Several years ago, after a concerned citizen approached me about what she perceived as the slow decline of public access to Sherman’s Cove, it dawned on me that I hadn’t been out there since childhood.

My kids had never been and reluctantly agreed to be dragged along to explore. Uncertain of the best way to arrive by land, we decided to survey on kayaks and paddle boards that launched from the town owned Steamboat Landing (there’s a little town-owned parking on Cove Road).

The Cove is further away than it looks, especially if the wind is blowing the wrong way, and depending on the tide, a paddler must navigate around various obstacles like piers, floats, and the occasional hurried motorboat ferrying people out to their mooring locations. As you head toward the Cove, there is no obvious destination.

“Where are we even going?” my kids grown as I encourage them to keep going until it gets shallow.

From the middle of the channel, and especially at the higher tides, there’s nothing obviously distinct from the already astounding beauty of Penobscot Bay and the Camden Hills. But as you approach the shallower parts, you start to feel that something is changing. There are no more moorings or piers and the water is shallower.

If the light is right, you will see a beautiful meadow of eel grass stretching up towards the surface, a sight not to be seen anywhere else in the harbor. Seagrass provides essential habitat to juvenile fish and small invertebrates along with countless other ecosystem services, but it is disappearing worldwide for the same reasons it’s under threat in Camden Harbor.

As it became shallow enough to disembark, my kids started pointing out hermit crabs, jelly fish, and little schools of fish in the noticeably warmer water. Once on shore, we watched as water squirted up from the beneath the sand like miniature geysers, a sure sign of one of the innumerable quahog clams beneath the mud.

“It’s like a different planet over here” remarked my younger child.

“I know…. I can’t wait to show people how amazing this is,” I said as I snapped a photo.

“Mom, we shouldn’t tell anyone about this place. You don’t want it to get ruined,” countered my then 9-year-old.

Sherman’s Cove is the largest continuous area of Camden Harbor that remains largely in its natural state. It has never been dredged and so what you see there is a snapshot of the ecological oasis that would have existed here for millennia. Most of Camden Harbor was either dry or only a few feet deep at low tide for thousands of years. The highly productive mudflats were packed with shellfish of all kinds, nourished by the intertidal estuary and bounded by a mix of soft, sandy shorelines and bedrock outcroppings. This is what today still exists only in little pockets.

The need to bring big boats into the harbor and dock them for loading meant dredging deeper channels in the majority of the harbor and radically altering the subsurface terrain. Diverse animal and plant life really exists only around the edges of the inner harbor in spots just out of reach of the dredging but Sherman’s Cove is a little taste of what life was like here in Camden when change happened slower.

The comments from my kids sparked conversation about the urge we all felt to protect Sherman’s Cove. It is true that more people can mean more problems; more litter, more dogs disrupting wildlife, and more kids disturbing the peace. I understand that some private property owners, like my kids, resist more public access for environmental reasons. But what I’ve seen in Sherman’s Cove is the same as what many have seen. There is less public access than 100 or even 30 years ago, but more environmental impact. There are fewer feet of natural vegetated shoreline and more of hardened seawalls with imported rocks and rip rap. There are more septic systems and fewer trees.

All three public access points on the Cove have been the subject of legal disputes with abutting private property owners.  They put up fences to keep the public out and wait until they are challenged by the town. They show up at meetings and complain endlessly about kids after dark or various other annoyances.

Of the three known public access points on Sherman’s Cove (Harbor Road, Marine Avenue, and Sherman’s Point Road), only two are listed on the town public parks map and only one is safely passable. For that we have Sid Lindsley to thank, among others, who waved their hands and raised their voice and were willing to be threatened with lawsuits and personal attacks without relenting.

Marine Avenue’s public steps and modest two-car parking accommodations were the result of a multi-year legal dispute between the town of Camden and a former property owner who did everything in his power to dissuade the public from using the area and intimidate the Select Board into backing down.

The private property owners always seem to have hired the best lawyers and surveyors to vehemently (and sometimes shamelessly) defend their position, while the town instead compromises even when it doesn’t have to.

Sherman’s Cove and Penobscot Bay are natural resources of extraordinary value, not just to the general public, but to our local and global ecosystem. We must work to step lightly and develop plans for protecting the natural and scenic beauty, but the biggest threat to the area in my mind is that public access is so limited that we are at risk of forgetting why conservation even matters there.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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