The Little Desert That Grew in Maine
Herb Swanson for The New York Times
Exposed glacial silt has created an unlikely diversion for tourists in coastal Maine: a desert tour.
MAINE evokes ocean breezes, the smell of beach roses and the sight of lobster boats trawling for the evening catch. But a few miles from the coast in Freeport, there’s an anomaly that has delighted young children and intrigued curious adults for nearly 90 years. Called the Desert of Maine, it is not really a desert at all — but it sure looks like one. And although it is operated as a tourist attraction, this is no ersatz Sahara built of trucked-in sand and designer dunes. Nature laid it down, human error uncovered it, and the hucksters and gawkers arrived late in the game.
On a clear late-summer morning with temperatures in the low 70’s, the “desert,” which emerges incongruously from the surrounding green hills, shimmered at 90 degrees from the reflected heat of its shifting dunes. Walking to the middle of this silent expanse, you’ll find it difficult to believe you are anywhere in the eastern United States, let alone Maine.
Most visitors tour this otherworldly landscape — which takes up most of the Desert of Maine tourist attraction’s 47 acres — on 30-minute tram tours. But there are also easy hiking trails, and visitors can wander on their own. In places, dunes tower high above the trails, kept at bay by trees — the surrounding forest is the natural fence that keeps the sand from spreading.
The Desert of Maine is well known locally, according to Robert Doyle, a retired head of the Maine Geological Survey and former associate professor at the University of Maine at Augusta. “My father took me there when I was 10,” he said.
The story of this strange place began more than 10,000 years ago, Mr. Doyle explained, when the glaciers of the last Ice Age slowly scraped the soil and ground rocks into pebbles and then to a sandy substance known as glacial silt, forming a layer up to 80 feet deep in places in southern Maine. Then, over the centuries, topsoil formed a cap, concealing the “desert,” enabling forest to grow and, when settlers came to North America, supporting agriculture.
Enter William Tuttle, a farmer who bought 300 acres of prime farmland in 1797. Tuttle built a large post-and-beam barn on the site and operated a successful farm for decades, raising cattle and crops. His descendants added sheep to sell wool to textile mills. Poor crop rotation and overgrazing by sheep, which tear the plants out of the soil by the roots, resulted in soil erosion and something eerily beyond.
One day, a patch of sand the size of a dinner plate became exposed. It grew until the family became alarmed. But it was too late. The “desert” had made its entrance, and the more the soil eroded, the more the sand underneath was exposed.
THE Tuttles didn’t give up right away, and tried for years to fight the inevitable. But slowly the sand claimed the farm, swallowing buildings and pasture. By the early 20th century they abandoned the place. Proving that one person’s disaster is another’s gold mine, Henry Goldrup bought the farm in 1919 for $300 and opened it as a tourist attraction in 1925. It now attracts 30,000 visitors a year, according to Mary and Bob Kaschub, who work as tour guides.
The tram tour travels through the starkest portions of the desolate landscape, like the site of a springhouse, built in 1935, that was overtaken by sand by 1962 and is now invisible under eight feet of sand. Pine trees have adapted to the sand and seem healthy, with only their tops exposed and their trunks buried as much as 50 feet deep. The contrast is vivid between the brightness of the dunes and the surrounding forest.
Mica in the silt sparkles in the Maine sun. It also reflects heat, explaining the high temperatures in the middle of the sandy expanse. Readings of more than 100 degrees are not uncommon, Ms. Kaschub said.
Over several years as a tour guide, she has learned to respect the power of the sand. On one tour, a powerful gust of wind suddenly made it impossible to see and nearly impossible to breathe, she said. Visitors and staff had to cover their eyes, noses and mouths until the swirling sandstorm subsided several minutes later. Ms. Kaschub also pointed out trees that had been stripped of much of their bark, essentially sandblasted smooth from the wind. “Every year, I wonder, will the desert win, or will the forest win?” she mused.
On the day of our visit the air was still, making it easy to admire the area’s odd beauty and to feel sorry for the hapless Tuttles. They tried to make bricks out of the sand swallowing their farm, but because of the high mica content, the bricks just crumbled and fell apart. So the sparkling quality that helped make the place a tourist attraction essentially prevented its practical use.
Once the touring and hiking are done, there are more activities for children. A staff artist gives free lessons in fashioning art from the sand, which varies in color. For the purchase of a bottle for a few dollars and a quick lesson in shaping a sand creation, visitors can spend an absorbing hour creating a piece of the “desert” to bring home.
Also on the site are a museum with agricultural implements and a play area where children can search for colored stones that the staff has scattered on the sand.
In the 1950’s, the Desert of Maine kept a camel named Sarah to add to the desert atmosphere. It developed the unfortunate habit of biting and spitting at the tourists and was eventually sent to a zoo. Taking its place now are two life-size statues of camels, one lying down and the other standing. They are not nearly as interactive as Sarah was, but at least tourists who want a souvenir picture won’t have to worry about fending off a dromedary with anger management issues.