Having toured the shores of the Bay of Fundy, learning about local maritime history and discovering tidal bores and million-year-old fossils, we now set about exploring Acadia National Park.
Day 22: Winter Harbor, Maine
We break camp on the Schoodic Peninsula and head for Bar Harbor. Along the way we stop at the Mount Desert Narrows on the Taunton River near Hancock, Maine to view a tidal fall.
Similar to the tidal bores we saw in Nova Scotia, a tidal fall occurs when the rising ocean tide moves upriver and meets what is normally a low waterfall in the freshwater river. This rather rare confluence of fresh and salt water, rocky ridges and ledges constrict the flow, and the water “piles up,” in some places actually engulfing and reversing the falls. Eventually the tide turns, and the natural river flow resumes out toward the Gulf of Maine again.
We continue on into Bar Harbor, our old van turning a few heads as we mingle with the Mercedes and BMWs, then continue south on Highway 3 to the ocean side of Mount Desert Island. We choose a site at Blackwoods Campground, drop our camp chairs to claim our spot, then drive north on the park loop road to Cadillac Summit Road.
As the name implies, this narrow, twisty road wends its way up the flanks of Cadillac Mountain, climbing about 1200 feet in only 3.5 miles. Our 1.9-liter diesel employs each and every one of its 64 horsepower to push our overloaded yellow brick up the grade, and we stop only a couple of times to take in the increasingly heady views. Finally, we crest the final rise in the road and arrive at the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
I let the van idle a few minutes to dissipate excess heat from the climb, then we jump out and explore the trails threading the crown of the mountain.
About the time the fossils we saw at the nearby Bay of Fundy were being formed, this area of Maine was undergoing major volcanic transformations. Volcanoes occasionally collapsed, revealing the hellish molten interiors of their magma chambers, and Cadillac Mountain is the remaining edge of one such disintegrated volcanic cone.
We find the raw granite surfaces of the mountain gouged and scarred in a distinct north-south pattern, evidence of a series of enormous continental glaciers which later scoured this landscape. The mile-thick glaciers tore off the remaining mountaintops and ground their surfaces clean of nearly all loose boulders and soil, leaving only the smooth rounded bare surfaces we see today.
Far below, the harbor is sprinkled with small boats and cruise ships, and the namesake ‘bar’ is clearly visible at low tide.
On a clear day one can see Nova Scotia to the east, and Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain, to the north, both over a hundred miles away. In fact, at over 1500 feet (466 meters), Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak within 25 miles of the east coast of North America between Cape Breton Island and Mexico.
We coast back down the summit road and drive into Bar Harbor for an early dinner of lobster and steak on the waterfront. After a few such meals while here on the east coast, I’m beginning to feel like a bit of an old hand, and I set about happily dismantling the delicious crustacean like a seagull working over a crab.
We stroll the wharf for awhile to stretch our legs and walk off our meal, then drive to Jordan Pond House for dessert.
This historic restaurant first began serving tea & popovers on the lawn overlooking nearby Jordan Pond in the 1890s, and it’s been a tradition ever since. With a cool afternoon wind whipping in between the Bubble Mountains and ruffling the surface of Jordan Pond, we’re happy to sit indoors near the fireplace while enjoying the warm pastries made from local berries, and hot tea.
Returning to Blackwoods Campground we find a group of boisterous Boy Scouts has made camp behind us, and who are apparently earning their merit badges for Whooping Loudly While Whacking Trees with Sticks.
Just as well, as the late September evening has grown even cooler, so we settle into the cozy Westy for the evening.
Day 23: Bar Harbor, Maine
We set out this morning for a day of windshield touring.
We find Acadia unlike almost any other National Park we’ve ever visited. Most American national parks were still wild and wooly places when their natural beauty was recognized and they were first set aside as Parks. But the 100-square-mile (280 km2) Mount Desert Island has a long history of early fishing and shipbuilding settlement by Europeans.
In the mid-1800’s the Island began drawing ‘rusticators:’ painters, poets, writers, and other bohemian types who came from the cities each summer and paid local villagers for simple room and board in their back rooms and sheds.
Later, the place was discovered by wealthy eastern families like the Fords, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers, who built extravagant three-story granite ‘country cottages’ with high sweeping gables, wrap-around verandas, and turrets overlooking the Atlantic.
Eventually, the Great Depression put a damper on much of this and many of these Gilded Age elites began packing up their fancy pants. The rest were driven out in 1947 by a devastating fire that burned nearly half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island, consuming modest villages and sumptuous estates alike.
Already in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson had signed into existence Lafayette National Park, as it was first called. It was the first national park east of the Mississippi River, and the name was changed to Acadia National Park in 1929. Former resident John D. Rockefeller Jr. very generously donated much of the land of the modern-day Park, as well as the labor and materials for the winding carriage roads and seventeen beautiful stone bridges.
Because of this long and varied history of settlement, Acadia today remains a patchwork of wild public parkland and private developed estates.
We park the van and stroll down to a quiet cove to enjoy the warm sunlight, but several tour buses soon arrive and deposit hundreds of tourists from the visiting cruise ships. Most appear a little lost here, and many are dressed as though they have just come from a cocktail party, with tweed jackets, pleated skirts, and gold broaches. Some wear four-inch high heels.
To a place called Sand Beach.
We drive down the shore a bit to Thunder Hole, an inlet carved by the ocean into the rocky cliffs. When the waves kick up here, the sign says, air and water are forced into the cavern and then back out, spouting 30-40 feet high and making the namesake ‘thunderous’ roar.
During Hurricane Bill in 2009, Thunder Hole endured several hours of sustained swells of 12-15 feet, and crowds gathered to watch the power of Mother Nature. When a much larger wave struck, it swept seven people off the platform and into the water, drowning one.
Today, however, the place is not thundering at all but only gurgling and softly clearing its throat, evidently due to a falling tide, calm wind conditions, or perhaps a malfunctioning pump.
We continue touring the southern shore of the island, through Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, and up around Somes Sound. This part of the island and Park is noticeably less developed and more rural than the Bar Harbor area, and we understand why it’s often referred to by locals as “The Quiet Side” of the island.
In Southwest Harbor we stop at the Cafe Drydock & Inn. While we enjoy a fine lunch near the front windows, I catch British accents from a young family seated at a nearby table.
“Hey look,” says Father to the children, pointing outside to our beflowered Westy parked across the street, “it’s the Scooby-Mobile!”
Lorie and I hop into the Mystery Machine and resume our drive of the island. A turn down a side road to see another random lighthouse turns out to be ‘the’ lighthouse of Acadia National Park: Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
This iconic light, featured on countless postcards, key chains, and novelty socks, was built in 1876 to mark the entrance to Bass Harbor and Blue Hill Bay, at the extreme southern point of Mount Desert Island. The lighthouse itself is on private property but a short hike down some steep wooden stairs offers a pretty dramatic view in a beautiful setting.
We continue our drive around the western shore of Mount Desert Island, then cut across the middle and return to camp at Blackwoods Campground.
Day 24: Bar Harbor, Maine
Our last full day in Acadia National Park, we sleep in late today, then motor into Northeast Harbor for breakfast. Lorie orders the spicy chili omelette, while I take what may be my first and last opportunity for a lobster omelette.
We drive to a nearby seaside park to soak up the warm morning sun and to wade around in the pools left behind by the falling tide.
The Northeast Atlantic offers some of the most lively tidepools I’ve seen, and they are distinctly different from those seen in the Pacific Northwest. Slowly stepping from one exposed granite boulder to the next, I carefully explore this intertidal ecosystem draped in vibrant green and red seaweeds.
I find clusters of snail eggs attached to rocks, mussels with open shells, some kind of sea worms covered with tiny scales, slow-moving starfish, even the occasional shy crab. I find myself lost in the world of these adaptive but delicate creatures who spend half of each day exposed to the air and sunlight and the other half completely submerged in this natural aquarium left between the rocks.
Lorie finally calls me from my marine reverie and we drive back up to Northeast Harbor for a scenic nature cruise. Our tour boat chugs out of the harbor and onto the ocean behind the protection of a smattering of islands.
We glide below the white Bear Island Lighthouse, gleaming in the afternoon light, then south to see what might possibly be the world’s largest osprey nest, slightly more spacious than my first apartment. The boat turns east through waters scattered with thousands of small buoys, almost close enough to step from one to the next. Each buoy is painted a unique combination of color and stripes or bands, indicating the owner of the lobster trap to which it is anchored. We circle around a few smaller islands, their shores lined with large harbor seals basking in the sun.
Our tour is led by a local naturalist and former school teacher, who maintains an engaging ongoing narration of the sights and sounds of this place, pointing out hidden features and creatures as we motor along.
We soon arrive at Little Cranberry Island, where the boat deposits us at the tiny fishing village of Isleford. Lorie and I enjoy our packed lunches on the lawn at the foot of the wharf, then stroll up to the Islesford Historical Museum, full of intriguing exhibits about the life of the multi-generational lobster fishing families who have lived and worked here since 1927.
We return to the pier and watch the bustle and clatter as the workers unload lobsters from the incoming boats. Then we shove off and head back to the mainland, where we cruise up into the Somes Sound. This long bay runs deep into Mount Desert Island, almost splitting the island in two, with tall vertical cliffs rising right out of the water. The Sound is often referred to as the only fjord on the East Coast.
Back at the dock, we jump in the Vanagon and return to Bar Harbor where Lorie has arranged a surprise for me; this is our last evening of this month-long road trip and tomorrow we will turn westward for home. After a quick dinner in a local ale house she leads me around the corner and down the street to the Criterion Theater.
Perplexed, I glance up at the overhead marquee to see the name of one of my favorite authors and producers, who is speaking here tonight.
Dayton Duncan, often working with longtime collaborator Ken Burns, has written and produced some of the best award-winning American historical documentaries, usually airing on PBS. The Civil War, Baseball, Mark Twain, The West, and more.
His stories are of special interest to those who love the outdoors and epic travels. Horatio’s Drive follows Horatio Jackson in his Winton auto-car, with his friend Sewall Crocker and a bulldog named Bud, on the first cross-country automobile journey in the US, in 1903.
And Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, is a four-hour documentary of what might have been America’s Ultimate Road Trip.
But perhaps my favorite Dayton Duncan work is not a film but a tattered paperback I often carry tucked away in one of the Westy’s cabinets: Out West: A Journey through Lewis and Clark’s America. In 1984, Duncan and his family set out in their own Volkswagen camper van to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark’s epic adventure through the American West, and it is a fascinating read.
We go inside and claim our tickets, then take our seats in the third row. Other audience members file in and I note that they are about evenly divided between rumpled hikers and campers, and well-to-do Mount Desert Islanders out for an evening away from their gated estates.
The house lights soon dim, the host takes the podium for a few words, then introduces the featured speaker. Immediately behind me, I hear someone clear his throat, rise to stand, and Dayton Duncan makes his way to the stage. Turns out the renowned producer had been seated directly behind me …
Duncan is an eminently skilled writer and an equally eloquent speaker. He offers a brief history of the National Park system and the cultural significance of it in American society, then circles in on Acadia National Park, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
He then introduces a special cut of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which describes the fascinating history and larger-than-life characters who struggled to first establish the parks, then devotes several minutes to Acadia National Park. While the vivid images and inspiring narration of the twenty-minute documentary roll on the screen, Duncan sits behind me again. I catch the occasional whispered comment between him and his wife, about the day they shot this scene or that one, or an amusing historical footnote, and it’s like getting a special-edition producer’s cut of the film.
Afterwards, Duncan elaborates on the cultural significance of the Park system in American society. He passionately makes the argument that the inherent birthright of all citizens to visit and partake of these sacred lands and places rivals nearly any other freedom outlined in our Bill of Rights. The parks, he says, are woven into the very fabric of our democracy, yet like any fabric, if not cared for they can be unraveled.
Little do we know that just six months from now, our President’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year will seek to trim $1.5 billion from the budget of the Interior Department, which includes the Park Service.
“The National Park idea says it doesn’t matter if your parents came over on the Mayflower or your parents just arrived. Each one of you is the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation has … You own awesome views of stunning mountains and breathtaking canyons. They belong to you. And all that is required in return is that you put it in your will for your children so that they can have it too.”
As Duncan speaks, Lorie and I reflect on all our own visits to our National Parks, usually in the Westy, and we realize that the parks are perhaps the one truly eternal element in the fleeting impermanence of our lives.
Tomorrow we will awaken on our final morning in Acadia, we will turn the Vanagon’s wheels to the west, and we will sail homeward across this great continent.
But there are many more National Parks yet to be seen, and the journey never ends …