High Adventure on Isle au Haut
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.
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.
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.