Acadia: Into the Mist
By Sandy Lang | Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
So much in Maine depends on the weather. Or not. Sometimes you simply need to do something else outdoors, no matter the weather. With that attitude, on an overcast morning in late May, with only a few glimmers of brightness, we throw a hand-me-down tent in the trunk, along with various other camping gear—a Coleman stove, sleeping bags, granola bars, bottled water—secure the mountain bikes on the rack, and head off for a little car-camping trip to Acadia National Park. It’s something photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I have talked about doing for years.
To go to Acadia means driving north and east—downeast—and onto Mount Desert Island, which may make you doubt its island status because the bridge from Route 102 in Trenton to “MDI” is not long, arching, or dramatic. It’s a level crossing to Thompson Island and then onto Mount Desert, which—at 16 miles long and 13 miles wide—feels like a continuation of the Maine coastline of coves and peninsulas. Several miles before we reach the island, we stop at Cadillac Mountain Sports in Ellsworth to stock up on a bit more gear, including two foam mats to roll out under our sleeping bags, two camping “sporks” (I like that they are made in Sweden), and some plastic sheeting to go under the tent as a ground cloth. We also stop to buy a bag of bright green fiddleheads from the bearded man who sets up a roadside table just past Ellsworth this time of year. “I got these yesterday from some boys up near Lincoln,” he says, and recommends that we either batter and fry them or sauté them with some onions and red peppers.
As we close in on the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, we pass the steaming kettles at a lobster pound in Trenton that add to the day’s thickening fog. Rain hits the windshield. Maybe we’d check in to an inn that night instead. I call the Acacia House in Bar Harbor, which has one room left—“the smallest in the house.” We’ll take it. Before we check in, though, we do a loop of the park and island to see what we can.
Staying on Route 102, we drive to the southernmost point of the island, where there’s a sliver of Acadia’s 32,000 acres on MDI at the Bass Harbor Head lighthouse. The short, steep, paved path to the lighthouse itself isn’t very exciting, but if you walk to the opposite end of the parking lot, there’s a path to the shoreline that allows you to look back and see the rocky coastline and the squat lighthouse above. From this vantage, the height of the lighthouse surprises me. Following Route 102A, we continue on to a path we’ve taken before—Acadia’s Wonderland Trail, which is known for views of the pink granite along the oceanfront. This is an easy walk on a gravel trail that’s lined with wild raspberry bushes and woods until you pop out into the sea breezes of the shore. On the rain-washed sand and rocks, we see no other people, but plenty of shells, sea beans, and wide strips of glossy, amber seaweed. To me, they look like giant ribbons of pasta.
Back in the car, we follow the road north across the zigzagging natural seawall—one of my favorite parts of the island. A little further on, we stop at the tidy Seawall Drive-in for some lobster stew and one of their Mt. Blue Burgers made with Maine-raised beef and blue cheese. This place looks like an iconic snack bar, but the menu isn’t ordinary. They make Italian sodas and lemonades with mint and serve up gelato and soups—that day a fresh gazpacho with lobster. We meet a couple of local men who are also having burgers at the outdoor picnic tables. They see us looking at a park map and start offering up ideas for good hikes, including the Ship Harbor Nature Trail (near Wonderland) and the Acadia Mountain Trail—“a rare place to see the pink lady slipper in bloom,” says one of the men. I love that the park is so much a part of the island that locals talk in tones of wonder about forest flowers.
The weather isn’t getting any better, so we continue on, taking the cross-island Route 233 to Bar Harbor, and soon check in at the Acacia House Inn on a narrow residential street. The small room above the kitchen turns out to be just right, in lilac and butter yellow colors and with a large bathroom with a claw-foot tub and wide antique sink. Since it’s low tide on Frenchman Bay, we quickly drop off our bags and walk down to Bridge Street and to the tidally exposed sandbar that will take us to the forested and uninhabited Bar Island. By now, the fog is so thick that we can’t see our destination when we start. We’re just walking into the mist.
In the near distance, I can make out a couple and a family just ahead of us. Seagulls are gathering above, and we realize they are hunting for sea urchins. The gulls lift the urchins out of shallow water and fly twenty or thirty feet into the air before dropping them onto the sandbar, and then swoop down to peck out the urchin meat from the broken shells. The birds do this over and over as we walk. Everyone out that day is watching the birds or bending to look more closely at the tide pools. Children are flipping rocks over to look for crabs, and a little girl yells “crab alert.” I see round urchin shells that look like purple jewel boxes. A woman shows me what she’s seeing: live barnacles on a rock that are opening and closing, their tiny bodies extending and visibly “waving” into the damp air. “They look like tongues,” she says. In a few minutes, we reach the high-water mark of seaweed on the shore of Bar Island and turn around for what is typically a great view of Bar Harbor. The afternoon fog is so thick we can’t see it. We are totally engulfed, and the calls of gulls and children and the sounds of nautical clanking in the distance make for a mysterious and wonderful scene.
We decide to follow the sandbar back to Bar Harbor, where we turn down West Street to the town pier and pick up the Shore Path for a foggy stroll past the massive rusticator “cottages.” With formidable names like Edenholm and Breakwater, some of these imposing structures are a century old. Lawns here are spanned by pools, patios, and elaborate gardens. It seems that not everyone who summers here dreams of sleeping in tents.
That night, on a recommendation from our innkeepers, we drive nearly back to Trenton for dinner at the Town Hill Bistro, which is located at the end of Crooked Road in Town Hill. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a small house, and it seats only about thirty people inside. I quickly size it up as the kind of place where you want to sit back and drink big, fat glasses of wine and taste everything. We order several small plates—short ribs on grit cakes, seared scallops, and a chilled Israeli couscous with lobster-claw meat—and sit in the cozy dining room that features exposed beams and a fireplace at one end. The crowd that night appears to be mostly locals. The conversations are lively and the food is delicious. (It definitely isn’t an evening of baked beans by a campsite fire.)
After a good night’s sleep, we begin the next morning with more food at a corner table on the bright, glassed-in front porch of the Acacia House. The inn’s owners, Ralph McDonnell and Anna Durand, used to operate the popular Morning Glory Bakery in Bar Harbor, so my expectations for a tasty breakfast are high, and quickly met. Ralph himself serves everyone, and we soon have plates of pecan-apple pancakes, followed by frittatas with smoked trout and fiddleheads. I’m an eavesdropper, and quickly surmise that the other guests on the porch are from Canada, Oregon, and England. (Did the rain and fog follow them?) Ralph is pouring the coffee and says, “I made the mistake of looking at the weather today—it’ll be like this until at least Thursday.” He says the days of lingering fog are sometimes difficult to explain to first-time tourists to Bar Harbor. We march right back out into it.
Our first stop is to catch up with “Diver Ed” Monat, a College of the Atlantic graduate who is prepping his boat, the Starfish Enterprise, for a Dive-In Theater tour with dozens of Girl Scouts. Others have compared this guy to John Belushi, and I can see it right away. Monat is full of energy, smart, and boyishly silly as he describes the sea stars, Jonah crabs, sea cucumbers, anemones, and other underwater wildlife in Frenchman Bay. “You wouldn’t believe what’s happening down there, all the wicked, crazy colors,” he says just after showing me a scar on his arm, a leftover from a tangle with a giant lobster. During his two-hour tours as Diver Ed, he dives under the boat in locations all across the bay and uses a live-feed video camera so that everyone onboard can watch the underwater action on a six-foot screen. He also brings sea life up from the bottom for people to see and touch. The tour is a hit, and Monat says that, when he’s not out on the boat, one of his favorite things to do on the island is go to the ImprovAcadia comedy shows. I’d like to go, but I’ve already laughed so much with Diver Ed himself.
We spend most of the rest of the day hiking and pedaling. Here and there, the fog breaks. From the national park’s Jordan Pond House, we follow the Jordan Stream Trail by bicycle for a while, and then park the cycles at the start of a private carriage road where bikes are not allowed. Local businesswoman Kim Swan, a friend of a friend, had suggested that we check out this part of Acadia’s “spectacular yet so serene” carriage roads, the incredible 45 miles of trails that summer resident John D. Rockefeller had built between 1913 and 1940. I particularly want to see the oldest span, the one known as the Cobblestone Bridge. We make our way there, and the stream is frothy and rushing fast under the mossy stone arch. It’s amazing to think of the foresight that went into the construction of these roads and bridges, which are still used by horse-drawn carriages, hikers, and bicycles. I keep noticing the variety of modes of transportation in Acadia. At one point, we come upon a motor-touring club of dozens of people driving a long, snaking line of Subarus. Later, it’s a group of guys on 1970s-era Puch mopeds slowly motoring up Cadillac Mountain. Of course, the best way to hike the 1,530-foot peak, the highest on Mount Desert Island, is to climb it yourself from the South Ridge Trail, which I did once before, in sunny weather. For the rest of the day, we tour around, hike up toward the Triad, wander through the Wild Gardens and down to the shore of Echo Lake, stop by Sand Beach, and follow the steps to Thunder Hole to listen to the tremendous wallop of splashing waves.
Finally, in spite of the weekend’s ever-creeping fog, we dip into the deep forest of Blackwoods Campground and pay $20 at the ranger station for a campsite. I ask for one near the ocean path, and it’s a beauty: tall trees and moss-covered rocks all around, no electric hook-up (it will be a dark night), and a level gravel pad for our tent. We can see other campers at nearby tent sites through the trees, but there’s a natural hush to this campground and everyone is speaking in low voices. The old orange and yellow tent we’ve never used before takes a while to set up—there’s a connecting piece missing, but we make it work. The cushions and sleeping bags go down, and we cross our fingers that rain won’t come. Peter Frank laughs. This tent looks lopsided and pretty flimsy compared to some of the bright, tight versions at sites nearby. It’s time to open a bottle of wine and pour it into metal cups—actually, mine is a bowl. We breathe deeply and take a few sips. The quiet wildness of Acadia is all ours for the night. We made it.