I follow Linda Greenlaw, swordfish boat captain turned lobster fisherman turned writer, up a steep incline on a narrow wooded trail. She is taking me to one of her favorite spots on the island she calls home. With each step, a low rumble grows ever louder, like an approaching locomotive. The trees fall away, and the Cliff Trail opens onto a bluff looking down to jagged fingers of rock poking into the Atlantic. Agitated by storms of the previous day, waves crash against the rocky shore. Foam careens into rocks and flies in the air; some spouts burst upward like geysers, others bend into long arcs before breaking up into droplets that plunge back into the sea. "It's almost like staring at fire," Greenlaw says. "Every wave looks just a little different."
The seascape makes me think back five years earlier, to the first time I hiked the southern trails of Isle au Haut. On a perfect summer day, after gazing out over the surrounding islands from Duck Harbor mountain and walking intimate rocky beaches, each framed by gray boulders, black jagged rock, and green spruce trees, I was overcome with the feeling that I had found the most beautiful place on Earth. On this return visit, I wondered if I would feel the same magic.
Isle au Haut is one of the most remote outposts of Acadia National Park. A little more than 10 square miles in size, it lies at the end of an archipelago of islands in Maine's Penobscot Bay. French explorer Samuel Champlain named it high island in 1604, for its peak overlooking the bay. Mainers mangled the French, so today's pronunciation is eye-la-ho. Roughly half the island is incorporated into Acadia; it is also home to a few hundred summer people and about 45 year-rounders, including a dozen or so lobster fishermen. Even at summer's height, the island is free of the crowds that jam the heart of Acadia on Mount Desert Island. Unless you have your own kayak or boat, the only way there is a 45-minute mail boat ride from Stonington.
Wild Over Ewe
The $32 round trip through the islands between Stonington and Isle au Haut is a fantastic cruise. As the mail boat pulls away from the dock, Russ Island is in view-now spruce covered but once the scene of open meadows where farmers raised sheep. Russ is sheepless these days, but wild rams and ewes can still be spotted on York Island, off Isle au Haut's eastern shore. As the mail boat turns into Deer Isle Thoroughfare, passengers get a close look at the granite quarry on Crotch Island, named for the fiordlike inlet that splits the island in two. Though large-scale granite mining ended in the 1960s, the lust for granite countertops has revived old quarries. Lobster is the lifeblood of the area. The ocean is thick with colored buoys, and in summer, the morning mail boat passes dozens of lobster fishermen pulling traps from the ocean floor.
On the day I visit, a steady drizzle falls from the sky. It is often rainy in May on Penobscot Bay, but from July to September, clouds yield to sun. The ranger station is a short walk from the town landing, and I hurry over. Wayne Barter, the senior ranger on the island, has a white mustache and a soft coastal Maine accent (r's disappear from the end of words, then reappear where they don't belong). Barter has a taste for dramatic understatement. I ask if his family has been on Isle au Haut a long time. "Oh, a couple generations," he says. "They came in 1792." Maine humorists call that a poke line. You aren't supposed to laugh but can't resist a smile.
Barter suggests walking down the Duck Harbor trail, which begins behind the ranger station, then exploring coastal trails at the island's southern end. Western Head and Cliff trails are two of his favorites. "It's a tossup between those trails and [hiking up] Duck Harbor Mountain," he says. "It's only 300 feet high, but you get a great view."
The 3.8-mile Duck Harbor Trail is the best way to get from the town landing to the coastal trails. In the summer, one of the morning mail boats goes directly to Duck Harbor. But you'd miss the wild blueberries on the trail's edge, along with a great example of a Maine fog forest. Because of the moisture in Isle au Haut's air, moss spreads like kudzu and lichens crawl up the spruce trees. Where winds push over a shallow-rooted spruce, its lichen-covered spine looks like a whale skeleton. On summer mornings when a fog still hangs in the air, the forest seems wrapped in a ghostly aura.
Eben's Head Trail, which starts near the end of Duck Harbor trail, takes you through coves and rocky beaches. Dozens of them ring the island, and each is subtly different. On some beaches, small rocks crunch under each step; on others you pick your way along jagged cliffs. Some coves are sheltered and quiet. Others present fierce cliffs and battering spray. There's one quintessential Maine scene after another.
As I walked the trail, I got the same feeling as five years before-as if I were the first to have disturbed the stones on these sublime shores. An illusion, I believe, that many visitors savor.
A day tripper could spend the rest of the afternoon climbing Duck Harbor Mountain and walking Cliff Trail, then catch the 5:45 p.m. boat back. Because I have the luxury of staying overnight, I get a ride with Barter to the Inn at Isle au Haut. (Forced to choose between a $25-for-three-nights campsite and a $300-a-night lodge serving three elegant meals, I opted for the latter.)
The next morning, Greenlaw picks me up at the inn and takes me around the island in her old Range Rover. Before she returned to Isle au Haut to lobster, Greenlaw was a swordfishing captain who commanded the sister boat to the Andrea Gail, which went down in the Perfect Storm. These days she does more writing than lobstering-her latest work is Recipes From a Very Small Island, an Isle au Haut cookbook. And like a good fisherman, she loves telling stories. As we tour, she points out a mastless sailboat where her handyman raised four of his five children, and a house with a boulder sticking up through its kitchen floor-the rock was too big to move and the builder wanted the house in a very particular spot.
We then enter the park, and I walk with Greenlaw past Deep Cove, where harlequin ducks squeak in the backwash of waves, to Cliff Trail, where the surf is breaking in spectacular patterns. I ask her what drew her back. "There are places I get a real sense of the past," she says. "I can imagine Indians exploring this place, living here."
I nod. Maine has many picturesque coastal villages. Yet that beauty has led to inevitable changes. Fishing becomes secondary to tourism; canneries yield to boutiques. Not on Isle au Haut. Much of the island is still wild, seemingly untouched by modernity.
There are those who love the big sky of the American West, but to me it is this place-with its perfect little rocky beaches that you can take in at one glance-that is the most beautiful place on Earth.
The Ins and Outs of Isle au Haut
If you ask me, Isle au Haut is the most beautiful spot on earth, but it isn't that easy to get to. To make the most of your visit, you are going to have to do a little planning.
From Bar Harbor, at the heart of Acadia National Park, it is about a two-hour drive to Stonington, where you can catch the Isle au Haut mailboat. Unless you like getting up very early, you might want to head to Stonington the day before you plan to visit Isle au Haut. There is plenty to do and see in Stonington, so it is hardly a wasted day. Consider renting a kayakor going to the granite museum. One nice bed-and-breakfast right on the Stonington waterfront is the Inn on the Harbor.
First things first. Check the mailboat schedule at isleauhaut.com. The mailboat leaves every morning from a dock on the Stonington waterfront. A round-trip fare is $32 per person; parking will cost you an additional $7. Bringing a bike, a fun way to get around the island, is $16 more. (Hint: if you are just looking for a summer island cruise and do not have time to get off at Isle au Haut, you only need a one-way ticket.) Most of the boat runs go directly to the town landing. In the height of the summer, however, twice a day the mailboat runs go directly to Duck Harbor Landing, in the national park portion of Isle au Haut. From Duck Harbor Landing you can immediately start on the marvelous coastal trails. If you disembark at the town landing, you will need to make the two-hour hike through Isle au Haut's beautiful fog forest. (Keep your eyes open for blueberries in the clearings.)
Before you even get on the mailboat, you will want to grab a picnic lunch in Stonington. There are no restaurants on Isle au Haut. The Stonington grocery near the mailboat landing is under renovation in summer 2005, so that may or may not be an option. No matter: My favorite place to scrounge the makings of a picnic is Lily's Cafe, where wonderful, carryout gourmet sandwiches can be found. Lily's hours are quirky, though, so you might want to check ahead. The cafe's address and phone number are listed at deerislemaine.com/restaurants.html.
Everything you need to know about Acadia National Park on Isle au Haut you can learn from the National Park Service's. To plan your hike, take a look at the trail map here nps.gov/acad/maps.htm. (Helpful aside: Most NPS estimates of the length of time to hike a trail are way too conservative, but not on the Isle au Haut map. Don't plan to go any faster than it says.) Wayne Barter, the park ranger, will also have a map and recommendations for you at the mailboat landing. A ranger greets every boat to make sure day hikers get pointed in the right direction (and to remind them to get on the evening boat home). As you mull over which trails to tackle first, you will want to first decide where you are going to stop for the midday break. Consider eating your lunch on Duck Harbor Mountain if the day is clear. If it is a little foggy, or there has been a recent storm to rile up the ocean, your best bet for a lunchtime break might be the Cliff Trail.
If you are only spending the day, the last evening-boat leaves Duck Harbor at 5:45 p.m. The late boats leave the village landing at 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Remember that it will take you at least two hours to hike from the southern end of the island to the village (more if the blueberries distract you). Plan accordingly.
If you are ending your day at the town landing and need a cold drink, it is worth spinning by the village store. It is a five-minute walk north of the village landing. As you might expect on an isolated island, the grocery is a bit pricey: Gas costs $3.20 a gallon! (Cars can only get to Isle au Haut by barge, and once they are there, they stay. As a result, there are some wonderful old vehicles on Isle au Haut miraculously still running. Keep a look out for the Studebaker pickup truck.) You can also buy a postcard at the grocery and send it out from one of the nation's smallest post offices, just to the south of the town landing.
If you have made a reservation, you can spend the night on Isle au Haut either in a tent or at an inn.
There are five camping sites that in the height of the summer can be reserved for three days at a time for a cost of $25. For a reservation form go to nps.gov/acad/pdf/iahreserve.pdf. The official deadline for reserving a spot is April 1, and in the summer season the sites get snatched up fast-so there is little likelihood of getting a spot this summer. But if the weather looks threatening, there is a chance that someone might cancel. Check with the rangers.
If sleeping in a lean-to is not your style, try the two inns. I have stayed at the newer place, the Inn at Isle au Haut, run by Diana Santospago. The innis on the east side of the island, and the rooms have beautiful views of York Island. Rooms start at $250 ($268 with tax), including a full breakfast, picnic lunch, and scrumptious four-course dinner. On the western side of the island is the Keeper's House. A room and three meals at the Keeper's House starts at $310 ($378 with tax and a 15 percent service charge). Space is limited and in demand, but as of late June, there were still some dates available at both inns during July and August.
If you do stay the night at Isle au Haut, and the sky is clear, make sure you look up. Miles from the mainland, the view of the stars is spectacular.
If you want to learn more about Isle au Haut, check out isleauhaut.net. Linda Greenlaw's book The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island wittily describes the island culture and characters. The tastes of the island are on display in her new cookbook, Recipes from a Very Small Island. Since Greenlaw loves showing folks around Isle au Haut, she is mulling starting a charter-tour business on the side, so keep an eye on her website, fishingwithlinda.net.