A harbor seal peaks above the surface. (ISTOCK PHOTO)

If there is one point upon which we can all agree, it is this: Harpswell is endowed with great natural beauty. Drive around town and you will be rewarded with scenic views the equal of any along Maine’s thousands of miles of coastline. Yet there is another view of our town that is worth any effort — the view of Harpswell from the water. Those who work on the water know this well, but most inhabitants rarely leave the shore, denying themselves the full measure of Harpswell’s glory.

Officially our town is blessed with 216 miles of coastline. All those coves, bays and inlets add up! But if you are landlocked, you cannot appreciate long stretches of our shoreline that are undeveloped, unless you have permission from the landowners to explore. There are more than 200 islands within the town boundaries, many of them unspoiled and harboring fascinating wildlife. Since water makes up 80% of Harpswell’s 127 square miles, you miss the best parts if you never go afloat.

On a quiet afternoon, I launched the boat at Brunswick’s Sawyer Park public ramp, just south of old Route 1. The weather was mild with a light southerly breeze and I cruised slowly down the New Meadows River. A flock of Canada geese kept watch on a cluster of small goslings feeding on the shoreline. Further south, a pair of common eiders lingered around a rocky point with six tiny chicks in their care. 

Several times I shut down the engine to drift along, enjoying the sights and listening to birds on shore — American robins, gray catbirds, red-eyed vireos and song sparrows. Often I had the water to myself. Having grown up near Lake Ontario in New York and having spent a lot of time on several of the Finger Lakes, it always surprises me just how few boats I see when out on local waters.

The depth finder was steadily beeping, marking sizable fish in the water below the boat, probably striped bass working the small clusters of baitfish I passed over. Just offshore from Cundy’s Harbor I stopped to watch about 20 common terns and herring gulls swooping and diving into the water, sometimes coming up with small fish. The fishing must have been good, since some of the birds were resting on nearby rocks, looking fat and relaxed. Several harbor seals were in on the action, silently gliding along until they slipped into the water for another go at the school of fish.

Despite the wind picking up and piling up bigger waves, I made it as far as Jenny Island, one of the few spots where endangered roseate terns still nest in Maine waters. With the boat bobbing around, it was impossible to distinguish among the terns around the island, but there were dozens of double-crested cormorants, a couple great blue herons standing tall and even a laughing gull with his jaunty black head. Please note that islands like Jenny that host breeding colonies of seabirds are off-limits to people between March 15 and Aug. 15.

On the way back I spoke with a friendly oyster farmer. He was optimistic about the prospects for building his business as the water quality around Quahog Bay improves and the demand for Maine shellfish continues to exceed the supply.

Passing the lovely shores of Woodward Point Preserve I noticed two ospreys soaring on the wind, clearly hoping to snag a meal in the rich waters below them. Soon two more birds joined the hunt, paying me no mind. Several steep dives into the ocean yielded no prey, but finally one of the birds scored a fish and made its way toward the shore, likely returning to a ravenous chick calling for food.

As always, it was with mixed feelings that I secured the boat to the trailer for the drive home. Any time I am on the water around town I am tempted to linger; there is always something to engage the mind, whether wildlife, sky or ocean scenery. If you have not experienced a sunrise from the water around Jaquish Island, or a sunset from the placid surface of Middle Bay, you have yet to witness the full beauty and diversity of the place we call home, even if only for a couple weeks each year.

Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and public education efforts.