A Journey To The North Country
My folks and I had the car packed and ready to leave by 7:30 am on Saturday and after driving all day we arrived in Portland, Maine at 9:30 p.m. looking for lodging and dinner. After finding a decent motel, we discovered a nice little Mexican restaurant where we had dinner and later drove around Portland admiring the bay and the well preserved downtown area. OK, OK... so we were lost! But it really was a very nice city.
The next morning we left in a cold rain but within an hour or so passed out of it, and several uneventful hours later we arrived in the little town of Millinocket where we had lunch and visited the Baxter State Park headquarters. We then drove on to the park itself, and after checking in at the gatehouse, we found our first campsite. The campgrounds in the park are some of the finest you're likely to find anywhere since there is a strict carry in, carry out policy in place (they will even make you drive back and clean your site when leaving if you trash your campsite). Also, there is no clean water supply so you will have to filter, boil or use iodine. After setting up camp we drove a short way to the Katahdin Stream trailhead and hiked about 5 miles up past Thoreau Falls and almost to treeline. Since it was getting rather late in the day we hiked back down and arrived back at camp just in time to make dinner in the gathering darkness. After dinner I walked down to the ranger's cabin and bought a large bundle of firewood that turned out to be well dried cedar. The wind had picked up a bit so the warmth from the fire was really appreciated and it smelled great.
Later I took my camera and stumbled around in the dark before finally finding a fair size clearing where I set up the tripod and take some long-exposure photos of the stars. The milkyway was a bright band of stars across the sky, an overwhelming number of stars, and I was recognizing constellations that I had previously seen only in books. It was very easy to understand why early civilizations held the night sky in such reverence. Mere words cannot begin to describe the awesome splendor and, unfortunately, neither do my photos. I have a number of great constellation shots, but none even begin to convey the immense galaxy of stars we saw that night. It was truly a special evening!
Early the next morning (well, not too early... we stayed up fairly late stargazing) we drove to another trail head and hiked out through the much more level terrain of woods and ponds, hoping to spot a moose or two. Hiking part the Appalachian Trail for a while, we passed several beautiful ponds, finally arriving at Dacy Pond. A loon was swimming near the shore and we watched it for a while before starting the return leg back to the car, a peaceful hike through the forest that eventually brought us back to the trailhead. We drove a bit farther down the road and found a nice site for a late lunch near an unoccupied group campsite. A frisky little red squirrel soon joined us, getting bolder and bolder, until finally it jumped up on the seat of the picnic table. We were having fun watching the squirrel attempt to steal food when suddenly, without warning, the squirrel shot off the table and raced to the edge of the clearing. I was startled and confused for a moment, but then I saw the shadow... the shadow of the hawk that had been swooping down on the squirrel. The hawk pulled out of its dive (a bit too close to me!) and continued searching for its lunch, but the little squirrel stayed hidden for some time.
After dinner that night we went to the shore of Abol Pond, again hoping to see moose. The evening sky turned beautiful shades of red and orange and the few clouds reflected wonderfully on the still pond but the moose must have been having dinner somewhere else. In the quiet twilight we could hear a few birds calling good-night, so we decided to turn in ourselves.
Breaking camp the next morning, we started up the road to the northern part of the park and our second campsite at South Branch Pond, stopping first at a very interesting waterfall/cascade. Later, as we arrived at the second campground, another large hawk swooped over us right at cartop level and landed in a nearby tree. We stopped and watched the hawk for a minute or two before moving on to our next campsite where we again set up camp and then walked down to the lake. We walked a little ways down the shore, skipping stones until our arms were sore before making our way back to camp and dinner. Just before we ate, a storm front moved through and it rained for half an hour or so. The sun began peeking through as the rain tapered off, so I grabbed my camera and ran for the beach and just as I had suspected, there was a magnificent double rainbow. Although it had faded a little by the time I got the camera ready, I still got a few good pictures.
The next morning, probably the coldest of the trip at about 40ºF, we set out to climb North Traveler mountain. The weather was a bit cloudy with a good stiff wind blowing, perfect mountain weather. My mother had never been on anything so steep and exposed, so naturally she was a bit hesitant at first, but quickly adapted and enjoyed the experience. My father enjoyed it quite a bit since he has backpacked and climbed in places such as the High Peaks region in the Adirondacks in New York. It was really impressive being so high, the views were spectacular and the only sign of mankind was our campground far below.
Later that afternoon we all piled into a canoe and paddled clear across South Branch Pond. I never thought I would one day be paddling a canoe in the north woods of Maine surrounded by beautiful trees and mountains... it was great! That is, until we turned and headed back to shore. Straight into the wind! It was a little work, but I enjoyed it almost more than the trip out. A loon that was swimming and diving in the lake passed very close to us as we made our way back and later that night we could hear the loons somewhere out there calling to each other.
Finally our stay at Baxter was at an end, so with great reluctance we packed up and headed for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Stopping for a quick visit at the Lumberman's Museum we watched a short but very informative video on lumbering in the early 1900's, then toured the reconstructed logging camp. I was very impressed... those lumbermen where tough fellows to live way out there in the wilderness in a small log bunk house with only a wool blanket and a bed of balsam fir boughs.
We drove on down to Ellsworth and checked out several campgrounds before opting for a real nice motel (hot showers!) and a great dinner. Rising early, we drove into Bar Harbor and bought tickets for the Whale Watch trip and then I took my folks to a neat restaurant for the blueberry pancakes I had enjoyed on my first trip to Maine. Just as I remembered, the pancakes where huge and absolutely stuffed with blueberries. We had a hard time finishing, but of course we couldn't let any go to waste. After a short trip to the Acadia National Park visitor center, we drove around to the other side of the island and got a great campsite at the Seawall campground. We set up camp and drove a short way to a small lighthouse, then on back into to Bar Harbor. It was my intention to get a cold drink and then head on to the whale boat, but we got distracted in one of the many neat little shops and lost track of time. Fortunately I had wandered all through town on my previous trip, otherwise I don't think we could have negotiated our way through all the backstreets on our hurried way to the boat. We came screaming into the parking lot, leapt out of the car and took off running for the dock. They were just about to pull up the gangplank when they saw us coming. It was a close call, but we made it!
The ride out was fairly long (about 25 miles) but when I saw the look on my folks faces when we saw a whale spout off in the distance I knew it was worth it. They told me later that they would have been happy just seeing that! Shortly after that we came upon several whales that were swimming slowly near the surface but, since they weren't very active, the captain moved the boat to another area. As we arrived near the spot I saw a huge whale tail sticking straight up, with streams of water pouring off back into the sea. Suddenly the whale slapped its tail down! I was still fooling with my camera and didn't get the shot, but the marine biologist for the trip said that it isn't known just why the whales do this but sometimes the whales will do it 20 or 30 times. Right about then the whale lifted its tail out and repeated the performance. Just as the biologist had said, the whale continued to do this so many times that it almost became boring. Of course I took plenty of photos, especially since my mother had forgotten her camera in the car during our mad rush to board the boat. The whale disappeared for a moment and then resurfaced not more than thirty feet away, this time with a companion. In perfect unison they both broke the surface, blew, and slowly sank back into the depths. Moments later they reappeared, but this time the one that had been doing the tail slapping (the biologist recognized the tail markings and said that this one was named Gemini) rolled over, lifted one of its flukes high and slapped the water. The boat was powered down and drifting at this point and the sound of the whales was very loud in the silence. It was a special moment, especially when the biologist stressed that these whales were not trained in any way, they were putting on this show because they wanted to. We watched these two whales for another forty-five minutes before it was time to head back. Everyone else immediately rushed into the heated cabin for coffee and hot chocolate, so we moved to the very front of the boat (uh... is that called the bow? some sailor I am) and rode all the way back with the wind and spray in our faces. After another great dinner we wandered up and down the street of Bar Harbor, occasionally looking in the more interesting shops before heading back to camp and a good nights rest.
Before leaving the park the next morning, we stopped at the Oceanarium and since it was getting fairly late in the morning we opted not to take the short tour of the tidal basin. Instead, we listened to an old lobsterman talk about lobsters and the life of a lobsterman. Afterwards, we drove down to Freeport, home of L.L. Bean where we got a great campsite at Bradbury State Park about ten minutes out of town, refueled the car, and then waded into the crowds. Actually, it wasn't too bad, especially once we got past the entryway at Bean's. We spent a few hours there before heading out to a little place my folks knew about, the Harraseeket Fish Market. It's a small place right on the bay, but it was packed with people. Actually, I should say it was surrounded with people since there is only minimal inside seating (for 10?) and most of the clientele eats outside on picnic tables. You place your order at the window, wait till your number is called, and then enjoy the freshest seafood you've ever have. My folks said that when they were there before, they watched the small fishing boats come in and unload the days catch while they ate. It was fairly late by the time we got back to the campground, so we didn't waste much time getting to bed. I usually don't sleep very well on camping trips, but that night was one of the best I've had in a long time. A sign of a successful vacation? Of course!
We rose early and with a little sorrow that the trip was coming to an end, we packed up and drove on down the road. With two more days left we had decided to leave it to chance and see what adventures we could find. Knowing that my folks, especially my father, were fans of Henry David Thoreau, I got off the highway when I saw the signs for Walden Pond. A short time later we arrived in the town of Concord, Mass., found Walden Pond State Park and after parking the car we hiked several miles around the pond before arriving at the site of Thoreau's cabin. We took a few pictures and then hiked back to the park entrance where we examined a beautiful reconstruction of the house Thoreau lived in during his stay at Walden. Fortunately, we arrived in time to see a park employee, whom it soon became apparent was also a Thoreau scholar, impersonating Thoreau. He spoke with such conviction and knowledge that it was like listening to Thoreau himself.
On the way back through New York we decided that we were too tired for camping and wanted to sleep in our own beds, so we stopped for dinner near Albany, New York. With full bellies and feeling a good bit better we took off down the road, finally arriving home at around one a.m. after driving from Freeport, Maine to Akron, Ohio in about thirteen hours. Although it seemed like the time had flown by far too quickly, we also realized that we had seen and done a great deal, and I was pleased that my folks had finally seen some of these wonderful places.