On a Maine Island, steep bluffs and solitude


The ferry schedule changes seasonally, with service to Duck Harbor from mid-June to late September. Round-trip fare is $39; isleauhaut.com/index.html.

The campsites at Duck Harbor Campground are available from May 15 to Oct. 15, and must be reserved in writing. A fee of $25 covers up to three nights, for a maximum of six campers per site. nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/duckharbor.htm.

Maine is loaded with islands — more than 3,000 along its 3,500 miles of coastline. But Isle au Haut, dangling way out at the edge of the Gulf of Maine, is an outlier among them, larger, taller and wilder than most, with half its area protected as a waterbound outpost of Acadia National Park.

It takes a little work to get to Isle au Haut (pronounced I-la-HO). First you drive to Stonington, with its scenic harbor full of lobster boats. Then there’s a -mile ferry ride through an archipelago of uninhabited islets, where granite blocks recall the once-vibrant quarrying industry, past flying gulls and diving guillemots, to the Isle au Haut town landing, by a handful of houses that sit near a small store and a tiny post office.

In summer months, the ferry also stops farther south at Duck Harbor, where the National Park Service maintains a dock and a small campground, a good jumping-off point for several hiking trails. But the rest of the year, it’s a 4-mile trek from the landing to Duck Harbor, on a dirt road that’s rough in spots.

On a late-April visit, I biked to Duck Harbor (fat-tire mountain bike recommended). The road wound through the interior of the island, and crossed a cedar bog, where skunk cabbage and carnivorous pitcher plants grow among the sphagnum. It was quiet enough to hear the wing beats of a flushed flicker. Then the road passed the shore at Sharks Point Beach, where an osprey was gathering sticks for its nest. Finally, it led to the narrow inlet of Duck Harbor.

The harbor earned its name because American Indians, who summered on the island for thousands of years, hunted eider ducks by driving them into the narrow cove. The island’s more recent history began when Samuel de Champlain, exploring the area in 1604, named it for its hills. Year-round farmers and fishermen arrived in the late 1700s, followed a century later by “rusticators” — nature-loving vacationers who built summer homes on the north end. In 1943, the heirs of one of those families donated the bulk of the land that comprises the Isle au Haut portion of Acadia National Park, most of which lies on nearby Mount Desert Island. These days, about 40 people live year-round on the 2-by-5-mile island, and lobstering is the primary occupation; the population swells to over 300 in summer.

Just south of Duck Harbor, a disused road leads to several trails. I started off hiking the Western Head Trail. As I meandered through hummocky spruce woodlands, with plank bridges over boggy patches, it felt a lot like northern Maine, until I scampered over a rock ledge. Just as I emerged from the deep woods to see waves crashing on the headland below, a bald eagle soared past, head and tail radiant in the spring sunshine. It was overkill, really, like a poster proclaiming the majesty of America’s wildlands.

The trail winds along the shore and weaves back among the trees, then crosses cobbled beaches where storms have milled the rough edges from stones and hurled them high above the tideline (they’ve also tossed flotsam ashore in a few spots, especially lobster gear and plastic bottles). The bare rock ledges along the shore here are a geologist’s delight, telling volcanic tales 400 million years old.

Before long, the trail meets the Cliff Trail, which leads to a high, steep bluff, dramatic as a Winslow Homer painting. Birders know this south shore of the island because it’s a wintering area for harlequin ducks — lovers of cold, turbulent waters. I found no harlequins, but did see rafts of eiders, plenty of loons, a dozen long-tailed ducks, many cormorants, a few red-breasted mergansers and a single black scoter.

As I looked south toward the unfettered horizon from the top of the cliffs, it was not hard to imagine several Wabanaki in a large birch-bark canoe, searching for porpoise, harpoons at the ready. But there were no hunters in sight. Apart from the crew of a distant lobster boat, there were no people at all.

Logistics limit Isle au Haut tourism. Aside from several cottages for rent online, there are only two places for visitors to stay — at the Keeper’s House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in a lighthouse station, and in the five lean-tos at the campground. The National Park Service aims to limit visitors to 128 per day, a number that’s exceeded only on late summer weekends. In all, fewer than 8,000 people visit annually (more than 2 million visit the larger, car-accessible portion of Acadia National Park). Indeed, on a Saturday in late April, I may have been the only tourist on the park’s 18 miles of trails, or at least it felt that way.

After following the shoreline from the Cliff Trail to the Goat Trail, I eventually turned inland on the Duck Harbor Mountain Trail. The strenuous route winds diabolically over, between and among rock ledges, requiring scrambling in spots. It’s worth the effort, with the bare ledges offering spectacular views, each different from the last — and each feeling like the summit, which you’ll know by the U.S. Geological Survey benchmark.

Along the way, you can see the full range of lower Penobscot Bay islands, from Seal Island — a former bombing range now managed for nesting puffins and terns — to Vinalhaven, marked by three wind turbines. The summit is only 309 feet, but seems higher. With the ocean just below, it has a top-of-the-world feeling, and it’s easy to see how the island got its name.

Just as I was leaving, a turkey vulture soared low over the summit, very near. It veered off quickly, seeming startled to see a human up here. I would have been, too.