cadillac mountain

All posts tagged cadillac mountain

My childhood friend, Jeremy, was back in Maine for a long weekend, so we decided to bring back an old tradition– “Let’s do something stupid.” Jeremy and I have a long history of coming up with hiking plans that are way too ambitious, and failing spectacularly. The plan I came up with this time was to walk from the village green of Bar Harbor to the marina in Northeast Harbor, summiting each of the six 1000-foot peaks in between (about 18 miles of rugged, rocky, steep trail).

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it's not so green right now.

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it’s not so green right now.

We probably could have succeeded handily if not for the snow that fell on Friday, but November is a rough time for hiking in New England; you never know exactly what you’ll get for conditions. On Saturday morning, as I got in my car in Belfast (only 40 miles from Bar Harbor) there was a dusting of snow left on the ground. But those few miles made a big difference in snow levels, with up to six inches in some places by the time I arrived on the island. Neither Jeremy nor I was prepared for serious snow, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

After about three miles on roads from downtown Bar Harbor to the Orange & Black Path, we started wading through the snow in earnest. By stepping carefully, we were able to climb at a decent pace onto Champlain Mountain, with only a few detours off trail since blazes and cairns were buried. We also had to make a few slight adjustments to the trail since Kacey, my parents’ dog, was along (this was a last minute decision, since she had insisted on joining us. She’s a mighty resilient animal, but slick ice on steep rock can be tricky for her). By the time we arrived at the summit of Champlain, it was already 11 AM, which didn’t bode so well for our 18-mile challenge.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren't just staying indoors by the fire today.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren’t just staying indoors by the fire today.

As we walked across the summit in the snow, I heard Jeremy say “I think we lost a dog”. I turned around and saw that there was a hole in the snow where Kacey had been. Uh oh! The snow had been deep enough to cover a six-foot deep crevice like an old-school booby trap, and Kacey had vanished without a sound. When I looked down in to see her staring bug-eyed up at me, she seemed more confused than hurt (“what the hell happened?”), which was a good sign. I threw off my pack and squeezed down into the hole to wrestle her out while Jeremy lifted from the top. The whole process took about five minutes, after which Kacey did a little sprint around the summit, almost falling into the pit again, but ultimately calming down after a big handful of treats.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

We continued down Champlain Mountain by the Beachcroft Trail, which took longer to descend than our ascent from the east side of the mountain, owing to slick, wet snow. By the time we arrived at The Tarn between Champlain and Dorr, it was clear we probably wouldn’t hit all six summits, but we still might walk to Northeast Harbor and at least get to two more summits. The temperature was on the rise, though there was still plenty of snow. The ascent along the Schiff Path turned out to be much easier than either the ascent or descent of Champlain Mountain, so our optimism came back once again.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

The gorge between Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain is pretty shallow, so it was a quick descent from Dorr, though still pretty tricky. With many steep, rocky sections still covered in deep snow, we had to lead Kacey around in several places where in summer she could have easily leaped from rock to rock. It was still fairly early in the day when we reached the bottom, then made our way to the ascent. Not more than a hundred feet into the climb, however, we were thwarted by a heavily snow-covered boulder field. There was no good way around for Kacey to get up, and we decided that this would be our last good opportunity to bail out and walk back to Bar Harbor.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

So out we walked via the Gorge Trail, not the least bit disappointed in only completing two of the intended six summits. We still ended up with ten miles of hiking through deeper snow than anticipated, and fully succeeded in our goal of trying to do something stupid. And we could be happy in the knowledge that we would have made the goal easily if not for the snow conditions. No loss of pride, no damage to reputation, no serious injury. I’d say that’s a good outcome all around.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Since returning home to Maine, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some of my free time in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, arguably two of the most beautiful natural areas in the country. Besides the bald mountains and glaciated landscapes, though, the two parks couldn’t be more different. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the differences as I walk on the rough granite bedrock, and the mossy, root-choked forest trails, finding solitude where I can.

That solitude is the defining difference. Acadia, a premier national park, follows the philosophy of providing the most accessibility to the largest number of people. Millions of visitors flock to Mount Desert Island every year to witness the beauty of the island’s granite domes, the jagged coastline, the idyllic carriage roads along the mountain sides. To get them along to their destinations, the carriage roads and the Park Loop Road are well maintained and scattered with viewpoints, rest stops, picnic areas, and the occasional unique attraction like the stone gatehouses or the Jordan Pond restaurant. Two primitive campgrounds within the park, and several private campgrounds nearby, allow for the semblance of ‘roughing it’ without having to give up running water or flushing toilets.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

There is no solitude or wildness in Acadia. The island is overflowing with natural beauty, but it’s nearly impossible to find a spot on a mountainside that you can call your own for a full hour, let alone a full day.

Baxter State Park, at the other end of the spectrum, is quiet. The Park Tote Road leads along the edge, bringing visitors to more than half a dozen primitive campgrounds and several scenic roadside attractions, but the amenities are far more sparse. There is no potable water at the campgrounds, nor flushing toilets. No bus roams around the park, and no RVs (vehicles that size aren’t even allowed in the park, since the road is so narrow and winding they would undoubtedly get stuck). Even getting into the park is a task, with daily limits on the number of cars allowed past each gate, and no camping allowed without prior reservation. And while many ponds are close to roads and can be easily accessed, none of the park’s many mountains has any sort of road to the top, paved or otherwise.

Some deep wilderness on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Some deep woods on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Spend a full day at the highest point in each park, and your experiences will be vastly different. On Baxter Peak of Katahdin, you might see thirty or forty people on a very busy day, each one having climbed one of the incredibly steep trails to the summit. That’s no small number, but on Cadillac Mountain, you’d see hundreds of people, shuttled to the summit on tour buses, vans, cars, SUVs, and motorcycles. You’d see a few hikers and bicyclists, too, but mostly a torrent of car-bound tourists. A better comparison, though, would be to take the second-highest peak in the park. Hamlin Peak in Baxter might see half a dozen people on a busy day. Sargent Mountain in Acadia, still close to a hundred.

Before I go much further, I’ll say that the increased access at the National Park isn’t always a bad thing. It makes planning a trip to the park much simpler, and it shows off the natural beauty of the area to many more people. The gateway communities on the way to Acadia see a huge inflow of cash every summer and autumn as millions of tourists flock to the park, their money burning holes in their pockets. And, of course, why should my grandparents, who are no longer able to hike very car from a car, not be able to share in the glory of Acadia? There’s certainly something to be said for ease of access to the country’s most beautiful places.

But we have to remember what is lost in the opening of the wild to the masses. I sometimes wonder what John Muir, the champion of Yosemite National Park, would say if he saw the cheek-to-jowl lines on Half Dome, or the traffic jams backed up through Yosemite Valley, few people venturing much further than an arm’s length from their vehicles in order to snap photos before going back to the air conditioning. Muir spoke of the mountains as a cathedral, and as a link to the divine– but how can you have any kind of connection with the landscape when you’re focused on your car or your noisy neighbors?

As much as I love the landscape in Acadia, I have to limit how often I go there and at what times of year. The spiritual recharge that I get in the deep woods or on the top of a remote mountain feels muted and imperfect when there’s a constant flow of people around. The sounds I need to hear in the wild are the birds singing, crickets chirping, and the wind whispering; not roaring motorcycles, boisterous parties, and people trying to keep their dogs in line.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

My most recent experiences at campgrounds in both parks are indicative of the basic attitudes at each. On a night in Roaring Brook campground in Baxter, when the campground was completely full, I was pleasantly surprised to find the area silent by 8 PM, except for the sounds of the brook and the occasional crackle of a campfire. At Blackwoods, in Acadia, I was awoken at midnight by my neighbors having a bongo jam along with their stereo blasting Grateful Dead all throughout the campground. Both campground have rules about nighttime quiet hours, but neither are enforced by much more than the honor system (and people like me who get up and lecture the offenders).

Greater accessibility has its upsides, but less of it seems to lead more often to a greater respect for what brings us to the outdoors in the first place. Whether that’s the peace and quiet of the wild, or the joy of a fine view, it’s good to remember why we preserve those places.