Potato. Little Camp. Hell’s Half Acre.
Those are just a few of the islands that make up Merchant’s Row archipelago, clustered off the Deer Isle town of Stonington. The mostly uninhabited island chain shows off Maine’s unspoiled natural beauty, and — despite a few foreboding names — plenty of opportunities to explore.
Captain Bill Baker saw potential in the area over two decades ago when he moved up from Monhegan Island and purchased land by the water in Stonington to found Old Quarry Ocean Adventures. The venture began with boat trips, and eventually grew to offer camping, kayaking and other hospitality services.
The name “Old Quarry” is a nod to Deer Isle’s history of granite extraction, which thrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, only one functioning granite quarry remains on Crotch Island, visible from Stonington Harbor. Many of the other islands are notable instead because they are preserved, uninhabited, and open to the public for recreation.
“It is one of the best areas for public access on the whole New England coast,” said Michael Daugherty, a kayaking instructor who first worked as a guide with Old Quarry in 2010.
Together, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), the Island Heritage Trust and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands protect over two dozen islands within Merchant’s Row. This widespread preservation is due in part to the philanthropy of Thomas Cabot, longtime CEO of the Boston-based Cabot Corporation, who — alongside Peggy Rockefeller — founded MCHT in 1970 with islands that he had purchased.
Many of these protected islands are within reach for even the less experienced kayaker. Daugherty, himself an expert who has written a book on sea kayaking in New England that was published by the Appalachian Mountain Club and kayaked the Maine Island Trail from Portland to the Canadian border, noted that the proximity of islands and the lack of strong currents make Stonington a good place for novice paddlers.
One of the most popular destinations in the Merchant’s Row archipelago is Green Island, where an old granite quarry has filled in, creating a freshwater swimming hole. Located about a mile southeast of the town of Stonington, the destination is accessible via kayak, or Old Quarry’s passenger boat.
Despite its inhospitable name, Hell’s Half Acre — located a bit farther east — is notable for its campsites, which are set back from the beach to offer some protection from the elements. Daugherty speculates that the name comes from the shallow banks, which make approaching the island difficult for larger boats, thought it is not a problem for kayaks.
The nearby Devil Island has slightly more nefarious naming origins. The island, which is privately owned, may have gotten its name due to a 19th-century resident who caused both of his sons’ deaths and then buried them on the island, according to historians Charles B. McLane and Carol Evarts McLane, who have written multiple books on the history of Maine’s islands. Devil Island once had over half a dozen graves, though no headstones remain today.
At the southern end of the archipelago, about six miles south of Stonington, is a remote outpost of Acadia National Park. Isle au Haut, pronounced “I’LL-a-ho,” is the largest island of the bunch and the only one that maintains a year-round population — 73 residents in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. The park, which comprises slightly more than half of the island, hosts a camp ground and 18 miles of hiking trails.
While each island on Merchant’s Row offers its own landscape, the journey between can be equally scenic. For the attentive traveler, the waters are inhabited by harbor seals, and those who look to the sky might spot the occasional eagle.
Beyond outdoor activities, Stonington is also known as a lobstering port. Baker, a Boston native and former lobsterman, still has his traps, although these days he mostly uses them to show tourists how lobster fishing works. At age 70, he doesn’t get out on the water as often as he used to, but he still appreciates Stonington’s beauty.
“This is one of the prettiest places in the country to paddle,” he said.
Old Quarry Ocean Adventures is located at 130 Settlement Road in Stonington. For more info, call 367-8977 and visit www.oldquarry.com.