Acadia National Park in Winter | Yankee Classic

Yankee Classic from January 1996 If only you had come to Acadia National Park in winter when less than one percent of the year’s three million park visitors pass through. It would have been colder then, but at least you could have […]

By Michael Burke

Jan 01 2014

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park

Yankee Classic from January 1996

If only you had come to Acadia National Park in winter when less than one percent of the year’s three million park visitors pass through. It would have been colder then, but at least you could have had the illusion that all this beauty was yours alone.

I drove through the deserted streets of Bar Harbor on a Friday night in February, through the snow whipping across the street, out to the Bar Harbor Motor Inn on Frenchman Bay. In season, the hotel is regularly full, but on this coldest weekend of the year, I strode up to the front desk and booked a room on the first floor facing the bay.

In the morning I pulled the drapes back and the room filled with the reflected brilliance of sunrise on an empty bay. A misty fog hung on the water, and above it the Porcupine Islands spread out in a bristling half circle. Behind them, on the mainland, stood Mount Battie. Snow had drifted against the stems of brittle weeds on the shore in scalloped swirls. It takes what the poet Wallace Stevens called “a mind of winter” to appreciate such a sight, but I always have.

It’s easy to imagine why French explorer Samuel de Champlain took one look at the bareness of the island’s mountaintops while sailing its shores in 1604 and named it l’Isle des Monts-deserts, Mount Desert Island. On a map Mount Desert looks like a brain, the two hemispheres separated by Somes Sound. Somes is the only fjord on the Atlantic coast, and in winter it’s a favorite spot of ice climbers from the University of Maine.

Others, who like to hike and ski, flock to the eastern part of the island, where most of the trails and carriage roads lie. The 51 miles of carriage roads, designed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., are wide, gently sloped paths with stunning views of Somes Sound and the Atlantic beyond; of Jordan Pond, Bubble Pond, or Eagle Lake; of Blue Hill Bay; Cadillac Mountain; of frozen creeks, trees, and sky. They pass through the ice-coated poplar and birch that grew up after the great fire of 1947 destroyed much of the spruce and fir forest.

I skied through some of that forest, from Parkman Mountain to Jordan Pond and then back again. It took me most of the morning. In that time I saw only two people, but tracks of deer and fox and snowshoe hare were everywhere, and on the edge of Jordan Pond, I found the cradle of an otter slide. The first stretch of Park Loop Road was plowed, and that night the full moon shone so brightly on the snow-covered roadside that I drove with my headlights off to Sand Beach.

South of Sand Beach on the Loop Road lies Thunder Hole. Stairs lead from the road to an observation deck at sea level. In summer tourists crowd the railing to snap pictures of the ocean spouting from a boulder cave. The spume is biggest during a three-quarter rising tide with a rough sea, but nature offers no guarantees when the big one will be. Last August a high surf shot a 14-foot spray out of Thunder Hole, and tourists from all over stacked the Park Road. Extra staffers were called in to keep people back. “There are so many tourists at Thunder Hole today,” said one ranger, “that the island is about to tilt.”

In winter, when the seas are even rougher and the waves wash the observation deck out of sight, the Thunder Hole show is even more spectacular, but no one’s there to see it. The ocean leaps the rail and sprays the Loop Road with beautiful, lethal ice. Perhaps it’s just as well that the tourists have gone, for four-fifths of the park staff have left for the winter as well.

It is then that the locals return to claim their prized park. They come to cross-country ski and hike and snowmobile through Acadia’s 40,000 acres. “It’s nice to go down to the shore when the tourists have gone, see the high surf and frozen ice on the trees,” says islander Ralph Richardson. “It’s very picturesque.” Richardson’s ancestors (with Abraham Somes) settled the island town of Somesville in 1762. He was born and raised there, but now lives in Somesville only off-season. “I move to the mainland come summer and leave the island to the tourists,” he says. “In the winter I come home and see the neighbors again.”

Somesville is one of five major towns on Mount Desert, Bar Harbor being the gateway and the most popular in season. But Bar Harbor in winter is like any organism responding to cold: It closes in on itself, shutting down the extremities (most of the 2,500 guest rooms), keeping the community core intact. One winter several years ago, things got so quiet that the weekly police blotter was short: Southwest Harbor police reported all was quiet last week. Except for Tuesday, when a Forest Avenue woman phoned police to complain about a neighbor’s dog who repeatedly stole cat food off her porch.

This year the townspeople will celebrate Bar Harbor’s bicentennial. In 1796 Bar Harbor belonged to Massachusetts, and the government there chose to call it Eden in honor of an Englishman. Locals, being more practical, called it Bar Harbor because of the sand bar that connects Mount Desert to Bar Island at low tide. After 125 years the government finally gave in and officially changed the name to Bar Harbor.

It was in the 1820s and 1830s that Bar Harbor became a playground for yachtsmen who hiked and climbed and hunted in the forest. And it was the artwork of landscape painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church in the mid-1800s that attracted others to Eden. The tourists then were known as “rusticators” or “summercators.” They were put up at first by local families, but as more came over the years by train and boat from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, and all over, hotels sprang up and grew in number and size until they hit 30 in 1880, including one atop Cadillac Mountain and one (the Rodick House) that was the biggest summer hotel in the country.

Clearly Mount Desert was the place to be in summer; wealthy families — the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, Morgans, Astors — all built lavish cottages there. To make sure the island stayed the way they liked it, many of those prominent families contributed toward the creation of Acadia National Park. Under the leadership of Charles Eliot and George Bucknam Dorr, the rusticators put together a land trust at the turn of the century and, in 1916, officially established the first national park east of the Mississippi. It was also the first national park formed entirely of land donated by private citizens.

I drove to the base of Cadillac Mountain. In summer the summit road is often bumper to bumper, but now the unplowed road made a perfect path for my ascent on skis. It took me the rest of the morning, with frequent stops to view the interior of the island and Eastern Bay, but it was a splendid way to spend a sunny winter’s day.

At the top, 1,530 feet, I had reached the park’s highest spot — the highest spot on the Atlantic coast north of Brazil. If I had made it here at dawn, I could’ve been the first in the country to see the sun’s rays. It’s also the island’s best lookout: To the east lie the islands of Frenchman Bay with the Schoodic Peninsula beyond; to the south the Cranberry Islands, Seal Harbor, and the open sea.

You might think Cadillac Mountain was named for the well-paved road up its side, but it was named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac who took possession of the island in the late 1600s and later founded Detroit. If Cadillac Mountain were a Cadillac car, it would be pink, as is the granite underfoot — pink feldspar, glassy quartz, and blackish hornblende. My ski to the bottom passed in one long, continuous schuss. It matched the best backcountry skiing I have ever done.

That night I camped at the Blackwoods Campground on the southern tip of the island — as peaceful a night as I can remember. In the morning I snowshoed through the deserted park to the water’s edge and watched the sun rise on the Atlantic. I must admit, I felt clever to have such a sight to myself. Now that I have been to Acadia in winter, I may never go back in summer again.