Rain clouds hovered overhead but didn’t leak. The air was still; the trees, almost bare.
On the carriage trails of Acadia National Park, fallen foliage covered the ground, collected in the ditches and clogged the culverts. It was time to prepare the park roads for winter traffic and spring runoff. It was Take Pride in Acadia Day.
When would you possibly need 500 rakes in one place?
When 500 people volunteer to use them.
This year, a record number of people showed up at 8 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, to clean up the carriage roads for the 20th anniversary of Take Pride in Acadia Day. It wasn’t too much of a surprise after a summer of increased volunteerism in the park.
“We’ve seen consistent growth over the past few years, but this year was like a boom,” said Terry Begley, Friends of Acadia program and events coordinator.
“I’m still looking at the final count, but almost 50,000 hours were devoted to the park [this year by volunteers]. That’s an amazing amount,” said Jonathan Gormley, Acadia National Park volunteer coordinator.
Friends of Acadia partners with Acadia National Park to organize short-term volunteer programs in the park. In the summer, people wishing to volunteer show up at Acadia National Park Headquarters at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday to join crews to repair and maintain carriage roads and trails.
“Volunteerism is a huge part of what Friends of Acadia does, and we wouldn’t be able to do even a small percentage of what we do for the park without it,” said Aimee Beal, Friends of Acadia communications and outreach coordinator.
On Take Pride in Acadia Day, the volunteers clean up 12-15 miles of carriage roads in less than four hours. They tackle sections of road that need the most help — through maple and oak forests — while forgoing road sections traversing spruce forest.
“This is extremely important for the park just to take care of the carriage roads and avoid erosion, which is the biggest problem we have,” Gormley said.
“I think over the years, we’re seeing more interest in volunteerism from college groups,” Beal said. “And retirees who spend the summer in Acadia every year are really dedicated from year to year.”
The Unity College Wildlife Club has been attending Take Pride in Acadia Day for the past few years. Sometimes they run into biologists and other wilderness experts during the cleanup, and they spend the afternoon exploring the island.
“This is one of our biggest events,” said Unity College senior Madeline Meason.
I was placed in Group 4: Boy Scout Troop 287, a few longtime volunteers and two new volunteers — one of them being myself. A bus dropped groups off at checkpoints along the Eagle Lake loop, and a truck followed behind with rakes and tarps.
We missed our drop-off point and the bus couldn’t turn around in the narrow forest route, so we drove around the loop again to reach our destination. As we passed groups 1-3 on our way back around, they paused in their work and waved, some raising their rakes in the air.
They smiled the same smile I see on athletes’ faces during practice. Volunteerism makes people of all ages and walks of life into a team. That day, it was a team of 500 people donating their time for the same goal — to take care of the park.
“People just really like the park, and I think people really want to give something back and make a difference,” Gormley said. “It’s a social thing too, and that’s part of the reason people come back year after year.
“I use the park a lot, so this is fun and my way to pay it back — it’s the least I can do,” said Karen Greenberg of Bar Harbor, who has attended Take Pride in Acadia Day for the more than 10 years and was a member of Group 4.
The bus paused for us to disembark at our starting point. We picked our rake of choice — plastic or metal — and got to work. Some were better at piling the leaves on tarps to drag and dump in the woods, and some were better at muscling the heavy, damp leaves out of the ditches. It didn’t take long for the group to find a rhythm.
The Boy Scouts — Henry, 8, Jack, 9, and Michael, 8 — weren’t sure what to make of the task, but they kept together and worked without much complaint, only setting down their rakes occasionally for a few brief bouts in the forest. Sometimes Henry would pull a stick boat out of his pocket and sail it in the flooded ditch.
“I usually ride my bike in the park with my parents, and my class went on a field trip here,” said Henry, adding that if people didn’t volunteer to clean up the park, it “would be all messy.”
We learned more about each other as we worked side-by-side. Coats and vests were thrown in the back of the pickup as we worked up a sweat in the crisp November morning.
I scooped up a salamander — after nearly killing it with my rake — and walked down the road to place it in a safe spot, away from the path of the cleaning crew. Jack, in his green and black plaid coat, ran down the road and silently handed me my mittens, which I’d left in a pile of leaves.
The road ahead was orange with leaves and behind it was bare dirt, water flowing freely in the ditches. We progressed quickly, our pants splattered with mud, until we saw Group 5 down the road. The groups waved in acknowledgement and worked towards each other, meeting in the middle just as the bus pulled up.
“Check out this section right here. Pretty nice, isn’t it?” asked a boisterous man as he stepped in the bus.
Back at Park Headquarters rain sprinkled down on a fall picnic of steaming chili, cornbread and cider. Volunteers, sitting at tables scattered on the lawn, didn’t seem to mind.
For information about volunteer opportunities with Friends of Acadia, call Terry Begley at 288-3340 or visit www.friendsofacadia.org.