.”
In a similar vein, said Carlson, “our outdoor education program is for introducing conservationists-of-the-future to the out-of-doors.” Begun in New York, the program was extended to schools near Butler’s first Maine preserve, Penobscot River Trails, which opened in 2019, and now is offered to Whiting, Trescott, and Lubec schools each spring. Students are equipped with bikes, kayaks, and guides as well as transportation to and from the parks.
There aren’t all that many inns or B&Bs in this part of the world, so make reservations well in advance. The Butler properties have a few camping sites, as do neighboring preserves. Here again, since space is limited, plan ahead or you might find yourself sleeping in your car.
Other writers will describe the Cobscook region as “wilderness.” But with the climate, ocean, and forests changing because of the impact of human activities, you have to wonder, does true wilderness exist anymore? Butler’s preserve, at least, allows the chance to sit on a bench and wonder about things, far from the car-crazy world.
Ann Parson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.