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.

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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.

The MOFGA Section of the Hills-to-Sea Trail

When we bought a house in Unity last month, I knew the Hills-to-Sea trail would be close by, but I did not realize it would be a half-mile down the street.  The house is on the other side of Crosby Brook Road from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners’ Association (MOFGA), and the edge of MOFGA is part of the official Hills-to-Sea trail route.  

When first encountering the Hills-to-Sea trail map and driving by the field considered the MOFGA trailhead, I tried to wrap my head around how it fit into the grand scheme of this trail system from Unity to Belfast. At first, I thought the trail to MOFGA would be considered a spur trail, but from looking at the map at http://www.waldotrails.org/unitytrail.html, it became clear that it is part of the official route.  The northern terminus for the Hills-to-Sea trail is in downtown Unity.  Coming from Unity or Freedom, you can indeed easily opt for an short alternate route and avoid the official route that swings through MOFGA, but why would you want to?

I have only had the time to make a loop out of the MOFGA inset of the map: Berry Road to the Alternate Route to Sandy Stream to MOFGA to the Berry Road.  Last Saturday night, my husband and I finally slept for the first time in the 15-passenger van that we purchased last fall with the intention of crashing in it while we were working on our house.  Early in our relationship, we discovered my husband becomes so involved in projects that he likes to stay up until the wee hours of the morning wiring electrical whereas I konk out around 10pm.

When I woke up Sunday morning, sunlight streaming into the van from every direction, I decided to head out on a walk while my partner slept more.  New to the property, I am interested in walking in every direction: down the railroad tracks to Thorndike, up the railroad tracks to the Amish store, but most of all, over to the section of the Hills-to-Sea trail.

I knew I could walk up Berry Road and avoid the crossing of Sandy Stream, and per usual, I had not committed to a concrete plan where I would go from there.  Being my mother’s daughter, I even found Berry Road to be of interest simply because I had never been down that way before. My mother spent thirty years of her career as a visiting nurse driving the back roads of Somerset, Kennebec, Hancock, and Penobscot counties, and she taught me the joy of making the pages of the Delorme come alive.  She lives for the scenic route, often at the expense of the underside of her car, and she would occasionally veer off down a back road when driving with my sister and me.  “I have been down this road before–well, partially been down this road–well, my friend told me about this road.”

Berry Road is classic Waldo County pastoral, agricultural fields in use with an RV or something else for sale here or there.  Well-marked as part of the Hills-to-Sea trail the whole road.  At the top of the hill, I came across a sign directing me to Freedom if I headed South and Unity to the north.  To outsiders these names may be strange, but I have known these town names my whole life and been driving through them, swimming in them, stopping at their general stores.

Then and there, I decided I would loop back to MOFGA via the Sandy Stream crossing.  I had crossed waist-high water before, with my father I had forded a river notoriously discouraged by the MATC, I could handle this stream crossing.

I briefly walked on the alternate route before it veered off to Unity, and I headed towards MOFGA.  I felt a little in awe that I could walk to downtown Unity some day.  To me, I felt even more excited about our move to Central Maine because of this newly developed trail system practically in our backyard.  The new trail system was not the fine stonework of Acadia.  For the most part, it was the understated pleasure of walking through a hardwood forest and trying to remember from dendrology which tree was releasing these fluffy fruiting bodies that would sporadically coat the forest floor like a shedding animal.

In heading towards MOFGA, I crossed a field high on a ridge and had a Sound of Music moment.  It was my only true view of the day, a bird’s eye view of field after field of the working Maine landscape.  Perhaps the tourists of Acadia would be unimpressed, but I felt so much gratitude that I had to start singing THAT song.  “The hills are alive…..”  At the same time, I felt transported back to the sections of the AT in southern Virginia, where the trail maintainers install little steps to climb over fences you cross so many fields and usually you are crossing the fences under the watchful gaze of cattle.  No cattle in this particular field on the Hills-to-Sea trail though.

From there, the trail meanders it’s way through the woods to Sandy Stream.  For all who may worry about the stream crossing, fear not.  It felt quite tame in my book, they had even placed stepping stones across the stream that were just barely under the surface of the water.  I opted to take my shoes off and enjoy the pleasure of the cool water on my toes.  Once I reached the other side, I hiked barefoot for a bit, in touch with the wild rugged quality of my childhood.

When I emerged from the woods to the field near Crosby Brook Road, I felt acutely aware that all the alpacas at the farm next door turned their long necks and stared at me.  Awwww.

I know so many who attend the Common Ground Fair and say, “I wish this happened 365 days a year.”  The Hills-to-Sea trail is the answer to that.  The Hills-to-Sea trail pulls you into that working agricultural landscape in all seasons, and that is a tremendous gift for all of us who need a reprieve.

Champlain

I had a commitment first thing in the morning in Bar Harbor and another at 2pm, so I figured I would hike and swim in the interim.  I had my sights set on the west side of Pemetic, on that opfork where you can either climb on ladders through the Lemon Squeezer of Acadia or scramble up steep granite faces.  When I pulled into the Bubbles parking lot on this sunny Thursday at 11am, not a parking space to be found.  Slightly disappointed, I headed to the Bubbles Pond parking.  No luck there either, or at the pull-off near the North Ridge of Cadillac.

I was not in the vast wilderness of Somerset County any more.  This was all part of the social hiking experience that is Mount Desert Island.  I decided I would be happy climbing anything with a parking space.  I eagerly pulled over at the turn-off by the North Ridge of Champlain simply because it had room for my Honda Fit.

Yesterday, I only saw a man and his dog on Bigelow.  I can handle that much solitude, and all the risks that come with that much solitude.  Especially on a main artery like the AT, if .something happened to me as a solo hiker during this time of year, assuming I stayed on the trail, someone would stumble across me within 24 hours.  I am more vocal than ever with my husband and mother about my whereabouts.  I look back on some of the things that I did not tell anyone that I was doing in my twenties, and I think I was lucky nothing ever happened to me.  More cautious in my thirties, I sign into every register, I leave my cell phone on, and I trust in God.  I love the mountains like my husband loves playing with electricity: we both venture into realms that slightly scare the other but we would never deny each other the supreme joy that accompanies potential danger.

In contrast, I encountered another hiker within two minutes of setting foot on the trail in Acadia.  He pointed out the lady slippers ahead on the trail, and I thanked him for sharing.  Who knows if my eyes would have been so intent to notice if he had not been there.

I encountered at least twenty others on Champlain, all enjoying the strong breeze on the exposed ridge line.  When people ask me where to hike on the island, I should just say, “climb a ridge line, any ridgeline” for the most comfortable conditions and most spectacular views.

No doubt, sharing the views did not ruin them for me.  It is what I have always said about this island.  I love it in all seasons, all times of day, as crowded as it may be, even when I cannot find a parking space.

Bigelow

I stopped carrying maps.  I still own a collection covering the bulk of high points along the Eastern Seaboard, but I am lending them to a hiker-friendly vacation rental on Mount Desert Island.  Pathetically, I have memorized the elevation profile of the AT and its side trails in Maine.  When I want to go anywhere else, I can consult my trusty Delorme and apps on my phone.

For full disclosure, I have not been out in the woods much in the last two years.  I fell in love with a house, and then a man, and I gave up everything to secure those two important lifelong investments.  This summer, I seek to reclaim what comprised my everything that I gave up, or as much of it that I can.

My island house–the house that had been left for dead, the house that needed to hear a radio again and the patter of little feet and have meal after meal cooked in its kitchen, the house that needed to be fussed over–is funding my hiker bum lifestyle.  It is surreal.  I clean it a couple times a week, mow the lawn, and in return, that house gives me the freedom with my time and the money to pay my bills that I have always wanted.

I still have sporadic commitments, I cannot climb something every day of course, but I slip away as often as I can.  I am still a devoted wife in the evenings and weekends, but my daytime is my own and I refuse to spend it inside.

This morning, I debated between Sugarloaf and Bigelow.  I have never taken the side trail from the AT to the summit of Sugarloaf, but out of consideration of my Honda Fit, I did not know if I wanted to traverse the hairy Caribou Pond Road.  I hopped in the car and drove in the direction of Anson without making a firm decision.  Instead of heading to Kingfield, I turned at the Long Falls Dam Road, Bigelow on my mind.

Just as I have relationships with my now two houses, I can talk about Bigelow like the mountain is an old friend.  My father loved Bigelow first, and he passed that on to me.  We may have attempted the Fire Warden’s Trail as a family when I was still in a stage where I was afraid of heights.  However, my first true memory on Avery Peak happened when I was fifteen and my dad and I were traversing from Caratunk to Stratton.  I remember having the summit to myself, napping as I waited for my father at the top.  Both of us vowed to have our ashes scattered there.

Today was a blue sky day much like that day 17 years ago.  No doubt I struggled more today than I did that day, more than any other time that I have ascended the mountain even though my load was light.  My hiker legs are a mere memory, and I stopped more frequently than I ever remember.  I gave myself permission not to summit if I ran out of water or stamina; I do not force myself to push on death march style any more.

Heading up the Safford Brook Trail and connecting on to the AT southbound, even struggling, I loved every boulder.  That section of the Bigelow range is littered with the largest erratic boulders I have seen of all of my hikes in New England.  I marvel at them every time.  A couple are slanted in such a way it creates a little shelf you could sit under in a rain storm.  I remember day-hiking there once, and a northbound thru-hiker was making a second breakfast of ramen and instant mashed potatoes under one of those erratics.

Even though I had given myself permission to turn back, I did indeed summit Avery Peak.  I wanted a selfie with the sign, but it appeared to be removed and I settled for a photo shoot with Flagstaff Lake in the background.

Damn, I felt proud of myself.  I read an article this spring that has been haunting me.  It said we are suppose to be saying to ourselves, “Nice job on your past accomplishments, but what have you done lately?”  It made me sit up to read that.  I consider myself to have made the most of my almost 32 years on this planet, but who cares what I may have done 10 years ago?  I am trying to concern myself the most with today.

Today I did not need a map.  Today I felt like an athlete on one of my favorite mountains in the universe.  Tonight I will sleep well.

A Sampling of Maine Fairs

i. Skowhegan

We had said that we just wanted to look at the animals.  After arriving at dusk, the demolition derby just starting, every ride lit up and inviting, we bought wrist bands so we could go as many as we wanted.  I could not stop smiling, my first fair dating an electrical engineer who told me everything was safer than it looked.  I believed him, believed him as our Ferris wheel tea cup rocked at the tippy top, as we were spun and jolted in every direction.  With him next to me, I had no fear.

ii.  Blue Hill

“There’s no poultry barn?!”  He wanted to leave upon arrival, not quite sure he could take the place seriously.  We headed away from the dust and the heat and the crowds, across the road and up the hillside.  I led him slightly off trail, to a spot where the blueberries had not yet been picked, and we gleaned what was left, the berries still sweet but drying up.  We listened to the pulse of the fair and spoke of businesses that we had dreamed of birthing, our ambition and imagination equally matched.

iii.  Unity

Every year, at 1pm on the Saturday of Common Ground, I return to the Folk Arts Tent to hear the Balkan Women’s Choir.  Each month has annual pilgrimages that I may or may not choose to take depending on the year, but I always try to make it to the reunion of this particular tribe.  This year, I brought him, perhaps to offer him an out more than anything else.  This is my life, this is all I have ever known, I did not choose it but it is mine.  He took my hand and danced with me, and I did not worry if my steps were in time to the music.

iv.  Fryeburg

We watched the video on logging drives, and smelled the peanut butter fudge just out of the oven, and admired the equipment of years past.  We had each chosen separately to live here, but loving the same sprawling wild state made us closer to each other somehow.

Kineo

An ex-boyfriend had promised me that we could take the ferry across Moosehead to climb Kineo.  I was looking forward to climbing a new summit, to driving up Route 15 to Greenville on a blue-sky October day, foliage only slightly past peak. He insisted on taking his beloved truck, not the most fuel-efficient but the only socially-acceptable way to arrive in Greenville.

Yet he chickened out. When we arrived at the Rockwood boat launch, my mouth dropped open at the sight of Kineo on the other side of what was not yet really Moosehead but rather the mouth of the Moose River. It seemed short and square like the Porcupine Islands, but it would better be described as the Porcupine Islands with a receding hairline, green on top and bottom with gray cliffs in-between.

He did not want to pay for the ferry. It was bird-hunting season and one of the moose-hunting weeks, and we were not wearing blaze orange. “Moose-hunting in the state park?” I thought.

I returned the next summer, alone, with enough cash for the ferry.  I was surprised to find more people in line for the ferry than the captain, a Maine Maritime student, could take in one trip. The passengers were an odd mix of golfers and hikers, and by hikers, mostly families with small children.  I felt like an oddity as a twentysomething, and I realized that I would not have Kineo to myself.

The Maine Maritime student directed the hiking passengers towards the two trails. He said that the Indian trail was the steeper and more scenic of the two, and suggested taking that one up and the more gradual Bridal Path down.

With no taste for hiking with a crowd, I dashed ahead of the families and started up the Indian trail.  I still passed a steady stream of people hiking down, and I felt in a bit of a claustrophobic panic.  To anyone else, the amount of people coming down the mountain would not seem significant.  To me, I felt like I had stumbled onto one of the top ten hottest destinations in Maine.  If I wanted to mingle with tourists, I would have stayed in Bar Harbor.

I did not find the road less traveled until I reached the view-less summit, where I could not see anything unless I climbed a fire tower.  I discovered a third trail besides the Indian Trail and the Bridal Path, a trail that veered east at the summit, descended steeply, and slowly looped back to the boat landing.  I did not have a map, but it sounded like a good idea, at the very least to escape the out-of-staters.

Once I descended from the mountain, I found myself traversing a watery path with woods on one side and Moosehead on the other.  I eventually found myself at a cluster of campsites, and I decided that it was time for a swim.  I tossed off my t-shirt, and waded in wearing my sports bra and shorts.  I splashed off the mud from her legs, and lay back in the water.  This was the Moosehead I was expecting, a place where everyone had arrived at their campsites via boat.

“207?!” The campers at the picnic table said.  Wherever I swam or hiked or sunbathed in the state, my tattoo, almost three years old at that point, still caught other Mainers’ attention.  After I explained that it was my quarter-life crisis tat, the campers invited her to stay for supper.

“Oh, no, I must be getting to the ferry,” I said, but I appreciated the warmth.  The campers said they were from somewhere outside of Augusta, and I felt some kinship with them in a way that I did not feel with the golfers on the ferry.  I had found my own version of Kineo.

As I took the ferry back, I vowed to return to this particular corner of Moosehead.  I hoped that I could convince someone to camp back at that site, and climb Kineo up the backside, and coax me up the fire tower.  I just did not know when that would be.

Rum Island on Long Pond

I had moved back to Mount Desert Island, ever darting between living on either side of the bridge. I moved to the other side of Somes Sound this time, to a neighborhood in close proximity to Long Pond.  I immediately noticed that so few cars passed down the street even in the height of August that I could hear each one whiz by. This part of the island reminded me the most of interior Maine.

My landlords told me that I could borrow the kayak and take it out on the pond whenever I wanted.  I did not ask for them to qualify how often “whenever I wanted” was, for fear that almost every night in August was too much.  I would wheel it down the street and put it in at the fish ladder, wading into a bottom of shredded bark and decomposed leaves. Yet once I had launched myself, I hardly paddled except to cut through the current on the way back.  I was content to float and let the sun relax all the nerves that had been standing on end from my harried day.

I felt most proud that I had found Rum Island on her own.  My landlord told me that I could portage across the causeway on the Northern Neck Road, and Rum Island would be at one ‘o’ clock from the head of the neck. The island was property of the park now, perhaps it always had been.  I knew I had found it when I saw tourists swimming and picnicking.

I would return another day, and more days after that, to sun myself on the rocks and swim.  I had heard that the brothers used to paddle to the island, and fish, and camp. I found what looked to be a popular tenting spot, and I pictured their younger selves there.  I felt happy that I met them, happy that they had led me to that spot.

Blue Hill

Give me the combination of dusk, and a little black sundress, and a blueberry patch on the side of a mountain, and I am a happy woman. It does not matter how much I pick or how far I climb. Most of the berries end up in my mouth, and I do not regret it when I only have a handful to bag and freeze. I like having the mountain and the berries to myself in the cool of the evening.