Island Camping in Maine: Part I

High Adventure on Isle au Haut

Hikers with a mission: collecting washed up buoys on Isle au Haut, Maine.

In my twenties, my hiking shoes were a well-worn pair of Timberland work boots. I’d trekked in them from the Uintas to the Black Hills to the Gunks. They’ left a trail of knobby prints around the Annapurna circuit in Nepal and through the jungles of Thailand. In the summer of 1994, Jeff—my then boyfriend—and I hiked a ten-mile loop around Isle au Haut, a six-by-two-mile island  that’s an outpost of Maine’s Acadia National Park and accessible only by a 45-minute boat ride. About midway through hike, as we traveled through a particularly marshy area, my feet began to feel wet. I sat down, crossed a knee, and inspected the bottom of my boots. The soles of my beloved Timberlands were disintegrating, and fast. By the time we got back to the dock, I was essentially hiking in wool socks. I dropped what was left of the boots in a trash barrel and rode the boat back in my stocking feet.

Fast forward to summer 2012, Jeff—my now husband—and I returned to Isle au Haut to camp for three nights with our three kids, ages 6, 8, and 11. The park uses a lottery system to divvy up the five lean-tos over the summer. We had mailed an application in the spring, post-marked April 1. You could say we won the lottery. We packed tents to erect inside the lean-tos, which is the recommended drill considering the voracious appetite of the island’s mosquito and black fly populations. The hiking boots were Vasque this time, purchased in the early 1990s to replace the Timberlands. The kids were in pint-sized hikers from The North Face.

We knew we had to hike some distance from the Duck Harbor dock to the lean-tos, but we hadn’t exactly done due diligence on the logistics. Thinking we had miles to trudge, we were in backpacking mode. I berated Jeff for the Pop Tarts (they are really heavy) and he told me leave our lunker of a Nikon behind. As we were packing up, Jeff went online and discovered the lean-tos were only a quarter mile from the dock, if that. We could have brought coolers, camp chairs, and queen-sized pillows. But by then, the packs were loaded. And admittedly, I was clinging to the notion that this was our first true backpacking trip with all three kids. We had backpacked with kids with llamas, which carry everything, and I’d done one night in the backcountry with one child. I wanted to know if we could hack three kids for three days and no minivan.

Little kids, big (but light) packs at the lean to, Isle au Haut, Maine.

The kids carried their own packs, but considering the recommendations (the American Academy of Pediatricians warns packs should weigh no more than 10-20 percent of a child’s body weight), that didn’t account for much. Our youngest, Anya, would carry a pack weighing around eight pounds. That’s a water bottle, a sleeping bag, raincoat, snack and the three stuffies she insisted on. Jeff and I carried the lion’s share of the gear. As my pack swelled, I may have punted a few pantry items in a panic.

We shouldered our packs of various sizes and took the mail boat across Penobscot Bay. As seagulls flew overhead, the captain steered the boat from a stool held together by copious amounts of duct tape and rope. On the deck, we met the mail man, who told us how the island’s high schoolers use the boat as a school bus, commuting back and forth to Stonington each day.

On our first day in camp, we settled into the lean-to, a three-sided, roofed structure fashioned from weathered wood. Previous campers had left behind a roll of Charmin and an ancient plastic jar of Nescafe nuggets. We took a short hike out to Eben’s Head, a hunk of rock that butts into the bay. The hike looped us around a cove filled with emerald waters, past bone-white snags, and through woods the kids described as a Moonacre woods. If you’ve seen this princess movie, you’ll know that means the forest was cool and dark, the trail lined with boulders and rolling carpets of moss, and that evil may have lurked in the shadows. In the grasses, we found the froth of froghoppers, which looks like wads of foamy spit clinging to the blades.

Salt water blaster feature on the beach near Eben’s Head, Isle au Haut, Maine.

When we emerged from the woods, we came upon a beach covered in smooth black and gray stones. The kids perched on a rock at the edge of the water and howled in delight as the surf crashed up in their faces. It was better than the water park. We listened to the song of the rocks as they tumbled in the retreating waves. Jeff had brought along our Trek-Light hammock and strung it between two dead trees. As he swung in the breeze and the kids explored, I decided to finish the loop, swinging by camp for hiking boots left behind (Aidan had set out in his flip flops). I did most of the route at a jog, which is a great way to get the ya-yas out when hiking with kids. Lap them.

We continued the hike together, picking our way along the rocky shoreline. On the next beach, Aidan discovered a lobster claw bleached alabaster in the sun and salt air. Some seven inches long, it must have belonged to one gigundus crustacean. Aidan sketched the claw in his nature journal and brought it back to the lean-to to leave alongside the Charmin and Nescafe for future campers to enjoy.

The next morning, I took stock of our pantry, unloaded in a metal lock box affixed to the back of the lean-to. (It keeps the squirrels out.)  It occurred to me then that we may have miscalculated.

“Um, Jeff… I don’t think we have enough food,” I said.

“Huh? Really? You’re kidding. Didn’t you write a book about this?” he asked, in perhaps not the kindest tone.

My first survivalist move was to dig yesterday’s sandwich bread (very nice ciabatta rolls, by the way) from our garbage bag. Jeff fried it up in the pan over our backpacking stove with a little olive oil. It was most delicious. The kids were concerned.

“What do you mean, it’s Dumpster Toast???” they cried.

Fueled on said toast, we headed off for a full-day hike. We made a decision to take a trail designated “difficult.” It was 1.2 miles up and over Duck Harbor Mountain to the eastern side of the island. Our theory was that the kids would be engaged by the climbing of rocks and the vistas we’d see.

Indeed, the kids loved following the blue trail blazes and cairns (Anya called them “caribiners”) and scrambling up the rocks. We stopped on top, had our lunch of summer sausage, cheese, apples, and simulated peanut butter product (Quinn has allergies) mixed with jelly on rolled tortillas. The kids took time to make rubbings of the US Coast Guard Survey markers in their nature journals. We made our way down the serpentine trail covered in gnarled roots through thin cracks in giant rocks to Squeaker Cove, where the kids changed into swim suits and braved the frigid Atlantic water. On the beach we found giant black feathers (a loon, maybe), the drying skin of a seal, a collection of bones picked clean, and a small skull.

We hiked the two miles on a dirt road back to the lean-to, where we made pad thai spruced up with shredded and fried carrots. Both Jeff and I had started to back off on our portion sizes to make sure the kids had enough. As soon as one child said he was full, we both reached for the bowl. I told Jeff we were on the Isle au Haut fat farm, a radical survivalist approach to weight loss.

Read on: High Adventure on Isle au Haut: Part II.


  1. Cyndi Kester says:

    Definitely read on to Part 2!!


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