When it comes to bucket-list items, my mind often conjures up images of exotic places far away. But that doesn’t have to be the case, as I discovered last fall on a visit to Isle au Haut right here on the coast of Maine.
Although I’ve lived in Maine since the age of 13, I had yet to take a trip to Isle au Haut, a scant nine miles from Stonington in Penobscot Bay. But on an early October morning, as the sun crested the horizon and splashed its warmth and color over the Deer Isle Thoroughfare, I boarded a small passenger ferry named Otter (also affectionately known as “the Mailboat”) and was soon motoring through the Stonington Archipelago.
My wife, Fran, and a friend from England accompanied me on the journey. We stowed our camping gear and made our way to the railing to enjoy the 45-minute ride. Fran and I were familiar with many of these spruce-studded islands, having kayaked among them numerous times on trips out of Old Quarry Campground. Beyond Merchants Row, however, I was in new territory.
Debarking at the Isle au Haut town landing, we shouldered backpacks and struck off for Duck Harbor Campground, five miles away. A half-mile along, we arrived at the National Park Service ranger station and entered Acadia National Park. The park unit on Isle au Haut encompasses most of the southern half of the island, some 2,700 incredibly scenic and remote acres.
From late June through early September, the ferry continues on to the campground boat landing at Duck Harbor. Bad weather can preclude that portion of the trip, so campers must always be prepared to make the walk. This late in the season we had no choice and that was just fine by us. We were here to hike, after all.
Isle au Haut translates to “High Island,” so named by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604. The highest island in Penobscot Bay boasts a bumpy ridgeline that runs the length of Isle au Haut. With an elevation of 540 feet, Mt. Champlain is the apex among the seven named mountains and easily identified on the ferry approach.
The island has a year-round population of 65, which grows to several hundred in summer. Outside of tourism, fishing is the economic mainstay. Amenities are few: a small general store, ice cream stand and Maine’s smallest post office. The lands that make up this district of Acadia National Park were donated to the federal government in 1943.
At noon we sauntered into Duck Harbor Campground and settled into our assigned lean-to, one of just five available from May 15 to Oct. 14. Camping reservations are mandatory for this highly coveted spot and can be made only by mail, postmarked after April 1. Camping is limited to one stay per year, with a three-night maximum for up to six persons, all for the price of a $25 special use permit.
At idyllic Duck Harbor, the shelters are well-spaced and quite private, each including a picnic table, fire pit and food storage locker. We had no trouble scrounging enough wood for a blaze at night. There are three composting toilets as well as a hand pump for water. The pump is a quarter-mile walk, so an extra gallon water jug proved handy.
Eighteen miles of hiking are possible on 12 surprisingly rugged trails. A 12-mile road, partially paved, circumnavigates the bulk of the island, offering additional walking options. Part of my mission was to cover every mile on Isle au Haut, important field research that would enhance the next edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.
During our brief three-day stay we explored the incomparable beauty of Isle au Haut, from the rocky shoreline and pebbly beaches, to the craggy peaks and ridgelines to the dense spruce forests, marshes and bogs. With loops and side trails and such, we ended up tallying more than 30 miles of hiking, missing just a short trail segment at Eben’s Head. It was a most enjoyable and satisfying effort.