Even in fog, Acadia tugs hearts with scenic charm

WHEN visiting Acadia National Park, on the seacoast of Maine, it helps to be the kind of person who thinks that fog is romantic. Actually, fog does more for this part of the world than it does for most other places; you could become a fog convert here. It hangs in pine trees, delicately blurs the flat, red-granite blocks piled along the gray shoreline, and adds poignancy to the boom of a foghorn or the clang of a bell.

Perhaps because of the foggy weather, perhaps because of the time of year, the park's Loop Road was virtually deserted as I drove along it in May. In summer, traffic is bumper to bumper; but now I found myself recognizing my three or four fellow travelers by the look of their headlights in the fog.

In obedience to my Loop Road touring tape, I paused at Frenchmans Bay, looking out at what should have been the Porcupine Islands. Here, back in the 1750s or so, when Britain and France were battling over the New World, French frigates hid from English men-of-war. Nothing was visible, and I wondered how those ships had managed to avoid the rocks in weather like this. (They probably dropped anchor and took a break for the day.)

The fog was rather romantic. Still, on a sunny day, you'd be far more likely to compare the park to Arcadia, which has been a symbol of rustic peace since the Golden Age of Greece.

Actually the name is sort of a mistake. Explorer Giovanni da Verrazano landed near Cape Fear, in North Carolina, in March 1524 and named the area Arcadia. Cartographers of the day, coping with incomplete information, kept moving the name around until it included what is now Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and, in the process, dropped the ``r'' to make it Acadia.

Acadia was the first national park established east of the Mississippi and the first to be privately owned and then returned to public ownership.

Thus its 38,000 acres hopscotch around Mount Desert Island (named by the French explorer Samuel de. Champlain, and pronounced by most natives ``dessert'' -- a Maine Frenchification -- in his honor). The park also includes half of Isle au Haut, some distance down the coast.

Because of its winding geography, Acadia also has many entrances and exits -- I found myself suddenly ejected from it and bowling toward a little neighboring town any number of times. Simply staying on the Loop Road requires some alertness on the part of the traveler.

The shape of Mount Desert testifies to its glacial past. Louis Agassiz, discoverer of the role of glaciers in shaping the land, spent a lot of time here.

The glaciers are now thought to have covered this area to a height of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, leaving some 17 mountains behind. Somes Sound, billed as the only fjord in the Eastern United States, cuts the island almost in half. The shoreline is all islands and bays, inlets, and peninsulas.

One of the reasons Acadia was of such interest to early explorers was that it was always a landmark.

``It used to be important for sailors because the summits are devoid of tree growth,'' says Lois Winter, a National Park Service ranger. Today this has other advantages: ``One of the really appealing things about Acadia for hikers is that you get 360-degree views on top,'' she points out.

The park gets 4 million visitors a year, according to Ms. Winter, who says: ``The place is crawling with folks in July and August. July is busy. August is busier.''

She utters the usual Park Service lament: People stay in their automobiles or close by. Even in summer, she adds, if you leave your car behind, you'll have the back country all to yourself.

Winter catalogs the many delights of the park: 120 miles of hiking trails, mountains and seashore, an intertidal zone, bogs, interesting geology, birds, and an intriguing cultural history.

In summer, these aspects are illuminated by ranger talks and outings.

`` `Life Between the Tides' is really popular,'' she says. ``We have buckets of critters in tide pools; rangers hold things up as people sit around. Most [talks] are open for anyone who wants to show up, though for some we have a limit of 125 people.''

Other popular events include the Bass Harbor cruise, led by a local lobsterman and focusing on lobstering and natural history; the Frenchmans Bay cruise, ``often the best wildlife cruise,'' Winter says, featuring eagles, harbor porpoises, seals, ducks, and osprey; geology hikes; and a beaver watch (beavers not guaranteed).

Acadia is also famous for its 327 species of birds. In summer, many migrate here and stay to breed, while in winter this is ``their Florida,'' she says, for birds that nest in the Arctic.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Acadia is not its natural but its cultural history. This area has always attracted interesting people. One early settler, a social climber who dubbed himself Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, found the place uncongenial and went on to found the city of Detroit.

Then there were the ``rusticators,'' high-spirited and artistic types like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who stayed with the local people and went for picnics and buckboard rides.

Later came the Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Rockefellers, who built ``cottages'' (summer mansions) here, gave dances and musicales, and played tennis.

The depression and World War II put a stop to this era; then, as the coup de gr^ace, in 1947 a fire consumed many of the cottages, as well as one-third of the park and much of Bar Harbor. Some of the houses that remain can be seen from the water, but they're privately owned and can't be visited, Winter added.

You can recognize the area where the fire was by the newer growth. Instead of spruce and pine, you'll see birches, maples, and aspen. One beneficiary has been the white tail deer, which likes the sunnier, more open habitat.

Many of the aristocratic families who summered here may be gone, but two of them are largely responsible for Acadia as it is today. George B. Dorr, a wealthy Boston textile heir, spent his life amassing most of the land used to create it. ``If it wasn't for George Dorr, there wouldn't be a park,'' Ms. Winter says firmly.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated 11,000 acres and added its popular carriage paths.

A carriage path is a hard gravel road not open to motor traffic. At the advent of the age of the automobile, the cottagers wanted the island off limits, while the local people, in a sort of showdown, wanted the cars. The locals won, so Mr. Rockefeller had his carriage roads, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, built for leisurely jaunts by horse and buggy. The result is wonderfully aesthetic, and terrific for horseback riding (there's a stable nearby), hiking, and biking, according to Winter. Practical information

The main visitors center is open May through November. There are two principal camping areas within the park. Seawall (214 campsites) is filled on a first-come basis. Blackwoods (306 campsites) accepts reservations (made by calling Ticketron) between June 15 and Sept. 15. Rangers' talks run from mid-June through early October. The year-round telephone number is (207) 288-3338.

Acadia is filled to capacity each night in summer. But 11 private campgrounds serve the overflow.

Noncampers must have room reservations in July and August.

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