BAR HARBOR, Maine — For many people on Mount Desert Island hoping to see the president and his family, the first day of their visit was like a surreal game of hide-and-seek.
From a Main Street ice cream shop to the top of Cadillac Mountain to their arrival in a boat at a waterfront restaurant, it was hard to predict where the Obamas would appear after their noon arrival in Maine at the Trenton airport.
“Interest is pretty high,” said Kelsy Mitchell, an employee of Aquaterra Adventures. “It’s a topic of conversation everywhere, for sure.”
Her friend and co-worker Adam Mort summed up the mood of the day.
“It’s like — did you see him?” he said.
The excitement began before the Obamas’ plane touched down with people gathering outside the airport and along the expected route the motorcade would take onto MDI.
Kim Arbour of Augusta was one of the first to see the Obamas’ arrival. She sat in a picnic chair at Hadley Point in Bar Harbor along with a few relatives, across Eastern Bay from the airport, to see the presidential jet land. Arbour, Steve Collins of Hermon and Don McDaniel of Corinna are part of a large family group that stays at a nearby campground every July.
“We’ve had our reservations since January,” Arbour said as she peered through binoculars at the sky across the bay.
She said she and her family weren’t necessarily big fans of Obama. They were mainly impressed that the president was about to arrive in their state.
“It’s [more] to think he’s coming to Maine,” she said.
A few Southwest Harbor residents waited in Hulls Cove to see the presidential motorcade drive past on Route 3, not knowing it would end up taking another route into Bar Harbor. All had worked locally on Obama’s 2008 campaign and were wearing campaign clothing to show their support.
When asked what they thought the Obamas should do during their visit, the residents suggested visiting Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse or Seawall on the west side of MDI. They also suggested several restaurants in Southwest Harbor and neighboring Tremont, but then corrected themselves about one of them.
“They shouldn’t go there,” Mary Jellison said. “[The owners] are Republicans.”
Though people cheered and waved at the presidential motorcade when it left Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport and headed for the island early in the afternoon, others who lined the sides of Route 3 in Hulls Cove were disappointed when the president’s convoy took another route to its first stop for biking at Witch Hole Pond.
Spectators ranging from children to the elderly had gathered there with flags, signs and even an oxygen tank as they waited. As the hours passed, even the most hopeful started to clear out.
“I’m sad,” said Breax Higgins, 12, of Hulls Cove. “I wanted to see them. I’ve never seen a president before in my life.”
His friend Hunter Riddell, 12, of Town Hill took it philosophically.
“It’s a bit disappointing, but you can’t really blame him,” Hunter said. “He’s a busy guy.”
Crowds near the airport had better presidential satisfaction, including Josh Mitchell of Town Hill, who brought his two sons to show them “the most powerful man in the world.”
“I think it’s awesome,” he said.
That seemed to be the consensus of most of the people gathering to spot Obama and his family — but not everyone.
Josh Davis, a summer employee of Lunt’s Gateway Lobster Pound, kept busy during the heat by trying to shoo cars away from the restaurant’s parking lot unless they belonged to actual diners.
“I think it’s too much hype for what it’s worth,” he said. “I think he’s coming in here and inconveniencing a bunch of people. It’s taking away from the small businesses.”
However, when the big white jet zoomed into the small airport bearing the official seal of the United States of America on its side, excitement ruled the day.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said Bob Hartley of Trenton, who carried a big banner that read, “Welcome 4 Obamas.” “I hope he has a peaceful weekend. He gets enough politics all week long.”
Tiffany Keating of Ellsworth, 8, sat in a lawn chair and carried a homemade sign decorated with a lighthouse, a pine tree and a whale.
“Welcome to Bar Harbor Malia & Sasha,” she had written in red and green.
“I thought it would be nice,” she said.
Marnie Read of Morris Yacht watched as Secret Service agents checked mailboxes across the street from the airport and then marked them with spray paint. She said that agents had done the same thing earlier in the day to a brand-new yacht near the airport that the company decorated with a big sign that welcomed the Obamas to Maine and promoted the state’s boat-building industry.
“We’re thrilled,” she said. “It’s the president of the United States, coming to our part of the world.”
Small group of protesters
A small group of protesters near the Grange hall held Ron Paul signs aloft and also a sign that had a large, unflattering photo of the president and just one word: “Fraud.”
“We just want to wake people up and spread the truth,” said Clark Leach of Winslow, who is part of an organization called Change Maine.
As he talked a little about his political convictions, a young woman crossed busy Route 3 to confront him.
“I don’t care if you think he’s a fraud,” said Julia Dobner-Pereira of Shrewsbury, Mass. “That is extremely insensitive on a human level.”
A Waterville man calling himself Troy Truth took video of the brief encounter.
“Nice. That’s what I wanted,” the Ron Paul supporter said. “Welcome to YouTube.”
Afternoon ice cream cones
One Bar Harbor business welcomed the Obamas’ arrival when they walked in the front door to get some ice cream cones. At Mount Desert Island Ice Cream on outer Main Street, owner and Obama supporter Linda Parker learned one new thing today: The Hawaiian-born president likes coconut.
Michelle Obama, on the other hand, prefers chocolate.
“They were such a lovely family. They really were,” she said after helping serve the first family takeout ice cream cones. “She was totally charming. He was charming. The kids were such nice kids.”
Parker said she suspected something was afoot earlier that day.
“We had a lot of people lurking around,” she said. “Their shirts were too pressed to be vacationers.”
The tidily dressed Secret Service agents checked her shop, and then, while she was in the middle of making a batch of chocolate ice cream, she was told the president would come by in 10 minutes.
“We wanted it to be a relaxing experience,” Parker said. “But of course we were totally excited.”
Malia chose cookies and cream and Sasha chomped on a Candy Shoppe cone.
Parker said she was mindful of the first lady’s interest in healthy eating.
“Everybody got normal-sized cones,” she said.
The president pulled money out of his wallet to pay for the afternoon treat.
“They were good tippers,” Parker said.
Dinner arrival by boat
By early evening, the predominantly receptive mood on MDI for the Obamas was on full display when the first family returned to Bar Harbor’s downtown waterfront after a brief boat tour of Frenchman Bay. Around 5:30 p.m., as the Miss Anne, owned by Acadia National Park, came in past the end of the municipal pier and then pulled up at a floating dock at Stewman’s Downtown restaurant, hundreds of onlookers cheered and waved from the pier and from West Street, where the restaurant is located.
“It’s exciting,” said Kelley Munger of Birmingham, Ala. “I saw Obama on the boat!”
After the Obamas sat down for dinner, many people lingered for more than an hour along the south side of West Street, the north side having been cleared of pedestrians by Secret Service and law enforcement officials. Later, when the Obamas left the restaurant and climbed into a black SUV for the ride back to their hotel, the waiting crowds outside clapped and cheered again.
Some businesspeople who didn’t have a chance to welcome the family on Friday were hoping they might stop by later in the trip, including Cathy Walton, manager of the Reading Room Restaurant at the Bar Harbor Inn.
Employees there had joined in with the cheering and waving from the restaurant’s porch as the first family cruised past on the park service boat.
“We have a picture of President Taft when he visited here on July 20, 1910,” Walton said. “We were hoping to get a picture of President Obama to put beside President Taft, 100 years later. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”