Originally published:
Keeping Current
Bangor Hydro Employee Newsletter
Volume 7, Issue 6
July/August 2009

Of the 4,613 islands located along the Maine coast, I’ve lost count of how many I’ve actually made
landfall, but after a recent maritime outing, I’ve discovered yet another that could, quite possibly, be
the most beautiful and interesting of all. Though each island is unique in topography and history,
few seem as picturesque, wild, and faraway as Cross Island, which is unusual considering its
rich past.

This place came to my attention while perusing the Maine Atlas, Map # 26, for new places to
explore as my family and I trekked farther Down East. Located within the municipal bounds of
Cutler, and now under the protection of the Petit Manan Wildlife Refuge Complex, this 1,489 acre
island is barely noticeable to the casual observer from Route 191. Cross Island National Wildlife
Refuge (NWR) is comprised of six islands, including Scotch, Mink, Old Man, Inner Double Head
Shot, and Outer Double Head Shot Islands. I can’t help but wonder about the origins of the latter
two names. Google Earth satellite images show the presence of a single building on the main
island’s northeast corner. On its southern fringe, craggy coastline and steep cliff fascia abut the
open sea while on its northern shore, gentler terrain and beach face the mainland. Most
interesting to me was an uninterrupted expanse of forest through its interior. Dense and nearly
impenetrable, one might imagine all sorts of things lurking just a few steps into the island’s
shadowed woods.      

For many centuries, indigenous peoples frequented the coast during seasonal migrations to
escape harsh winters, and this island, once known as Sebohegonet, offered further protection
from mainland dangers. In the centuries following the arrival of European explorers, many Maine
isles were inhabited year round. Logging, ship building, farming, and quarrying provided stable
economies. Homes, stores, and schools proliferated, even on Cross Island. However, after the
turn of the last century, dwindling fisheries and natural resources caused island populations to
wane.  

Fortunately, nature isn’t overly sentimental about humankind. Instead of wallowing in melancholy,
the natural world thrives in our absence. Houses collapse into cellars, cemetery stones lean and
topple, dock pilings decay in the tides, and pastures are soon overrun by spruce. In the end,
seabirds reclaim their rookeries, harbor seals find safe haven on deserted shores, and osprey
find high perches on which to build their nests. Except for evidence of moldering rock walls and
occasional patches of feral rhubarb, the islands are reborn.  

On a fine weather weekend, we set out from Cutler. Although we’ve hiked many trails along Maine’
s Bold Coast, we’ve never launched from here since there’s little maneuvering room and few
places to leave our truck and trailer. Fortunately, our present boat is of modest size, and a good
parking place was just a short walk away.  In little time, we motor past Cutler’s Little River
Lighthouse. Along the way, my digital camera whirs, clicks, and beeps as countless pictures are
taken. So many scenic images to be had that Donnie Ouellette would have to pack a spare
camera, a dozen memory cards, and a bag of batteries, lest he miss a ideal postcard photo.   

Across the entrance to Little Machias Bay, an array of twenty-six VLF (Very Low Frequency) towers
rises from the low shrub of Sprague Neck Peninsula. When the first 1,000’ towers were erected in
1960, the US Navy (USN) began communicating with its Northern Atlantic submarine fleet using
signals that can travel great distances through the atmosphere and even under the water. I’ll
wager this site has been in Russian crosshairs for quite some time. Regrettably, these shores
are off-limits, so I’d recommend against landfall, or security personnel may converge on you with
weapons raised. Although still under direct military domain, the nearby naval base has been
shuttered and is now overseen by civilian contractors. As the navy conveys unneeded and
unwanted properties to local municipalities, I cannot help but feel uneasy about the fate of these
coastlands while interested parties battle for development and/or preservation.      

Approaching Cross Island’s eastern edge, we’re drawn to an edifice rising above the trees. As we
steer toward a pebbled beach, an observation platform of sorts is revealed. After an uphill hike
through pathless woods, my family and I find a dilapidated building akin to a fire tower. While my
son picks at the polished beach stone mixed into the concrete footings, I wander underneath and
contemplate how to ascend the steelwork. Having seen similar structures around Casco Bay, I
deduce it may have been used as a platform from which to scan the maritime horizon for German
U-Boats during World War II. However, its few remaining asphalt shingles are the color of red clay,
and its planking appears to have been once painted a lighter shade. Because many platforms of
this era were constructed to blend into their woodland surroundings, this tower might have served
other purposes. Searching the Internet a few days later, I discover the structure was most likely
used by the Cross Island Coast Guard Life Saving Station. Evidently, numerous stations were
established along the coast to watch for ships in distress and coordinate rescue missions, and
according to historical accounts, more than a few enemy submarines were reported seen from
this island as well.  

Wanting to investigate more, a stern lecture by the missus dissuades me from climbing the tower.
Afterwards, we return to the shoreline below by following deer trails through a maze of shaded
woods, angry blowdowns, and mossy granite. At rare intervals, we spy ocean and sky through
needled branches, and we detour to gaze upon Inner and Outer Double Head Shot Islands.  

Back at the beach, we explore another decrepit building situated on ledges just above the high
tide line. Upon a sturdy concrete foundation, antique timbers lie piled, intermixed with boards,
slats, cedar shingles, and ornate trim. Sifting through the ruins, I wonder when someone will
decide to make a massive bonfire of its earthly remains.

After a picnic lunch, we set out to survey Cross’s sister isles. We adhere to signage that prohibits
landfall during nesting season. Drifting close, harbor seals bask and play while pups stare from
seaweed beds. Past the shoreline, we hear a tremendous clamor as thousands of seabirds tend
to their nests. Guillemots, razorbills, puffins, petrels, gulls, and eiders fill the skies and waters.
Eagle and osprey soar above, eyeing the ocean below for fish. A porpoise pod breaches near our
starboard bow. Close enough to see their whiskered faces, my boy watches as curious seals
circle the boat.     

Journeying back to Cross Island, sky is seen through a natural archway on Inner Double Head
Shot Island. Immense swells crash and froth over craggy ledge. Stunted spruce and delicate
maritime plants compete for meager earth atop sheer rock fascia. Dark and jagged, crimson and
smooth, granite cliffs jut, rise, and plunge. Inhospitable shores of cobbled stone stand guardian
over cemeteries of lobster pots, ropes, and buoys. Rounding Northwest Head, dozens of
anchored salmon pens float in the Cross Island Narrows, and radio towers blot the northern
horizon. An expansive sandbar beach must be circumvented to keep the outboard propeller from
grazing the shallows. Beyond Mink Island, ebb tide exposes hidden isles of ledge and seaweed.  

Finally, on the northeast end of the big island, a stately building of colonial design sits on a
meadow knoll. Believing it to be another estate owned by a wealthy summer resident, we plan to
go straight by, but something seems amiss. The grounds are unkempt and the boathouse
unused. When curtainless windows are viewed, we’re somewhat certain the dwelling is
unoccupied. We change course to bring us close. Pulling the boat onto a seaweed bed, we
clamber over a concrete retaining wall, taking care to avoid protrusions of rusting rebar. Although
seemingly abandoned, the roof and walls of the structure are level and plumb. Like the lookout
tower, asphalt shingles are colored like red clay, but still intact like the painted boards, albeit
peeled, cracked, and faded. I wonder if ghosts are peering from the gloom behind the windows.

Latched with a single weathered nail, the main door swings inward with ease. As our eyes adjust
to the shade, we examine artifacts inside to determine the building’s present purpose. Now used
by Outward Bound for nature excursions, the walls are adorned with photos and maps. Old
furniture, bedding, and utensils offer rustic accommodations to its temporary occupants. Modern
contrivances include a refrigerator and lights powered by propane. Potable water can be had from
the well out back with a bucket and rope, and much farther past is an outhouse, which according
to a hand-scrawled note on the wall, takes three quarters of a minute to walk. Granted, summer is
still early yet, but only three visitors have signed the guestbook since January. Throughout the day,
no other boats ventured near. Except for birdsong, wave, breeze, and an occasional wisp of fog,
the entire island is ours alone.

Not that the island isn’t interesting enough as is, but according to folklore, there are seven old
graves on Cross Island where visitors have been frightened off by the sound of clanking chains.
Legend also tells of a treasure chest hidden in a cave, accessible only at low tide.  

I knew there were ghosts and treasure all along…


                                                                       The End
Finding Cross Island
Maine Travels by John R. Cobb
Pebble Beach
Lookout Tower
Old USCG Station
View from
Cross Island
Hidden Beach