Each day before dawn, hundreds of pilgrims make their way to Acadia National Park’s highest point, eager to claim being the first to watch the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. A sunrise isn’t so much an event as an experience, I’m thinking on this morning, and there’s not a single sunrise but an infinite number of […]
By Douglas Whynott
May 11 2015
Whether climbing on foot to the summit of Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain on hiking trails, or by car on the twisting 3.5-mile road, hundreds of visitors, wrapped warmly against the early chill, arrive in the dark to be among the first in the continental U.S. to witness sunrise. (From October to early March, the sun strikes Cadillac Mountain first; at other times Mars Hill in Aroostook County claims the first-light crown.) Cadillac Mountain is one of more than 20 mountains on Mount Desert Island, and at 1,530 feet, it’s the highest point along the North Atlantic seacoast.Photo Credit : Carl Tremblay
Each day before dawn, hundreds of pilgrims make their way to Acadia National Park’s highest point, eager to claim being the first to watch the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain.
A sunrise isn’t so much an event as an experience, I’m thinking on this morning, and there’s not a single sunrise but an infinite number of them, as they’re viewed and experienced continuously, in every moment, around the world. But here and now, on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, overlooking the Gulf of Maine, Frenchman Bay, and Bar Harbor, we have the first sunrise in the United States—and it’s very clear that this is an important experience for the hundreds of people gathering here day after day to witness this particular rising.
We arrive at 4:45 a.m. on this day in October, and there are about a half-dozen cars in the parking lot. Sunrise itself is almost two hours away, at 6:42, but some people, such as Cindy Paisner, from Massachusetts, have come early enough to see “first break,” the first changing of the light. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’” Cindy says, and then repeats the words in Hebrew. Cindy isn’t particularly religious—she’s actually in Bar Harbor for hiking and biking in addition to the sunrise experience—but she’ll call her rabbi when she returns home for confirmation that what she has witnessed is shacharit, the time when, in the Jewish faith, there’s just enough light for morning prayers. We walk together on a pathway to the highest point, where Cindy and her partner, Jim, soon sit down and huddle under a blanket on a rocky knob, alone for a few minutes but amid a crowd within an hour and a half.
My wife and I walked on the path that loops around this mountaintop, taking in what light there was overhead, from a moon a week beyond full, casting a silvery sheen on the water. The islands in Frenchman Bay were in dark relief against the bright water. Bar Harbor was alight below, but to a limited degree, since there happens to be a light ordinance there to protect views of the night sky. The moonlight also shone upon the lichens on the granite rocks, giving then a soft neon glow. Arriving here at first break, we had the feeling that we were getting more out of the day, that we were up and alive while others were sleeping, that special privilege.
As a peach glow appeared—or rather, broke—on the horizon 50 miles away, one thing that became clear was that the pleasure of this event wasn’t so much about what was happening in the sky as how the light was playing upon the water. As clouds passed over, the silver sheen turned to a leaden gray, and as the sky suffused with a dark apricot, the sea took on that light too.
In the darkness we saw other people spreading over the rocks, and often, the glow of a camera, with a figure next to a tripod. This was certainly a photographers’ event, and these folks had come here to be productive, which was apparent in the firm set of their jaws and the purpose in their eyes as they hunted out their spots—the “tripodistas,” we began calling them. One set up behind Cindy and Jim and soon said, “Will you be standing up?” (though he did provide them with a nice shot of a blanket over two heads, a yellowish light in the distance).
I think it’s important to note that the time from first break to sunrise, from 5:10 to 6:42 on this day, is the duration of the show, that hour and a half when the curtain stirs to the final applause and exit from the theatre. That’s when light comes, shapes, and forms, and climactically appears unmasked. But not everyone arrives on time, and I could hear cars and the hum of tires coming up the mountain road. By 6:00 the sizable parking lot was approaching full. By 6:25, 17 minutes from climax, cars were streaming by fast, searching for parking spaces, and you’d want to be very careful crossing that lot. There must have been 300 people by then. Some were running.
We’d taken a short hike on the North Ridge Trail in the dark, the moonlight enough to show us the way, and the balsams in night mode as fragrant as I’d ever smelled. But we quickly turned back, not wanting to miss the show. We stood among a crowd and heard one woman say, “We didn’t know about this; we just heard about it. But we decided we had to come, because we wanted to be first.”
Because of the clouds there was no true sunrise that day, only a vertical band of yellow-gold light behind the haze. Checking their watches or phones, people immediately began turning for their cars at 6:43, or maybe it was 6:45. But it was certainly beautiful nevertheless, with the day warming and the sky full of light. I wondered if there would be applause the next day, with its forecast of clear skies.
The following morning the temperature was 40 degrees at 5:00 a.m., but a brisk wind made the air feel much colder. The many more people who scaled the mountain that day also brought many more blankets and found places in the rocks to huddle, or to curl up together in hollows. And again, despite the big crowd, which must have reached 400, the mountaintop held the same feeling of quiet. The parking lot filled earlier, and eventually cars were parked on both sides of the road leading down the mountain.
The tripodistas were the same, scampering for their views. One was from Pensacola, Florida, and set up with his friend on the same rock that Cindy and Jim had inhabited the day before. Nearby were their two wives, who had prepared for the cold on this Northern vacation, bringing parkas and headbands. “My husband just loves to take photographs,” one woman remarked, and she and her friend shivered.
First break was a clearer statement, as was the approaching sun, south of due east. (The only time the sun rises directly due east is the equinox.) You could see that golden, molten glow in the moments before it actually happened.
I wondered: Is there any reverence here? I didn’t go about asking that question (“Are you reverent, or have you been feeling reverent today?”), but I suppose there was, because this act of greeting the sun in the morning is likely inherent in us, built into whatever within our souls touches upon the ancient and upon our ancestors, this act going back to our earliest conscious moments. Sun gods, sun worship, the belief that our proper actions brought forth the sun.
As the sun appeared and lifted, one mixed group of Chinese and American students formed letters with their bodies and took pictures, while a girl jumped up in the air to be caught above ground, and another had his photo taken with the sun in his hand.
But even before the sun had fully risen over the horizon, people had turned for the parking lot and their cars, to beat the traffic, I figured.
I was curious about the man who had reached for his backpack and pulled out a little gift-wrapped box. He gave it to his girlfriend, her head covered by a sweatshirt hood. She laughed, then cried, and then threw her arms around him. I walked away, to give them their private moment. By then the sun was fully above the horizon, and I had the feeling that a thousand sunrises were following in quick succession.
For maps and info: 207-288-3338; nps.gov/acad/index.htm