On a hazy blue day last September, in the woods above the gently sloping beach of Bean Island, Christina Hassett knelt on what had been, until that morning, the roof of a dilapidated cabin. Clutching a power saw, her long hair tied back in a braid, the regional stewardship manager for the Maine Island Trail Association set about slicing the roof to pieces. Nearby, volunteers swung sledgehammers at collapsed wooden walls and carried the fragments down below the high-tide line to burn.
Before it hosted a beautiful oak forest with a grassy understory, 27-acre Bean Island — at the entrance to Sullivan Harbor, in Frenchman Bay — was used in the early 1900s for grazing sheep. These days, it’s owned by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy and one of some 200 coastal islands stewarded for recreational use by the nonprofit Maine Island Trail Association. The demolition of the old cabin, a shepherd’s quarters long since fallen into disrepair, was an example of MITA’s hand-in-hand approach to its work with landowners. In this case, the conservancy provided the island; MITA brought the boats, tools, and know-how; and volunteers from both organizations showed up to help.
Hard at work on Bean Island with MITA steward Christina Hassett .
Crumbling cabins, sagging fish houses, and other tired old structures aren’t uncommon on Maine’s islands. The decision to remove one from an island with public access typically happens for one of two reasons, Hassett says. Sometimes, a structure’s condition simply poses a danger to visitors. Other times, the language of an easement or a land trust’s mission may stipulate that an island be conserved in a “natural state.”
In the case of Bean Island, the cabin had become a target for vandalism and posed safety concerns. The conservancy, which has protected some 10,000 acres on the mainland, acquired the island in 2016. Its partnership with MITA began last summer, after conservancy leaders approached the Portland-based org about adding Bean Island to the 35-year-old recreational water trail. MITA itself doesn’t own any land. Rather, the organization supports land trusts, other private landowners, and the state in caring for Maine’s islands: stewards like Hassett, together with volunteers, maintain campsites and trails, keep islands free of trash and debris, and more. MITA also publishes an annual how-to-visit guide to the islands it tends, available only to members. A small organization, the Frenchman Bay Conservancy welcomed the help maintaining and monitoring their new property, says director Kat Deely. “MITA already has that great network, and putting Bean Island in their guidebook gave it greater exposure,” she says. “It was a perfect partnership.”
Hassett took up with MITA in 2009, after she and her sister answered an ad calling for paid island caretakers in Casco Bay. Fresh out of college, the two didn’t have much maintenance experience, but they’d grown up on Yarmouth’s Cousins Island, knew their way around boats, and shared a sense of adventure. As caretakers, they camped out on Jewell Island every summer weekend, clearing trails, maintaining campsites, and managing visitation. That winter, Hassett enrolled in an apprentice program at The Carpenter’s Boat Shop, in Bristol, which gave her a solid foundation with woodworking and power tools. She spent five more summers caretaking for MITA, on Little Chebeague, and eventually joined the organization’s stewardship team. These days, she tends to MITA sites between Mount Desert Island and Cobscook Bay, and she’s as capable fixing boats, building tent platforms, clearing trails with a chainsaw, and hauling out old fishing gear as she is demolishing buildings.
The method of removing a structure like the one on Bean Island often depends on how much material can be repurposed. In the case of the old shepherd’s cabin, most of the building was beyond salvage. So Hassett and the work crew first ripped the siding away, to reduce the shear strength. They loaded the asphalt shingles, which can’t be burned, into a couple of Lund aluminum skiffs, nine of which comprise MITA’s fleet, for the mile-long crossing to Sorrento. With the help of a sturdy tree and a come-along winch, they pulled the building down by its rafters. Once it was on the ground, the crew cut it into manageable pieces, which fueled a bonfire on the beach. After the ocean claimed the final embers, the last step was to collect any remaining metal with a giant magnet. “It was a big-push effort,” says Deely, who helped plan the project. “All that was left was two five-gallon buckets with all the nails.”
For Hassett, the removal of a place like the shepherd’s cabin is bittersweet. On the one hand, she knows what kind of work goes into building on an island, and she feels that striving for a “pristine” look can do a disservice to the interconnected history of humans and places (“The reality,” she says, “is that humans — especially indigenous folks — have been out here using the islands for hundreds of years, evolving with these places”). On the other hand, she knows when a structure is beyond revival and believes it’s up to her, and those who love Maine’s islands, to help keep the human footprint light. “One of [MITA’s] big principles is that there’s this reciprocal relationship with the island,” she says. “You go out and leave it better than you found it.”
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