Bowdoin College students remove invasive plants from the Devil’s Back Trail Area on Orr’s Island.


Harpswell is justly proud of the spirit of volunteerism exhibited by its residents, both year-round and seasonal. Even so, it’s sometimes hard to muster the needed “person power” to do what needs to be done.

Late last month, three groups that had not worked together before brought that necessary energy to a project on Devil’s Back Trail. The town lands committee, the Harpswell Invasive Plant Partnership and Bowdoin College worked together to restore and improve trails that the public has used heavily during the pandemic.

The winding trails at Devil’s Back stretch through some 36 acres of woods and shore along both sides of Harpswell Islands Road at the Orr’s Island end of the bridge from Great Island. The large network of trails is maintained by the town lands committee.

Ken Oehmig, a committee member and steward for Devil’s Back, needed help with trail work. Visitors had strayed from the established trails through the eastern section of the area, a problem that, if left unaddressed, could lead to significant environmental damage. Oehmig wanted to post signs and add barriers to encourage hikers to stay on the trail. Finding the labor posed a problem, however.

As part of their commitment to limiting the spread of invasive plants on public lands, representatives of HIPP recently surveyed Devil’s Back to determine the extent of infestation by invasive plants, such as shrub honeysuckle, bittersweet and multiflora rose. The reviewers found little evidence of invasives on the east side of Harpswell Islands Road and on the northern part of the west side.

The southwest section of trails told a different story. Barberry, honeysuckle and multiflora rose showed up in several areas. HIPP members entered the GPS locations into iMap, a database used by the state to track the spread of invasive plants. Knowing where the problems are is helpful, but it takes a work crew to remove the intruders.

Each fall, with the exception of last year’s pandemic-constrained semester, Bowdoin College offers first-year students a pre-orientation program as part of a transition to college life. The activities allow students in small groups to explore new interests or hone existing skills. The Outing Club sponsors weeklong wilderness exploration trips, and the McKeen Center for the Common Good offers a range of service opportunities in the Midcoast to foster relationships with local communities.

Oehmig contacted the McKeen Center to see if three or four students might be interested in doing some trail work at Devil’s Back. He learned that a group of students staying at Bowdoin’s Schiller Coastal Studies Center on Orr’s Island, just across Long Cove from Devil’s Back, had one free morning after working all week on environmental projects in other parts of the Midcoast.

Eleven students was more than Oehmig needed, but HIPP had plenty of work to occupy the others.

On a Saturday morning at the end of August, a white Bowdoin van carrying 10 first-year Polar Bears and their driver, a junior, pulled into the Devil’s Back parking lot. About half the group was from Southern Maine. Others came from New York City, California, Australia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

After hearing about the tasks at hand, they broke into two groups. Four went with Oehmig to the east side with posthole diggers, shovels and a long, heavy steel bar suitable for attacking the famous Harpswell ledge to install signposts.

Jeff Stann, a member of the town lands committee and a founder of HIPP, briefed the others on why invasive plants are an environmental and economic threat. Then they marched off into the woods carrying clippers, loppers and shovels.

A few hours later, back in the parking lot, some tired but rather pleased students talked enthusiastically about what they had accomplished. The HIPP group dug up and bagged a couple of deep-rooted thorny barberry. They also removed several large clusters of multiflora rose, roots and all. On the east side, Oehmig’s team broke up rock, put in three posts for future signs and moved logs to better define the trails.

It was a winning combination. The town of Harpswell received needed improvements to an important trail. Invasive plants that might have spread further were cut back, thanks to the strong young backs of an international group of Bowdoin first-years, and the students learned a little about the town next door.

Before climbing into the van for the ride to campus and the beginning of “the best four years of their lives,” a few students asked how they could volunteer again in Harpswell. Stann gave them his card.