Almost Fearless

Acadia National Park: A Family’s Love Story

“Okay, one more minute, then we need to get going,” I said to four-year-old Levi, leaning through a cloud of mosquitoes to pick up 10-month-old George.

We were picnicking at one of the stone bridges of Acadia National Park, after a couple miles of biking the carriage roads. The mosquitoes had found us and we were scrambling to pack up and get back on our bikes. I handed George to my husband, John, so he could buckle him into the bike trailer and coaxed Levi up from the stream where he was throwing rocks, and back onto his bike for the ride home.

We were just crossing over the bridge when Levi took an abrupt right turn on his bike and —without a word—shot down the footpath that followed the creek.

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“Levi, STOP!” I shouted, as he disappeared into the forest, laughing.

John caught up with him a few minutes later, and for the rest of the trip he was smushed into the trailer against his baby brother. They looked up at us, all red-faced frowns, and sucked their thumbs.

As we pedaled back to the car I watched John, his back muscles working beneath his cotton shirt while he balanced Levi’s push-bike across his handlebars, the rented trailer bouncing along behind him holding our two small boys—dirty, cranky, and in need of naps. I smiled and breathed it all in. This moment had been many years in the making.

Falling in Love with Acadia and Each Other

Oysters and your lover, is there really anything else you need?

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This was our tenth year visiting the park together. John and I made our first visit to Acadia soon after we first met in Burlington, Vermont, 15 years ago. He’d gone to college in Maine and knew Acadia well. I’d recently moved to New England from Northern California and, though I missed our dramatic cliffs and big waves, I found that Acadia had a subtler magic. Its cliffs were more modest, the trees more human-scale, the air softer on my skin.

Acadia was the smell of pine trees in the sun and of briny seawater collecting in shallow pools. It was rounded, rock-faced mountain tops covered in swaths of wild blueberries and small trees twisted by fierce winter winds. It was miles of carriage roads unmarred by traffic from cars, with vistas of green mountains, all of it surrounded by the sea—sometimes blue-gray, other times an almost tropical green. It was the night sky, vast and brightly dotted with stars.

Cadillac Mountain sunset 👣

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And it was the two of us, falling more in love, with Acadia and each other, each year. Every summer, we made the trek from our home in Vermont, spending one magical week on the island. Days were spent biking the carriage roads. Evenings, we traded off cooking elaborate dinners at camp and indulging in the great restaurants that spanned the island. Sunsets would find us tipping back beers on a rocky beach or simply letting night fall as we sat by the campfire. Mornings we spent snuggling in the tent.

One perfect blue sky day we were swimming in Echo pond, when John took my slippery wet arms, drew me close, and said, “Marry me.”

Maine is a real beauty.

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After our wedding we began to try for a baby and on our next trip to Acadia, I was six weeks pregnant. Pictures show me holding a hand to my stomach, smiling. We imagined sharing these photos with our child years later: This was your first trip to Acadia!

We lost that baby at twelve weeks. Then a year later we lost another. Those summers, our trips to Maine had a sadness to them. We still enjoyed ourselves, but as we sat by our campfire at night, we keenly felt the presence of the families nearby. The children riding their bikes or calling to each other through the woods. Babies crying, then being comforted. Families bickering, laughing, taking their very family-ness for granted. Our own campsite felt quiet and lonely during those years.

But then it happened. Just before our fifth anniversary, I gave birth to a beautiful healthy boy. Three years later we had another. We couldn’t believe our luck. Nor could we believe our exhaustion. Acadia would have to wait, for a few years at least.

Back to Acadia, with Kids This Time

Exploring tidal pools.

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As Levi approached the mature old age of four, and George revealed himself to be a much easier baby than Levi had been, we decided it was time. We booked a site at Blackwoods Campground for late June when my brother’s family would be there, then took a practice camping trip in Vermont.

The practice trip didn’t go well, but I wasn’t willing to put off our Acadia trip any longer. We traded in our camping spot for an AirBnB rental—a cute place in Northeast Harbor with just enough room for my brother’s family, too.

And thank goodness we did. Two days before our vacation, George came down with a nasty ear infection. I appreciated the comforts of hot running water, soft bedding, and a safe place to put the baby down for a few moments.

Forays into the park were limited. There were no long carriage road rides. No hikes of more than half a mile. No campfires. No snuggles in the tent. But there were snuggles in the bed. As it turned out, all four of us shared one queen bed. We’d wake up each morning in a pile of children, still exhausted, to an exquisite donut smell drifting through the open windows. These donuts (from The Colonel’s Restaurant, just over our back fence), were amazing, and ended up being a staple of our trip.

We skipped the fine dining (miss you, Havana!), but hit up family-friendly Ruth & Wimpy’s on our way to the Schoodic Peninsula, where I finally realized that the giant lobster and boat out front were more than a tourist-luring cliché—they were a play area for kids.

There were trips to the beach and late-night glow stick parties with the cousins. There was the morning we braved the crowds of Bar Harbor so Levi could spend the $20 he’d saved and he found the perfect stuffed octopus, (his “favorite animal in the whole world”).

And there were endless drives around the island, trying desperately to get our cranky kids to nap. It was on one of those drives that we happened upon Beale’s Lobster Pier. Besides the great food, the boys were able to watch the boats coming in and unloading their catch.  They were in heaven.  Levi spent almost an hour skipping stones at the water’s edge.

There was also one glorious, child-less bike ride. One night, after we’d spent nearly two hours getting our children to sleep, John and I tossed the baby monitor to my brother and hopped on our bikes. We felt deliciously free, riding our bikes down a quiet, dark road to the ocean, with our children asleep behind us. We left our helmets off and let the wind take our hair.

biking the carriage trails on another gorgeous day.

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The next day we were up early, loading the children into the car for low tide.

We drove to Bar Harbor, where at low tide a strip of sand emerges, linking the main island with tiny Bar Island. We were among the first people there, and the morning was pleasantly sunny, with a soft breeze.

Levi had a blast filling his small red bucket with snails, then dumping them into the water and starting over again, while George watched from his perch in the backpack. For breakfast, we chose a spot high up where the sand was almost dry. Sitting in a circle, we shared two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches between the four of us. George’s mouth was covered with as much sand as jelly.

The cold temps, and changing leaves in the smokies has me ready for fall. — 🎶: Andrew Belle // New York

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That morning ended, like all our family trips to the beach, in tears. We buckled our wet, sandy boys, still crying, into the back of our car and sighed.

But there we were: married, parents, still very much in love, driving down the road, glancing back at our children and speaking to each other with our eyes. We’re here. With them. And it’s perfect.

 

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Grace Per Lee

Grace Per Lee has gone diving on the Great Barrier Reef, come face-to-face with bears in Yosemite, and survived an accidental waterfall swim in Colorado. These days her adventures revolve more around her two young sons, but they're harrowing and thrilling nonetheless. She's based in Burlington, Vermont and works as a freelance copywriter, journalist, and non-profit poet covering everything from travel to parenting to energy efficiency. She ardently believes that anything (and anyone) can be interesting if you approach them with openness. Check out her blog, Dear Travel Agent, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

3 comments

  • My wife and I traveled to MDI and Acadia for thirty years with our kids growing into the ages of independence. We had a great time with five then four then … we moved to Hulls Cove a few years ago and we’ve seen some of our kids and grandkids here, they live all over the U.S., which is better than the globe as it was with one son, his wife and their five kids. We’re in Acadia on a daily basis and live in sight of Cadillac Mountain. The story I just “Experienced” was great. Well written and heartfelt.