America’s Best Idea

ANY SANE MAN would be nervous about reconnecting with past loves. Who is it that awaits him – gracious dowager, or wizened hag? It had been 20 years since I’d last visited Mount Desert Island; it had been 40 – the summer I graduated from college – since I’d set foot in Acadia. With an estimated 3.3 million visits in 2016, Acadia is one of the most heavily traveled of all our national parks. How was the old lady doing?

Despite the crowds making their way to Bar Harbor, I found a room at the Edenbrook Motel just outside the downtown area. Not only was the price right, but it reminded me of the motels we’d stayed in in the 1960s, when I’d first visited Maine with my family. It lacked the requisite pool for honing my snorkeling and treasure-hunting skills – loose coins at the bottom – but I figured I was probably beyond that at this age.

cropped Mt Desert

Mount Desert Island; the green denotes Acadia National Park.

“I’m heading up Cadillac,” I told the proprietor, Estelle Megquier, when I checked in. “Where should I go for the best views?”

“The west side,” she advised. “To see the sunset. But don’t go to the very top. Stop at one of the lay-bys on the way up. There won’t be as many people.”

“…historians have variously described him as the most wicked character in the world, ‘a scatter-brain expelled from France for I don’t know what reason,’ and a man who deserves to be ranked with the worst scoundrels ever to set foot in New France.”

At 1,530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak on the Atlantic seaboard, and is arguably both the island’s and the national park’s signature feature. It owes its name to Antoine Laumet de La Mothe (1658-1730), a trapper and explorer of dubious character who generously awarded himself the title of ‘Sieur (‘gentleman’ or ‘sir’) de Cadillac’ after his hometown in southwestern France. Although de La Mothe developed a deep knowledge of New England and the Great Lakes, went on to found Detroit, and even served as governor of Louisiana, historians have variously described him as the most wicked character in the world, “a scatter-brain expelled from France for I don’t know what reason,” and a man who deserves to be ranked with the worst scoundrels ever to set foot in New France.

I made a note to myself: “de La Mothe – check out more extensively.’

Mount Desert Island also owes its unusual moniker to a Frenchman – Samuel Champlain, who came upon it in 1604 and named it for Cadillac Mountain’s bald granite dome, which was scraped bare by mile-high glaciers that once ran hundreds of miles out to sea.

As mountains go, you can’t ask for one more visitor-friendly than Cadillac. Park Loop and Cadillac Mountain Road are among the finest examples of roadbuilding I’ve seen – pristine and smooth as silk, with neither a bump nor a pebble to mar their surface. They looked as though they’d just been laid. They are well-marked , offer numerous pull-outs and lay-bys where you can stop and enjoy the views, and low stone walls and protective boulders to make sure you don’t enjoy them so much that you drive over the edge. I found out later from park ranger John Kelly that, thanks to close cooperation between the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the park’s roads are, in fact, repaved every four to five years, and scraped down and resurfaced anew every 15 years. No wonder they’re so nice.


Fall foliage near Pretty Marsh, Mount Desert Island.

And that is part of the problem. When I did get to the top that afternoon, there was nowhere to park. The summit is that popular and that accessible. Scores of cars lined each side of the road; the rest were parked at every turn. “It’ll be better at dawn tomorrow,” I told myself, planning a sunrise photo shoot.

Bar Harbor was even busier. It was Columbus Day weekend. The streets hummed and the shops buzzed: sweatshirts and tees at ‘Crazy Like a Moose’; dog treats at ‘Bark Harbor’; lingerie at ‘Bra Harbor’.  How far, I wondered, would I have to travel to purchase something useful, like a corkscrew, or No-Doz, or a carton of Bel-Airs?  At dinnertime, every restaurant had at least an hour’s wait; every bar stool, two or three hopeful claimants.

“Party of one?” hostesses would ask. “I think we could set you up at a card table, behind a pillar, just next to the kitchen door. In about, say, 90 minutes?  How does that sound, Mr… McTAVISH, was it?  Will that do?”

“Party of one?” hostesses would ask. “I think we could set you up at a card table, behind a pillar, just next to the kitchen door. In about, say, 90 minutes? How does that sound, Mr… McTavish, was it?  Will that do?”

I landed at the Mexican place on Main Street, whose empty seats should have tipped me off. Not to the food – the vegetarian chili was excellent – but to the bartender, who called me, variously, ‘guy’ and ‘dude’, and exhausted all five of us at the bar with stories of his accounting career and ex-girlfriends.  And call me old-fashioned, but when did ‘f**k’ become an acceptable exclamation/adjective/adverb/noun/verb/gerund/past participle to use in front of patrons?

The following evening, having failed miserably to learn my lesson, I did exactly the same thing, wandering hopefully from lounge to eatery, nursing cocktails, perusing menus, and marveling at the invisibility and irrelevance of my single-ness.  By the time I found an open seat on the patio at the Side Street Café and ordered some mac and cheese, my fingers were numb from the cold. It took three pints of beer to warm them up.

Surgical strike, indeed.


Kayaking on Long Pond, Mount Desert Island.

But, oh, the days. Never mind that I fought for elbow room at bars and shared the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain with at least a hundred fellow shutterbugs.  (And since we’re on this topic, let me add that the summit of Cadillac Mountain is also said to see the nation’s first sunrise – although, only in the fall and winter, when the sun rises south of due east. Mars Hill, as mentioned earlier, claims that distinction during most of the spring and summer.  And, yes, West Quoddy Head can also claim the distinction – although only for a few weeks around the equinoxes. Enough said.)

People come to Mount Desert Island for good reason. It has almost everything one could ask for: rugged and unspoiled hills and mountains, scenic hikes; 45 miles of packed-gravel ‘carriage roads’ for hiking, biking and horseback riding; stunning vistas, deep, protected sounds and pristine lakes; picture-postcard harbors and lighthouses; salubrious campgrounds; kayaking and seal-spotting; and boat trips, charters and sunset windjammer cruises to satisfy every nautical taste.  And, despite the crowds, a charming and picturesque ‘capital’ in Bar Harbor.


Laying up ‘Milou’ for the winter, Classic Boat Shop.

For two days I drove aimlessly along every road on the island, briefly reliving a former life as a yachting magazine editor. I filmed Northeast Harbor, made a personal pilgrimage to the Hinckley boatyard in Southwest Harbor, and had the good fortune to stumble on Jean Beaulieu’s Classic Boat Shop in Bernard. Beaulieu’s bread and butter is the construction of the exquisite Pisces 21 daysailer, a Chuck Paine interpretation of Nathaniel Herreshoff’s famous ‘Fish’ one-design.  So sweet is the Pisces that I slammed on the brakes when I saw one sitting in its cradle, jumped out, pestered Beaulieu for an interview, and spent a happy hour photographing the boatyard as the crew began to lay up ‘Milou’ for winter.


Pisces 21s.

A Pisces 21 – that’s what I’ll be ordering when that check for a hundred grand comes in.

Remembering that nearly half the island is protected by federal law restores one’s faith in the power of civic consciousness and governmental purpose. Acadia National Park accounts for no less than 47 of Mount Desert Island’s 108 square miles. A further eight square miles of the national park can be found spread across Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula, and an additional 12,500 acres are privately-owned lands under conservation easements managed by the National Park Service.

And Acadia continues to grow. Last year, the park’s 2,000-acre footprint on the Schoodic Peninsula expanded by another 1,400 acres. The parcel had effectively been managed as part of the park for the past few years, after Lyme Timber acquired it in 2011 from a holding company planning to build a resort on the property. With the conveyance of the acreage by Lyme Timber to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit intermediary, and thence to ownership by the National Park Service, Acadia will protect more than 50,000 acres of coastal Maine.

I took a certain delight in knowing that my visit coincided not only with the centenary of the National Park Service, but also that of Acadia.

Part II

IN NO SMALL MEASURE, we have artists to thank for the creation of both the National Park Service and Acadia itself.

As early as the 1830s, painter George Catlin, who became widely known for his portraits of American Indians, had begun to worry about the destructive impact of westward expansion. Crossing the Dakotas on one of his many expeditions, he grew alarmed at the number of rotting bison carcasses dotting the landscape, killed solely for their fur. Native Americans had once found a purpose for all parts of the animal, but the fashion for buffalo coats back East had begun to favor expediency.  In return for the furs, the Indians were often being paid in alcohol.


George Catlin: ‘Fast Dancer,’ 1844.

Distraught at the damage, Catlin recorded his impressions, and by 1841 had published Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. In it he proposed a bright, fresh idea: the creation of a ‘nation’s park’ – one in which wild animals and the native people who depended upon them would be protected by government policy.  It was a radical concept: wild reserves had always belonged exclusively to the rich and noble, and no country had ever set aside land for such a purpose.

And, not surprisingly, it was an idea that no one seriously entertained at the time. But the book grew in influence through numerous editions, and the seed Catlin planted began to flourish.

Following an expedition to the Yellowstone area in 1871 by Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, captured to stunning effect by William Henry Jackson’s photographic images, the government took note.  In 1872, Congress acted to establish Yellowstone National Park, “…as a public park or pleasuring-ground [sic] for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  That decision, as The New York Times reminded readers last year, reflected a unique, and uniquely American, idea:  In a democracy, such landscapes should belong to everyone.


William Henry Jackson: Hayden Survey Party, Yellowstone, 1871.

With the creation of Yellowstone, the idea of preserving wilderness, monuments and sites of historical interest grew apace. The creation of nearly a dozen other national parks followed in short order, including that of Yosemite in 1890, thanks to naturalist John Muir’s now-celebrated advocacy. (Muir, you will recall, also founded the Sierra Club.)  By August of 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, the new federal bureau found itself responsible for no fewer than 35 parks and monuments.

Today, just over a century later, the National Park Service oversees 59 national parks, and another 358 monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores and recreation areas of various stripe and character. In total, the 417 properties managed by the Park Service cover 84 million acres – more than 3.4 percent of the entire United States. They include sites from the Dry Tortugas to the White House, and range in size from tiny Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania, at .02 acres, to Alaska’s massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, at 13.2 million. And they are wildly popular: In 2016, the parks and sites drew more than 330 million visitors.  That’s tantamount to a smidgen more than one visit to a park or site once each year by absolutely every American.

“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” noted novelist Wallace Stegner some 35 years ago. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” noted novelist Wallace Stegner some 35 years ago. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”


Frederic Edwin Church: ‘Fog off Mount Desert,’ 1856.

In similar fashion, the vivid landscapes of artist Thomas Cole helped bring the beauty of Mount Desert Island to the public‘s awareness.  Cole first visited the island in 1844, and was soon followed by other celebrated painters such as Frederic Edwin Church and Fitz Henry Lane. The dramatic scenery and pastoral romanticism they often portrayed in their paintings (a style formally known as the Hudson River School, and credited to Cole), quickly drew journalists and sportsmen as well.

To start, it was unadorned travel. The early visitors bunked and ate with local families for a small fee, earning for themselves the sobriquets of ‘rusticators,’ ‘cottagers’ and ‘summercators.’  But word about the island’s unspoiled charms traveled quickly.  By the 1880s, Bar Harbor boasted as many as 30 hotels, and had begun to establish a national reputation as one of America’s new summer resorts.


Fitz Henry Lane: ‘Off Mount Desert Island,’ 1865.

The country’s most socially prominent families – the Astors, Fords, Morgans, Pulitzers, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts – cemented that reputation by building magnificent summer cottages in Bar Harbor and Northeast and Seal Harbors.  While their lavish lifestyle forever altered the island’s rustic character, their money and generosity also helped lead to much of its preservation. Two individuals among them proved particularly visionary and tireless: Charles W. Eliot and George B. Dorr.

Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) hailed from a well-to-do Boston family, graduated from Harvard, became a leading thinker in the field of education, and proved such an all-around wunderkind that Harvard named him president of the university at the tender age of 35.  In 1901, inspired by his son’s writings on land preservation, Eliot marshaled the island’s summer community – who’d been organizing themselves into public-spirited Village Improvement Societies since the 1880s to work on everything from sanitation to hiking trails to cultural events – and helped incorporate the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations.

The trust’s purpose was to acquire, own and hold land in Hancock County for free public use. Eliot continuously lobbied that every resident should treat the entire island as if it were a park. The land trust’s first notable acquisition came in 1908 with the purchase of the headland known as ‘The Beehive,’ followed soon after by the summit of Cadillac Mountain.  By 1913, the group had acquired no less than 5,000 acres.

But not everyone regarded the project so charitably. Removing so much land from the town tax rolls led to a challenge in the Maine legislature.  Although the measure was defeated and the land trust retained its tax-exempt status, Trustee George Dorr worried they would be challenged again. He believed that they needed national-park status to protect the land, and with Eliot’s blessing he pursued it.


George Dorr snowshoeing in Acadia. Courtesy NPS.

Like Eliot, George Bucknam Dorr (1853-1944) was Harvard-educated and affluent – a man who had the good luck to inherit both his parents’ fortunes.  He first visited the island in 1868 with his mother and father, and later decided to make it his primary home.  A Boston Brahmin and lifelong bachelor handicapped by a severe stutter, Dorr struck some as an odd choice to spearhead the land trust, but Eliot knew his man (Dorr had redesigned Harvard Yard for him, among other projects).  Dorr proved ideal for the task.  A full-time resident of the island – the remains of the family property, Old Farm, can be found at Compass Harbor – Dorr excelled at fundraising, public relations and political negotiation.

From the age of 47, when Eliot first pressed him into service, Dorr dedicated his life to preserving this stretch of coastal Maine, acquiring tracts of land for protection, donating his own land, and convincing others to donate property or gift funds. It was Dorr himself who rushed to the Maine legislature in Augusta to fight for the trust’s tax-exempt status.  It was Dorr who made numerous trips to Washington to meet with influential friends and lobby President Woodrow Wilson personally for national park status. In fact, Dorr was so committed to this stretch of Maine wilderness that he ultimately depleted his not-insignificant inheritance in order to help preserve it.

With Woodrow Wilson’s signature in 1916, the 5,000 acres amassed by the land trust became officially designated as Sieur de Monts National Monument.  The Trustees would have preferred national park status right out of the box, but Dorr chose to have Wilson sign off on the national monument rather than wait for Congress to act on the national park.  In any event, with the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, Acadia was in line for park designation. That came in 1919, when the preserved lands, renamed Lafayette National Park to recognize amicable relations between France and the United States, became the first national park in the eastern United States. More notably, it was also the first national park whose land was donated entirely by private citizens. Dorr was appointed its first superintendent, a role in which he served for the rest of his life.

Within 10 years the park had grown significantly, thanks to the donation of a large chunk of the Schoodic Peninsula (augmented, in 2015, by the donation of an additional 1,400 acres of the peninsula). There was but one small caveat to the Schoodic transaction: the property owners, residents of England, objected to the French name, and so in 1929 the park was renamed ‘Acadia’.

In addition to Eliot and Dorr, Acadia owes no small debt to John D. Rockefeller Jr. Rockefeller donated about 10,000 acres to the park, including the coastline between Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs, and he was responsible for one of the park’s most notable features.  As early as 1913 he had become alarmed at the prospect of a park overrun by automobiles, and so funded the construction of the 57 miles of packed-gravel carriage roads that wind their way around scenic mountains and lakes.  Today, 45 miles of the carriage roads are protected within the park.


Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands from Cadillac summit.

In this he was aided by renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, also a summer resident of the island. Farrand was not only enormously well-connected – Edith Wharton was her aunt, Henry James a personal friend – but also enormously skilled, with commissions that included Princeton University, Dumbarton Oaks, the White House and numerous private estates. The perfect, sylvan settings traversed by Acadia’s carriage roads are, in fact, typically the result of Farrand’s extraordinarily careful orchestration. She injected as many as 60 different native trees, shrubs and perennials into the park, set in naturalistic groupings so that they looked as though they’d always been there. Often, she would move them in clumps from one location to another to achieve the effect she desired.

With the donation in 1943 of 3,000 acres of pristine Isle au Haut, 15 miles southwest of Mount Desert Island in Penobscot Bay, Acadia expanded again.  By then, however, the dynamics of individual wealth that had enabled its creation had been forever altered, first by the Great Depression and subsequently by World War II.  As if to punctuate the change, an enormous fire tore across the island in 1947, destroying most of the island’s great summer estates and 17,000 acres of property, some half of them national park land.  It was said that the fire didn’t stop until it reached the water.  George Dorr, fortunately, was spared the heartbreak; his heart had given out three years earlier.

Acadia’s regrowth proved relatively robust and rapid – outstripped, perhaps, only by its escalating popularity.  Few national parks can boast of Acadia’s accessibility – it lies within a day’s drive for no less than 50 million people today, according to ranger John Kelly.  With 3.3 million visits in 2016, it was the eighth most popular national park in the country last year, busier than either Grand Teton National Park, which is 10 times larger, or Glacier National Park – which is three times larger than Grand Teton.

So, as it turns out, I shouldn’t have been surprised to share the summit of Cadillac on my pre-dawn photo shoot.  According to ranger Kelly, if a family of four stays four days in Acadia, Park Service math counts this as 16 visits.  So it took only somewhere in the neighborhood of a million ‘visitors’ last year to total 3.3 million ‘visits’. That doesn’t sound as oversubscribed as it might, right?

But, wait. Ranger Kelly told me that 75 percent of park visitors drive to the summit.  Even though ascents of Cadillac are tallied slightly differently – the Park Service estimates three occupants per car when computing trips to the top – as many as 65,000 cars drive to the summit each month during July and August. During the ‘season’ – June 1st to October 31st – the Park Service estimates that 259,000 cars ascend Cadillac Mountain.  Or, in other words, 777,000 people.

To manage all this and the rest of the nearly 50 square miles of park, Acadia relies on a core team of year-round staff, bolstered by 140 to 160 seasonal staff employed from May to October. Combined, these two groups are equivalent to some 90 full-time employees.  A further 3,000 annual volunteers lend their hand to trail and carriage-road maintenance, administration, interpretation and other tasks. In 2016, Acadia volunteers contributed no less than 58,000 hours of work.

Despite careful and sensitive management, few national parks remain immune to the innate tension between access and preservation. In Yellowstone’s early days, visitors dumped laundry soap into the geysers in the hopes of making the eruptions more spectacular.

Despite careful and sensitive management, few national parks remain immune to the innate tension between access and preservation. In Yellowstone’s early days, visitors dumped laundry soap into the geysers in the hopes of making the eruptions more spectacular.  Acadia’s challenges today may be less dramatic, but no less significant.  And so, late last year the park unveiled concepts for a comprehensive new transportation plan aimed at reducing traffic and parking congestion, improving safety, and promoting high-quality visitor experiences. The proposals include parking reservation systems; traffic queueing systems; a new entrance station into the park to improve traffic flow; the replacement of commercial buses with park buses within the park itself; and so on. According to John Kelly, they hope to have the new plan finalized by the fall of 2018.

And yet, such challenges look relatively modest compared to some of our national parks’ other issues. As The New York Times reported last August, although the Park Service employs some 22,000 people, fewer permanent staff now work for the service than in 2002, even though it administers more parks and manages more visitors.

The parks have also become a political target. Western politicians are demanding that the federal government return public lands to the states and localities: “The 2016 Republican platform instructs Congress to divest ‘certain federally controlled public lands’ to the states,” said David Quammen recently in the Times, “without specifying which lands, and to amend the Antiquities Act, giving Congress and the states veto power over designation of national monuments.


George Dorr and friends, Jordan Pond, Acadia. Courtesy NPS.

“The loudest individual voice in this argument,” he continued, “belongs to Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who recently called on Donald J. Trump to abolish national monuments (most notably, Grand Staircase-Escalante, in Utah) created by Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton.”

Such calls conveniently ignore the basic tenant that underlies our national park system – that the parks belong not to Washington, or the states, or even to the National Park Service which administers them, but to each individual American.

As Quammen said, “Public lands are part of our fabric of connectedness in this country; through our common ownership and appreciation of them, we are vested in one another, state to state, region to region, hunter to schoolteacher to tattooist to nation. They help unite us. God knows we need that right now.”

Header image:  Dawn over Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands, from Cadillac Mountain summit.

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