Casco Bay’s Mackworth Island: A place to feel ‘the slow circles of nature’

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“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back in the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

That quote comes from a posthumous publishing of the journals of May Sarton, the Belgian-born, Massachusetts-raised poet and memoirist who spent her later years living and writing in York, Maine.

While Sarton wrote the line in reference to gardening, it might equally apply to Mackworth Island, a few minutes drive from the Falmouth mainland — a place where visitors have little to do but follow in the slow circles of nature.

The majority of the island remains undeveloped save for one recreational feature: a 1.25-mile-long trail circling the rocky periphery, opening up in spots — sometimes beachy spots — for 360-degrees of beautiful views of Portland, Casco Bay and the Maine coastline.

But before I get too far, this writer needs to add a brief disclaimer. Regular readers of this island report, all six of them so far, know that each summer I go on assignment to report on a different island location in Casco Bay. With the list of unexplored islands reduced after seven summers, this year’s assignment was to Mackworth.

The only problem was that I’m technically – well, legally – not allowed on the island after receiving a criminal trespass notice a few years ago in an ill-planned, late-night escapade with a friend in search of the perfect place from which to view a meteor shower. Things didn’t go as planned, and suffice it to say it’s a bad idea to sneak onto Mackworth Island after its been closed for the night.

Fortunately for me, they seem not to keep mug shots of known ne’er-do-wells in the park ranger’s kiosk that guards the only access road onto the island, and I was able to proceed for this story. Spoiler alert: As all good citizens, I vacated the island before the gates were locked, taking all my refuse, and leaving everything as I found it.

Mackworth Island, about 100 acres in size and connected to Falmouth by a causeway at the mouth of the Presumpscot River, is a Maine state park. It’s conserved land. And its regular visitors will let you know.

“Look for flowers, but not lady slippers, because they’re endangered.”

That’s Norma McAninch, of Windham, telling me how to decorate fairy houses — common phenomenon on Mackworth whose construction is a popular visitor pastime. Meanwhile, my friend Pearl is running with her dog in the adjacent field and we’re waiting for our other picnickers to get their parking spots in the small, one-in-one-out parking lot. (See info box for more details.)

Norma comes to Mackworth “maybe once a week” during the summer, usually with her sons Kellan and Aidan. Today, Aidan is attending summer camp in Windham but, in fairness, it’s actually his fairy house building advice that she’s passing on. “My son would say you need firm sticks and then lots of bark. And then decorations, of course. My oldest son likes to build fairy houses. But Kellan just wants to walk by the beach.”

By now, Kellan has introduced himself to Pearl’s dog, which is panting in the sun after her dash across the field. Soon, Norma and Kellan head off along the trail that encircles the island, while Pearl and I continue to wait.

The island was formerly the summer residence of Maine Gov. Percival Baxter, later donated to the state of Maine in 1946 to be used for public purposes and as a wildlife sanctuary. Today it is also the site of the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which sits on the island’s southern quadrant and is not open to the public without prior arrangement.

There’s a $3 day-use fee for Maine adults, $4 for non-residents and $1 for senior non-residents and 5- to 11-year-olds to enjoy the state park, regardless of whether you drive or not. If you choose to drive, you may want to consider foregoing the often-full parking lot on the island and instead leave your car parked in Falmouth and walk across the roughly half-mile-long causeway.

That is, you can do like the locals.

“I walk this a lot,” says Jodie Cushman, “It’s a 2.2-mile trek from my house, around this island, and back.” Jodie is out with her mother and sister today. “I’ve been trying to get them out here for four years,” she says.

After leaving Maine and living for 18 years in the South, Jodie and her husband moved to Falmouth. Now, she says, she visits Mackworth “on an average probably once every three weeks, once the weather gets good.”

“Basically everyone that has ever visited me from the South, which is several a year, I bring around this island,” she says. “Most people that come . . . don’t get to see everything that Maine offers, so this is just a little nutshell.”

We’re on the southeast side of the island now, directly opposite the causeway, halfway along the trail. Our friends have caught up and we’re slowly looking for a place to picnic. Standing on a long, stone pier, with Great Diamond Island directly in front of us and a hazy Munjoy Hill in the distance on our right, Jodie explains the few island rules: Be cautious of poison ivy, “be aware of your surroundings,” and be respectful of the park and the school.

To walk the circular trail, stroll the beaches that dot the otherwise rocky coast and take in the views of Casco Bay, you’ll only need two to three hours, according to Jodie. But today – with ample food, beverages and two hounds itching for a dip in the chilly Atlantic – we’ll end up staying for about five hours.

A couple hundred feet down the trail we find our picnic spot, a sandbar protected on three sides by rocky walls and open on the fourth side to the dark green sea. Insulated from wind and under the shade of tall trees leaning out over the shoreline, we’ll spend the next couple hours lollygagging, eating, sun bathing on the warm sand, walking the adjacent beach and — for the more bold humans among our group — dipping gingerly into the 50-degree water.

Much of this itinerary has already been suggested to us by Ayla Brewster, who we met at the head of the walking trail. Ayla lives in Portland and on this day she was visiting Mackworth Island with a group from South Portland’s Camp STRIVE.

When she visits Mackworth, said Ayla, “I like listening to music and hanging out with dogs, and my friends.”

Sitting with her fellow campers on the lawn at the beginning of the walking trail, taking a bite out of her turkey sandwich, she recommended picnicking too (cookies and ice cream were her top suggestions).

Slow, easy and uncomplicated is the theme here. There’s not much else to do on Mackworth. So it’s probably not surprising that, without planning to, we had directly followed Ayla’s recommendations – as well as those from everyone else we’d met that day.

The only thing left to do before we finish the 1.25-mile circuit is build some fairy houses. I build a modest ranch with a long driveway; Pearl constructs a tree-side bungalow.

Mackworth is worth the visit not in spite of its simplicity, but because of it.

Unlike Peaks Island, whose attractions include a little shopping and even some fine dining, or Chebeague, which offers abundant hiking and biking options, Mackworth forces visitors to truly slow down. It’s a place to step, if only temporarily, out of the world – to sit in the sun, to get lost among the dense greenery that lines the walking trail, to build a fantasy house using only materials found in the woods, and to experience the expansive summer vistas of Casco Bay.

Whether you go for an hour or stretch your visit into a full day — leaving when they close the park, obviously! — Mackworth is a perfect coastal spot to fall into what May Sarton called “the slow circles of nature.”

The details

  • Hours: The park is open daily, year-round from 9 a.m. to sunset, or posted hours.
  • Cost: Like all Maine state parks, there is a use fee for visiting Mackworth. That’s currently $3 per adult resident, $4 for adult non-residents, $1 for senior non-residents and 5- to 11-year-olds. Maine seniors and children under 5 are free.
  • Getting there: Mackworth is accessible by car from Falmouth. Take Andrews Avenue south, directly off Route 1, just north of the mouth of the Presumpscot River.
  • Parking: Visitors may decide to park on the island, but should be advised that the small parking lot fills up quickly. On a busy day, people may wait half an hour or more for a parking spot. Alternatively, there are a few spots for island use located just before the causeway, on the mainland. These fill up quick too. Finally, visitors can park according to street parking rules anywhere in Falmouth and walk onto the island via the causeway.
  • Eating: There are no public food options on the island, and like all state parks, there is a “carry in, carry out” rule with trash and personal belongings. If you want to pick up some food on the way, hit Route 1. Coming from the north, stop at any of the myriad options on Route 1 in Falmouth-Foreside. Coming from the south, stop on Veranda Street (Route 1) in the East Deering section of Portland before crossing the Presumpscot.
  • Bathrooms: One portable toilet is located directly adjacent to the island’s public parking lot.
  • FMI: Visit the state park website for Mackworth Island at:
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