Summer Comes to Maine
In lieu of my regularly scheduled Weekly News Roundup I want to tell you about a couple of our recent family adventures. If nothing else I want to remind you how gorgeous Maine is and show you how easy it is to get out ant and enjoy it even if you only have a day or two off at a time.
Like many local families, we make a significant chunk of our income during the summer tourist months. Thus, our family expeditions are constrained to the 36 hours neither of us works during the week. As you will see, this is not usually a problem.
24 hours in Acadia National Park
Don’t let the crowds of summer tourists scare you off. When I worked at Acadia as a Park Ranger part of my job was to hike the parts of trails where I would encounter as many visitors as possible. Basically that meant staying within a half mile of the most popular trailheads (Eagle Lake, Cadillac summit, Sand Beach . . .) Beyond that and the numbers thin exponentially. As a rule visitors don’t like to walk, and they never, ever go off trail. Of course the trails themselves are part of the attraction of Acadia. The rock work is as inspiring as the views they’ve been so carefully designed to reveal. But there are plenty of unpopular trails (i.e. difficult or more than a mile from a concession stand) and I’ve gone hiking for days without seeing anyone else.
Acadia is only a 45 minute drive from Blue Hill which makes it an easy last-minute camping destination for us. So a few weekends ago we packed up the car and headed over for a short family vacation.
We arrived at Seawall Campground around 4pm and paid $14 for a walk-in tent site. We choose Seawall because it’s on the “Quiet Side” of the island and because there’s almost always a few walk-in sites available even in the middle of summer.
After setting up our tent we biked all over the campground, exploring every possible loop. Adventure is easy with a 6 ½ and 8 year old: “Wait, we haven’t gone down Loop C yet!”. After building our appetites we headed back to the campsite, lit a small fire and cooked our sausages over the flames. More easy entertainment. After dinner we headed to the Ship Harbor Trailhead and walked a half mile or so through gorgeous spruce-moss forest to the coastal jack pines and huckleberry bushes that I love so much. At the end of the trail there are some of the best tide pools on Mount Desert Island. The big tide pool that I relied on during my days as a Ranger has gotten too warm for much to live in it, but we got to the shoreline right at the lowest part of low tide and had no problem finding tons of creatures in the lower, cooler crevices and pools. Including the tiniest sea urchin any of us has ever seen.
After hiking back to the car and being forced to identify at least 5 species of birds by song, the 6 year old was ready for bed. The 8 year old was more awake than ever and we spread out a blanket to watch the stars through the treetops. Moments like these are timeless, and if it weren’t for the no-seeums that know exactly what time it is, we could have spent all night chatting quietly while the leaves waved gently overhead.
The next morning Jerome took off early on a bike ride to Bass Harbor Light House while the girls and I cooked breakfast over our trusty little camp stove. We packed up our gear and got ready for a day of hiking and swimming. By the time Jerome returned we were ready to go. We got to the popular Echo Lake parking lot by 9am and there were still plenty of spaces left. The hike up the cliffs is spectacular. The ladders are high enough to be thrilling, especially to kids, and the view of the lake is gorgeous. There was no one else on the trail that Monday morning, and once again I marveled at how well this tiny park handles its 4 million annual visitors. We had a snack of snap peas and nuts at the top and headed back down for a swim. The girls spent a few hours snorkeling around the shallows while Jerome and I hid in the only patch of shade reading our books and people-watching (a great feature of the Park in the summer).
By the time we were done swimming we had run out of provisions. We decided to head to Bar Harbor for lunch, which is a bold move in early July but our timing was perfect. We hit the Side Street Café at the perfectly dead hour of 2pm. We had been there once before right after it opened a few years ago and it was terribly disappointing. But then lately we’ve been hearing all kinds of good things about it so we thought it we should give it a second try. It was totally worth it. My grilled vegetable sandwich was fantastic in so many ways and the they had lots of gluten-free, dairy-free options for our high-maitenance family.
After refueling we took the bikes to the Eagle Lake parking lot for a short spin up the carriage road to Duck Brook Bridge. The girls love family bike rides and would have gone much longer, but I had to get back to Blue Hill to teach my evening class. Not to mention that the tourists are thick here and between their gawking at the view and my girls’ utter lack of road rules, it’s amazing everyone made it out unharmed. We made one last stop at A&B Naturals for coconut ice cream bars (kids) and dark chocolate (adults).
And just like that, our vacation was over. 24 hours in Acadia well lived.
Maine Huts and Trails, a hidden gem
I am a passionate cross-country skier but I rarely get beyond the groomed carriage roads at Acadia except when I make my annual trek up to Carrabassett Valley for the Maine Huts and Trails ski marathon. This past year, after racing all out in the 40k and not even coming close to beating the Colby College ski coaches, I was thrilled to win the post-race raffle instead: a night for two at one of their four huts.
This past weekend we made good on the offer with a trip to Flagstaff Hut. We drove our canoe three hours north just shy of Kingfield, to the Bog Brook inlet of Flagstaff Lake, at the Eastern edge of the Bigelow Preserve. Ok, that’s not exactly true. We missed the turn onto Long Falls Dam Road and drove past Kingfield before realizing our mistake. We also missed the turn onto Bog Brook Road and continued several miles before turning around. This is pretty typical for us and the girls long ago stopped asking us why we make so many U-Turns. Anyway, it took us closer to four hours to get from our door to the Bog Brook put-in. (Which incidentally has no parking, so after unloading our gear Jerome drove the car a 1/2 mile back up the road to park on public land and then ran back down to rejoin us.)
When we left Blue Hill it was hot and sunny but when we arrived at the southern end of Flagstaff Lake it was raining. I had packed the girl’s raincoats but Jerome and I stupidly forgot our own.
As a former NOLS instructor, my greatest fear is that I will need to be rescued from a wilderness adventure and that upon finding me freezing to death on the side of a mountain the search and rescue team will chastise me for not having the proper gear. This fear is magnified by the fact that the girls and I regularly hike barefoot get plenty of tsk tsking from fellow hikers for our obvious lack of experience and preparation.
So there we were, packing our canoe in the rain, preparing for a five-mile paddle to the hut. Jerome donned a trash-bag rain coat and I put on his wetsuit. The plan had been for me to swim a few miles along side while he and the girls paddled and fished their way north. This plan worked for the first hour and then Jerome was cold and worried about us getting to the hut in time for dinner (they had told us dinner is served promptly at 6pm). So I climbed in the boat and we paddled hard for another half hour.
We got to the hut just before six and discovered they are not so strict about mealtime after all and were still waiting on a few other groups to arrive. Many people access Flagstaff Hut via the 1.8 mile trail, and there are closer boat put-ins than Bog Brook. Eventually another dozen or so guests showed up in time for the family-style meal.
We got situated in our bunkroom and the girls were very excited to each have their own top bunk. Dinner was was delicious. There was gluten-free pasta with a creamy cashew and red pepper sauce, garlicky beet greens from their own garden, a huge green salad, homemade bread (including a gluten-free loaf), grilled chicken and homemade (gluten and dairy free) cookies for dessert. After dinner we walked out to the point and watched the sunset over a family of loons. Baby spotted sandpipers peeped around our feet while the girls played on the rocks. After sunset Lucy was very excited to go on the Energy Tour offered by Libby the hut keeper. We learned all about their off-the-grid energy systems which include some very cool and modern innovations. Lucy especially liked getting a first hand look at the clivus multrum’s odorless, red-wiggler filled humanure.
After a restless night of sleep on the crinkly plastic-covered mattresses, I woke up early to go on run. I headed south for five miles on the Maine Huts and Trails trail until I hit the Appalachian Trail which I followed north for a few more miles until I got to the top of a small mountain. Being in the white-blazed emerald tunnel filled me with joy. I ran into several thru-hikers, the north bounders having come all the way from Georgia were wirey and economical in their movement while the south bounders having only hike 180 miles from Katahdin were soft and clumsy in comparison. The trail culture has changed a good deal since I was a thru-hiker (15-20 years ago) but wilderness is timeless and its transformative effect is the same as always.
On my run I came across a set of fresh moose tracks and something loud crashing though the woods (but no good visual) plus at least a dozen snow shoe hares bounding so high to get away from me that they looked like they might take flight.
Jerome saved me breakfast and after my run it tasted ridiculously good. Scrambled eggs with spinach, turkey sausage and oatmeal with chopped apples and nuts washed down by an excellent cup of organic coffee.
After eating I found the girls fishing off the dock. We leisurely packed up the canoe and headed back down the lake toward our put-in. Jerome swam this time and the girls did their best not to cast their lines directly onto him.
As the day got warmer (and life jackets are hot) we stopped a few times so they could jump in and swim along side too. It took us about two hours at this leisurely pace to get back to the beach where we ate the sandwiches the hut staff provided for our lunch. The girls had tuna fish (which, I, their mean mother NEVER make them) while Jerome and I had chosen the delicious curry chickpea spread on gluten free bread.
A family vacation where you don’t have to plan, pack, make or clean up after food. Dang, we could really get used to this.
After jumping off the dock several hundred times we drove to the nearby Safford Brook trailhead. This pretty shaded trail follows a cold mountain brook and meets the Appalachian Trail at the base of the Bigelow peaks. After an hour and half of hiking we made it up to the AT where we turned south and met a few more thru-hikers. A little further on we hit a lovely view point and enjoyed our final meal of the day, the only meal of the trip that I had to plan and pack. Then down we went, through the beautiful old mossy forest and the increasingly hungry clouds of black flies, mosquitoes and no-seeums. We took one last swim at the pretty campground near the trailhead (and made a note to return there someday). It was bedtime and we had just packed the girls into their car seats and gotten them settled in for the long drive home when we came across a sick thru-hiker that needed a ride to town. We moved our gear around and made room for him. Jerome and I got countless rides from the middle of nowhere during our own thru-hikes and we always happy to return the favor when we can.
The day ended with us singing the girls to sleep while we navigated our way through the hinterlands of a Maine that I am incredibly grateful to know.