At the Edge of America
If distance makes the heart grow fonder, Lubec is Maine's sweetheart. The easternmost town in the continental United States, it calls for a two-hour drive past the turnoff to Acadia. Sitting at the end of the road, of course, is West Quoddy Head lighthouse, one of the state's most beloved and photo-graphed coastal icons. What surprisingly few of the people who make it to this rocky peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Maine realize, however, is that West Quoddy Head is also home to a state park that includes some of the most impressive vistas, unique natural features, and diverse wildlife anywhere in Maine.
You could easily hike the five short trails at Quoddy Head State Park in a single afternoon. But if you make it this far Down East, we'll wager that you'll find yourself slowing down, looking at things a little more closely than you normally would, and considering, quite literally, the forest for the trees. Exploring each of Quoddy's five trails can help you experience a park that, in terms of beauty per square inch, may well be Maine's most spectacular.
Distance: Two miles, starting at the parking lot and ending at Carrying Place Cove
Difficulty: The most rugged trail in the park, it includes some moderate scrambling
Asking a hiker to select their favorite park in Maine is a bit like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. But even those who have climbed the Precipice at Acadia or gazed down upon Chimney Pond from Baxter Peak admit that the bold ocean vistas, solitude, and still-wild atmosphere at Quoddy Head State Park set it apart. While the five trails that traverse the 540-acre park don't compare to the hundreds that link the hills and carriage trails on Mount Desert Island, the Coastal Trail that wanders along sea cliffs, darts through moss-shrouded woods, and emerges onto a rocky beach at Green Point is without doubt one of the state's finest. And the 65,000 people who make it to Maine's easternmost state park leave a far more subtle human impression behind than the 2.5 million who visit Acadia. You won't find boulders worn smooth by decades of trail boots or discover a busload of sightseers has left their Nike imprints in the mud here. The park seems to make a conscious effort not to impose itself on the landscape; fences protect only the most precarious drops (those walking with children tend to keep youngsters in hand) and the minimal improvements might consist of rough-hewn stairs and water bars. "West Quoddy Head always has a more raw flavor to it than I think Acadia does, and I love Acadia," explains John Gibson, a guidebook author who has walked many of the trails in Maine. "If you go there during some times of the year you might not see another soul."
A spur of the Coastal Trail leads to a boardwalk that encircles one of two bogs in the park, while another leads to the raised peat lands in Carrying Place Cove, so named because early Native Americans would portage their canoes across the neck rather than battle the swift currents in Lubec Narrows. Another turn, and the path emerges onto Green Point, where rocky cairns momentarily distract from the stunning view across the Great Manan Channel to the towering white cliffs of Grand Manan Island, part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. "It's a park that looks into another country," remarks Gibson."That's certainly pretty unusual."
Distance: More access route than hiking trail, this path runs just sixty yards from the trailhead parking lot to the lighthouse
Difficulty: If you can put your car in "Park," you ought to be able to make this short stroll
West Quoddy Head Light is such an icon of the Maine coast that some might see it as a bit of a cliche. But there's a deep history behind this forty-nine-foot-tall-light station, which enters its two-hundredth year of service this year. President Thomas Jefferson first commissioned a wooden tower to be built here in 1808, ostensibly to warn mariners off the ledges and basaltic outcroppings near the mouth of Passamaquoddy Bay, but also in part to establish an American presence on a border that was still ill defined. Indeed, the British are said to have inhabited the light station briefly during the War of 1812, when they also occupied the city of Eastport. Shortly after its construction the tower was given its signature stripes, presumably to match its Canadian counterparts that are so painted to help them stand out in the rain, snow, and seemingly omnipresent fog.
Indeed, that fog is what brought one of the country's first fog bells to West Quoddy Head in 1820. While several replacements were made over the years, a proper audible signal was not installed until 1869, when a Daboll trumpet fog whistle was installed in a small building next to the keeper's house. Today that signal, in conjunction with a third-order Fresnel lens that beams a signal visible up to twenty miles at sea, continues to warn sailors of the treacherous Lubec Channel approach.
While the tower itself is closed to visitors, a small museum and art gallery now occupy the lower level of the former lighthouse keeper's home. (Before the light was automated in 1987, West Quoddy Head required two full-time keepers; today the park ranger inhabits the second-floor apartment.) The lighthouse is one stop every traveler seems to make. "It usually takes until about the middle of July to get visitors from all fifty states," explains Leona MacBride, a docent at the lighthouse. "One year we waited so long for Nevada, but then someone spotted a car with Nevada plates downtown and asked them to please go visit the lighthouse."
Distance: Half-mile roundtrip from the Inland Trail, including the circular boardwalk
Difficulty: Easy, though care must be taken not to step off the trail and harm the bog itself
Maine's Bold Coast is impressive, with its towering sea cliffs and hugely oversized scale, but such colossal surroundings can easily distract from the area's more diminutive wonders. Two of the finest examples of such small-scale treasures are the twin raised peat bogs at Quoddy Head State Park. These basins, which have been likened to a natural Tupperware bin, were formed when the ice sheets retreated more than ten thousand years ago. Where a marshland or fens will have some water flowing into or out of it, the only moisture exchange in a bog is through evaporation and rainfall. Quoddy Head's bogs are even more significant, however, because they are arctic bogs, with the ever-present fog keeping them cool and fostering such plants as sundew, pitcher, leatherleaf, and Labrador tea - all normally found in much higher latitudes. Raised coastal bogs such as the ones at Quoddy Head today can be found only in neighboring New Brunswick, coastal Scandinavia, and New Zealand.
Even better, of course, is the fact that the park has made viewing the bogs so easy. The short Bog Trail leads to a 640-foot-long boardwalk that loops through one bog, with low interpretive signs explaining noteworthy plants and features. The other bog, in Carrying Place Cove, is a nationally protected area, one of only six such raised plateau bogs in the United States. It is visible from both the Thompson Trail and the Coastal Trail, but visitors should not enter it because the plant life is very fragile. Studies done on this bog have determined it is actually twelve feet deep, and 12,000-year-old scallop and clamshells are visible to visitors today in a remarkable spot where a cross-section of the bog is exposed as it is steadily being eroded into the ocean.
"I find it fascinating how the plants have adapted to the bog," remarks Ruta Jordans, who leads tours through West Quoddy Head's bogs during the summer months. "Because they can't get all their nutrients from the bog itself, some, like the pitcher plant, actually eat insects by making them fall into it. Others, like the sundew, close around insects that land on them."
Quoddy Head's little shop of horrors is one natural wonder that shouldn't be missed.
Distance: One and a quarter miles from Carrying Place Cove to its intersection with the Bog Trail
Difficulty: Moderate. Care should be taken not to damage the exposed bog in Carrying Place Cove
Wander the Thompson Trail - or any other for that matter - and you're likely to run into people with binoculars. For birders, Quoddy Head remains one of Maine's most hallowed places. Here nutrient-rich cold water coming into the Bay of Fundy has the two-fold effect of drawing deep-water ocean birds near shore as well as washing the intertidal flats and marshes with plankton that in turn becomes a meal for shorebirds. "Lubec Flats [to the northwest of West Quoddy Head] and Quoddy Head State Park together are probably the best place in the state for shorebirds and seabirds," says naturalist Norman Famous, who has spent decades studying birds in eastern Maine. "You have all the shorebirds on one side and all the seabirds on the other."
Famous says hikers can sometimes spot puffins, jaegers, shearwaters, razorbills, and murres from the shore at West Quoddy Head, where normally such birds might only be found far at sea in the Gulf of Maine. Sail Rock, the obvious exposed shoal near the state park's gravel parking lot, draws more than its share of black-legged kittiwakes.
Farther inland, the park's bogs provide nesting habitat for species such as Lincoln's sparrow and palm warbler, while along the edges you might spot a yellow-bellied flycatcher or boreal chickadee. Famous says birders have discovered some particularly rare species at West Quoddy Head from time to time, including Eurasian whimbrel, Red Knots, and American avocet. Some are "oddballs" that happen upon the area, while others use the area as a final rest stop before embarking on a non-stop annual journey to South America.
Even non-birders can get a memorable wildlife sighting by scanning the horizon at Quoddy Head State Park. The water here boasts one of the highest concentrations of minke and finback whales visible from the Maine coast.
Distance: Three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot to where it branches off to the Bog Trail
Difficulty: Easy. This trail offers a nice alternative to retracing your steps along the Coastal Trail
Junia Lehman is used to seeing exhausted hikers returning to the parking lot on the Inland Trail. "A lot of people say they were just going to walk a little ways, but it got so beautiful they just couldn't stop," says Lehman, who has operated her West Quoddy Gifts shop (it bills itself as "The Easternmost Gift Shop in the U.S."), about a mile from the park, since 1990. While a few people have questioned why the park does not offer camping and other amenities (although there's waterside camping nearby at Cobscook Bay State Park), she says most appreciate its rustic nature, complete with gravel roads and parking lots.
Lehman, a third-generation native of West Quoddy Head, and others realize that while Lubec's isolation has made it difficult to get businesses to relocate there, it has also kept natural wonders such as Quoddy Head State Park from becoming overrun. "When I lived here as a kid, no one would come down my driveway and ask us where the lighthouse was," Lehman says. "No one cared." But as more
visitors discover the raw beauty to be found on Maine's Sunrise Coast, the beauty, tranquility, and diversity of West Quoddy Head will be further tested. "I hope we never become what Bar Harbor is," Lehman remarks. "What makes Lubec unique is that we are so remote. We have all the other problems that you do in Washington County, but it's so beautiful here. It's my home."