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.