1-minute hike: Sears Island, Searsport

Difficulty: Easy-moderate. The three marked trails, the beach and the two roads on Sears Island provide many routes for walkers to traverse.

How to get there: From downtown Searsport, drive northeast on Route 1 to Sears Island Road (which will be on the right if driving from the town of Searsport). Continue on Sears Island Road across the causeway to the island. Park on the causeway. Note the parking restrictions close to the gate. Not far past the gate is a kiosk displaying an island map. Brochures, which include the island map, are available at the kiosk.

Information: At the head of the Penobscot Bay, Sears Island is 2 miles long and 1 mile wide, with approximately 5 miles of shoreline. The 936-acre island’s natural beauty varies from sandy and rocky beaches, rugged cliffs, mixed woodland, wetlands, streams and abundant wildlife.

The island is accessible to the public for free year round — on foot or bicycle — but closed off to motorized vehicles.There are several walking routes:

• The Jetty Road is mostly paved and stretches about 1.5 miles from the causeway to the jetty on the west side of the island.

• The Tower Road is gravel and branches off the paved road not far from the causeway and travels about 2 miles to the communications tower, which is about 300 yards from the shore on the southern end of the island.

• The Homestead Trail is 0.67 miles and begins at an apple tree on the northeast end of the island, accessible from the beach not far from the causeway.

• The Loop Trail is 0.34 miles and is accessed from the Tower Road at the southern end of the of the island, beginning at CMP pole 60.

• The Blue Trail is just south of the Loop Trail and it also accessed from the Tower Road. It leads to a beach.

• The Shoreline Trail is a 5-mile unblazed path that can be walked along the island’s beaches, but portions are flooded during high tide. Check tide charts before planning to walk that route. The east side of the island has steep banks.

Visitors should observe a number of rules while enjoying Sears Island. For example, campfires are not allowed on the island by order of the Maine Department of Transportation. Pets are allowed. Visitors should practice the principle of “carry in/carry out” and leave no waste on the island, including dog poop. There are plastic bags and a bin for dog waste at the gate at the end of the causeway. And note that hunting is permitted on the island during the open seasons.

The nonprofit Friends of Sears Island provides brochures at a kiosk near the end of the causeway that includes a map, visitation rules and pieces of the island’s history, based on information from “A History of Sears Island, Searsport, Maine,” by Joel Eastman.

Before European settlers arrived, the native people hunted and camped on the island in the summer and cast off from its shores to fish. They called it Wassumkeag for the bright sands that could be seen from a distance, according to the Friends of Sears Island brochure.

In the 18th century, Europeans named it Brigadier’s Island in honor of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo, a major landowner in the area. Fishing, farming and timbering sustained landowners on the island. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the island was renamed Sears Island after the family of David Sears, who had by that time owned the island for four generations.

Bangor Investment Company purchased the island in 1905. Throughout the 1900s, farm buildings on the island fell to disrepair and several industrial developments were proposed, including a nuclear power plant, aluminum smelter and cargo ports. During prohibition years, the island was used to drop off and hide liquor being smuggled into the country. And during World War II, arms were shipped out from the island’s docks to the Allies.

In 1980, in preparation for a proposed port, the causeway was built, replacing the sand bar that had provided access at low tide. In the 90s, the State of Maine purchased Sears Island from Bangor Investment Company. And in 2009, Gov. Baldacci signed into law a conservation easement of 601 acres of the island, preserving almost 2/3 of the land in perpetuity.

Friends of Sears Island, which achieved nonprofit status in 2006, agreed to assume the role of volunteer stewards, in partnership with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, holder of the easement. Since then, Friends of Sears Island has restored, improved and maintained three trails and built an informational kiosk near the end of the causeway to the island. Currently, the group is building active membership and working on a strategic plan for the future, with the mission “to support permanent protection of Sears Island’s environmental and cultural resources; preserve its marine, shoreland and forest ecosystems; and encourage educational and low-impact recreational uses of the island.”

The majority of this information was gathered from online and print resources provided by the Friends of Sears Island. For additional information about the island, including planned nature walks and volunteer opportunities, visit friendsofsearsisland.org or call 548-0142.

Personal note: Many people have suggested I visit the Sears Island trails for a “1-minute hike.” Some say I should visit during the summer, when the birding is terrific, while others advised I explore the trails on snowshoes, as many do during the winter. No one mentioned Mud Season. Nevertheless, that’s when I ended up taking a trip to the island. The three trails and gravel Tower Road may have been a bit soggy, but it also enjoyed some early signs of spring, spiders wandering on the rocky beach and fleas leaping from the seaweed.

I’ve visited the island before with my family, and kayaked around its shore. Much of my extended family lives in the Searsport area — on both my mother’s and father’s sides, actually. In fact, a beautifully carved bench on the causeway to Sears Island is dedicated in memory to one of my relatives, Jimmy Engstrom, the brother of my great grandmother.

“He was on the board overseeing the restoration of the clam flats and usage of them over on the island. He spent many hours there with his little dog and loved to talk and tell stories to anyone that had time to listen,” my father, Stan Sarnacki, wrote to me in a recent email about Engstrom.

My father used to hunt on Sears Island when I was younger. I remember this because he would load a bicycle into his pickup, along with a bike trailer, which was constructed to pull children but ended up pulling white-tailed deer.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.