Acadia National Park

This entry is part 16 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers
Tonight I got home from work around 8:00, capping the longest 4-day workweek I’ve ever experienced. Kris was pretending to read, but she couldn’t fool me—her eyes were closed. I scanned the local paper for a few minutes before returning to my “other job” (this one). The police report is always good for some entertainment. A few days ago, at 3:00 a.m., the police responded to a report of a goat attempting to break the glass door and gain access to the Great American Sub Shop. The goat escaped, and was later reported to be trying a similar tack at the 7-11 across the street. He is still at large…

Several minutes later, I spotted my mother crossing the street and heading to the bus. Much to my relief, she was not the last to board. That indignity was left to someone else.

The bus pulled out a few minutes behind schedule, but there was no reason to rush. Our guide was a very pleasant and knowledgeable woman, with a soothing voice and smooth delivery. As we drove through town toward the entrance to the Park Loop Road, the guide pointed out the sights and gave some history of Mt. Desert Island. I kept my eye out for the motel where Kris and I stayed with our youngest son, Wells, on a memorable 5-day vacation in 1993.

Driving west along, appropriately enough, West Street, we passed the spot where the motel should have been, but in its place stood a large and expensive-looking condominium complex. I was sure of the location because it was adjacent to a Bar Harbor oddity; Bridge Street. There is no bridge on Bridge Street. At high tide, the road slopes gently to the edge of the island and disappears into the water. At low tide, the sand bar which gives Bar Harbor its name is exposed, and Bridge Street continues along its top to Bar Island, where a few hardy souls live—theirs lives controlled to a large degree by the tides.

Many people assume that Bar Harbor is the island, or vice versa. Actually, Bar Harbor is the largest of several towns on Mt. Desert Island. Other settlements include Northeast Harbor, Hall Quarry, Pretty Marsh, Otter Creek and Somesville (all governed together as the Town of Mt. Desert), Southwest Harbor (including Manset, Seawall and Bass Harbor), and Tremont. With almost 5,000 year-round residents, Bar Harbor is the metropolis of the bunch, though you can drive from one end to the other in two minutes (in the winter only—summer drive time is about two hours).

The bus passed some of the few remaining mansions from Bar Harbor’s gilded age. Although the town was a popular summer retreat beginning in 1850 or so, it was in the 1880s and the “gay 90s” that things really started to pick up. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Astors, and Pulitzers (among many others) celebrated their wealth by building massive summer “cottages” here, rivaling those in Newport, Rhode Island. Although the Great Depression ended the era of high society in Bar Harbor, the physical evidence remained until 1947 when an October wildfire burned more than 17,000 acres on Mt. Desert Island. Sixty-seven of the most ostentatious mansions on “Millionaire’s Row” were destroyed before the fire was declared out almost a month after it started.

West Street became Eden Street as we continued to hug the coast. Eden was the original name for Bar Harbor. The town was renamed in 1918, and personally I think the old name is much more descriptive of the environment. Along this stretch of road, we passed The College of the Atlantic, a rather unique school that offers exactly one undergraduate degree—a Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology—though students can concentrate their studies in design, environmental science, landscape and building architecture, marine studies, natural history/museum studies, public policy, or education. Sounds like an Eden to me…

Also on Eden Street is the terminal for The CAT, a catamaran ferry that makes two daily roundtrips to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. This is one cool boat, and was the subject of an interesting television documentary I saw late one night. The ferry is 320 feet long, carries 900 people, 250 cars and 14 motor homes, and travels at 55 MPH propelled by jet engines producing 38,000 HP. Some day we’ll figure out an excuse to take a little ride (6 hours from our house to Bar Harbor) and try the CAT …

We entered Acadia National Park at Hull’s Cove, and began the climb into the highlands. Visibility quickly went from a hundred feet to near zero, and our guide did her best to keep us informed. “Ladies and gentlemen, on our right —and you’ll have to trust me on this—is a spectacular view of Eagle Lake…at least I think that’s where we are…no, wait a minute…I take it back…I don’t know where we are right now, but all along this stretch of road, there are great views…” Luckily, from our earlier visit, I knew what it looked like. Among us, only Pat had never been to Acadia. We’ll have to take her back some day.

American Indian encampments dating back 6,000 years have been excavated within the park boundaries, but recorded history begins with Champlain’s visit here 16 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Champlain led an expedition that landed on September 5, 1604, and he wrote in his journal, “The mountain summits are all bare and rocky…I name it Isles des Monts Desert” — island of barren mountains. For the next century and a half, a period marked by continuous conflict between the French and the British in the region, the land was designated as part of “New France.” In 1759, the region became part of “New England” — a name that somehow stuck despite the events of 1776.

Acadia National Park exists largely because of the efforts of Bar Harbor’s social elite—particularly George Dorr, who devoted 43 years and a good bit of the family fortune to help preserve the landscape. He and others in the same social stratum established a corporation in 1901 to acquire and hold land for public use and preservation. In 1913, the group offered 6,000 acres to the federal government, leading to the designation of Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916.

Not fully satisfied, Dorr and company continued to acquire property and lobbied for full national park status. In 1919, President Wilson signed the act establishing Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi, and Dorr became its first superintendent. In 1929, the park’s name was changed to Acadia, and today it encompasses 47,000 acres of ocean and forests, 22 named lakes and ponds, 26 mountains, and America’s one and only fjord. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who considered the island “one of the great views of the world,” donated more than 10,000 acres.

Rockefeller also financed and built the 22-mile Park Loop Road for motorized vehicles, but his personal triumph was a 57-mile system of horse carriage roads, which are carefully integrated with the park’s 120 miles of hiking paths. Elaborate granite bridges and imposing gate lodges separate the carriage roads from the auto road, allowing visitors to access the best views and locations in the park without fear of being run over by an SUV.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. wrote: “Driving in horse-drawn vehicles along narrow, winding woodland roads amid beautiful and varied scenery, completely free from the annoyance, and even the dread, of meeting motor cars is so real and extraordinarily rare today that systematic provision for it may reasonably be expected to develop into one of the most unique attractions of the Park and the Island.” Those words were written in 1930, but the automobile reigned supreme and the carriage roads were largely neglected from 1960 until well into the 1990s, when a massive restoration project began. Today, about 45 miles of carriage roads are open to hikers, bicyclists and even an occasional horse and carriage. During our visit in 1993, we spent many hours on our mountain bikes—highly recommended. You definitely have to get out of your car to see the best of Acadia.

Our first destination on the excursion was the Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant in the park. The original house was built by the Jordan family in 1847, and converted to a restaurant in the 1870s. Although it survived the fire of 1947, the original building burned in 1979. Today, Jordan Pond House is a rustic-modern building, itself not terribly attractive, but its setting at the head of an expansive lawn sloping gently to Jordan Pond is spectacular. Jordan Pond is a deep and narrow body of water—glacial in origin, as is the whole island, for that matter—surrounded by distinctive mountain peaks.

The great tradition at Jordan Pond House is afternoon tea and popovers, served at wooden tables on the lawn to people soaking in the view—an experience that, on our previous visit, inspired us to buy a popover pan in the gift shop and try to make them at home. The task is better left to the professionals…

The bus squeezed into the drop-off area in front of Jordan Pond house. Lunch would be served at noon, which gave us almost half an hour to kill. “According to the radio, there’s a good chance that the weather will clear before we go up Cadillac mountain,” she said. “Sometimes you actually get up above the fog, which is really neat. Have a great lunch, everyone.”

The driver opened the door, and people filed off the bus and disappeared into the mist.

As we waited for our turn to squeeze down the narrow corridor, a woman spoke up. “What time should we be back?”

I could see the alarm spread over the guide’s face. “Oh my! Ahhh…be back here at 1:20. Thanks for reminding me.” She ran down the stairs and called into the fog, “Be back on the bus at 1:20!”

I had a feeling that not everyone heard her…

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