Hiking trails are like old friends: It’s good to revisit them periodically.
Each hike is unique if we open ourselves to it. From day to day, birds and wildlife come and go, and the weather changes. Hiking in the rain isn’t my favorite thing, but I have had some great experiences doing it. Likewise with snow and cold. People who only hike when it is warm and pleasant miss a lot more than cold feet; no one can know a place until they’ve experienced all its moods and seasons.
This was what I told myself as I drove down to Mount Desert Island for a hike. The bank’s thermometer in Somesville read 6 degrees; a north wind blew spindrift across the road. I wondered if I was up for Acadia Mountain’s current mood.
Once in the woods, the only sounds were and the wind in the treetops and my ragged breath as I hiked through the knee-deep snow. The scrub pines were encased in stiffened snow that made a sound like a snow plow on asphalt as the trees shifted back and forth. Some branches were heavy with great lumps of snow, others bare or only dusted white.
As the trail climbed a rocky outcropping, I carefully placed my poles and dug steps with the toes of my boots. I still fell forward into the fluffy powder. Beneath the snow, the granite was coated with a layer of ice.
Despite the cold, the exertion made me hot. I unzipped my jacket and took off my hat. Every time I stopped, my breath fogged my glasses; as soon as I moved again, the winter-dry air sucked the moisture away.
After a short, straight climb through tall pines, the trail wound from ledge to ledge. I would climb three to six feet — often stumbling on slick granite — then hike gradually up to the next ledge among scrub pines that hung low over the trail. Near the top I stopped to drink, enjoying the sensation of being hot and cold at the same time.
Above me the wind had blown the granite bare in places and driven the snow from the trees to collect in deep drifts in low places and between boulders. From the summit cairn, Somes Sound was a restless gray, reflecting the clouds.
Beyond the Cranberry Islands, the Gulf of Maine lay impassive beneath the gray, choppy sky. Under this flat light, the snow around me looked like drifts of ash, the pines and leafless beeches nearly black.
In the wind on the exposed summit, my heat dissipated almost as soon as I stopped moving. I lingered long enough to take a few photos and then followed the trail down into the saddle between the two summits. I waded through waist-deep snow in the dark beneath scrub pines and stunted birch. I crossed the second summit without stopping, jumping 6 feet down to the trail.
The trail down the mountain was much steeper than the one I had ascended. I avalanched from ledge to ledge in clouds of powder, descending a giant staircase all the way to Man-O-War Stream in the valley between Acadia and St. Sauveur Mountains.
A chickadee scolded me from a nearby birch tree, then flew off across the mountainside as the only bird I saw the entire hike.
I crossed the stream on two snow-covered logs. The sinuous ribbon of burbling water was wildly out of place in this landscape. I stood in the middle of the bridge, looking downstream; just beyond the tangle of cedar limbs, the stream dropped, cascading into Somes Sound. Five hundred years ago Samuel de Champlain moored his ship beyond the falls and sent his crew ashore to refill the water casks. I knelt on the bridge, removed my gloves, and scooped a handful of cold water into my mouth. Squirrel and hare tracks wound among the trees along the stream.
Beyond the bridge the trail turned right and followed the stream on an old roadbed. I walked next to hare tracks for a hundred yards. In the calm of the valley, the trees were evenly loaded with snow. Above me the beech trees popped like rifle fire as their frozen crowns resisted the wind. Fox tracks came out of the woods, turned and followed the hare tracks. Farther on, both sets of tracks turned into a spruce thicket. Neither animal had been hurrying; each of us may have shared this trail on different days.
Walking on the wide, relatively flat trail, I drifted into a state of semi-consciousness. Feet worked through the snow, arms rhythmically moving the poles forward with each stride.
From a small rise, I could see tracks across the trail: mine from three hours ago. I followed my own footprints back to the road. The salty pavement felt foreign underfoot. Next to my car, I looked back the way I had come; I had initially been wary of Acadia Mountain’s mood, but had, in the end, enjoyed it enough that I was hesitant to say good-bye.