‘Living my dream’

Posted May 28, 2009, at 8:12 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

SEAL HARBOR, Maine — Standing in the sun on a brilliant summer morning, Todd and Deanna Jordan excitedly wait for the wooden carriage to pull up. The massive draft horses stomp and jingle their harnesses, and Wildwood Stables manager Jim Axtel settles them with a click of his tongue.

A gentle breeze ruffles the horses’ manes and the air is sweet, carrying a gentle scent of the sea. Business meetings, financial pressures, stress or sadness seem very, very far away.

“This is one of those special things in life,” Todd Jordan says of his carriage ride around Acadia National Park.

“It’s good for the soul,” his wife adds.

The vacationing couple from New York are two of 20,000 people who will come this season to Wildwood Stables, which is tucked into the Seal Harbor side of the park.

The 18 draft horses bask in the sun on this summer morning, dozing quietly or rolling in the dirt, but each will take its turn pulling one of six hand-made Amish carriages on the park’s 50 miles of carriage roads.

For the first time in more than a decade, the stable’s concessionaire is from Maine.

The new contractor, Michael Carpenter, is a lawyer in Houlton and was Maine’s attorney general from 1991 to 1994. His name may be associated more closely with high-profile criminal cases such as those of Dennis Dechaine or Katherine Hegarty, or ballot tampering and sexual predators, than it is with horses, but Carpenter said horses always have been a part of his life. His father was a blacksmith and used draft horses on the family’s Aroostook County potato farm.

Carpenter took over the 10-year concession at Wildwood this year as Carriages of Acadia Inc., offering carriage rides and “vacation with your horse” packages that can include primitive campsites and stable services. Ten of his own draft horses are now stabled on the island.

Wildwood consists of several new barns, a stunning 1911 barn, restrooms, paddocks and rustic campsites.

Dave Blanchard, 70, is one of several experienced drivers at Wildwood and entertains with campfire stories and singing.

“I was born in a lumber camp and when I was 10 years old I got my first paying job driving horses,” Blanchard said. “I told [Carpenter] I was old and quite a bit lazy, but he hired me anyway. I’ve been horsin’ around my entire life.”

Blanchard said, “I love the people who come and ride on my carriage. I have a passion about the history of the farm and park. It is always hard for me to see the season end.”

Sara Doucette is a senior at the University of Maine in Orono in the preveterinarian program. She and Amanda White are learning to be teamsters from Blanchard.

Also driving at Wildwood this summer are Tyler Norris of Palmyra and Chris Fraser of Plymouth, who both log the Maine woods with horses in the winter season.

“This is a premier program and we have only three or four jobs,” Axtel said. “We had applicants from everywhere, as far away as California.”

Axtel lives just a few feet away from the paddocks. “I need to be close to the horses,” he said. “For me, it is all about the horses and what is right for them.”

Axtel was a teamster — a person who drives horses — and logged in Pennsylvania when Carpenter called and asked whether he was interested.

“What a beautiful thing this is. I’m living my dream,” Axtel said, although he added it didn’t look so dreamy when he arrived in Maine last winter on a day that was 22 degrees below zero to discuss the position.

Returning to the park a few weeks ago, Axtel brought eight of his own draft horses with him. The breeds are diverse at Wildwood — Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians and the rare Suffolk Punch. Axtel said there are only 1,700 Punches in existence and five are at Wildwood.

Carpenter explained that the 50 miles of carriage roads, created by John D. Rockefeller between 1913 and 1940, were specifically created for horses. Stretching from Hulls Cove in the northern reaches of the park, the carriage roads crisscross their way southward all the way to Long Pond and Seal Harbor on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, covering more than 15,000 acres. These roads, made primarily of crushed stone, are an engineering masterpiece with tunnels, stone bridges, long climbs, and natural archways of fir, hemlock, birch and maple.

“They are the best example of broken-stone roads in the United States. For those of us who love to trail ride or drive, these roads offer some of the most breathtaking views in New England,” Carpenter said. “Couple these vistas with the cultural history and the attractiveness of Down East Maine in the summer and you have a most sought after horse destination.”

Over the past 10 years, more than $3 million has been invested in improvements at the stables, including four new barns for overnight stabling. One million dollars of these improvements were made by the National Park Service using a percentage of the concessionaire’s gross receipts in return for using government-owned land and buildings.

In addition, Friends of Acadia, a park partner and supporter, has donated more than $2 million for carriage road maintenance and also donated two accessible carriages for use by visitors with mobility impairments.

Wildwood offers a range of carriage ride choices: one hour sightseeing, a cobblestone bridge tour, sunset rides, tea and popover rides, as well as private charters are available.

For vacationers who want to bring their own horse for trail riding, overnight stabling can be arranged.

Returning from their carriage ride, the Jordans from New York pronounced it “amazing and wonderful.”

“We’ll be back next year,” they said.

Wildwood is open from June 6 to Oct. 18 and reservations are required. For more information, call toll-free 877-276-3622 or e-mail atcarriagesofacadia@yahoo.com.

bdnpittsfield@myfairpoint.net

487-3187

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