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Valley Life

February 16, 2014

Heaven on Earth: Writer gets lost — both figuratively and literally — at Acadia National Park

Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day hiking the Atlantic shoreline and the trails of Maine’s Acadia National Park. Join Lunsford in March for the seventh and final installment of this series as he takes us to tiny Plymouth Notch, Vt., and the boyhood home of President Calvin Coolidge. All photos from Acadia are by Lunsford.

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE — It was easy to forget that the world is becoming a hotter and more desperate and increasingly crowded place as I sat on a bowling ball-smooth boulder that sits more in than near Jordan Pond. In fact, it wasn’t hard to forget the pond’s water is reputedly the clearest in Maine, a claim that would find no argument with me. It is a most magical spot amid a nearly-50,000 acre top hat of magical places called Acadia National Park, a region with such greenness and fresh breeze and too many postage stamp-worthy vistas to count. This wonderful place prompted travelogue writer Benjamin De Costa to scribble in his journal in 1871, that “the mountains here are the bones of the earth, which, being broken and upheaved, form some of our most striking and beautiful scenery …”

Midway through our New England journey, my wife, Joanie, and I made last summer, we came to Acadia, hoping we’d find such a spot, and as we stepped down to the shoreline of the pond that day, we knew that surely we had done the best thing we could have done. We had a day like no other at Acadia, and we squeezed every minute the sun afforded us to hike along the Atlantic Coast, to breathe in what the great pond had to offer, and to even explore a small light house that sits a peninsula away. It was a hard place to leave, which we did just as the sun slipped below the horizon and the lonely clang of a buoy’s bell hung in the wind.

Its history

Acadia first came to be an American treasure with the stroke of President Woodrow Wilson’s pen on July 8, 1916. First called Sieur de Monts National Monument, it pre-dated the official creation of the National Park Service by nearly two months; it was given park status three years later as Lafayette National Park, then renamed yet again a decade later. Although Acadia is the fifth smallest of the parks in the service, it is one of the most visited; about two million people hike its trails, climb its rocks and watch its prodigious waves each year.

The place has been inhabited for quite a while, the first people to discover it arriving about 5,000 years ago. Those first visitors, the Micmac and the Abenaki, were once called “the people of the dawn,” for the craggy peaks on Mount Desert Island, on which most of Acadia is found, caught the sun’s earliest morning rays. Of course, the Indians were supplanted by Europeans about 500 years ago, the explorer, Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons (his navigator was Samuel de Champlain) giving the island its name in 1604 after he saw its bare outcroppings of pink granite. Passing from the hands of the French to the British to those of the young American nation did little to change the place. Until the mid-1840s, it was nothing more than a gorgeous wilderness dotted by a few sparsely populated villages. But that was to change.

In 1844, the great landscape painter, Thomas Cole, came to Acadia. His magnificent work, inspired by its sunsets and crags, drew even more of the Hudson River School artists to the island, men such as Frederic Church.

Within a few years, America’s new wealthy class arrived in Acadia to build summer homes, rooting themselves among its fir, beech and pine to escape the smells and noises of big cities. With Bar Harbor serving at its hub, a “Millionaire’s Row” developed, and the eastern shoreline of the island was dominated by dozens of lavish summer “cottages.”

One of the men who built a home on the island was Charles Eliot, a landscape architect who worked with the famous Frederick Law Olmsted. Eliot hoped to preserve Acadia’s beauty, all the while wanting to eventually open it for public enjoyment. After Eliot died of meningitis at just 38, his father, who was president of Harvard at the time, picked up his visionary son’s cause, and created the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, which became the driving force behind the development of the park.

The greatest of Acadia’s heroes was undoubtedly George Dorr. A “cottager,” living in an inherited house, Dorr was a member of the trustees. He blazed many of the island’s greatest trails himself, spending much of his life, and virtually all of his inheritance, to buy land which eventually became part of the park. He not only valiantly lobbied in Washington to make Acadia a permanent national park, he eventually became its first superintendent, urging those who could to donate and promote Acadia’s legacy. When he died in 1944, his “estate” was gone, and the $2,000 used for his funeral came through donations as well.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. understood Dorr’s vision and became his patron. He lived on the “quiet side” of the island, but eventually spent $3.5 million on the park’s lands, partially to develop 57 miles of carriage roads that would allow the public to see the most dramatic and scenic of Acadia’s beauty. He eventually donated nearly 10,000 acres to the park, as well.

Getting lost

After an overnight stay in Ellsworth — the fastest-growing town in Maine — just 17 miles north of the park, we drove east then south toward Acadia on congested two-lane pavement that made us wonder if of all the spots we had come to see that it was to be the most commercialized. The traffic heading into the park, and the bedlam we faced as we wandered through an information center a while later did little to allay those fears. Yet once we drove into the woods on the first mile or so of the park’s 27-mile loop road, we quickly understood that we could get lost, both figuratively and literally, at Acadia, and that there would be plenty of room for everyone.

Determined to see as much as we could in the time we had, Joanie and I soon left our car under the supervision of a chattering ground squirrel that had apparently not gotten the memo about welcoming park visitors. Within minutes we were walking along the Ocean Path, a four-mile hitch in the more than 125 miles of hiking available at Acadia. It was a very easy walk, and we found ourselves frequently slipping off the beaten path to step out onto dramatic granite cliffs that first overlook Newport Cove and then the Atlantic itself.  It was a sunny and windy day, and we were comfortable in short sleeves and with bare knees. Little did we know that later that evening a “Smokey sou’wester,” typical of the summer months, would come calling, its fog rolling in as we turned our backs to Acadia to drive into the night all the way to Augusta.

Despite its gorgeous views, the Ocean Path is best known for the famous “Thunder Hole,” a spot where, when conditions are just right, the foamy surf smashes into a narrow channel of rock, creating a crack of thunder. It is a congested spot about halfway down the trail so it took a while for us to make our way to the railings there.

Not everyone who visits the hole is treated to its roar, but we were, and although we were tempted to walk on down the path to its very end at Otter Point, we backed up where the trailhead forked toward Gorham Mountain.

Making our way back to the car, we realized we could drive past the point as we headed to other sites, so that we did. Not unlike the trails in several of our own state parks, Ocean Path was rebuilt with Civilian Conservation Corps labor during the Great Depression, yet a plaque dedicated to Rockefeller can be found at the Point.

A few miles later — a wondrous drive that runs along the shoreline before giving up to forests of ash, maple and birch — we came to Jordan Pond, which is hardly a pond by our definition. There are 26 lakes and ponds in Acadia, and Jordan Pond is only its fifth largest at 187 acres. It is, however, at 150 feet, the deepest, and it is reported that on some days and in some places, the water is so crystal clear that visibility is 60 feet.

The main attraction near the pond for many appeared to be the Jordan Pond House, a restaurant best known for its afternoon tea and popovers, a tradition since 1900 that came heartily recommended by a hiker we later met on the trail who first wanted to know where my dialect originated. Instead of eating, however, we decided to forego our rumbling stomachs for a late supper, munching instead on apples and granola bars as we parked then wandered to the trailhead.

The Jordan Pond Nature Trail is an easy half-mile walk that joins the Jordan Pond Path for another three-mile hike around the shoreline. We met the pond at the end of a ramp, a fresh west breeze kicking up to tousle our hair like brush piles. Occasionally stepping through the trees to stand or sit on massive rocks moved about by glaciers eons ago, we ambled more than hiked, spotting a healthy garter snake amid gorgeous mosses, ferns, balsam firs and red spruces. Midway in the hike, which forms a loop, we stood on a footbridge, our backs to a marshy wetland, one of dozens that feed the pond what it needs.

Of course, the famous Bubbles, a pair of twin round-topped mountains, help frame the northern rim of the pond, while Pemetic Mountain at more than 1,200 feet is to the east, and Penobscot Mountain, nearly as tall, stands to the west. On past the bridge, realizing the time was getting away from us, we simply sat a while, deep in our own thoughts, knowing that what we saw at that moment had inspired generations of painters and photographers.

There are more than 270 species of birds in and about Acadia — loons and bald eagles, ospreys and black-backed woodpeckers, white-winged crossbills and gray jays, to name a few — but at Jordan Pond we were graced by a common merganser, a duck of sorts that sports a punk rock-like crest; she sat on a boulder as if posing for my camera. I straddled stones in waist-deep water to get a clear picture, the words of a character from “Jeremiah Johnson” — a film about the American West — resounding in my head: “These here are God’s finest sculpterins’ … I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent.”

It was late as we said our goodbyes and turned our backs to the lake. We decided to head west, then south, out of the park for a while actually, up winding and narrow Highway 198 to Somesville — the sight of a tiny but beautiful library that sits near a flowing spillway — then down 102 to Bass Harbor, where Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse stands. The highway runs travelers through marshes, across bridges, and into woodlands and blueberry thickets, and at about the time we could smell the sea, we were back into the park again.

It was growing dark by the time we got to Bass Harbor, just shadowy enough that we decided not to tackle the short trail to the east side of the lighthouse; only later, did we discover that we should have taken the chance on the trail’s wet rocks and slippery stairs, for it would have provided an even more spectacular view of the lighthouse as the sun was setting.

Built in 1858 with $5,000 appropriated by Congress, the white brick lighthouse, the only one in Acadia, sits nearly 60 feet above the ocean on a stone foundation. Its red beacon light, magnified by a 112-year-old French lens, continues to guide seafarers in and out of Bass Harbor and Blue Hill Bay just as it has for over a century and a half.

A small living quarters that sits just behind the base of the tower — enlarged in 1900 — serves as home to a Coast Guard keeper, but on that beautiful evening we stood alone and looked out over blue water toward Swans Island, whose inhabitants leave for work and come back home by ferry. Past it and a few other isles of stone sits the open sea — nearly 3,200 miles of it to the British Isles.

The buoy’s bell in the wind-blown channel below us signaled the end of the day; after that, we were to head for home. Although we had miles to go and plenty yet to see, we wished we could have stayed on just a little longer.  

The French named Acadia; it means “Heaven on Earth.” That it is.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.

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