Difficulty: Easy to moderate. The island features 7 miles of hiking trails, as well as a 4.5-mile dirt road that is great for walking or biking. The road, which runs from one end of the island to the other, is the easiest way to explore the island. The hiking trails are well marked and maintained and travel over unimproved forest floor and mowed edges of fields.
How to get there: Getting to Swan Island requires a 5-minute ferry ride across the Kennebec River. People also paddle to the island in canoe or kayak. The ferry is only available if you reserve it ahead of time. The ferry leaves Richmond at 9:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.; and it leaves Swan Island at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The ferry does not accept vehicles (it’s too small), but bicycles are welcome.
To get to the ferry landing, take Interstate 295 to Exit 43 (Richmond-Litchfield), then follow Route 197 east for about three miles to Richmond Village. At the intersection of Route 197 and Route 24, turn left and the Swan Island Ferry Parking Lot will immediately be on your right, marked with a large sign.
After ferrying across the river, island visitors can get into the bed of the pickup truck, where there are cushioned benches, for a slow 1.6-mile ride to the campground. At the campground is a public boat launch and a kiosk displaying a trail map. The hiking trails start at the campground.
Information: Located in the Kennebec River, between the towns of Richmond and Dresden, Swan Island was once home to a small community. Today, the 2,019-acre island is a state-owned wildlife management area that is an excellent spot for hiking, camping and wildlife watching. It’s also a place where you can walk back in time. With remains of the abandoned town described through educational displays, it’s easy to imagine what life would have been like on the island in the 1800s.
A 4.5-mile gravel road runs through the center of the island from north to south, from the ferry launch to Theobald Point. Along the way, it passes by a campground and boat launch, as well as five abandoned homes, fields, a cemetery, a wildlife observation tower, a kids-only fishing pond, and trailheads to several hiking trails.
The hiking trails, which altogether total about 7 miles, are marked with painted blazes and explore the wilder areas of the island, traveling through both forests and fields.
Once a summer destination for Abenaki people, Swan Island may have once been called “Swango,” an Abenaki word that translates to “islands of eagles.” And there are plenty of bald eagles on the island. They soar over the fields to fish in the river and nest in the island’s tall white pines.
Another theory is that the island was named by English explorers for migrating swans. The first record of white people on the island was in 1730, and in 1750, the only people living on the island was the Whidden family. A fascinating story about this family is posted on the gates of the island’s Curtis Cemetery.
Over the years, Swan Island evolved into a small community and was incorporated as the Town of Perkins in 1847. By 1860, the town’s population hit its peak at 100 residents in 27 homes. Many people on the island farmed, evidenced by the many large fields that still remain. Other jobs included fishing, lumbering, shipbuilding and ice cutting.
Several factors led to the community’s decline. By the early 1900s, refrigeration reduced the demand for ice and steel boats were more popular than wooden ships. Wood was getting scarce on the island, and pollution of the river eliminated fishing. Swan Island was abandoned by 1936.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began acquiring properties on the island as early as the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the entire island — and the nearby Little Swan Island — was under state ownership and officially became the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area, named in memory of one of the first biologists working and living on the island after it became a state wildlife management area.
Five historic homes on the island remain standing today, including the house Powell lived in with his family in the 1940s. These houses, each located along the island’s one gravel road, can be viewed from the outside, where educational displays offer visitors fascinating tidbits of history.
For wildlife enthusiasts, Swan Island is an especially great place for birding because it’s home to so many different habitats. Bird nesting boxes dot the island’s old fields, where bobolinks, tree swallows and eastern phoebes are common. And the island’s ponds, wetlands, mixed forest and 536 acres of freshwater tidal flats draw many other species. In fact, a long checklist of the island’s bird species is available on the DIF&W website. A butterfly checklist and self-guided tour brochure is also available on the website.
One of the most frequently spotted mammals on the island is white-tailed deer, but there are other, more elusive creatures, such as coyotes, fox, porcupines, racoons and sometimes moose, according to the DIF&W. One of the best ways to spot these animals is by spending some time in the island’s wildlife observation tower — which was originally a fire tower built on Frye Mountain in Montville in 1931. The tower is located between two fields that contain food plots and nesting boxes, about 1.5 miles south of the campground if walking on the road.
The campground, located in a grassy field overlooking the Kennebec River, is comprised of 10 Adirondack shelters (lean-tos), each with a fire pit and picnic table, as well as a group site. These sites are spaced around the edges of the field, which is kept mowed, and nearby is a building that includes modern restrooms, a sink for washing dishes and drinking water. The campground also includes a boat launch, dock, and a boat house that serves as a classroom, store and a place to gather island brochures.
The island is open daily from May through October. Dogs are not permitted. Day use of the island is $8, and camping is $8, plus a $20 nightly fee per site. All visitors who are 5 years old or younger are free. Also available on the island are rental canoes and kayaks for $10 an hour or $35 a day, and firewood for $4 per bundle.
For more information and to make reservations, call 207-547-5322 or visit maine.gov/swanisland.
Personal note: “There are bones in there,” said Lacey as she looked through the empty window frame of the abandoned machine shop.
“No way,” I said, hurrying over to her.
We’d been joking about how some people say Swan Island is haunted. To us, the island’s abandoned buildings had character. Their peeling paint and overgrown gardens spoke of days gone by, of living people — not ghosts. Yet here we were staring at a large pile of a bones. Of course, on closer inspection, they were deer bones. The skull, complete with small antlers, was easy to identify.
Moving to the side of the old machine shop, we found a side door was broken nearly in half, leaving a sizable hole for critters to invade the building. The pile of bones was just inside, and a trail of bones — including an interesting piece of the deer’s spine — littered the yard outside. We tried to piece together what had happened and could only arrive at coyotes, the island’s top predator, having created the scene somehow.
My friend Lacey and I had traveled to the island earlier that day on the ferry, pitched a tent at our reserved campsite, and gathered firewood. We then had hit the trails on the east side of the island, finding a beautiful sea of ferns and a rocky perch on the river’s edge before emerging onto the island road across from the old Curtis Cemetery.
From that point on, we stuck to the road, where it was easier to avoid ticks. Nevertheless, we found several ticks crawling up our legs throughout the afternoon. I hastily inspected them, determined that they were dog ticks, and tossed them away. We were constantly checking ourselves for the dangerous pests.
On Saturday, June 10, we were one of several other campers on the island. We’d taken the ferry over with a couple as well as a group of women throwing an outdoorsy bachelorette party. They’d blindfolded the bride-to-be and canoed her across the river ahead of the ferry, and some of them took the ferry, bringing the bulk of their supplies. Lacey and I watched from across the campground field as they decorated their lean-to with streamers. But to our surprise, we didn’t hear any hooting or hollering that evening as we sat by our campfire. The women were clearly being considerate of other campers. We fell asleep to the chirp of frogs from the nearby beaver pond.
The next morning, we woke early, forced out of the tent by the heat of the sun. The weather report called for temperatures climbing to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and it had been correct. As I munched on a granola bar and apple, I wandered around the campground with my camera, photographing an Eastern phoebe flying to and from its nest, which was tucked in the rafters of our lean-to and contained three perfect white eggs (we checked). Then, across the water, Lacey spotted two bald eagles, and I managed to photograph one as it perched on a tree limb, watching the water for fish.
That morning, we took a long walk in the sun, first to view a beaver lodge and wetland, then back down the island road, all the way to Theobald Point. The trek brought out total trip walking distance to about 11 miles. Along the way we spotted at least five white-tailed deer, four wild turkeys, several bald eagles and a furry creature that looked a lot like a bobcat as it dashed across the road in front of us. I introduced Lacey to the robotic call of the bobolink and the loud voice of the bullfrog. And Lacey, who owns a gardening business, pointed out many plants, including the fragrant honeysuckle bushes near our campsite, as well as sweet fern and giant rosebushes lining the road.
“I bet it’s even more beautiful later in the summer, when the roses bloom,” Lacey said at one point.
I agreed, though it was hard to imagine the place more lovely. The Elysian Fields — the heavenly resting place for the souls of heroes in Greek mythology — came to mind as I looked out over fields dotted with yellow buttercups and indian paintbrushes. Maybe we’ll just have to return and see if she’s right. I imagine with all the island’s giant oaks and sugar maples, it’s a gorgeous spot in the fall, as well.
More photos from the trip: