When the Pandemic Hit, These Photographers Started Pedaling

When the Pandemic Hit, These Photographers Started Pedaling

From Kittery to Lubec, two adventure photographers cycled the entire coast of Maine last summer.

by Katherine Englishman
Photography by Chris Bennett, Chris Shane + Jamie Walter

Issue: June 2021

“The sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head,” Pico Iyer wrote in his widely read essay “Why We Travel.” If traveling can change your perspective, traveling up the coast of Maine by bike during the early stages of a global pandemic will certainly change the way you look at a place.

In June of 2020, in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, this was the case for adventure photographers Chris Bennett and Chris Shane. Travel is their modus operandi, and the two of them make their living photographing people, places, and things in cities, on mountaintops, and in rugged corners of the world far from the Northeast. But when the pandemic hit and they no longer had the freedom to roam far and wide, they, along with the rest of the world, struggled to cope with the constraints of sheltering in place.

Bennett and Shane decided to do something a bit untraditional: cycle up the coast of Maine in one continuous route, transporting all of their food, water, shelter, and supplies in overstuffed packs on their bikes. “In a lot of ways, we saw this trip as a unique opportunity to ride the coast of Maine, in summer, with 95 percent less traffic,” says Shane. “As a cyclist and adventurer, that’s a rare opportunity and hard to pass up.” From their starting point at Nubble Light in York, they would travel 750 miles over the course of nine days, consume 10 bananas (give or take), ride through the remnants of a tropical storm, and, finally, end at Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec.

Exploring the docks in Bar Harbor.

“It was simultaneously the best and weirdest experience,” says Shane. “It was also a coping mechanism for us.” Being an avid runner, cyclist, and outdoorsman, Shane had exhausted every last one of his local trails and neighborhood green spaces before succumbing to cabin fever and deciding to pedal up the coast.

For Bennett, the struggle with the inertia of quarantining was coupled with the frustration of having abruptly canceled a cross-country bike-packing trip only three months earlier, during which he had planned to raise funds for suicide prevention. After the gravity of the situation sank in, and it was clear that he could no longer travel safely, Bennett made the difficult decision to end his journey in El Paso, Texas, on March 20 after beginning in San Diego, California, on March 6. Oddly enough, he was able to complete exactly 750 miles of his route, which happened to be the same distance he and Shane were planning to check off while riding the coast, which he says provided him an outlet for that momentum and a sense of closure.

Despite their disappointments, the pair summoned a healthy dose of Mainer resilience and dogged determination and redirected their focus to a local objective. As Bennett puts it, they went “to seek out the adventure in our own backyard.” They donned their spandex, hopped onto their saddles, and pedaled off into the great Maine yonder.

Feelings of euphoria helped them crush the first leg as they cruised through Portland and up to Freeport to make camp at Wolfe’s Neck Oceanfront Camping. However, doubts began to creep in as they headed downeast, where the scene was much quieter and not as welcoming to out-of-towners. “I found myself constantly weighing each and every decision I made, between being safe and respectful of the world we were in while also trying to find some semblance of normalcy and attempting to live my life,” says Shane. “The intense social pressure of going outside or leaving a 20-mile radius of your home, combined with the still unclear science on what we could and couldn’t do, or even where the virus was mostly being transmitted, was palpable. We felt it every day.”

Recharging at their oceanfront campsite at Wolfe’s Neck Oceanfront Camping (photo by Chris Bennett).

Many campgrounds were closed or partially open, and they found themselves pitching tents on a friend’s property when they had nowhere else to go. “Just being at a campground felt weird,” says Bennett. “At one campground, it was only us. Otherwise, it was completely deserted. The showers and hot water all had to be turned on so we could use them.”

One of their strangest experiences happened in the small fishing town of Stonington. “When we rode into town, I felt like I was riding in on a sleepy Sunday morning,” says Shane. “I thought surely the tourists would be dispersing out of their hotels, traffic would pick up, and the town would soon come alive with energy. That energy never came. It was just the locals, and the spirit of the town was still there, but it felt like a temporary ghost town.”

While they were out on the docks taking photos, they attracted the attention of a man who struck up a conversation and informed them that today was the first day since the shutdown that his daughter had reopened her coffee shop downtown. They ventured into the shop, 44 North Coffee, and discovered they weren’t only there on her first day back open, but were the very first customers. “It was totally surreal,” says Bennett.

Energized by the coffee and the brief moment of human connection, they followed the next portion of ridable coastline from Stonington up to Mount Desert Island with a sense of trepidation, not knowing what they would find.

Bar Harbor is adjacent to Acadia, one of the most visited national parks in America, which brings in throngs—up to 3.5 million per year—who travel by land and sea to explore the pink granite coastline and climb the Atlantic’s highest mountain peaks north of Rio de Janeiro. When Bennett and Shane arrived, the park, town center, and all of Mount Desert Island were devoid of visitors. While there was sadness in seeing it so empty, it was also an opportunity to see this place through new eyes and become reacquainted with the landscape. The road to Cadillac Mountain’s summit was free of cars, and when looking out from the top of the park’s highest peak, there were no cruise ships in the harbor or on the horizon.

“For me, being a lifelong Mainer, I always try to stay away from Bar Harbor in the high season because it’s so overcrowded,” says Bennett. “It was so refreshing to have the Park Loop Road all to ourselves. I know that’s not the same story for the locals because they need tourism, but being a Mainer and seeing Acadia empty was oddly refreshing.”

The pandemic might have stripped away the busyness and chatter of Bar Harbor’s tourism culture, but Bennett and Shane still found heart and perseverance, like at a sandwich shop that had partnered with other small businesses to sell their products. In this locked-down time, it simply became easier to see the underpinnings of what makes the place so special.

Cycling on the Schoodic Peninsula as part of a 750-mile bike trip up the coast of Maine (photo by Chris Shane).

On their last day, they cycled 110 miles for their final push to Lubec. A red-and-white-striped lighthouse and crisp ocean breeze greeted them at Quoddy Head State Park. The pre-dusk sunlight cast a shimmering gold hue over the scene, creating a filter—quite literally, a new way of seeing this familiar place in their own backyard. “It’s that electricity in the air when your adventure is coming to an end,” says Bennett.

Within this fleeting celebratory moment at the completion of their epic self-supported journey was a glimmer of the normalcy they had lost. For most, normalcy might look like a day back in the office, a cafe reopening, or a family gathering where relatives of all ages can embrace the people they love. For Bennett and Shane, it was the familiar, albeit bittersweet, feeling of an adventure coming to a close—of standing back and taking it all in: the highs, lows, and the unexpected twists and turns that make you shake your head in disbelief, wondering how you found the strength to see it through, because somehow, you did.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, traveling anywhere undoubtedly has the ability to turn the world as you know it on its head. Guided by a chain of Maine’s iconic lighthouses, this adventure had somehow turned these travelers right side up once again.

“It felt like we were all on our own individual journeys of navigating this new and very weird world,” says Shane. “For us, I guess the best way to do that was by going on a really long bike ride.”

Panoramic views of the coast along the Cadillac Summit Road (photo by Jamie Walter).

Recommended Bike Trips

Cycling through some of the southernmost part of Maine offers the opportunity to ride a good portion of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile-long rail trail linking major cities along the Atlantic, from Key West to Calais.
Distance: 28.9 miles
Highest ascent: 22 feet
Difficulty: Easy. This beautiful stretch of the Greenway is called the Eastern Trail, and is the perfect route for a beginner cyclist who wants to gain experience on a longer ride. The rail trail makes it a mostly flat ride, but beware of the gravel sections if you have skinny tires.

Put this ride at the top of your list. Away from the popular areas of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, the Schoodic Point section of the park is equally beautiful. It’s quiet, serene, and much less crowded.
Distance: 62 miles
Highest ascent: 3,700 feet
Difficulty: Moderate. The length of the route combined with the consistent ups and downs make this a good challenge for riders of all abilities.

Cruise along paved roads from Machias to Cutler and take in the stunning scenery of the coastal highlands. Make this a loop by riding the scenic byways around Cobscook Bay and visiting Cobscook Shores park sites in the Lubec area. You can take a direct route back via Route 1 to Machias and Jonesport, or choose your own adventure on less traveled roads.
Distance: 60 miles
Highest ascent: 4,000 feet
Difficulty: Difficult. The remote, rugged area requires you to carry all of your food and water with few to no opportunities for a resupply. This longer ride is a proper adventure for those who are looking for one.

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