Long before I first took the mailboat to Isle au Haut, I imagined the island to be a mysterious birding paradise of mossy forests and rocky shores. I’d seen pictures of the island, and I’d read stories about its charming village with a one-room schoolhouse and tiny post office. Miles out in the ocean, it seemed to be a place for adventure as well as relaxation, a spot to unwind and enjoy nature. But it also seemed far away.
I find that the places that require a little extra planning to get to are easy to put on the back burner. “Tomorrow,” I’d say. “Maybe next year.” Such was the case with Isle au Haut.
Luckily I met Wanda, a nature-loving lady from Corinth with family ties to the island. It still seems strange to me that we met through social media, but I guess that’s not unusual these days. Over the past few years we’ve talked and shared information about many special outdoor destinations in Maine, and she always kept returning to Isle au Haut. “You have to go to Isle au Haut,” she’d say to me, to which I’d reply, “I know! I have to go one of these days…”
So when Wanda invited me on a biking-hiking-camping trip to Isle au Haut this spring with two other wonderfully adventurous Maine women, I didn’t hesitate to grab ahold of the opportunity.
In beauty and charm, the island lived up to, then surpassed, how I imagined it would be. And while the two-day trip went smoothly, I did learn a few things I’d like to share with you about visiting Isle au Haut that may help you on your own adventure.
First of all, the timing is important. About half of Isle au Haut is a part of Acadia National Park, conserved wilderness that can be explored by foot or bike, and while it certainly doesn’t see as many people as the larger section of the park on Mount Desert Island, it’s still fairly popular, and it has limited space. We visited Isle au Haut in mid-May, and if we’d gone any later in the season, I’m not sure if we would have been able to secure one of the five primitive campsites at Duck Harbor Campground, the only campground on the island. The campsites are available May 15 to Oct. 15, and reservations can be made beginning at 10 a.m. EST on April 1 at https://www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/duckharbor.htm.
Each campsite includes a lean-to that comfortably fits four people (though six are permitted), a picnic table and a fire pit with a grate for cooking. There’s also a metal food storage box behind the lean-to (so animals don’t steal your dinner) and a hand-pump that produces potable water about a quarter mile down the road. And last but not least, there’s a nice (I’m serious) outhouse with a composting toilet not far from each site.
We had reserved campsite #4, and getting there was a bit of an adventure.
Here’s the thing: the Isle au Haut mailboat only travels to Duck Harbor Campground between June 10 and Oct. 7. During all other times, it only drops people off at the island’s town dock, which is on the opposite side of the island. From there, you can take the island’s main road around the west side of the island to reach the campground in about 5.5 miles, or you can take the main road around the east side of the island to reach the campground in about 7 miles. Why would anyone want to take the longer route, you ask? We wondered the same thing, so we opted for the shorter route.
To make the trip to the campground even faster, my companions — Wanda along with Kristine Reid and Betty Jamison, both of Holden — brought bikes, and I rented a bike at the Stonington boat launch, $50 for two days. Because the mailboat has limited space, bikes cost an extra $22 to be ferried both ways. So if you do the math, I paid a total of $28 more than my companions. The boat ride itself was $40 round trip, and it lasted about 30 minutes one way.
For information about the boat schedule and rates, visit isleauhautferryservice.com.
At the Isle au Haut town dock, lobster traps were piled high. Sun beams danced in the sandy shallows, and nearby, an abandoned boathouse was crumbling into the sea. Local residents awaited groceries and other supplies carried over on the boat. The vehicles had no license plates or registration stickers. Already, the island was picturesque in a way only a remote fishing community can be.
As we rode our bikes on the west side of the island, what began as a paved road quickly turned into gravel, then rocks and mud puddles. It didn’t take long for us to understand why people might opt for the longer route on the east side of the island. Wearing large backpacks didn’t make navigating the bumps and ruts any easier.
A short distance before the campsite, the road kissed the shore at Shark Point Beach, a beautiful cobblestone beach that made the rough ride worth the effort. There I left my heavy pack in the grass by a gnarled tree and walked out over the smooth, gray stones. My fellow campers followed suit, taking a moment to enjoy the salty breeze and crashing waves. Then, fully refreshed, we completed the final leg of our journey to the campground, where we followed signs onto a ridiculously rocky trail along the water’s edge to our lean-to. The trail was so uneven that we had to carry our bikes, though the next day, we discovered that there was a much smoother inland trail we could have taken. Live and learn.
At camp, we settled in. Finding firewood was easy, since so many trees had fallen during winter wind storms. Kris and Betty made dinner, a Mexican casserole that they’d mostly prepared ahead of time. All they needed to do was heat up a bean-corn-beef concoction over the fire, mix up some instant mash potatoes, sprinkle on some cheese, and we had a delicious meal. We also had hors d’oeuvres: cheese, hummus, crackers and fresh vegetables. And rolls with butter. There’s no underestimating the value of a good meal in the forest.
After dinner, we heated water and washed the dishes, then rushed to a nearby dock to watch the sunset, a painting of oranges and reds. As the sun sank, it grew in size and reflected in the dark waves. Slowly it slid behind the purple hills, leaving us to walk back to our lean-to in twilight.
We talked awhile, hovering around the campfire, then retreated to our sleeping bags, which we situated so our heads were at the open side of the lean-to where we could look up at the stars. Poring over the trail map by lantern light, we selected our hiking route for the morning.
By then, Betty had turned on a special lantern she called the “party light” because it slowly alternated between colors: green, blue, red, purple. Betty thought it would make a good night light, something to guide us to the nearby outhouse in the wee hours of the morning, but Kris wouldn’t have it.
“Every time it flashes red, that’s all I can see,” Kris said.
To be fair, Betty had placed the lantern right by Kris’s head. After a bit of laughter and teasing, Betty clicked off the lantern. “Party’s over.”
It gets cold at night in Maine, especially in the spring. In mid-May, frost isn’t unusual. And since I didn’t own a winter sleeping bag, I simply packed two summer sleeping bags and stuffed one inside the other. Wearing a winter hat and fleece jacket, I was toasty warm all night long.
We woke to birdsong, grilled bagels over the fire, brewed coffee in a percolator, then hiked over Duck Harbor Mountain to the beaches on Squeaker Cove and Deep Cove, something you can read about and watch a video of here.
Then it was time to bike to the town landing, and that time we took the longer route, which was much smoother and included most of the island’s pavement. This left us plenty of time to pose for photos by the island’s tiny post office, which is about the size of a shed, then visit the grocery store for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. At a picnic table by the shore, we shared the ice cream and watched seabirds as we waited for the mailboat to arrive.
Once aboard the boat, we were asked for our return tickets — little red squares of paper we’d received on the journey over. It took me a few minutes to locate mine in a compartment in my backpack. It seemed like days ago that I’d placed it there. It’s funny how camping stretches the hours, how time spent outdoors can simultaneously sap your energy and rejuvenate you. Though I only spent two days on Isle au Haut, it felt like a week. And still, it wasn’t nearly enough.