Acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1978, Great Wass Island Preserve is a natural gem of Downeast Maine. A 4.5-mile hiking trail will take you through the preserve’s unique forests and wetlands. On the shore, exposed granite bedrock drops steeply into the sea, giving evidence of the “Fundian Fault,” a long crack in the Earth’s crust that extends from the Bay of Fundy to the coast of New Hampshire. The island projects farther out to sea than any other land mass in eastern Maine, and exposure to the marine climate shapes the vegetation of the preserve. The waters of the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy meet here and mix to produce a cool, humid oceanic climate that is ideal for rare plants and natural communities. Sitting on the granite shore and watching harbor seals haul themselves out of the waves after gorging at sea is testament to the productivity of this marine ecosystem.
Several rare plants grow on the island’s exposed headlands. Beach head iris (Iris hookeri), marsh felwort (Lomatagonium rotatum) and bird’s-eye primrose (Primula laurentiana) are tolerant of extreme conditions: constant wind, salt spray and a cool summer growing season. Further inland, the island supports one of Maine’s largest stands of coastal jack pine (Pinus banksiana) on soil so thin that few other species besides these twisted and stunted trees can survive. Curiously, unlike their fire-dependent cousins to the north that rely on heat to open their cones and release their seeds, this particular community of jack pine successfully reproduces in the absence of fire.
To add to this wealth of natural diversity, the bogs (or heaths) of Great Wass are also unique to this part of the state. They are maritime slope bogs that formed on top of coastal bedrock where the rare baked-apple berry (Rubus chamaemorus) grows, and raised bogs that formed thousands of years ago as sphagnum moss accumulated in the scoured basins left by retreating glaciers. The acidic, peat soil supports carnivorous plants such as sundew and pitcher plant and shrubs that can stand the extreme nutrient-poor environment.