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Side Trips: The Desert of Maine

Patty Wight

FREEPORT, Maine - It was in the late 1800's that a small patch of sand - about the size of a tea cup saucer - appeared on a Freeport farm field. Within a year, that patch of sand had spread to cover 300 acres. The Desert of Maine was born, and ever since visitors have come to see this barren ecological anomaly in the most forested state in the nation.

Driving past lush home yards on Desert Road in Freeport, it's hard to imagine there is anything like a desert nearby. Even the parking lot at the Desert of Maine is shaded under a green canopy of oak and maple trees. But step beyond a clay colored fence, and sand dunes suddenly take over the landscape.

"There's 40 acres of sand surrounded by this green forest. It's kind of like a sand fishbowl," says Moriah Sargent.  

Sargent is a tour guide here at the Desert of Maine, which, by the strict definition of the word, is not truly a desert. There's too much rain, for one thing. But it has plenty of desert qualities, like heat. The temperature out on the sand dunes is 20 to 40 degrees hotter than in the parking lot.

A shaded tram ride is often the most comfortable way to explore the desert. As it drives up a sand dune, visitors get a peek at desert fauna - a pair of stoic camels, made of fiberglass.

"We used to have a real camel here named Sara," Sargent says. "She was not very friendly, however. She used to bite, kick and spit and generally cause trouble. You might say she was a pain in the hump."

It was a glacier from the last Ice Age that set the stage for this desert. It slid down from Canada and left behind sandy silt and a lake. When the lake dried up, a forest grew, and in 1797, a man named William Tuttle saw an opportunity: He bought 300 acres, cleared some trees, and planted a farm.

"He had a hay field, an apple orchard, and a bunch of different kinds of produce, and he was a very successful farmer," Sargent says. "When he passed away, he left the farm to his sons, and his sons were not."

They grew potatoes, which sap nutrients from the soil. Then they raised sheep to sell wool for the booming manufacturing industry at the time. But the grazing sheep eroded the topsoil. One day, a patch of sand - or glacial silt - appeared in a field. It was as fine as baking flour, and it quickly spread, creating the desert it is today.

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
The view from the Desert of Maine's "90-foot dune."

Moriah Sargent stops the tram at the base of the highest point of the Desert - the "90-foot dune." Visitors clamber to the top of the dune by foot.

"So here's our 90 foot drop off," she points out.  The dune comes to an abrupt stop and the forest takes over, 90 feet below. "These trees acted as a natural barrier for the wind and the sand, so the desert could only push so far into the forest before the trees stopped it."

The dune did manage to swallow some of the trees before the forest blocked its progress. The crowns of tenacious birch trees emerge from the sand, their lower branches turning downward into the silt to act as roots.

This is the spot, says Sargent, where visitors fully appreciate the uniqueness of the Desert of Maine. Harry Thomas from Arkansas is one of them. "Oh, it's rare," Thomas says. "She said, only three or four places in the whole world developed like this, I suppose from the same conditions. Just amazing. Amazing that it's here."

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Desert of Maine owner Gary Currens.

Though the Desert of Maine has been featured on The Weather Channel, The Discovery Channel, and Ripley's Believe It or Not, owner Gary Currens says its existence can still come as a surprise to those living in Maine.

"You know, when you're growing up and stuff, everybody else's backyard always looked more interesting than your own. And I would have to say, for people living in Maine, this isn't a tourist trap. And they need to come out and see what's in their own backyard."

And see it before it disappears. Staff at the Desert of Maine say scientists predict it will be gone in 200 to 300 years, as the forest slowly reclaims the land.