At Acadia National Park it’s been a celebration of the century -all year long. To jump into the one-hundreth anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service and of the adored Acadia on Mount Desert Island, we stay a couple of nights at the Claremont Hotel, perched above some sound since the 1880s.
Even with the hubbub of the milestone anniversary of the magnificent park that’s drawing millions of visitors from around the world, it’s at the Claremont Hotel that I can clear my head. When we arrive, it’s still early in the summer season on Mount Desert Island and a log is ablaze in the stone fireplace. The desk attendant at this classic inn at the end of an unpaved lane in Southwest Harbor shares some hotel details: about meal times, tennis court and rowboat use, and the tradition that guests “dress” for dinner—including jackets for men. I soon change, too, and step out onto the thick lawn overlooking the hotel’s dock and several moored sailboats at the head of Somes Sound.
The Claremont’s perfectly spaced line of sea-facing wooden lawn chairs matches
a decades-old photograph in a book chronicling the history of the inn, which was founded in 1884 by a schooner captain and his wife. While waiting for dinner service to begin at Xanthus, the hotel’s restaurant, I sit in the line-up and sip a cool glass of rosé. I’ve borrowed a menu and am considering the crab cakes with seaweed salad or the halibut on coconut sticky rice.
Several other Claremont guests are starting a game of croquet on the closely trimmed green a few yards away.
This scene may not be too different from a century ago, when wealthy visitors would arrive by boat and then travel across the island by horse-drawn carriage. (To preserve peace and quiet on MDI, automobiles were banned until 1915.) Summers then were flush with “rusticators:” landscape painters, culture seekers, conservation thinkers, and East Coast intellectuals who brought attention and philanthropic gifts to this remote island halfway up the coast of Maine—the first national park east of the Mississippi.
The creation of Acadia has had dramatic effects, to say the least. As a visitor to MDI, the park feels almost boundless. Driving from town to town, you’re never quite sure where the over-48,0000 acre park’s boundaries begin or end. (Portions extend, too, to Isle au Haut and other islands, the Schoodic Peninsula, and the mainland.) Visitors can readily see natural beauty in most directions, and whether national park land, or a town green, a cove, or a private garden, it’s remarkable how many places on MDI are easily accessible to explore or to photograph.
Citizen Science + Fame
At the park’s headquarters I meet John T. Kelly, longtime Acadia employee with the National Park Service (in a neatly pressed ranger-style uniform), who shows me where to sign in for access to the park’s archives, a little-known resource. This is special. The William Otis Sawtelle Collections and Research Center includes several hundred thousand items from
the park’s history organized in cabinets, drawers, and sliding shelves inside climate-controlled rooms that are open
by appointment for researchers. Stored flat in drawers at least a yard wide are stacks of some of the earliest, hand-drawn maps of Acadia—and the first key features, including Jordan Pond; the 1,527-foot summit of Green Mountain (later renamed Cadillac Mountain); and Great Head and Sand Beach along Frenchman Bay. The often large-scale, detailed maps are a reminder of the park’s beginning as a collection of several thousand acres of donated land on MDI.
Also in archives, glass-topped cases hold collections of butterflies on pin-board displays, insects found by citizen scientists decades ago, with wings still open. There are pictures of park founders and philanthropists, farm tools and wicker chairs, and paintings donated by the wealthy seasonal residents who built huge cottages in Bar Harbor and around the island. Another park employee points out some rare volumes by the twentieth- century ornithologist James Bond that she’s been looking at recently. I love this offbeat information. Bond wrote about birdlife in Acadia and elsewhere, and British author Ian Fleming famously appropriated the bird expert’s name to be the hero in his novels about the international spy game.
I’ve noticed that when in Acadia, the famous names keep coming up. During a stop in the former downtown convent that’s home to the Bar Harbor Historical Society, curator Deborah Dyer talks of the park’s founding champions Charles Eliot (Harvard president) and George B. Dorr; financier J. P. Morgan on his yacht, Corsair; garden designer Beatrix Farrand; and painters of the Hudson River School. She explains how the Rockefeller family’s connection to Maine was strengthened when Nelson Rockefeller, who would eventually serve as vice president in the Gerald Ford administration, was born in Maine while his parents were spending the summer at a house on Shore Path in Bar Harbor.
Around the Bar
While downtown, we stop along a rock wall at the shore access to Bar Harbor’s namesake, the sandbar below the intersection of West Street and Bridge Street that’s revealed when the tide is low. Here I meet longtime conservationist David MacDonald, who also happens to be a Mount Desert Island High School graduate. He is the president of Friends
of Acadia, which supports the park with fundraising, volunteering, and conservation projects. As we’re talking in the sunshine, groups of three and four people at a time are walking across the tidal causeway to Bar Island—also part of the park and one of MacDonald’s favorite spots. “That’s Acadia right there,” he says, pointing toward Bar Island. “Right downtown; it’s like our Central Park.”
Festivities commemorating the centennial are likely adding extra meaning for visitors, according to MacDonald. “It gets people thinking more about the park,” he says, “and can get them more engaged about the future.” For Friends of Acadia, that includes drawing attention to critical issues, such as improving the ways for the park’s two to three million visitors each year to get around—and to avoid harming the natural wonders they’ve come to see. He points to the success of the seasonal Island Explorer bus service and the recent addition of car-free morning events in May and September. MacDonald says the popularity of alternative transportation is growing in Acadia, and “We need to continue to find ways to move beyond the automobile.”
The next morning we’re out of the car ourselves, on a trail with locals Cookie and Bill Horner, who are both avid supporters and users of the park. Among other efforts, she’s involved with Friends of Acadia and helped to coordinate the centennial activities; he’s an MDI native who has a leadership role with the MDI Historical Society. They suggest we hike on Great Head, which is just a few minutes from downtown Bar Harbor and is one of their favorite Acadia places. When we get to a good vantage point overlooking Sand Beach, Bill Horner appraises the scene below with a wry smile and watches for tourists who might jump in for a dip in the chilly ocean. He’s not a cold-water swimmer, he admits, but rather a hiker and birdwatcher. “Is that a kinglet?” he says to Cookie, and they both pause and listen for birdsong.
Cookie fell in love with Acadia as a child, and she admires the generosity of the founding donors. “What’s unusual about this park is that people gave their treasure,” she says, including the island’s most beautiful tracts of woods, beaches, ponds, and mountains. In honor of Acadia’s anniversary the couple has taken on a “Centennial Challenge” to climb all 26 peaks in Acadia, and on the day we meet they’ve climbed about one-third of their goal. They’re curious about our MDI excursions, which on this trip have so far included a bicycle ride on the carriage paths with stops at two of the stone bridges and
a walk along the split-log boardwalk of Upper Hadlock Pond Trail. Bill Horner then asks, “Have you had a chance to inspect the erratic on the South Bubble? It’s as big as a house.”
A massive, glacier-displaced rock at the top of a mountain? We add that hike to our list.
But first, from Route 3 in Northeast Harbor, we walk up to Thuya Garden and Lodge, also established in 1916. The 140-acre, wooded property on a granite hillside in Northeast Harbor includes overlook trails and a rustic stone and carved wood summer residence built in the early 1900s by Joseph Henry Curtis, a landscape architect and one of the Boston rusticators. Joining us for an informal tour is Sam Savage McGee, who’s part of a family that’s helped shape Northeast Harbor for seven generations. His grandfather’s first cousin was Charles K. Savage, who was Thuya’s trustee from the late 1920s to the 1960s. He led the creation of the English-style border gardens and the library of botanical books on the shelves in the rustic lodge.
McGee points out that the well-studied garden, which is open to the public and is connected by trails to Acadia National Park, is set on a north-south axis, and the land “steps down” in places, creating visual illusions of the size and shape. He points out an apple tree, the last remnant of the Curtis orchard that preceded the garden. McGee, 46, still lives a short walk away and has many personal memories from early visits with his family, including childhood games. “I think we might have put my cousin inside that one,” he smiles and says of a large garden vase.
Also in Northeast Harbor, we meet nature photographer Tom Blagden, Jr., at the Asticou Inn. He suggests taking a walk
at Little Long Pond a few minutes’ drive away, and as he loads his camera gear into the car, his tripod is dripping water. “I had it in the pond this morning when I was photographing loons,” he explains.
Originally from Connecticut and now living in South Carolina, Blagden first visited MDI as a child—he remembers the seaside stone house of his aunt, Zelina Blagden, who with her husband donated the land for Indian Point Blagden Preserve on the western side of MDI in the 1960s. Over the past seven years, Blagden has photographed Acadia in all seasons for a large-scale coffee-table book created in collaboration with Friends of Acadia, Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration. Pictured inside is a wide-ranging variety of flora, fauna, and landscapes—pitcher plants in a bog, a large beaver on a mostly frozen Upper Hadlock Pond, mussels in the blue of a tide pool, and the slippery-wet rocks on the shore of Isle au Haut. His hope is that the book helps “to convey to people how much is really here (at Acadia), if you take the time, have patience, and open your senses.”
The Long View
“We might see David Rockefeller carriage- ing,” Blagden says when we head out onto the grass trails along the pond’s edge toward the boathouse at Little Long Pond. Just last year, Rockefeller, the conservation-minded former banker who’s now 101 and still regularly takes trail rides in a horse-drawn carriage, announced that he would contribute the pond property to the Land and Garden Preserve of MDI, including approximately 1,000 acres of fields, woodlands, carriage roads, streams, and hiking trails. It’s a modern-day addition to the longstanding island mindset that it’s important to preserve natural spaces for the public to explore.
After waking in the calm of the Claremont Hotel on another bright day, we go for a climb. It’s windy at the top of the South Bubble (elev. 766 feet) when we reach the massive glacial erratic, a round rock that looks at once precariously perched and firmly in place. Seeing it jutting toward the sky, I get close enough to put both hands on the sun-warmed surface. We then follow a mountaintop path to sit awhile and take in overlook views of Jordan Pond and Frenchman Bay, and my awe of Acadia National Park is renewed. Such experiences must be why so many people joined together to found Acadia, and to add to it and protect it over the past century. I recall what author Louise Dickinson Rich wrote of Acadia in her 1956 guide, The Coast of Maine, “The park is so large and has so many beautiful trails … it would be possible to spend a whole summer there without exhausting its possibilities.”
I’m certain of that. Happy Birthday, Acadia National Park. Keep bringing on the wonders.