Castine, Maine

By Ken Textor | Photography by Joe Devenney

By Maine standards, the sheltered river port of Castine in the northeast corner of Penobscot Bay is sort of backward. Normally, boaters travel up a long river before arriving at a harbor town. But in Castine, it’s the other way around. The town is located at the mouth of the Bagaduce (Bag-a-DOOSE) River, and the chart indicates that traveling this river is even more fun the farther upstream you venture.

Although it’s a small town with a year-round population of only 1,300 or so, that number nearly triples in summer. Visiting trailer boaters are advised to get to the town wharf and launch ramp early to avoid the crowds and find parking. Those arriving by water can tie up at the town wharf (space permitting), or drop anchor across from the harbor in Smith Cove. There is a time limit of 30 minutes throughout much of the day, but you can tie up overnight after 3:00 p.m. if there’s room. The town also manages 2 large moorings for visiting schooners, but if either of these are vacant the harbormaster may be able to arrange a rental. There are also a couple of marinas and a yacht club that offer transient services.

Eaton's Boatyard stands ready to assist transient boaters.
Eaton’s Boatyard stands ready to assist transient boaters.

Once ashore, if you’re looking to get the local scoop on happenings in town, drop by Castine Variety. Since at least the early 1900s, the store at the corner of Water and Main Streets has been a place for locals and visitors alike to congregate, swap stories and rumors, and buy something small and delightful to enliven the day. With its creaky wooden floors, floor-to-ceiling shelves, ancient small grill in the back near the spin stools and short lunch counter, Castine Variety feels like a throwback to the 1950s, or earlier.

The town itself is beautiful. In front yards of residential homes, giant elms soar above the streets, mingling with mammoth oaks, long hedges of rhododendron, a smattering of crab apples and stately maples. Clearly, Castine is a town that values its plants and trees as much as its generous helpings of well-maintained Georgian, Victorian, Federal and Italianate homes.

If you’re up for a stroll, Dice Head Light at the mouth of the Penobscot River is just a mile outside of town. Although the lighthouse is no longer in service, getting to it allows you to walk along a lovely street that parallels the Bagaduce River, providing great water views and glimpses of handsome boats.

Another worthwhile stop is the Maine Maritime Academy, a public, co-ed engineering and science college. Founded in 1941, largely in response to World War II manpower demands, the academy has become a dominant presence in town. From the 500-foot training ship “State of Maine”, which is sometimes berthed just west of the town wharf, to the main campus of 800 or so students who occupy much of the northwest corner of town, the academy is mostly responsible for the town’s current prosperity.

A bronze bell from the ill-fated merchant ship “Azalea City,” which was torpedoed in 1942, adorns the memorial flagpole in front of Levitt Hall at the Maine Maritime Academy.

Before the academy’s appearance, however, the once proud and prosperous town of Castine had fallen on hard times. French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first to chart the area in 1612, when enthusiasm for what was to become Castine ran high. Champlain’s commercial interests lay in the peninsula’s strategic position at the confluence of 2 big rivers leading well inland—the smaller Bagaduce to the east and the larger Penobscot to the west. This useful arrangement was not lost on English explorer Captain John Smith, who charted the Castine area in 1614 for British interests. Thus the stage was set for 100 years or so of struggle between French and British forces, with a little Dutch romp through the area thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until 1667 that a French officer named Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de St. Castin was involved, and his name stuck with the settlement that became Castine.

During the American Revolution, the British built Fort George on the high ground of Castine and prepared to defend it against Continental Army troops and ships dispatched from Massachusetts. What followed was one of the worst defeats in U.S. naval history. The troops never came ashore except to retreat overland after British warships pursuing the American fleet up the Penobscot River forced them to run aground.

As careless boaters often learn, running aground is not hard to accomplish in these parts, although you shouldn’t let this deter you from exploring the local rivers, especially the Bagaduce. Be aware that most chart kits don’t include an entire map of the roughly 10-nautical-mile, horseshoe-shaped Bagaduce, so you may want to purchase NOAA chart 13309, which shows the entire waterway. As you ascend the Bagaduce, the surrounding countryside becomes, at first, steep and hilly. The shores are mostly wooded with a pleasant mix of evergreens and deciduous trees, a pattern that is interrupted occasionally by a meadow rolling down to the water’s edge, with perhaps an old farmhouse and barn set back up the slope. This is, after all, the home of the fabled 40-acre farm made famous by author E. B. White.

This section of the river is called the Narrows—one of two listed on the chart—and the current can accelerate to 3 or 4 knots as the river width contracts to 100 yards or so. Beyond the first Narrows, the Bagaduce widens to form South Bay, with privately owned Youngs Island serving as the centerpiece.

Paddleboarders and kayakers will find plenty of quiet, protected water to explore in and around Castine.

North of Youngs, the current slows considerably and the waters contain only a few lonely oyster-farm floats along the shores of Northern Bay. The water here can be warm enough for a swim.

If you wish to continue along the Bagaduce via South Bay, you can head through a deep, unmarked channel just east of Youngs Island. The channel varies from 10 to 30 feet deep, with deep holes up to 70 feet deep here and there. Between the chart and depthsounder, it’s easy to stay out of trouble even as you enter the second Narrows, between Johnson Point and Green Island.

In the southeast corner of Herrick Bay, you can stop at Bagaduce Lunch, an old-fashioned roadside take-out and ice cream emporium (they serve Gifford’s, of course) in Brooksville, complete with a dock for customers arriving by boat. If you wish to explore the river even further, be aware that you’ll have to negotiate a fixed bridge (vertical clearance 7 feet). This bridge, with its reversing falls, is a popular spot for whitewater canoeing and kayaking when the tide is running full bore.

If you’re looking for a good spot to drop anchor and go ashore for a picnic, try tiny Battle Island, on which boaters are welcome to land and even camp. Closer to Castine, there’s also Lower Negro Island, on which kayakers and other boaters are welcome to beach their craft and spend the night. Then there’s one of Castine’s best-kept secrets—Holbrook Island. Occupying most of the southwest shoreline of Smith Cove, just across the river from Castine’s waterfront, Holbrook is a 1,230-acre wildlife sanctuary of unspoiled Maine wilderness. Complete with a reversing falls, beaver ponds, challenging hiking trails and excellent animal and bird watching, Holbrook is actually located in the neighboring town of Brooksville. It’s a state park that was envisioned by local resident Anita Harris, who began acquiring land on Cape Rosier in the 1960s. In 1971 she gave it to the state “to preserve for the future a piece of the unspoiled Maine that I used to know.” Her only stipulation was that the state refrain from installing modern park facilities.

Boaters can land at the narrow sand/gravel bar that connects the park to a private property that occupies the peninsula sticking out of the northern shore of Cape Rosier. Just south of the gravel bar is the park’s headquarters, where you can pick up hiking maps. Notable sights include Goose Falls, where the tide roars in and out of a narrow passage, and Backwood Mountain (280 feet), which culminates in an impressive view of Cape Rosier, Castine and upper Penobscot Bay.

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