Island Camping in Maine: Part II

High Adventure on Isle au Haut

With nothing but water between you and the horizon, sunsets on the island are spectaculamazing.

Click here to read Part I

It wasn’t total deprivation. We did have a bag of those enormous oversized marshmallows, dark chocolate chips, and graham crackers. The kids roasted the marshmallows over a roaring fire and stuffed themselves with s’mores. After dinner we climbed down to the shore to watch the sunset. Looking back to the mainland over miles of water made for a spectacular show. The sun, an immense glowing orb, dipped to the horizon, electrifying the sky.

Our third day on the island started inauspiciously when Aidan showed me a nasty dirt-filled slice in his heel, invariably incurred while scrambling over rocks in flip-flops. I had neglected to stock the first-aid kit with that namby-pamby “hurt-free” antiseptic stuff. I did, however, have a bunch of alcohol swabs.

“Okay, this might sting a teeny bit,” I said as I gave the cut a swipe.

Owwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!” he screamed. And screamed and screamed.

Eventually we slathered the cut in Bacitracin, covered it in a Band-Aid, and got his sock and boot on. We planned to hike the Western Head and Cliff trails this time, tracing the shoreline. I volunteered to carry him the whole way by piggy back. He weighs 80 pounds, so it’s not comfortable for him or me, so he soon agreed to walk on his own power before calling my bluff. As we started down the trail, he let out yet a second primal scream, a top-of-the-lungs howling. He’d been bitten on the leg by a black fly. While Aidan was turning purple in agony, Anya held out her hand. She had also been bitten and had the same tell-tale welt on her hand. Not a whimper. This is not a gender judgment, mind you, only an observation.

While beach combing, Aidan found this enormous lobster claw on the beach.

We soldiered on and soon found the first blueberries of the season along the trail. It distracted Aidan from his heel and bug bite. On the trail, we ran into our neighbors, a trio of women from lean-to #3. Mitzy, grandmotherly and gregarious, was a retired cab driver from the Bronx with a penchant for pantomime. Jeff and I had at various times lived in New Jersey, Long Island, and Manhattan, so we bonded about the NY Yankees, which, as a rule, is hard to do when you’re in Maine. Mitzy told us how she’d played it cool when George Steinbrenner once climbed into her backseat.

The trail meandered through cool forests with moss-covered boulders and berms, beetle-killed trees draped in witches hair, and all manner of lichen splattered on the rocks, Jackson Pollock style. Soon we made it to the eastern shore of the island and had our picnic on cliffs over the surf. The waves crashed up against the rocks in an explosion of sea foam, the water churning in varying shades of jade and turquoise. After lunch we walked across seaweed-covered rocks to explore tidepools filled with periwinkles, mussels, limpets, and crabs. Twice, Quinn slipped on the seaweed, banana-peel style, landing with his backside in the tidepools.

As we continued along the cliff trail, each cove we discovered was littered with plastic junk and broken lobster buoys. The park ranger had told the kids if they collected 10 washed-up buoys and brought them back to the campsite, they would earn a National Park pin. The kids gathered the buoys, tying them together with old fishing rope. Here’s the thing about lobster buoys: they look small when they’re out in the big ocean, but when you’ve got them attached to your pack on a long hike, you realize they are enormous. Considerably bigger than a breadbox. Heavier, too.

Naturally, the kids grew weary of dragging the booty so Jeff and I attached them to our packs. For good measure, I strapped an industrial-sized plastic bottle of Gain detergent to my waist belt. As we rounded corners, the buoys would clunk and catch on branches. We looked like some sort of band of gypsy tinkers with high-tech backpacks.

Back at camp, we left the buoys in a pile by the dock and started boiling water for dinner. We were down to a big bag of dried soup mix, a few Lipton chicken noodle packets, and oatmeal packets for the morning. We crossed our fingers that the kids would like the minestrone, this particular brand being untested. It was a paltry meal. I popped up to Mitzy’s lean-to just as they were taking their dinner off the stove. My eyes must have grown wide at the abundant spread on their picnic table. I may have let it slip that we would likely zero out on food at departure time. They offered to share their food, but I insisted we were fine. We would survive, by George!

As the soup was simmering, Aidan and Anya took turns sticking their hands into the empty jar of simulated peanut butter product and licking their fingers clean. I heard Aidan opening the pantry box. I assumed he was sneaking marshmallows (again).

“Aidan, get out of the box!” I called.

“I’m just checking to see how much food we have before we starve to death!!!” he responded.

Panic had set in. The trouble in the packing, I realized in hindsight, was that I had accounted for the three squares meals and a few modest snacks in between. But at home, my kids graze all day long. I should have planned for second breakfast, thirdsies, middle lunch, and a pre-dinner appetizer, not to mention the after-dinner-before-bed nosh. In the absence of all those in-between feedings, the reconstituted minestrone and the chicken noodle were delicious. We slurped it to the bottom of our plastic camp bowls.

Survivor picture. They gypsy caravan arrives back on the mainland.

In the morning, the fairy godmothers from lean-to #3 had left a care package outside our tent door. A banana, an apple, two sandwiches, some gorp. When I went up to thank them, they pressed a container of Maine blueberries into my hands. Fortified with the goodies, the oatmeal packets went a long way.

Bellies full, we packed up and headed for the dock to meet the mail boat and the park rangers. The kids had filled out Junior Ranger books and were looking forward to getting their Acadia National Park patches and the pins for the buoy collecting. Having hiked some 12 miles around the island over three days, they’d earned it.

On the boat ride back, we put up our hiking boots—all soles intact—and enjoyed the view. We passed a spit of rock covered in seals, a sleek kaleidoscope of brown, red, gray, white, and black. Some lazed in the sun, others shimmied across the rock and slid into the water. Scores of lobster buoys bobbed in the sparkling water. They looked small, but we knew better. Jeff and I, having dropped about six pounds between us, ate the two remaining sandwiches while the kids nibbled on gorp. We hit the mainland with only a handful of walnuts and raisins to our names.



  1. Cyndi Kester says:

    This trip sounds truly amazing and your kids are troopers (although I know they love it all as much as you and Jeff! Kudos to you!)! We are getting ready to take our kids out for 1 night of rigorous car camping with another family to a local state park next weekend. Maybe we’ll be ready for Isle u Haut with you next summer!

    PS I’m glad you didn’t starve to death…

    • Helen Olsson says:

      It really was a most fabulous camping trip. The island is gorgeous and every hike was an adventure. I was amazed that little Anya, at 6 years old, tromped 5 miles in a day and never complained!

  2. Good for Aidan – trudging on with dirty wound, and Yay for you Helen, willing to carry that 80-pounder! My kiddos know better than to hop on my back, as they explain ‘mom’s got old bones’. I am never short on food though, and some all natural banana leather from the bottom of my pack has saved the day. Your kids are old enough now for their own day packs, so perhaps they can start managing their own food stores. . .

    • Helen Olsson says:

      Well, volunteering to carry him was a total bluff. I can get 80 pounds (which is about 85% of my body weight) about 20 yards down the trail. I knew he would get down soon. The funny thing is that whenever we car camp, I tend to overpack on food. we are never wanting. But when you have to get it all in a pack, it’s a different ball of wax. Plus those 80 pounders are growing fast!

  3. Thank s for sharing your story.
    Last weekend we (wife, jonathan(8) Annika(10) and I) went 1-day camping in a close-by wood. It’s such great family time’s spend walking, pitching tent, cooking and playing together in the nature. After a couple of days everyone is filled with a deepened sense of the family-bond, that ties us close together.

    I’ll be sure to come back to your blog to get more inspiration 🙂

    • Helen Olsson says:

      Agreed, it sounds cheesy and cliched, but we do our best family bonding when we camp with the wee people.

  4. Helen, loved your story. Over the years we have done a few day trips to Isle au Haut but we are doing three nights there later this summer with our 6 and 2 year olds and looking forward to it. (Of course now we will overpack the food.)

    One quick question: Did you all contemplate hiking to Long Pond? It’s supposedly great for a swim, but we haven’t done it ourselves. (The two year old will be in a backpack.)

    • Helen Olsson says:

      Hey Josh,
      You will love it! It was such a great way to decompress with our kids to be on the island for three nights. If you can, go for lean-to #4. it’s closer to the water, better view and is more open feeling than the other sites. The ranger on the boat suggested hiking just up to Duck Harbor Mountain for the view but taking the road across the island. we decided to go up and over and we took the road back. I figure that was somewhere around 4 miles, including a significant elevation gain/loss. That was plenty for our youngest (6). The other hike the ranger suggested was The Western Head trail and Cliff Trails, which hug the shoreline, combined with the road back, which we did. That route I figure was in the neighborhood of 5 miles, including a side trip to the water pump. Again, we were pushing the mileage with the kids. The pond looks pretty far from the lean-tos on the map, but may be less difficult if it’s a road. I’d pick the ranger’s brain when you’re on the boat. My kids are crazy. They liked swimming in the freezing water in the waves. Tell me how it goes! PS: the water pump is surprisingly far from the lean-tos. make sure to bring a few water containers you can carry easily.

      • Thanks for the tips! We will definitely report back after Labor Day.

        • Helen Olsson says:

          Roger that.

          • Hi Helen – we did it – had an awesome time. Really really great.

            Ended up at site 3, not as nice as 4, but still very good. We had great weather, the kids really loved the hiking. We made it to long pond along the road — about 6 miles round trip — but a nice place for a swim. And we had a full moon, so nighttime was nice too.

            Paranoid given your experience, we probably had a tick too much food, but better safe than sorry.

            All in all, a very memorable three nights!

          • Helen Olsson says:

            Josh, so glad your trip was great. We’ll have to try Long Pond next time. How were the bugs when you went?the skeeters were pretty ravenous in late July when we were there. So glad you didn’t starve.

          • Bugs were bad. I think they always are. Badger sunscreen+repellant seemed to work ok for the kids — no huge complaints. The grown ups needed DEET to keep sane at times.

            Walking the road to long pond was good for us given I had to carry our 27-pound 2 yr old in a backpack so I didn’t want to do something like the cliff trail with that. But it’s not nearly as interesting or fun — it’s just a gravel road. So it was right for us, but may not be right for everyone.

  5. Helen,
    This sounds like such an amazing trip! We’ve done two backpacking trips with the kids (now 7 & 10) and I can’t agree more about the family bonding and what troopers they can be when they really have no choice! I would love to go to Maine sometime for a change of scenery so might pick your brain about that further. Also, thanks for the info about the pediatricians’ guidelines about the kids’ pack weight; I had no idea! No wonder Lauren was moving slowly up the trail…I’m sure her pack weighed about 15 lbs.!!

    • Oh, and one more thing: On our last trip, it occurred to me that someone would be really brilliant to invent some kind of freeze-dried wine or beer. Just sayin’…

      • Helen Olsson says:

        Bevin, yeah, the pack thing is crazy. the pediatrician’s suggest 10 to 20% of a child’s weight. if you go with the lower limit, my daughter’s pack could weigh only 4.5 pounds. That’s pretty much the pack unloaded!! And yes, freeze-dried chardonnay nuggets for all! I didn’t put it in the story, but the fairy godmothers from lean-to #4 also slipped me a mug of wine when i went up to visit them. I loved those ladies.

        • Helen Olsson says:

          I will say, Clif (yes, the energy bar makers) makes a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon that comes in a bag with a spigot. It’s called the Climber’s Pouch. It is super yum and the bag has a hole in the top so you can attach a caribiner and hook it on your backpack’s waist belt.

  6. Loved reading this! My family is from Isle au Haut and I’m a bit homesick at times. Just remember if you go again and you’re short on food, there is an island store that has nice hours in the summer (if a tad expensive). Was Wayne your ranger?

    • Helen Olsson says:

      Michele, thanks for reading. There aren’t too many people who can say they are from Isle au Haut! Our ranger was female, so not Wayne. We were also on the opposite end of the island from the island store. We did figure we could get there in a pinch, but it would have been a 4 hour hike round trip! Next time, we’ll just bring more food.

  7. Thank you for writing this! We just got our letter that we won the lottery! :). This blog got us so excited! We have two boys ages 5 and 7.

    • Helen Olsson says:

      You did win the lottery, in more ways than one! Hope you have an awesome trip. Come back and report!!! Would love to know how it goes for you and the kids.

      Bring lots of food and bug spray :)!!!

  8. Scott belanger says:

    I have done the IsleauHaut trip several times each trip it’s own wonderful adventure that always brings back fond memories with friends. I tend to travel large and pack larger, so food and sundries are never a worry. HUMPED MANY A COOLER AND GEAR TUBS UP FROM THAT DOCK. On one trip we brought mountain bikes and an old 67 tandem called the Jamaican. Sent a few people to town to buy lobsters at the Coop. Proprietor said “you got yourselves bout fourth pounds of lobster in your knapsack, yes sir” when they came back we had set up a dinner on the beach using an old door as a table, beach driftwood for benches, some driftwood poles to hang lanterns, decorated with buoys, picked about 20 lbs of mussels and had one beck of a feast. My best lobster feast ever, and I live on the coast of Maine.

    Lately we have been going to Baxter State Park with the kids and friends , which is its own jewel, but we are planning on Isle au Haut this coming late summer, Mainers know better than to camp in May,June,July or early August, they don’t call them bugs for nothing!

    10% body weight for kids? Have you weighed your kids book bag? Jimminee crickets!

    • Helen Olsson says:

      Ha! I just laughed out loud at the 10% comment. Yes, the recommendation is ridiculously light. My son’s 9th grade backpack is pushing 50%. I would have liked to be at your lobster fest. You did it right! I’ll be taking advice from you on our next trip. Thanks for posting.

  9. I am going to try to go there next spring/summer. It sounds amazing and my kind of camping no crowds or noise.

    I have a 10 will be 11 by then and she enjoys camping. Are there black flies the entire summer? I have had run ins with them in the past camping up in Canada as a kid. They never deterred me from the great outdoors.

    Is there water available there or will I have to bring my own? What about facilities I am assuming they have a port a potty? Again no big deal for me or my daughter.. How far is it to the town landing from the campground? I have visited Maine in the past but was unaware of this little gem of a place. I think I might fall in love and not ever want to leave

    • Helen Olsson says:

      It’s an unforgettable experience! I would be prepared for mosquitoes and black flies. They are notorious!!!! That’s why even though there are lean-tos, everyone brings tents and puts them up in the lean-tos. I had buffs and camp shirts with built in mosquito repellent and I think that helped (It’s called Insect Shield). There were porta potties and water. From where we camped it was miles away from town. We never went. Let me know how it goes. Make sure you know when to send your letter for the lottery (if they still do it by mail). When we went, you had to have your request postmarked by a certain day or you’d be unlikely to get a site.

      • Hi Helen,

        Sorry so long getting back to you. Thanks for the info. it has been a long time since I had to deal with mosquito’s and black flies. Brings back memories of camping up in Ontario when I was a kid. We don’t seem to have them out here in the west.

        .I’ll make sure I get my lottery request in on the date.I would love to go there and camp. So fingers crossed.

        I have everything I need except my Coleman stove which broke last summer. I need pick up a new one. soon. I like to have one always because if our power went out I could still cook by setting it up on our patio. Not that we lose power we don’t usually but always good to be prepared.


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