Maine: Nature Beckons

Ducky View

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.

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