Nicole Grohoski: The Most Extraordinary Mainer You Do Not Know

An Ellsworth native, she ventured far and wide before putting down roots and buying a house there. Since graduating from college, she had defined herself first and foremost as an explorer. First, she biked from Maine to the West Coast, then across Europe. With friends, she paddled from the Adirondacks in New York to the tip of Northern Maine. She spent weeks paddling so far north in Canada that she armed herself against aggressive polar bears. She explored the nooks and crannies of the Grand Canyon that day-trippers never see. She spent a summer working on trail maintenance on the Allagash and a memorable week solo-backpacking the 100 Mile Wilderness in October. She wanted to see it all Miss Rumphius-style; her friends were never sure her current time zone.

Born in the wrong century to have “explorer” as a job title, she settled on the next best thing: cartographer, adding definition to routes and trails that non-profits had created and now needed to promote. As a cartographer, she had a luxury that few enjoy: she could live anywhere in the world and work remotely. Yet having the world at her fingertips, she felt drawn to the universe with which she was the most intimately acquainted: the dam releases of the Union River, the running trails of the Black House, the downtown that felt like mine. She wanted to learn the natural world of this place so she took a Field Naturalist class. She wanted to be able to handle any situation on the trail or water so she enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder class. She wanted to shape the future of the community so she joined the Waste and Energy subcommittees of the Ellsworth Green Plan.

Her greatest contribution to local politics was organizing the Hancock County effort to petition to preserve ranked choice voting as the Maine voters already had chosen. In the most brutally cold temperatures of December 2017-January 2018, she spent her days once again in downtown Ellsworth, diligently collecting signatures so that ranked choice voting would not die. Her endurance for strenuous outdoor activities translated into results for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, and her passion for the issue opened doors for her in Augusta and Portland, parts of the state that those in Hancock County do not give much thought. She experienced the power of her single efforts, and she felt that if she did not stand up, who would?

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Northeast Harbor

Yes, the entire village of Northeast Harbor and surrounding area look like a car commercial. You may be hesitant to get out of your car for fear of breaking something that costs 3 million dollars you do not have, or simply because the place looks a little too stuffy for your liking. Have no fear; you will not be arrested if you are not wearing a polo shirt or seersucker, and the place does indeed have more heart and soul than a casual cruise through town may suggest.

Northeast Harbor is the largest village in the town of Mount Desert, a municipality consisting of the middle section of Mount Desert Island (oddly when referring to the town, Desert is pronounced like “dessert” and when referring to the island, it is pronounced like the arid biome). Since it is the largest village, it is home to both the town office and the largest library, the Northeast Harbor Library.

The Northeast Harbor Library is not your typical sleepy Maine coast library. Not only does it offer a wide selection of material and cozy places to read for hours, it has facets of its being that are unique to its time and place in the universe, physical rooms and extraordinary programming. Upstairs, the library has a Garden room (this part of Maine is a landscaping epicenter) and a Maine room, perfect for perusing on a rainy day. It also has an archive in the basement that includes old national park trail signs (ask for directions to the bathroom for a taste of them). Although the library may be the last place you would think to go at night, this library is also an evening destination, hosting open mikes and garden talks and poetry readings.

Northeast Harbor has lots of shops to poke in and out of, but one will lure you to linger like no other: Swallowfield, a little shop on north Main Street owned and operated by an artist of epic proportions, Jennifer Judd-McGee. Judd-McGee creates prints of which any traveler will want to pack as many as possible into their suitcase to bring home. The vibrant happy space also reflects Judd-McGee’s spot-on and ever current taste: Nikki McClure books and journals, cards for every occasion and non-occasion, atypical Maine souvenirs, gifts for people who do not typically like giving or receiving.

On the other end of Main Street lies art of a different kind: the Colonel’s Restaurant and Bakery. The restaurant is standard American fare sure to please the youngest and oldest palate, but the bakery in front is worthy of its own centerfold of a magazine. The Colonel’s is famous island-wide for the best carrot cake and it’s donuts–different kinds every day but typically chocolate glaze, plain, blueberry, cinnamon sugar–and whatever else the baker has concocted.

In search of other meal options? If you want to sit on a deck and crack open a lobster overlooking the Northeast Harbor Marina, the Tanned Turtle Tavern is the place to go. For a more sophisticated palate around lunchtime, it is worth seeking out Milk and Honey, tucked away at 3 Old Firehouse Lane, worthy of a Vogue photo shoot or reminiscent of a Japanese teahouse. Milk and Honey is typically open 10-4 for sandwiches (for example, turkey and gruyere, chicken schnitzel, Banh mi), sides (lemon-horseradish potato salad, cabbage-fennel slaw) and sweets. The exception is Thursday nights, roughly mid-June through September, when Thursday night patio parties happen, gourmet comfort food and drinks al fresco.

After all, to feel the salty breeze on bare skin is a pleasure enjoyable to everyone. The best place to do that passively is on a bench at the Northeast Harbor Marina, where you can watch the yacht hands hustle and bustle and admire the boats. Wait though; do not simply admire the boats. Maine is best seen from the water. Hop on board the Bunker and Beal mailboat to the Cranberry Islands, see Mount Desert Island from the perspective of a lobster boat, and disembark at Isleford, where the Isleford Dock Restaurant is in a class of its own.

Of course, the vast majority of visitors will choose to exit town via land and head to the surrounding carriage roads and hiking trails of Acadia National Park. From the top of Bald Peak or Sargent, you cannot see the hamlet of Northeast Harbor, only the surrounding water. The village will always be small and unassuming with an element of pleasant surprise to anyone who offers it a closer look.

Popham Beach State Park

With my father in Nepal and my baby daddy in Mississippi on Father’s Day, I took advantage of free admission to Maine state parks last Sunday, and headed to one of the places where I feel closest to my father’s legend: Popham Beach (the other place being Avery Peak). It is either the northern most sandy beach of Southern Maine or the southern most sandy beach of Eastern Maine, I can never quite decide. Having gone there since I was in my mother’s womb, it is heaven on earth, a beach for the restless who need something to do other than lay on the sand and fry yourself to a crisp.

You could do that, I suppose. However, you also need to plan enough time to walk out to the island at low tide, and hunt for sand dollars, and jump the waves in the water that can never be considered warm, and fly a kite so high that it carries your young body further and further down the endless stretch of beach. I adored all of those activities, but accompanied by my father and sister, I loved nothing more than constructing a fort somewhere in the upper part of the low tide zone and then fighting off the inevitable waves.When I returned to the beach on Sunday, I noticed something that had never occurred to me before. All of the children there carried these brightly-colored, pint-sized plastic buckets and plastic shovels, things that were not part of my childhood memories. No, my father, an intense man in everything he does, considered digging dirt serious business, even if it were sand on the beach. He always packed a five-gallon bucket and a short metal shovel for our fort excavation. All three of us had to be able to fit in the trench once it was complete and fight off the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.On Sunday, I saw no forts quite like out of my odd childhood, and I realized that I would need to carry on the tradition of excavating a piece of Popham Beach with my Little Chickie. I could find a 5-gallon bucket anywhere, but I wondered what became of that short metal shovel.Of course, my mother had been hanging onto it for thirty years, most recently to dig in the garden. I saw it on top of her pile of loam, and in her “giving-someone-the-shirt-off-her-back-in-a-snowstorm” style, she offered it to me. How could I refuse the shovel of my childhood when I have so many Popham Beach memories yet to be made? I could not.

Megunticook & Maiden Cliffs

One of the things we take for granted in Maine is the ease of which a hike can be paired with a swim. I did not realize that this pleasure was such a novelty until I travelled and hiked elsewhere, and found that the combination of mountain air and swimmable water rare other places. Yet in my glorious home state, where hiking boots are in everyone’s trunk and boats are best kept strapped to the roof of a vehicle, hikes and swims go together like peanut butter and jelly: Bigelow and Flagstaff, Schoodic and Donnell, Acadia and Echo Lake.

The assumption may be that it is best to hike first and swim later. That may work for an early morning expedition. However, when us Mainers are sweltering in the 80 degree heat (a temperature at which out-of-staters may not even use air conditioning), waiting for some relief in the evening, it is a “swim first, maybe hike at dusk” moment.

At least, that is the state I find myself in this evening when I have been pushing through the day trying to be productive in the never-ending way that self-employment and home renovation demand. I returned to Unity after an overnight on the coast eager to water the garden, and open the chicken door, and start laundry and…. Yet at the end of the day, with my husband still on a work trip in Mississippi and myself able to spend a Saturday night however I want, I revert to the sweetness of my bachelorette days, when I spent many a Saturday dusk ascending Bald and descending Parkman in my backyard du jour.

Tonight, the Common Ground fairgrounds and the Hills-to-Sea trail lay in my backyard, both worthy of a walk, but I did not crave a walk in the woods or through the fairgrounds. I wanted to cool off, foremost, and then, with the abundance of June light, I wanted to seek out an LL Bean catalog experience.

Since purchasing the Unity house, I have acquired a Camden Hills State Park map. The Camden Hills havethat majestic feeling of Acadia only without the parking and overcrowding issues. The closest parts of it are 45 minutes from the Unity house on back roads that I am still learning, but I take comfort in being less than an hour away from something with a jaw-dropping view.

Before any jaw-dropping view, the swim did not disappoint. I would like to assure everyone who knows that I am pregnant that yes, the midwives said it was okay, and yes, there were lots of other people around, and yes, I had cell phone reception, and yes, it was still light outside.

In fact, true confessions, I am writing this from the beach, and I do not know if I will attempt Maiden Cliffs in the early evening light. It is a short lots-of-bang-for-the-buck hike, best completed during blueberry season, one of my favorite routes in the Camden Hills. I could surely make it up and down, and still have an hour before dark, but why rush any moment in the fleeting Maine summer?

Ellsworth, the Brooklyn of Downeast Maine?

“Damn, Ellsworth, you are looking good,” I thought, as I coasted to a stop where School Street meets Main. At that moment, I could not help but admire the new brick facade that the Acadia Realty Group had implanted on a tired box of a building, a building that had attempted to re-invent itself so many times but inarguably it had finally found its true skin. As I casually looked right down Main Street, my eyes next lingered on Airline Brewery, another aesthetic gem of Downeast Maine. I felt glee that downtown Ellsworth finally looks reborn in the way it had prayed for, a destination for date night, full of places that I could sincerely and enthusiastically recommend to visitors, worthy of being considered “interesting and interested”.

Having gone to high school in this burg, I remember the fugly years, my own and the downtown’s alike. Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the City of Ellsworth fell for the same brilliant yet misguided move that I see many towns falling for these days: “Let’s spend an exorbitant amount of money widening sidewalks, adding old-fashioned street lights, and throwing some landscaping in there!” Boldly moving forward, Ellsworth spent the money. In return, the wide sidewalks made it look even more pronounced that in the age of Amazon, few felt enticed to shop at gift stores and businesses were vacating storefronts.

Downtown Ellsworth did not become a head-turner until private investments were made in individual storefronts. With the rents sky-high on Mount Desert Island and the zoning notoriously prohibitive, downtown Ellsworth has attracted savvy business owners drawn to more obtainable real estate, year-round demand, geographic convenience, and the pure charm of that timeless red brick. The businesses that shine provide goods and services that cannot be bought on Amazon. I walk into some of the spaces that have been transformed–Flexit, 86 This, the Alchemist–and I feel downright inspired: Ellsworth has found its gritty yet glimmering soul.

I try not to look at the vacant spaces that have not yet metamorphosed. I do wonder about them, wonder if they are tax write-offs to offset successful businesses. The thought makes me sick, the possibility that the community is suffering blight for an individual’s personal gain, but I cannot entirely shrug it off. If the buildings are tax write-offs, I do not know how any landlords could be convinced to lower rent so they could be occupied.

That being said, I do not need every inch of the downtown to be in a final stage of transformation. I love watching the progress slowly unveil itself, and feeling the excitement that there is still more that could be done.

The Story of Little Chickie

“Mitch, I think I am pregnant.” Spring had teased us at the end of February when the snow had receded and the chickens reveled in scratching bare earth again. By mid-March, we were snowed-in at our gutted farmhouse near the Common Ground fairgrounds. “Snowed-in” sounds romantic. In fact, my father, on spring break and ever eager to work on the house, and Mitch’s buddy, equally eager, were snowed-in with us, and we were all sleeping in close quarters. In anticipation of the storm, we had bought copious amounts of bead board, and tongue-and-groove, and insulation. We were going to push to make the space more inhabitable after taking a couple months off in the coldest part of the winter. Hearing that we were suppose to receive over 2 feet of snow, we had also stocked up on steak and hamburg and chicken, and planned to grill our way through the storm, as the kitchen had long been ripped out.

There I was, my period 5 days late, my breasts sore, and something kept waking me, usually a sound sleeper, in the middle of the night. I had never before even suspected I was pregnant, but unable to leave the property, I knew.

“Okay, let’s give it a couple days and then you can take a pregnancy test next week.” My husband is the knight-in-shining-armor that I have been longing to meet since girlhood, but he also has the whims of an absent-minded professor. If the brakes felt spongy in my car, he would switch them immediately. He has changed the lock on my house and unclogged the toilet in a moment’s notice. Yet when it came to whether our lives were about to be changed forever, he considered it important but not urgent.

Even if it were urgent, we would first have to shovel our car out of the driveway. The snow had started late morning on Tuesday, and it continued at a steady pace until Wednesday afternoon. I had been wading through the mid-thigh-level snow to check on the chickens, so I knew shoveling out my car would be a formidable challenge. By Wednesday afternoon, after my own valiant yet failed attempt to shovel out my Honda Fit, for the first time, I gave Mitch permission to call his buddy with a plow truck so we could return to our suite in Orono.

The whole ordeal exhausted us, and I did not buy a pregnancy test until the Old Town Hannaford opened at 7am on Thursday. I had no idea how to proceed, so I did what all the female leads do in chick flicks: I bought three different brands of pregnancy tests and hoped they would reach a consensus.

As Mitch dressed for work, I decided to tackle this new experience. I instantly watched three tests turn positive, and I announced the results to Mitch.

We had only been trying since January, and from all the stories I had been told, I had expected it to take years. I felt shock that it happened so quickly, and Mitch felt like it had taken too long. He did not quite believe the three tests that morning, and he told me so over fish at the Eagle’s Nest that night. “If we are being scientific about this, we should replicate those tests at a later date.”

I knew more that evening than I did that morning, in part from calling various doctor’s offices and reading the package more carefully. “After you have missed your period, each test is 99.9% effective, so to take three of them is a surefire thing.” Nonetheless, I took three more that evening. “Still pregnant!” I announced again.

I had been living a gypsy-like existence up until this point, and I realized my life would need to be less loosey-goosey. At this point, our Unity house had a fancy bathroom and little else. A couple weeks prior, in late February, ever a minimalist, ever the girl who had lived out of a backpack and for a long time prided herself on being able to fit all her worldly possessions in a Toyota Echo, I had visions of simplifying my life. I felt exhausted from driving around eastern Maine. I wanted to sell my house on Mount Desert Island, and dump the profit into having one gorgeous farmhouse in central Maine. In fact, I had listed the house earlier that week.

Now holding those results in my hand, I felt more careful and financially conservative than I had ever known myself to be. I had navigated lots of calculated risks in my adult life, intuitively seeing something as a good idea and feeling determined to make it happen. At this moment, I felt like I was retreating from that brazen resolve. I needed to accept that progress on the Unity house was proceeding at a slow and steady pace, and suddenly I felt like I needed the security and income of the island house for the next eighteen years. Truly more a camp than a house, the island house had intact walls and ceiling, with modest and adequate kitchen and laundry facilities. I knew the Department of Health and Human Services likes a baby to have running water and electricity these days, and I wanted to know for certain I had one residence that met these criteria.

This embryo, this future roommate that we have not met yet, affectionately called “our little chickie”, changed my mind about selling the island house. I thought about it for a couple weeks, let the little chickie incubate, and ultimately made what felt like the most prudent decision: I emailed the realtor, a family friend, that I could not keep the house on the market. My life had changed dramatically in a month, not in the way that I expected but in a way more wonderful than I had hoped.

Ice Skating at Sieur de Monts, Acadia

I have never met Tom St. Germain, but he is a hiking legend on the island. He authored an authoritative hiking guide called A Walk in the Park, and anything that catches his interest surely catches mine.

When he posted that a beaver dam plus all the rain and runoff had flooded Sieur de Monts, I cleared my schedule for today so that I could go on a skating adventure of a lifetime. I invited my retired mother along, trail name “Last Time”, because she is still spry and always up for an adventure.

Since the Park Loop Road is closed, we entered Sieur de Monts from Route 3 and parked as close as we could be without driving past the orange barriers. I told my mother to bring ski poles as did I, for both stability and self-rescue should we go through the ice.

Truth be told, I was not concerned about going through the ice. Even flooded, it is a shallow wetland, we would not go in deeper than our….??? Knees? Waist? I am not exactly sure the precise depth of the water or the ice, but all I can say is that I knew we were secure. Before the January Thaw, Eagle Lake had over eight inches of ice and the bitter cold of the last few days seems to have instantly solidified the ice again. I have been driving around Maine, drooling at the frozen fields and wetlands, and this was finally my chance.

I have friends who have told me it is great fun to trek distances through wetlands on skates, and I have only began exploring the idea myself. I have read about Canadians and Europeans who traverse the frozen landscape on skates, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be among them.

No other skates had marked the ice. It had clearly been walked, but we felt especially adventurous to realize we were the first. The parking lot looked like more of a traditional rink, and from there we cut through the woods to skate across Great Meadow, the wetland adjacent to the Park Loop Road at the end of Ledgelawn Extension. My mother marveled at the different textures of the ice, and kept exclaiming, “I have never done such a thing!”

Almost to the Park Loop Road, I wanted to cut northwest and see if I could find Hemlock Road, a trail lined with birches on either side. If I did not know the area so well, I would have been hesitant to bushwhack on skates but sure enough, I found the trail that I had taken pictures of in every season! Trails have a certain look to me that roads have to everyone else; I can tell how the trees and ground has been shaped by hundreds of thousands walking it.

We skated up the Hemlock Road to the intersection with the Jesup Path, and then turned alongside the boardwalk of the Jesup Path heading back to Sieur de Monts. Ice completely covered some of the boardwalk, and other parts of it were still visible.

Even though all the educational displays were closer to knee-level than usual, my mother still wanted to stop and read about all the plant and wildlife that we would find here in summer. “Frogs. I don’t see any frogs, do you?”

We had a good laugh about all the wildlife we were not seeing. I tried skating among the trees, and the vocalizations of the ice cracking and croaking worried my mother but did not stop me. I still felt confident skating around the trees, even though I knew when rocks (and presumably trees) interrupt ice, those can be the most vulnerable places. Ice cannot create as tight a seal around rocks, and rocks are exuding heat that causes the ice to melt faster around them.

We kept thinking of all of our friends who love to skate, and lo and behold, we ran into a farmer from the Ellsworth Farmers’ Market! Word had been leaked out about the skating, and by the time we left, our skate tracks and our cars were not the only vehicles parked at the closed entrance to Sieur de Monts.

Winter, you awe me. Yes, I need a dreamy escape, but often I do not have to travel far to find them!

The Sledding Hill at Essex Woods (Bangor)

Prior to today, I cannot remember when I last sled down a hill. I have been cross-country skiing and ice-skating ever since I could walk, and as an adult, I turn to those activities for exercise when the conditions allow. I no longer own a sled, so it is not the first thing I think to do when flakes start to fly.

Yet today, when I found myself in the Bangor area for the afternoon, I had no desire to ski in City Forest or anywhere else in town. I decided to find the sledding hill that I drive by every day on Interstate 95. I frequently admire the steep, well-trampled hill perched over a wetland, somewhere between the Stillwater and Broadway exits. Enter my faithful Delorme atlas that suggested this hill must be off of Essex Street.

I had lunch with my husband in his workplace parking lot and announced my plan. Only problem? No sled. “Might I have a piece of cardboard?” If this was going to happen, it would happen old school. Sure enough, he fished a piece out of the dumpster, and off I went on an urban adventure, my car loaded down with one more essential piece of winter gear.

I navigated to the park without difficulty, as if I knew where I was going. As soon as I pulled in, I knew I was at the right place. Due to the single digit temperatures, the only other park patron strolled around the confines of the fenced-in dog park.

I scouted out the hill before dragging my cardboard over. The steeper, well-traversed run on the right side of the hill looked slick and smooth, free of the bumps that would cause tailbone injuries. The left side of the hill, closer to the woods, looked to be slower going, still powdery snow that I did not think would agree with my cardboard.

I pulled my sheet of cardboard out of the car. The hill intimidated me enough that I left my wallet and cellphone in my coat pockets should anyone need to identify my body. I dragged the cardboard to the hill, and launched myself down. I still find pure joy in sledding: the uncertainty of exactly where I will be going or even if I will be going face-first and the inevitable shrieks as I spin 360 degrees to an undetermined point at the bottom of the hill.

If it had been a warmer Christmas vacation week and families were already using the hill, I would have felt too self-conscious to join them as a 32 year old without children of my own yet. In the absence of anyone else, I could be openly giddy and thrilled with my choice of winter sport.

I flew down the hill four times in total. At the end of every time, I lingered at the bottom with a huge grin on my face. I felt thrilled with my newfound destination, thrilled that I found something to do in Bangor that I genuinely loved and could crave rather than just tolerate. For once, I saw the city as the Bangor of Stephen King’s It. I liked this version: fun, untamed, the highway in the distance not detracting from the blissful pleasure in front of me.

Chick Hill

Do not misunderstand me: deer meat will always be one of the finest delicacies but I do miss tromping around the woods during hunting season.  I find myself limited to the two parts of my range where it is not allowed: Mount Desert Island and the University of Maine campus.  Since hunting season ended November 25 this year, any page of the Delorme is once again a possibility.

As I have lamented before, I struggle to find outdoor places of interest in the Bangor area.  I am always eager to hear others’ suggestions.  My favorite part of the Bangor City Forest is the bog walk, preferably when the tamarack have turned a brilliant yellow.  Unfortunately, this closes for the winter.  I am left to choose from the slim pickings of destinations within a half an hour drive from our Orono apartment.

When it reaches over fifty degrees on November 29, I know I must head east on Route 9 to the Clifton-Amherst line and walk the ATV road up Chick Hill.  I think it is such a good idea that I suspect the parking lot will be full, but anywhere I want to go, I have to myself this time of year.

The climb is less than a mile and a half to the top, but it is lots of bang for my buck: views that cover an area from the Kennebec river to the St. Croix and down to Mount Desert Island, a steady strong wind, “napping rocks” as I call them.  I need this sunshine and fresh air during this dark time of year.

Winter in and around Acadia National Park

Of all the secrets that locals would rather not like tourists to know, the magic and mystique of winter in Acadia tops the list.  By November, locals are exhausted of playing host, and they will admit to yearning to have the island to themselves again.  Yet, snowy owls, frozen waterfalls, unobscured ocean views on empty trails: the beauty of Acadia National Park does not become muted when the weather turns cold and uncertain.  Winter adventures have more caveats–invest in micro spikes for potentially icy trails, call ahead to restaurants to confirm they are indeed open, when in doubt stick to the roads most travelled at the times most travelled.  However, a savvy, off-the-beaten-path traveler will find a close-knit community and wild desolation that is lost in the shuffle of July and August.

In the summer, the Park Loop Road is the place to orient oneself to the popular destinations of Acadia National Park.  Starting December 1st, the bulk of the Park Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic and only accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers.  You can still drive to Sand Beach via the Schooner Head Road and cruise a small section of the Park Loop Road past Thunderhole until the Otter Cliffs Road.  You can also reach a small section of the Park Loop Road around the Jordan Pond House via the Jordan Pond Road in Seal Harbor.

Although the car remains an option of exploration, you have the opportunity of walking along roads congested with traffic during peak season, most notably the auto road up Cadillac.  Sunrise seekers still attempt to catch the first sunrise on the east coast in winter at Cadillac; it simply involves more planning, physical effort, and winter layers.  Just east of the stone bridge that goes over the Eagle Lake Road is a short access road to the Park Loop Road.  This will be gated off between December 1-April 15, and you will see other cars parked off to the shoulder directly before the gate (do not block in case of emergency).  At all times of day, Cadillac Access Road is the safest way to venture up the mountain and see the views overlooking Frenchman’s Bay.  Even more thrilling, you may be rewarded with a snowy owl sighting at the top.  The birds have been known to winter on the highest island summits, such as Cadillac and Sargent, in the last five years.  Prepared for the likelihood of ice, experienced hikers may venture up the North Ridge Trail.  When conditions permit, cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy the challenge of the auto road.

Interested in an easier, lots-of-bang-for-the-buck spot to view sunrise or sunset?  Drive into Bar Harbor, and park near the intersection of West Street and Bridge Street.  Head north down Bridge Street to what is called the Bar Island Trail in low tide.  You can either consult google to time it for low tide, or just head down there at dawn or dusk for a spectacular view of the horizon.

Often in winter, visitors are in search of shorter hikes with an awe factor.  The Jordan Pond House is a year-round epicenter for trails on the island.  Even if you just make it to the pond in front of the seasonally-closed restaurant, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Bubbles.  Although you cannot drive to the Bubbles in the winter, you can walk along the east side of the Jordan Pond Path to a trail that will connect you to the Bubbles Divide and you can proceed to the erratic boulder on South Bubble from there.

While driving Sargeant Drive or walking up the Cadillac auto road, you may notice walls of frozen waterfalls from the water descending from the higher elevations.  Larger frozen waterfalls may be seen adjacent to the famous stone bridges. Winter is one of the most desirable times to walk, ski, or snowshoe in search of the stone bridges constructed as part of the Park Loop Road and carriage roads and sometimes spot adjacent waterfalls.  The Eagle Lake Road parking lot was constructed next to such a bridge, and from there, you can walk along the carriage roads or take a short drive to the Duck Brook Bridge.  From the Parkman Mountain parking lot, you may follow the carriage roads to reach several stone bridges and waterfalls, most notably the Hemlock Bridge and the Waterfall Bridge.

In the event of a storm, it is the best viewing time for Thunder Hole, a blowhole along an open section of the Park Loop Road.  From a safe distance, never from the gated-off area, it can be enjoyable to watch the fury of the ocean at its height.

Unquestionably, even in the off-season, the natural wonders of the Park continue to elicit awes from visitors and locals alike.  Yet in the early-setting darkness, visitors also have the comfort of civilization in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth.

Do not be discouraged by all the closed shops and restaurants of Bar Harbor.  Bar Harbor leads two different lives, with the bustle of a more cosmopolitan destination in the summer and the intimacy of a Greek fishing village only accessible by boat in the winter.  If you know where to look, you can still find vivacity in the stillness of the empty streets.

The Bar Harbor Merchants Association maintains and updates a year-round directory of which stores and restaurants are open, and all visitors are strongly encouraged to explore that online resource.  I find a few stores in-town indispensable in the winter: Cadillac Mountain Sports for gear rentals and clothing, Sherman’s Bookstore for literary browsing and indulgence, Peekytoe Provisions for lobster and fresh fish.

Winter is the season when locals become the most adventurous in their culinary endeavors in their kitchens, and often the kitchen is the best place to be on a Maine night.  If you choose to eat out, be sure to call ahead to avoid disappointment.  For a no-frills simple Maine supper, try the fish sandwich at the Thirsty Whale or the lobster roll at the Dog and Pony.  In search of more of a foodie, farm-to-table experience?  Try McKay’s Public House.  After a Christmas break, Reel Pizza reopens its two movie screens and serves pizza and beer that can be enjoyed watching the big screens from couches or traditional movie seats.

Locals tend to venture farther afield for shopping and dining satisfaction in winter, often to the neon lights of Ellsworth.  Ellsworth is the bargain-shopping Mecca of Downeast Maine, a place for those who appreciate discontinued styles and thrift store finds.  For a unique shopping experience, seek out Marden’s, Reny’s, the Chicken Barn Antiques, and Clothes Encounter thrift store.  Stick around for dinner at Shinbashi or Finns’ Irish Pub.

Indeed, winter can stretch on so long in coastal Maine that we beg for its abrupt end, but no need.  Mother Nature has given us a revamped playground for the season, and it is up to us to rediscover it.