A Winter Return to Acadia

The rain is a kiss of a lost love. A touch of beautiful loneliness that takes your heart floating away on the breeze. Detached from the treetops that dwindle beneath your dangling feet. How glorious this place must be in the dead of winter.

I found this piece scrawled in an old travel journal, the ink blurred and broken from settling into damp pages. I immediately recalled the scene where I’d written those words. Perched at a cliff’s edge in the summer drizzle near the summit of Gorham Mountain. High above the crowds along the Ocean Path, where the rain stopped less adventurous tourists from straying too far from their steering wheels. This was long before I’d discovered how much I love winter, but even then I knew that the real magic would come to this place when the cold drove the hoards further south. So when I developed an obsession with all things below freezing, there was one place I had to revisit…

When I first moved to the East Coast of the US, I was certain that winter was something that I was going to have to put up with but would by no means enjoy. I hated Auckland winters, which very rarely dip below freezing, so it seemed pretty obvious that I would hate colder ones even more. As the year trudged on, my dread turned into a grudging acceptance and I decided that if I was going to have to deal with the cold anyway, then I may as well make the most of it and try out some of the fun things that people do in the snow. Acceptance turned to genuine excitement when an early flurry in the streets of Somerville turned the air white for an afternoon, and I realised with a sort of love-struck flutter that magic lurks below freezing point.

In late fall, I saw that REI was doing a free talk on winter camping. Winter camping?! The idea was both horrifying and fascinating. Although I had decided that I liked snow, there was no way I was actually going to want to camp in it, but it seemed so impossible to me that people actually did this that I had to go and find out how they managed it without having a horrible time. Much to my surprise, another switch flipped in my brain. It didn’t look horrible at all. In fact, spending days in the beautiful quiet and solitude of a winter wonderland seemed like a dream. Keeping warm was more of challenge than your average camping trip sure, but I left confident that with the right gear it would be manageable if not totally comfortable. I was totally sold on the idea but didn’t think going it alone for my first trip was a terribly safe thing to do. Luckily one of my workmates was crazy enough to want to go with me.

After months of weather related delays, me and Nick finally head up to Acadia in late February. After a long drive up the Maine coast, we arrive at Blackwoods Campground just on sunset and after getting slightly lost trying to find the right camp disguised in the thigh-high powder, set up our homes for the next two nights in the fading light. The snow helps and hinders our efforts. Flat tent sites are in abundance but require a mad stomping dance to pack them down first. Snowshoes cease to be a leisure activity and become essential to walk further than a few feet. We pack down most of our camp area enough to bare-boot around but any excursions elsewhere lead to instant post-holing.

Any inconvenience from the thick snow cover is quickly forgotten though. There’s a wonderful unmatched silence in the winter wilderness. We sit quietly on snow-carved furniture with our warm dinner and watch the stars peek out over pines that droop with the weight of captured snowflakes.

I sleep fitfully, waking cold every few hours and making new adjustments to my sleeping system. I have particular trouble with my feet which keep sliding off the end of my sleeping pad and resting with very little between them and the snow. By the end of the night I’ve figured out that even with an insulated sleeping pad, using my pack and any clothes I’m not wearing as extra insulation underneath me makes a world of difference. Also, although I’m sure my teeth wont thank me for it, snacking on chocolate in the wee hours is a great way to fuel that internal furnace.

Acadia National Park - Maine

Our snowy home

We wake to fresh deer tracks meandering around the camp. Looks like we had a visitor during the night. It’s an interesting experience being out in the snow for such an extended period. Everything that was left out has frozen. The only reason I have any water to drink is that I kept my water bottles in the sleeping bag with me overnight. There’s only one heat source out here: me. It really makes me appreciate what efficient little machines our bodies are.

Acadia National Park - Maine

Views from the Gorham Mountain trail

For old time’s sake, we head down to the Park Loop Road and take it to the Gorham Mountain trail, the same hike I did the last time I was here. The change in seasons makes for a totally different experience though. We have the whole trail to ourselves, even on a beautiful sunny day. The pink granite that dominates the trail in the summer rarely peeks out from the layer of white. The bareness of the forest lets you see a long way even with trees all around. Rocky scrambles are replaced by smooth snowy slopes and views stretch out for miles in the crisp winter air.

Acadia National Park - Maine

Gorham Mountain summit

After tumbling down from the summit, we stop for lunch at Sand Beach (someone needs to work on their naming skills) before heading back towards Blackwoods along the Ocean Path. This area is still accessible by road so it’s a little busier than elsewhere in the park but nothing like the summer crowds and all the people that are around are fellow adventurous snow-lovers. The sun is starting to get low in the sky and the Ocean Path is lit up golden with the snow coming down to meet the sea. It’s a gorgeous piece of coastline any time of year but winter adds an extra something special to the place.

Acadia National Park - Maine

The sun sinks over the Ocean Path

The Park Loop Road is usually the must-do scenic drive here but the road isn’t plowed in the winter so it turns into a playground for snowsports instead. We saw a few snowmobiles and cross-country skiers on our way out this morning but the journey back is quiet as can be with the sun low in the sky. Part of me wishes it was always like this. Although walking all the way back to Blackwoods isn’t the height of convenience, the road really is quite magical with the usual hum of traffic hidden away.

Acadia National Park - Maine

Heading home to Blackwoods Campground

Back at camp it’s another warm dinner, more stargazing and some jumping jacks before bed so I can heat up my sleeping bag easier. After my warmth experiments the night before, I set myself up much better before bed and sleep like a baby, only waking briefly to scoff some chocolate at 2am.

Acadia National Park - Maine

The unplowed Park Loop Road becomes home to skiers and snowmobiles

The next morning it’s time to pack up and start the journey back to reality. I’m sure this wont be my last night in the snowy wilderness though. Even at a chilly 4°F the trip has been challenging but easier than I expected and worth every shiver for the peacefulness of the place. I might even be tempted to try going solo next time. Not bad for a girl who thought she hated winter a few months earlier.

Listening to: Every Other Freckle – alt-J

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