Isle au Haut: Acadia’s offshore island

The mail boat dock in Duck Harbor, Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut. There’s a trailhead further up the cove. Photo by Tim Plouff

Guest perspective/Tim Plouff

Mariners plying the Gulf of Maine in the vicinity of central Penobscot Bay and Blue Hill Bay are all too familiar with the landmark “mountains” of Isle au Haut. So named by Samuel de Champlain in 1604, Isle au Haut – “High Island” – has three, distinct, rounded mountains near its center that are clearly visible for miles. At 543-feet, Mount Champlain, at the center, may not be tall for a hiker, but, to a mariner needing his bearings, it’s a priceless piece of granite.

Like most of Maine’s offshore islands, Isle au Haut has a rich and well-rounded history. Native Americans first used the island’s extensive resources, which included not just the vast fishing assets, but wildlife in the island’s interior, and multiple berry crops. Blueberries were once rumored to be so large and plentiful on the island that pickers were known as “plummers” – the fruit they harvested being more like plums than berries.

In the 1800s fishermen from surrounding communities as far away as Boothbay – over 50 miles distant – had established roots on Isle au Haut, with fish shacks populating the small harbors. Later in the 1800s, Isle au Haut would become a destination for rusticators, not unlike Vinalhaven and Bar Harbor, with several well-heeled visitors acquiring property and building large personal retreats. One such successful entrepreneur was Ernest Bowditch, the grandson of famed marine author Nathaniel Bowditch, who helped found the Point Lookout Club. The Point Lookout Club was a resort that started out as a private club, and later expanded and built trails all over the island. Bowditch also bought large tracts on the island with vague notions of preservation.

During this period, there were over 275 year-round residents on Isle au Haut. In the coming years Isle au Haut would be connected to Kimball Island, to the west, by a drivable thoroughfare (there’s a narrow, navigable channel between the islands now) and to Birch Point, to the north. At the southern point of Isle au Haut, at Western Head – with its dynamic views of the open ocean, and of Saddleback Ledge and Vinalhaven Island – an adventurous person can wade across the rushing sandbar at low tide to visit Western Ear. A visit to Eastern Ear, on the other side of the island, requires a boat.

World War II impacted much of America, including Isle au Haut. When many island men left to serve their country, or work in various war efforts ashore, the vast Bowditch family private holdings on the island became unwieldy. The Point Lookout Club was closed, and Ernest was long passed. His three adult children – Richard, Sarah and Elizabeth – decided to re-kindle a conversation that had begun years earlier, around the time of WWI, regarding the possible donation of their Isle au Haut land to The National Park Service.

On July 6, 1942, Richard Bowditch wrote to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to inquire about donating several thousand acres of Isle au Haut to Acadia National Park. Initial acceptance occurred in 1943, with the formalization documented in January of 1944. In subsequent years, the Bowditch family would add more lands to the park.

Unfortunately, the residents of the town of Isle au Haut knew nothing of the Bowditch’s efforts, resulting in some resentment at losing property taxes on such a large chunk of the island, as well as the expected in-flow of “visitors.” This disappointment only increased as park rangers worked to remove the established fish shacks at Duck Harbor and other coves, and increased efforts to reclaim lost trails and set boundaries on the island.

Today, the Acadia Park portion comprises almost 60% of Isle au Haut, covering mostly the southern sections of the island. A drivable road provides access to most of the island, with some shorter routes to selected vistas now via trail only. More than 18 miles of rugged and primitive trails populate the park, while a five-site camping area is near the dock at Duck Harbor.

On a hot, humid weekday in early July, we backed our trailered Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser, Tegoak, down the broken concrete ramp at Sedgwick, Maine, with the hope of finding some relief from the rising mercury. Our destination: Isle au Haut.

Our first stop was on Wheat Island, which is swiftly losing its remaining tuffs of namesake wild wheat. We quickly moved through the Isle au Haut Thoroughfare and south to Duck Harbor. We didn’t use the mail boat dock, choosing instead to anchor further up the cove where we could land the inflatable on the stone beach right next to the trailhead.

Meandering down the Western Head Trail, we discovered lots of storm-ravaged lobster gear and buoys at the various beaches, while strategic cairns and trail markings made navigating easy. The views are dramatically beautiful, as the surf rolls over the granite ledges and into tiny coves. We enjoyed great hiking and great scenery, and met only two other hikers.

After arriving at Western Ear too late to ford across – the rising current was much too strong – we turned back north on Cliff Trail. We started hearing voices, and then meeting packs of hikers; a boat that makes daily excursions out of Stonington, six miles to the north, had dropped off dozens of hikers. After marveling at the concussive effects of a double thunder-hole type outcropping along the Cliff Trail, we ended our two-mile hike via the old Western Head Road (which is bike capable).

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Isle au Haut section of Acadia National Park. This little slice of coastal heaven may be somewhat off the beaten path, but it’s more accessible than one might think, even without a boat of your own. And, once you’re there, the island’s distinct geography, history, and extensive network of trails, certainly make it an adventure worth seeking.

Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard-V-8-powered Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak (“place of breaking waves”) since 2005. He writes the weekly “On the Road Review” automotive column for “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.