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Learning to Care for Land They Love

Celebrating a Longtime Collaboration Between MCHT and Lesley University

For the past 18 years, Maine Coast Heritage Trust steward Melissa Lee and students at Lesley University’s Ecological Teaching and Learning Program have converged at one of Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Preserves along the bold coast in Washington County to spend a summer day doing trail work together.

On a foggy Wednesday in July, Melissa brings bags full of tools, helmets, a chain saw, and chaps to Boot Head preserve. The group—led by program founder and director Coleen O’Connell—carries hundreds of pounds of wood and supplies along miles of trail. Using a pick mattock, they unearth rotten wood from soggy soil. With saws and screws and cedar planks, they replace old bog bridge with new. When the work wraps up around 1 p.m., the exhausted group makes its way to the water for lunch.

Wet with sweat and condensation, Melissa and Coleen sit beside one another on a ledge and catch up overlooking a wall of fog pinched with silver waves. For all the ways their lives have changed over the past 18 years, the essential qualities of this landscape have not. These women know Boot Head in fog, rain, and sun, and they love it wholeheartedly.

“It’s so ecologically rich,” says Coleen when asked why she chooses to host the program’s first residency in Washington County year after year. “It’s not heavily populated; it’s still in essence a natural resource community. Everywhere else in Maine, the harbors are filled with pleasure craft. Here, it’s work boats. I want the students to learn from people who make their living from the land.”

Beyond volunteering at local preserves, the students have visited Tide Mill, a nine-generation family farm, and learned from an elder medicine person from the Passamaquoddy tribe. They’ve done water sampling in the Dennys River and Cathance Stream and spotted seals and porpoises from Campobello Island.

“Anywhere else you hike on the east coast, you’ll run into so many people,” says Coleen. While at work building bridge, the group comes across a solo hiker; later, they see a local artist working on a painting of steep rock face in the fog. They also find shining black beetles and study the unique architecture of the sphagnum moss coating the forest floor. “It’s rare to find a place in which humans don’t dominate the ecosystem,” says Coleen.

On the way back to their van, some of the group walks across the short stretch of bog bridge they just built—a small fraction of the hundreds of feet of bog bridge found at Boot Head. For Lesley students, this experience offers a lesson in the hard work of land stewardship. For their help—and for their deep engagement with conserved lands and communities in Washington County—MCHT is perennially grateful.