Discover Deer Isle Along Ancient Canoe Route

For a different look at scenic Deer Isle, folks can follow in the paddle tracks of Native Americans along an ancient and well-established route that wends through the island and its history of human habitation.

“It’s a major route used by Indians … this was sort of their superhighway,” said William Haviland, the anthropologist — now retired to Deer Isle — who recognized the route for what it was in 2003.

The route includes several portages, and was useful because natives could use it to avoid the more open water to the east and west of the island.

“If you’re in a canoe you can go out on open water,” said Haviland. “But if [the weather] blows up you’re in trouble.”

He theorizes that Native Americans used the trails to access fertile fishing grounds and clam flats.

In a scientific paper describing the route, Haviland wrote, “In keeping with the importance of this transportation artery, the remains of Indian campsites are numerous along its shores; more so than anywhere else on Deer Isle.”

Evidence shows the route was in use 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, and well into the 20th century.

“This is precisely when heavy duty axes, adzes and gouges of stone all but disappear from the archaeological record,” Haviland continued. “We think this reflects the replacement of heavy dugout canoes by lighter ones made of birch bark. Because of their weight, dugouts are not easily carried, and so are pretty much restricted to unobstructed water. Only after their replacement could Deer Isle’s interior waterway become the major transportation artery that it was.”

The birch bark canoe was perfect for navigating shallow water and its light weight made it easy to portage.

“An easy carry would have been a small price to pay to make use of a well-protected waterway,” Haviland explained.

The route is not marked along the way, but there is a map available from the Deer Isle and Stonington Conservation Commissions and the Island Heritage Trust.

At a Glance

Distances along the Canoe Route

Causeway to Mill Dam: 4.5 miles

Long Cove: Mariners Memorial Park to Carrying Place 1 mile

Greenlaw Cove: Carrying Place to Reach 2.5 miles

Long Cove: Mariners Park to Brays Narrows ½ mile

Bray’s Narrows: Long Cove to Southwest Harbor ¾ mile

Southwest Harbor: Bray’s Narrows to mouth 3 miles

Southwest Harbor: Bray’s Narrows to Marsh Bridge Carry 1.5 miles

Webb’s Cove: Marsh Bridge Carry to mouth. 1 mile

It shows the trail starting on the mainland (it was part of an extensive water trail network that began at the Bagaduce River) and crosses Eggemoggin Reach to Deer Isle, passing near Carney Island. From there it hugs the shore of Deer Isle to Northwest Harbor and heads into the middle of the island and the first portage, identified on the map as “Haulover,” which ends at Long Cove. This is the only part of the trail that is not accessible to paddlers, as the Haulover is on private land. Other portages are accessible. From Long Cove the trail splits and meanders both east and south.

Public access to the route includes Mariners Memorial Park between Route 15 and Long Cove; Shore Acres Preserve and Campbell’s Island on Greenlaw Cove, and Polypod Island and Tennis Preserve on Southeast Harbor, and the Holt Pond Nature Preserve at the end of Holt Pond.

Most of the land along the route is in private hands.

For those who wish to explore the route a bit with an expert, but don’t want to canoe or kayak to do so, Haviland will narrate an educational tour on the vessel Night Duck courtesy the Island Heritage Trust and Old Quarry Ocean Adventures on June 27, July 25, and Aug. 29. The fee is $60; the boat leaves from the Old Quarry Dock at 10 a.m. and is scheduled to return at about 3 p.m.

For more information about the tour or the canoe trail, call the Island Heritage Trust at 348-2455 or visit


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