Friday, July 10th. Darn, there were only two days left before our departure. We’re having such a great time here in Maine, I’ll be really sad to leave. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end!
A bright, sunny day was in the forecast, perfect for the 10:00 a.m. scenic nature cruise on the Sea Princess out of Northeast Harbor. Driving, walking or hiking is a great way to see Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor but, being boaters, we know there’s nothing like taking in the sights from the water side. It would be a 2 hour 45 minute park ranger narrated cruise, priced at $29 per person (a $2 senior discount is offered). When I made the reservation on Thursday (reservations suggested), I was told that we needed to be in Northeast Harbor (about a 20 minute drive from Narrows Too) by 9:30 a.m.
Arriving a little before the designated time, after parking and checking in at the tour office, we were told that the boat was ready to be boarded. Not sure how many people it holds, maybe around 40 – 50 but fortunately it wasn’t totally full so Rob and I grabbed spots on the full width bench seat at the stern. A good spot – we had plenty of room to move around but a bad spot – it was far away from the the ranger, a somewhat soft spoken woman, so it was hard to hear despite the mike and speakers. Plus depending on how the wind was blowing, we could smell a backdraft of diesel fumes occasionally.
Our tour route would include passing by Bear Island Lighthouse and East Bunker Ledge and a 45 minute stop in Islesford on Little Cranberry Island. Little Cranberry got it’s name from the wild low-bush cranberries that grow throughout the islands in the fall. After our stop there, we would continue to Southwest Harbor and Somes Sound, the only “fjard on the East Coast”.
At the beginning of the tour, the park ranger (don’t think she ever told us her name) quickly explained nautical terminology for the benefit of the non-nautical people on board – the bow is the front of the boat, the stern is the rear of the boat, the left hand side of the boat (looking from the stern towards the bow) was port and the right side was starboard. Kind of funny though that quite frequently she would mix these terms up, pointing at something to the boat’s left and saying “on the starboard side” or vice versa. Occasionally she would get it right. But guess she was just learning – we found out later that she was new to the area, having worked in National Parks out west so guess her nautical knowledge wasn’t quite there yet.
After going through the usual safety instructions, we left the dock, passing by all the boats moored in the harbor and catching a glimpse of a few of the stately “summer cottages” near Northeast Harbor & Seal Cove.
As we left Northeast Harbor, up ahead perched on a rocky island was a lighthouse standing tall, it’s bright white silhouette gleaming against the dark green of the surrounding pine trees. Sure captures the true coastal essence of Maine!
Bear Island Lighthouse was originally built in 1839 as a wooden structure. It didn’t stand up very well to the elements, it had to be rebuilt in 1889 because it was in such a poor state. It once again deteriorated over the years, finally being deactivated in 1982 and replaced by offshore lighted buoys. Resurrected in 1989 by the Friends of Acadia, it was re-lit in 1989. Today it features a 31 foot high cylindrical tower painted white with a fifth order Fresnel Lens. Not open to the public because it is owned by the National Park Service which leases it as a private residence.
We continued our cruise, passing by many huge mansions until the boat slowed near the East Bunker Ledge. During high tide, the craggy rocks are most likely swallowed by the sea making the white pyramid monument an important visual landmark for mariners, warning them to stay well clear. During low tide which it was during our tour, however, the exposed rock turns into a retreat from the cold ocean for harbor seals basking in the warm sun. Not sure who was more curious – them or us!
Not too far away was a magnificent Bald Eagle perched on the rocks. Always so exciting seeing this majestic bird of prey! Certainly not camera shy, posing quietly while everyone on board hurriedly aimed their cameras and clicked away.
As we moved along, the park ranger was giving us a lot of information about the history of the area (most of which I don’t remember) and as several lobster boats passed by talked about the lobster industry. Buoys marking the location of lobster traps were everywhere. Sure, we have these in MA and RI but not as many as Maine.
According to the Hancock Gourmet Lobster website, there are over 3 million lobster buoys used to harvest over 124 million pounds (2014) of Maine lobster. Guess there will be plenty left after our visit! Now we understand why our sailing buddies at the yacht club often complain about cruising the waters off the coast of Maine. In some spots it seems like you could walk across the bay by hopping from trap buoy to buoy. To combat this hazard, pleasure cruisers often install line cutters on their props so if the line (known as a trap warp) from a lobster pot gets snagged it will automatically be cut and not tangle itself around the prop causing what could be a serious safety hazard. The lobster men probably don’t like it when that happens. Lest you fret about the lobsters themselves, the traps have a “ghost panel” that will decay over time and let the lobster escape. “Vents” in the trap also let young undersized lobsters leave at will. This link will tell you way more than you wanted to know about lobster trap configurations in Maine.
As mentioned above, we would have a brief stopover at Little Cranberry Island which can only be accessed by either a tour boat or the mail boat. Cars, supply and delivery trucks are ferried over on a barge.
As we neared Islesford harbor, our captain appeared to engage in a race with the ferry/barge that was approaching on our starboard side, also heading towards the dock. At least that’s how it seemed to us – I’m sure he knew what he was doing, however, we believe the other boat had the right of way. So captain ends up cutting inside the can marking the harbor channel, suddenly everyone gasped as we heard a loud “thunk”. On, no, we hit bottom! But not to worry, the boat kept going and we safely tied up to the dock. Guess he accomplished his goal – we landed at the dock first.
Islesford, the main town on the island, is a quaint fishing hamlet with a huge year round population of 65 (2013). Wow, what a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the harbor in Bar Harbor! At the dock, there is a seasonal restaurant, the Dockside at Islesford, Marion Baker’s Pottery Shop, the Little Cranberry Yacht Club and Sue Hill’s Winters Work gift shop which showcases the works of local Maine artists and rest rooms.
With instructions to be sure to return to the boat in 45 minutes, we disembarked. If we wanted to stay longer, there was always a ride back on the mail boat. Since everyone immediately headed over to the main attraction on the island – the Islesford Historical Museum, operated by the National Park Service, we decided, at the recommendation of the park ranger, to take a walk to see the Islesford Congregational Church.
Built in 1898
With time getting short, we continued back towards the dock – we wanted time to explore the Islesford Historical Museum (operated by the National Park Service) which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Although not very big, the museum has an interesting display of ship models, tools, and photographs that give a really good sense of what island life was like during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Admission is free. Displays also include information about the lobster traps, boats and lobster boats. Very well done and worth a visit!
With everyone back on the Sea Princess, the next leg of our tour would be to cruise by Southwest Harbor and Somes Sound, both of which we had visited by car earlier during our stay. More lovely homes – one huge mansion was under construction! I was looking at some of them through my binoculars and was startled when the park ranger asked me if I was looking for Martha Stewart. Hmmm, not really! Good thing since I wouldn’t find her in this neck of the woods anyway – her “summer cottage”, Skylands (former home of Edsel Ford and valued at approximately $9 million), is located on 63 acres in Seal Harbor.
Along the way we spotted an active osprey nest – too far away to see if there were babies in the nest. No big deal since we have lots of ospreys on Narragansett Bay back in RI too. The ranger handed out a photo of an osprey in flight with a fish in its talons. Neat picture!
Nearby on one of the rocks on the side of Acadia Mountain just above the high tide line was a memorial plaque. Seems like an unusual place for a plaque – you can only see it by boat or if you are a rock climber. The plaque commemorates the donation of Acadia Mountain to the then-named Lafayette National Park in 1919 by Lincoln and Mabel S. Cromwell in memory of Mabel’s parents, Cornelius and Mary.
Several small waterfalls were spilling over the rocky cliffs into the ocean. We were told that these waterfalls were beneficial to the revolutionary war era sailing ships that were fighting in the area – they could sail the ship close to shore and easily replenish their fresh water supply from these waterfalls.
From the boat we could see Sargent Drive which hugs the waters edge along Somes Sound. So we finally got to see some of the “hidden from the road” mansions along Sargent Drive.
Returning back to Northeast Harbor, we once again passed by Bear Island Lighthouse. Alas, our cruise was almost over. Very informative and interesting tour. Even without the narration it was a glorious and relaxing day on the water!