Isle au Haut Adventures Part I

The beginning of June my buddy Zeke and I set out for a 4 day camping trip in Maine’s Acadia National Park, but not in the part most people are familiar with.  About twenty miles (as the seagull flies) southwest of Mount Desert Island and about 7 miles off Deer Isle is Isle au Haut (pronounced I-la-ho); the island is just shy of 13 square miles, about 60% of which is now part of Acadia.


One source from a few years back claims a community of about 70 year round residents that call the Island home; that number swells to a few hundred in the summer months.  A more recent source indicates that the number of full time residents may have dwindled to as little as 40. About 50% of the residents make their living lobster fishing; other activities include businesses that support the small lobster fleet and of course tourism (there is a small bed and breakfast on the island).  For a very enjoyable description of the cultural history and life on Isle au Haut I recommend The Lobster Chronicles by famed fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw.

So what does this have to do with growing, building or restoring?  Well, one of my goals for this trip was to explore the flora of this craggy island in Penobscot Bay and to hopefully derive some inspiration for my own garden. This trip was also about some personal restoration as well.

We arrived in Stonington, Maine on Thursday evening and stayed at Boyce’s Hotel on the harbor; our plan was to eat a final meal of real food (we would be living on freeze dried backpacking meals for a few days) first thing in the morning and then catch the first mail boat to Isle au Haut.


In terms of plant discovery I was off to a good start on Friday morning. While waiting for the mail boat to the island I spotted some lupine among the grass along the side of the road.  Lupines hold special meaning in our family.


This one is Lupinus perennis, common name Blue Lupine.  These are a great garden plant and grow from 14 to 30 inches tall.  Mostly blue but with some variation in color, they like full sun and thrive in tough conditions like well drained, sandy, acidic, and not particularly fertile soils.  They are also a food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly.  Interestingly, the lupines found in coastal Maine are not native, but rather were introduced from Europe long ago.  However, they are not invasive and though non-native one can’t imagine the rocky Maine coast without them.

A twice daily mail boat from Stonington is the main access to the island.  As it departs the harbor it makes its way through a mooring field of lobster boats, sailboats, and sporting vessels.



As we motored out of the harbor the mail boat was skillfully piloted through the channels between several small islands and through fields of lobster buoys.  Approaching the town landing on Isle au Haut we entered a sheltered channel called the thoroughfare that divides the main island and neighboring Kimball Island.  Moored in the thoroughfare is the small fleet of skiffs and lobster boats used by the islanders. The shore was dotted by small houses and the Island’s only church. This could only be Maine.



Mainebiz_lobster boats
Image courtesy of the Island Institute

For much of the summer, the mail boat will take you directly to the campground at Duck Harbor.  We arrived early in the season before the Duck Harbor dock had been readied so we had to disembark at the town dock and hike almost 5 miles to the campground carrying everything we would need for a few days in the wilderness.

Photo by Zeke Holt

Because of the access challenges, Isle au Haut will see just several thousand visitors during the summer camping season compared to the several million who will visit the main part of Acadia at Mount Dessert Island.  Camping restrictions also limit the number of tourists. The island contains a single campground consisting of 5 lean-tos, and tent camping is forbidden.  This means that one must make reservations well in advance to secure a spot.

Photo by Zeke Holt

When we arrived, there were only a handful of other campers, and so we were treated to long hikes along the coast without seeing another soul.  The trails that traverse the coastline afforded stunning views around every corner.


I went to Isle au Haut not just to look at plants or derive some inspiration for my own garden.  Grow, Build, Restore.  When I talk about restoration I am usually talking about fixing my house, returning a piece of furniture to its former glory, or perhaps sharpening and tuning a jack plane.  In this case, I’m referring to me, and I am hardly the first person to talk about the restorative power of wilderness.  When I don’t get adequate time outdoors I can be a real miserable shit.

What I observe in many of my friends and in my students is what appears to be a love of 24/7 digital connectedness, and I honestly don’t get it. The constant digital assault on my senses saps my capacity for deeper, attentive thinking.  I  find myself growing increasingly resentful of the explosion in the number of technological devices that seek to intrude into every aspect of my life. Wilderness is the perfect remedy.

I remember deer hunting with my best friend Jay a few years ago during my last year of graduate school.  It was late fall—perhaps my favorite time of year—and I was sitting ten or so feet off the ground in a tree stand in a particularly pretty spot along the Zacharias Creek in Pennsylvania.  It was a cold, grey morning and I remember thinking at the time that the scene could have been from one of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of Kuerners farm.  Shortly after daybreak a light rain mixed with snow began to fall.  I zipped up my parka tight, pulled my hood over my head and counted myself thankful for the thermos of coffee. I didn’t see a single deer, and my bow sat idle across my lap.  After a couple of hours Jay sent me a text message from the warmth of his truck to let me know it was time to wrap it up–he hadn’t seen a thing either.  But I didn’t want to climb down from my stand and I could have spent several more hours in the tree, cold and wet and completely immersed in that beautiful place and reveling in the time I had to sit and think unfettered thoughts.

As we hiked through bogs and spruce and balsam forest on Isle au Haut I thought of that cold and wet morning several years before in the quiet Pennsylvania woods.   I also thought about a hike a decade and a half prior that took me up Cottonwood Canyon in the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. The trail meandered up the mountains to the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek, terminating at Cottonwood Lake.  The lake itself was crystal clear and chilling cold being fed in part by melt water from the Grasshopper Glacier. The lake and glacier were nestled in a massive glacial cirque situated at nearly 9000 feet above sea level. Holding in my head these past experiences of wilderness I considered the rocky coast of this small island in Penobscot Bay and thought of my great fortune in having seen so many beautiful places in my life.

Walking in wilderness is conducive to thinking.  As we hiked along I was entranced by the place and my own thoughts and the rhythmic tapping of my trekking poles against the granite and soil and sphagnum hummocks under foot. My mind jumped to The Inward Morning by Henry Bugbee, a book I first read while I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate in Montana.

“…my philosophy took place mainly on foot.  It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely by walking but through walking…And the balance in which I weighed the ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality.”

When you are a searcher, your life is spent in pursuit of these moments of insight and clarity that are free of the constant sound bites and noise of contemporary culture. Perhaps this also explains my restlessness that after 43 years has yet to leave me. I also believe that this deep need may be the thing that drives my habitat restoration project back on our rocky piece of land in Marblehead.  It is an attempt to restore in my own little corner of the world some correspondence with wild places and create a domestic refuge from the hyper-technological that I experience in my everyday work life.  I may not always be able to be in the wilderness, but I can bring some bit of the wild right up to my door.

On our good days, to paraphrase an essay by my former philosophy teacher David Strong,  we feel  the correspondence between the external things in nature that hold power over us and our own “inward wild.”  For David, the inward wild is a frame of mind that

“concerns the basic attitude and standpoint from which we act in our situation and from which we approach things, an attitude to which we are recalled by certain texts and by the things of the natural world itself. It is the standpoint that trues our perception, trues our action, trues our words and our reflections.”

Our encounters with great works of philosophy and literature and with wild places all have a similar effect: through them, David writes,  we are “struck clean.” Citing Bugbee, he describes how important these texts and wild places are as they “call upon and summon him to reawakening. He remembers, and is himself again…he becomes content to be himself.” In wilderness, and even in the “wild” of my garden as I am pulling weeds or planting cone flowers I experience the sort of mental and physical acuity to which David and Bugbee allude.  Struck clean and feeling myself again I am grateful that my friend Zeke invited me on this adventure off the coast of Maine. And after this lengthy digression, I promise I will spend some time talking about plants!

Photo by Zeke Holt




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