Acadia National Park in Winter
Yankee Classic from January 1996
If only you had come to Acadia National Park in January or February or any winter month 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.