The trails are icy hereabouts in the greater Boston-Worcester area. New Year’s First Day hikes have been cancelled, parking lots are slick, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, we heard about groomed ski trails north of here, at Acadia National Park in Maine. Yes, the weather has been below zero. And yes, some of us think curling up with a good book and a warm drink is the best way to get through the arctic chill. But some of us need to get outdoors. But going where the trails have snow cover is the best way to do that. And so we did!
Our family returns to Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island often for many reasons, none of which are that it’s a short drive from where we live. In fact, it’s a minimum 6 hour drive from the Boston area, when traffic is light and weather is good. The carriage roads are a big draw for me–in warmer weather we bring our tandem bike and I revel in the sensation of flying on the back of our tandem as my husband pilots the bike along the wide trails. While pedaling we enjoy ocean views and take in sights of mountains, lakes, and streams.
And now we’ve learned that the “Friends of Acadia” have taken to grooming some of the carriage roads to allow cross country skiers, as well as hikers and snowshoers to more easily enjoy accessing the park in winter. I’m not the skier in our family. In fact, I have a really tough time when trails turn icy. But the descriptions we read on this group’s Facebook page offered real time information and assured us of relatively safe trails. So off we went.
Limited housing is available on Mt. Desert Island in the winter, but we found a housekeeping room available at Atlantic Oceanside Hotel, facing onto Frenchman’s Bay. While my husband skied, I read and watched the wonders of sea smoke, something I’d never seen or heard of before we witnessed it as it billowed up from the waters of Frenchman’s Bay. The water vapor slowly rose and became low-lying clouds that headed out to sea. In fact, the entire duration of our visit offered multiple opportunities to witness this phenomenon. We felt a deep sense of awe observing cloud formation right before our eyes.
Each day we also had the chance to see bald eagles hunting. In warmer weather we often see eagles in this area, but they are often perched in pine trees, watching. In this cold weather the eagles were moving, soaring quickly over the water, looking for easy prey. Each appearance surprised us, with no time to grab our camera. Another one of those, “Take a picture in your mind” sort of situation.
And yes, I got out each day for a hike. The first couple of days offered next to no wind, a real blessing with the zero degree temperatures. Regardless of the calm, layers and layers of clothing, and covering all skin is essential. Insulated boots are a necessity. I grew quite comfortable, and grateful for the face mask that covered my ears and face, and kept the cold air from getting down my neck. Thick long socks, wind pants, and gaiters to keep snow out of my boots if I fell were all part of important preparations. Layers underneath my down parka were important too. We started calling me the Michelin Woman… But I stayed warm!
We chose for our first hike an outing along Otter Cliffs. In summer this easy trail is filled with visitors. The views are spectacular, the rocks are fun to climb on, but the winter offers entirely different experiences, including very few other people. The rocks along the shore below the walkway are ice-filled and treacherous, not something to trifle with. The sea birds bob in the water, which is warmer than the air. The trail along the shoreline is relatively flat, and while others had already walked on the snow before us, the trail had not iced up–it was too cold for the snow to melt! Just crunchy, squeaky snow under our feet as we tramped alongside the ocean.
Much of the park’s loop road is left unplowed, but there is nothing to prevent skiers, hikers, walkers, or snow shoers from traveling throughout the area. Many parking areas have been well-plowed, which made for ease of accessing multiple areas of the park. We got within sight of Sand Beach, and took in the views of the snow-covered landscape, as well as more sea smoke.
While I rested from our hike, my husband went back out to ski on the groomed trails along the carriage road around Witches’ Hole. While not icy, some more snow will make for a more enjoyable skiing experience, so I’m told. He was certainly not the first skier to visit this season. We went back later for me to take in views of Duck Brook, which flows next to one section of Witches’ Hole. We stood on the bridge that soars over the rushing brook and marveled at the snow and ice in this rugged landscape.
Just upstream from Duck Brook is Eagle Lake, which offers views of the Bubbles and other surrounding mountains in the park. Carriage roads ring Eagle Lake and we’ve ridden these roads on our bike in warmer weather. On this visit we contented ourselves with a relatively short walk, as we watched the sun set early behind the mountains to the west of the lake.
I stayed home while my husband skied up and back down Day Mountain. I’ve visited there in warmer weather, following the carriage road as it climbs to the top of Day Mountain, which offers spectacular ocean views. But the trip in arctic temperatures was not safe for me.
On our last day we chose an easy walk out to the coast near the south side of the island, near Bass Harbor. The park trail, just past the Seawall, is named Wonderland, and it has offered some spectacular wildlife sightings on almost every visit we’ve paid to this area. The wind was much stronger this last day, so we were grateful for the wooded trail that offered some protection until we actually stood out on the shoreline. A few icy spots along the trail made clear that this area got less snow than areas on the north side of the island.
We found one cove along the shore with only animal prints on the snow. We worked our way down to the water and saw how the tides shifted chunks of ice hither and yon. Snow covered mountains came into view north of us, on the far side of the water.
And an eagle on the hunt soared overhead, so close we could see the pattern of his feathers underneath his wings.
We met some fellow travelers who were headed up a nearby mountain hoping to see snowy owls that are known to hang out in that area. These arctic creatures come south looking for warmer climates for the winter, but they must be feeling right at home for now. We wished these hikers good luck on their climb, and contented ourselves with our easy walks.
The wonders of winter are truly amazing, but getting out like this is not for everyone. What your don’t see in these photos is the number of times my husband checked in to be sure my fingers and toes were still warm, that my face was not getting frostbite, and that my ears stayed covered. It is hard work being outside in this cold. And we had a warm, cozy place to go to warm up and get dry clothes. I got pretty crabby at times from fatigue. But I’m glad we made this trip, and will be grateful when winter gives us a break and returns to more normal temperatures.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then.