Spending quality time with family is the thing most precious to me. It sustains me in a way that is indescribable. Currently, my two grown children live about as far apart as you can get and still be in the lower forty-eight. One son is in the Northeast just a short driving distance from the Atlantic Ocean, while my other son lives south of San Francisco in close proximity to the Pacific coast. It is rare to have them both in the same place at one time. I believe Christmas 2018 was the last occasion we were all together as a family.
In July 2019 while stationed in Acadia National Park, I had no expectation that I would see them until my tour of duty was over. With our post-Acadia plans uncertain, even the 2019 holiday season was up in the air. Then, a miracle occurred in the middle of my stint in Acadia.
One of my bucket list items for my second season here was to arrange a trip to Isle au Haut. I knew the chance of actually securing a campsite at Duck Harbor was probably unlikely but I thought perhaps I’d arrange a day trip to the island via the ferry out of Stonington. Duck Harbor Campground sites are reservable online and so popular that the entire season sells out soon after reservations open in the spring. Mid-summer, I had started searching the online reservation system for cancellations along with some of my colleagues with the hope that a couple of nights might open up. One of my fellow duty station comrades noticed a cancellation in August that did not work with her schedule and she alerted me to the cancellation. The available dates aligned perfectly with my days off. Serendipity has once again been good to me! I quickly decided to reserve the open campsite for two nights with the idea that I’d work out the details later.
I alerted my husband to bookmark the August dates for the campsite reservations so he could plan on coming east to Acadia to join me for the trip. I then started researching the rules and regulations for camping at Duck Harbor and planning my supply list. Since the rules allow for up to 6 persons to share a site, I decided to invite both my sons and their partners. Why not? It was a long shot that both would accept the invitation given their limited vacation time and distance but I thought it was worth a try. I embellished my invitation with the valid point that this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity given the popularity of camping on this remote island. My sales pitch apparently worked. I was completely surprised when they both indicated their intention to come to Acadia and experience Isle au Haut with me!
What’s so special about Isle au Haut? It’s an island off the coast of Maine with a small year-round population of just over 50 residents. During the summer months, this number increases five-fold. About half the island acreage was donated to Acadia National Park in 1943 and the park land is managed with a goal towards minimizing impact to the natural environment. There are about 18 miles of hiking trails – all very primitively maintained – and about 12 miles of paved and unpaved roadways. The island is home to several diverse ecosystems including forested uplands, bogs and marshes, remote rocky coastal beaches and cliffs and one very long pond. During one hike, it is possible to traipse through each of these unique habitats.
The town of Isle au Haut sits on the north end of the island and is a tiny community that supports a general store, post office, school and ferry landing. I encourage you to check out the town website for additional information on this unique community including the solar project that is being undertaken by the Isle au Haut Electric Power Company that will culminate with 90% of the island’s power coming from solar energy. (A side note – a friend of ours in Vermont who owns a solar design company was involved in this project.)
On the south side of the island within the park, Duck Harbor Campground is the destination for primitive camping. There are 5 lean-to sites here reservable for a maximum of 3 nights stay limited to once per calendar year per person. The campground has several composting toilets near the lean-tos and a drinking water source located about a ¼ mile hike from the campsites. Each site contains a fire ring, a picnic table and a food storage box. All food must be stored in the box. As it states on Acadia’s website, this is definitely not car camping! Preparation for camping here is similar to planning a wilderness backpacking trip. Access to the island is via the mailboat out of Stonington, ME. You must be prepared to carry all your provisions with you onto the boat and to your site. There is a ferry landing at Duck Harbor where you pick up a short path that leads to the lean-tos.
Please visit the links I’ve provided above for detailed information about visiting the island and camping there. We spent 2 nights/3 days on Isle au Haut and it was a memorable experience. The weather was finicky – one good day and one overcast/rainy day – so we enjoyed the island at its best and worst! Actually, the storm blew in late on our second day and interrupted dinner preparations a bit but we still managed to eat and enjoy a campfire!
Thanks to my family – Leif, Jeannie, Luke, Sharon and Jim – for sharing this special place and time with me!! 😊
Our Photographic Journey on Isle au Haut
We started our journey in Stonington, Maine at the town dock. While we waited for the mailboat to start loading, we finished up our take-out breakfast from the local cafe in town.
The mailboat had some very nice carts that we could use to load our gear onto and that helped tremendously in getting the camping stuff down the ramp and stowed on the boat. There were a couple of other campers on the boat with us as well as a few day-trippers.
The mailboat dropped us off at the Duck Harbor landing and we unloaded our gear and headed up the ramp towards the campground.
We followed the signs to Lean-to #2 and started to set up camp. According to the regulations, all tents must be set up inside the lean-to so that there is minimal impact on the surrounding terrain. I had researched the size of the lean-tos (8′ x 8′ x 12.5′ wide) and talked with one of the on-site rangers before arriving to be sure we could fit three 2-person tents within the structure. He assured me that it should not be a problem. That was our first miscalculation! I did not account for the width of the 3 double-wide air mattresses that we all brought with us!! We managed to squeeze all three tents into the lean-to with some ingenious maneuvering. It took some acrobatics to get into our tents and we were a little “cozy” but comfortable.
We had a robust conversation about how we would do things differently if we ever came out here to camp again. We decided some mosquito netting to enclose the lean-to would keep those pesky insects at bay. Then, we could forgo the tents and just have sleeping pads and bags. As it turned out, on our second night out, there was a no-show for one of the other lean-tos due to weather I suspect. Leif and Jeannie decided to move down there for the night allowing us to spread out the two remaining tents at #2. 🙂
After we got settled in, one of the rangers arrived at our site to give us a brief introduction to the area, go over some rules and give us a chance to ask any questions. We took that opportunity to let them know that we had left one of our coolers on the mailboat! In that cooler was our dinner for one night!! They said they would try to intercept it at the town landing and bring it to us the next morning. I am happy to report that they did find it at the town landing and even put it in the ranger station refrigerator overnight when they realized there was perishable food in the cooler. The next morning it was delivered right to our site! What service!! Moral of that story is to double-check when you leave the boat that you have all your gear!!
The rangers informed us that there was a really nice little “town” beach on Long Pond and gave us walking directions from the campground. Most of the route ended up being along one of the unpaved roads and was about 3 miles one-way from our campsite. Everyone agreed it would be a perfect thing to do after getting set up and we would make it back to camp in plenty of time to start dinner before dark.
After returning to camp, we decided we wanted to find a spot along the coast to cook and eat dinner. We found a trail from the campground that led to an idyllic cobblestone beach with a “bench” that proved a perfect spot for our camp stove.
It was a beautiful evening and the breeze kept the mosquitoes away while we ate and enjoyed the sunset.
After eating, we stayed on the beach relaxing and watching the sunset. It was low tide and there was a sand bar that allowed access to a small rock “island”. It was just begging to be explored! Jeannie was the first one to cross and scale the rock – followed shortly by Leif, Luke and Sharon.
We climbed around on the rocks here and watched an osprey who was perched in a tree on the opposite shoreline. He was hunting for fish and dove in the water multiple times as we looked on. We were thoroughly entertained!!
After we got back to the lean-to and cleaned up our dinner dishes, we walked down to the landing to watch the sun set. It was magical.
We noticed that Duck Harbor serves as a safe haven for sail-boaters who are passing through the area. They anchor for the night and take advantage of the water source here – rowing onto shore and walking to the water pump to fill up jugs with drinking water for their voyage onward the next day.
We decided to hike around the island on some of the trails and chose a route that would take us near Long Pond so that the crew could enjoy another swim. We hiked the Western Head Road to the Goat Trail and followed this trail along parts of the southeastern coast line. The Goat Trail passes by several cobblestone beach coves. The rangers mentioned that there is a preserve that abuts the park land with trails that would take us towards the road leading to Long Pond.
We decided to be adventurous at this junction and follow the trail leading into the preserve. The Head Harbor Preserve encompasses 72 acres and is part of a network of preserves operated by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The trail through the preserve follows the coastline around Merchant Cove and continues along Head Harbor ultimately connecting to Main Road leading to Long Pond and the town center.
It was overcast most of the day with the threat of rain imminent. Luck was with us though and it never did rain until we were back at camp later in the day.
We walked for a while longer and started looking for a spot to stop for lunch when it was obvious the troops were getting hungry! Luke and Sharon spotted a rocky outcropping on a peninsula around the corner from Merchant Cove and we made our way out there.
Shortly after lunch, we made the decision to leave park land and enter the preserve. The trail took us through some marshy land and along the coast. Beautiful views!!
We eventually came to the end of the trail at the Main Road and the hiking party took another swim in Long Pond before heading back to the campsite. Cooking dinner that night was a challenge when the storm blew in. We did manage to keep a campfire going to cook some food and we had to huddle under the lean-to to keep the stew pot going. But, it was a good meal and the storm abated before it was time for bed.
The next morning we focused on packing up since we had to be down at the dock to catch the morning mailboat run. We decided not to cook breakfast and settled on granola bars to give us sustenance until we hit the mainland.
We arrived at the dock early. There was a heavy fog along the coast which made for some interesting photo ops.
We took the time to get some group photos with all our gear – Luke and Sharon grabbed the camera and got some “rare” shots of me. I’m usually the one behind the camera!
After we loaded our gear on the mailboat, we enjoyed a ride around the island to the town dock. The fog was starting to lift along the way.
We had a 45 minute lay over at the town dock so we were able to disembark and walk around the town for a bit.
Back on the boat, we motored past the General Store and enjoyed the views of some small uninhabited islands on the way back to Stonington.
By the time we arrived back at the Stonington dock, our early morning granola bars had worn off and we were all starved. Upon the advice on one of the ferry guys, we decided to give the Fin and Fern restaurant a try. It did not disappoint. We sat out on the deck and I do believe I had the best quiche I’ve ever tasted.
Thanks to my family for taking the time and expense to travel to the coast of Maine and spend some time with me!! You cannot imagine how very much it meant to me!!
Highlights for me: