By J.W. Oliver
Crow Island in South Bristol will always remain open to the public and will never see development after the Damariscotta River Association’s recent purchase of the island. (Photo courtesy Damariscotta River Association)
The Damariscotta River Association has purchased 2.9-acre Crow Island in South Bristol with plans to conserve the island, ensure public access, and protect island wildlife.
Crow Island lies east of Rutherford Island and forms the north end of the Thread of Life, a channel between Rutherford Island and a string of largely wild islands, ledges, and rocks that runs parallel to and south of the big island.
The wildlife on the rocky isle includes a pair of ground-nesting ospreys.
“We’re not sure if they’re the same individuals over many, many years, but for as long as people can remember in recent history, these ospreys have been nesting on a craggy rock at the north tip, right on the ground, and that’s pretty unusual,” Damariscotta River Association Executive Director Steven Hufnagel said.
The area around Crow Island also features a cormorant colony and seal “haul-outs” where seals climb ashore to rest and sun themselves.
While the cormorants and seals are not on Crow Island, the conservation of the island will contribute to the long-term health of those populations.
“You need a protected string of ledges and islands to really have the quality wildlife values remain intact,” Hufnagel said. “As you chip away at the edges, the core gets that much weaker.”
The island is big enough for home construction, which provides an incentive for conservation, as development could have a negative impact on wildlife, Hufnagel said.
While the previous owner allowed the public to visit the island, the purchase will ensure the public always has access to the island for recreational day use.
The association will likely post signs to limit access to the north end while the ospreys are present. The association has experience with a similar situation on Stratton Island, home to an eagle’s nest.
Otherwise, the association welcomes the public to visit the island to picnic or walk along the rocks. The island’s 1,400 feet of shoreline includes a couple of nooks where small craft like kayaks and skiffs can come ashore.
Visitors will enjoy a “gorgeous” view of John’s Bay from the east side, Hufnagel said. Public tours are not likely, as the island’s size lends itself best to groups of two or four people at a time.
The Thorpe family owned Crow Island for many years. The most recent owner was a descendant of the Thorpe family, Becky Rice-Barnes.
Way back in 1829, brothers Eliphalet and John Thorpe purchased all the land south of “the bar,” a narrow strip of land that separates Christmas Cove from the ocean and lies at the bottom of a hill between the bulk of Rutherford Island and its southern extremity.
Rice-Barnes believes Crow Island might have first entered the family at this time, although she cannot say for sure. She does know that a man named George Upham owned the island in 1908, when he sold it to Frederick Gee.
Gee’s heirs sold the island to Bertha Mann, a summer resident from New Jersey who lived across Christmas Cove from the Thorpe cottage, then home to Rice-Barnes’ mother, Arletta Thorpe.
As a girl, Arletta Thorpe would often visit the island with Mann’s children.
“My understanding is, because (Mann) knew how much the island meant to my mother, she deeded it over to my mother in 1952 as a wedding present for my mom and my dad,” Rice-Barnes said.
Crow Island “was always part of my life,” Rice-Barnes said. She grew up in Massachusetts, but would visit her grandparents in Christmas Cove every spring break and for at least two weeks every summer.
Those visits always included trips to Crow Island. Rice-Barnes and her family and friends would set out in a rowboat from a nearby beach and picnic on the island.
The family posted signs to ask people not to build fires, but otherwise, people were welcome to picnic or even camp on the island.
“My mom and dad signed the island over to me in 2004” after they sold their home in Christmas Cove, Rice-Barnes said. They knew the island was important to her, although she now lives in the Hancock County town of Mariaville.
Rice-Barnes and the Damariscotta River Association started talks in fall 2011.
Rice-Barnes was not in a position to donate the island, but she was willing to grant a long-term option to give the association time to raise the purchase price, Hufnagel said. The association signed an option in summer 2012.
The Damariscotta River Association raised the money from more than 27 individual donors, Hufnagel said.
The association also received a $75,000 grant from Land for Maine’s Future in summer 2014, as well as grants from the Davis Conservation Foundation, the Fields Pond Foundation, and the Red Acre Foundation.
The campaign raised $242,000; $215,000 to buy the island and another $27,000 for associated expenses. The sale closed Feb. 6.
Today, Rice-Barnes is happy the island will remain forever open for all to enjoy. “That’s what I would want and I know that’s what my mom wanted,” she said.
She is also grateful the island will stay wild.
“The people who look out at it, I believe, have a feeling about it, probably not like the feeling I have, but it’s special and it needed to be kept that way,” Rice-Barnes said. “It would be awful, to me, if somebody had constructed something out there and it didn’t look like that anymore.”
“This is what my mom would approve of, this is something really good for the DRA, I believe, and this is one more piece of coastal Maine that will be open for public access, and that’s the part that’s most important to me,” Rice-Barnes said.
The DRA hopes to raise another $10,000 to fund the ongoing stewardship of the island, a goal for every new preserve. The DRA will auction off a painting of Crow Island by South Bristol artist Bragi Schut to help raise the funds.