ST. GEORGE, Maine — A half-mile offshore from this small town on Maine's midcoast lies High Island, a 22-acre knob of land where Maine children camp and locals find peace in panoramic views and the rhythmic rise and retreat of the tides.
For decades, the family that owned this uninhabited island allowed visitors to land on its shores. But now, High Island is up for sale, sparking a local campaign to prevent it from going the way of so many other Maine islands that have been snapped up by wealthy buyers and closed to the public.
The effort is part of a backlash among those who say the changing ownership of the islands is eroding a key aspect of the culture of coastal Maine.
"Being on the island is something magic," said Leslie Hyde, a leader of the fund-raising campaign trying to raise $760,000 to buy the island. "We reconnect with our true selves. And our true selves are of nature."
Traditionally, island owners allowed people to hike, camp, and picnic on their property. But as islands pass to real estate developers and billionaires seeking the ultimate getaway, they are increasingly off-limits, marked with 'No Trespassing' signs or patrolled by caretakers who run off unwelcome boaters.
In March, Linda Bean, an heiress to the L.L. Bean fortune, bought Davis Island, a 48-acre island about 3 miles off Port Clyde, for $2.1 million. Bean, who did not reply to requests for comment, rents the house, which is described in brochures as "a very private and spectacularly beautiful retreat."
A Portland developer recently bought House Island in Casco Bay, a 24-acre spot of land, for $2.4 million and plans to build luxury vacation homes there. Another 20 Maine islands and one small island chain are up for sale, according to the website "Private Islands Online," with prices ranging from $39,999 to $5.9 million.
"The market for islands in Maine is booming," Terry Sortwell, a principal at LandVest in Camden, an arm of Christie's International Real Estate, wrote in a newsletter to clients.
High Island went on the market several years ago for $1.35 million. On its mainland side, there's a small beach where boats can land in calm waters and visitors can build fires, swim, and clam. On the ocean side, granite is battered smooth by tides and time. Crowning the island is Maine's distinctive boreal forest of spruce and fir trees, ringed by bayberry bushes and light purple sea asters sprouting from stony crags.
The island has been home to Blueberry Cove, a summer camp that has catered to Maine children since the late 1940s. Now run by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, it is a 4-H Camp with a devoted following who believe the islands offer a transcendent experience and opportunity to teach children lessons about the world, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.
Hyde, 67, said he fell in love with Maine's islands while teaching at Cornell University in the late 1970s. A colleague offered to let him visit her family's summer home on Mosquito Island, another island in the Georges island chain, not far from High Island. Hyde packed up his Chevy Vega, his Sunfish boat on top, and camped on the island for a month.
Shortly afterward, he said, he quit his job and moved to the Maine coast, where he has lived ever since.
Mosquito Island was later purchased by cable media mogul John Malone, a Fortune 500 billionaire and one of the biggest landowners in the United States.
Malone shuns publicity and only occasionally spends time on the island with his wife, Hyde said. Island caretakers don't allow visitors.
High Island is very a different story. Ann Goldsmith, who worked at the camp since the 1950s, said the island's owners, Karen and Becky Wentworth, have let the camp use the island with "a smile and a handshake." There was never talk about liability or legalities.
Instead, there was just a sharing of nature, both on the island and around it. A boat ride to the island is a chance to witness a bald eagle hunting or take in the view of Southern Island, home to a massive lighthouse once owned by artist Andrew Wyeth and now his son, Jamie. It is Maine at its best.
"The idea of having that available to kids or training young people to work with children in a wilderness situation is such a rich thing," Goldsmith said of the island. "It's such a wonderful opportunity. I love that little island."
When High Island went on the market several years ago, the call to save it began. The Wentworth sisters, whose family has owned the island since the 1940s, heard the pleas from people who had long enjoyed the island.
They agreed to take the island off the private market and instead sell it to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a land conservation organization in Topsham, for roughly half of their initial asking price. The trust would preserve it and keep it open to the public and summer campers.
But to make the deal work, fund-raisers still had to help come up with the sales price and expenses, more than $700,000. They say they are more than half way there.
The campaign to buy High Island won a significant victory earlier this year when the voters of St. George approved a measure to contribute $25,000 in public funds to the island purchase effort. Supporters overcame the opposition of selectmen, who earlier rejected the appropriation, and mainlanders for whom Maine's wind-battered islands hold little-to-no allure.
As one resident said: "I prefer islands with palm trees."
David Mumford, a former Harvard mathematician and professor emeritus at Brown University, sent his four children to Blueberry Cove summer camp and retired to Tenants Harbor, a village in St. George, for six months of the year.
He has been working with Hyde on the fund-raising effort to save High Island and said the vote to buy the island signalled a change in the town's attitude toward preserving public access.
"There's a feeling that everything that they took for granted was being eaten up by private owners," Mumford said. "It was a shift in psychology and a first for this area along the coast."