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Around Mountain Loop

By: Jim Burnett

Our Jeep bumped its way up the long gravel driveway in the dark. Mookie, my extra-large Labradoodle, leaned forward between the two front seats and sniffed my ear as if to say, “Is this really a good idea?” Upon reaching the end of the driveway and before I had time to see if the coast was clear, a burly pickup truck flashed by in front of us and barreled on up Point Road toward Rte. 1 where it would join other lobstermen on their early morning commute. It was the Thursday after Labor Day 2021 in Hancock Point, Maine.

Having paid attention to the predicted path of Hurricane Larry on its romp up the east coast, I decided that the best opening to get in my last long run on the carriage roads of Acadia National Park this summer was today before 9:00 am. That was when the flailing storm, now a giant soggy windblown mass, was due to reach the Downeast coast. Mookie and I had crawled out of bed at 3:45 am, gathered our gear, food and drinks and headed out on the 45-minute trip to Acadia. As we turned left onto Point Road and followed the pickup truck into the darkness toward Rte. 1, I couldn’t help but think about everything that could go wrong on the long training run I had planned for today to prepare for my first marathon in more than two years.

Before COVID, I had big plans for running marathons in my 70s, following my birthday in February of 2020. Compared to the devastation and hardship suffered by so many millions of people worldwide who were infected by the Coronavirus and its variants, not to mention those who died or lost loved ones or their livelihood, my disappointment at having races canceled is a trivial matter, I know. But this summer, after vaccinations started to provide protection from the virus for most of the US population, and businesses, schools and outdoor events, including marathons, also opened back up, I started training again. In June I registered for the Mt Desert Island Marathon to solidify my commitment to running another marathon. I was not the only one eager to return to scenic places. Tourists from near and far were streaming to Acadia again with a renewed urgency as the threat of the next pandemic and the increasingly harmful effects of climate change played out before our eyes.  So, as Mookie and I wound our way along Mud Creek Road among the speeding lobstermen toward Acadia, I hoped the rain would hold off and my aging body would hold up. The MDI Marathon was only 38 days out.

It was still very dark when we reached the carriage road access point at Brown Mountain Gatehouse just outside Northeast Harbor. I missed the entrance to the unlit parking lot and made a U-turn. Still, we were the first to arrive. Lighting my headlamp, I hitched Mookie to his leash for our one-mile warmup run. Once on the trail we were relieved to stretch our legs, clear our heads and welcome the first signs of light filtering through the sweet-smelling fir trees. Fortunately, the south wind held off the oncoming rain to our west, at least for now. After the short warmup and with Mookie snuggled in the back of the Jeep, I stowed the headlamp, stripped down to a t-shirt, shorts and hat and laced up my Hoka Clifton 8s. To prevent blisters on the insides of my big toes, I had inserted soft orthotics in my shoes. At the last minute I decided to take a water bottle filled with an electrolyte solution. I had hydrated thoroughly before and after the warmup run with Mookie but took the extra bottle as an added precaution. I pushed the start button on my running watch and reentered the quiet forest. It was 5:46 am and there wasn’t a soul in sight. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my Cliftons was the only sound at first light. 

Applying the Jeff Galloway Run-Walk-Run Method (for this run - repeated 4-minute run, 30-second walk intervals), I eased my way down the smooth, winding path. It was time to relax and just enjoy running - one step, one breath, one heartbeat at a time. There are times when the body is tired. There are times when your goals seem meaningless. There are times when you just don’t want to push yourself. There are times when your soul is sick. This was not one of those times. This was a time when I felt like I could run forever. This was a time of hope and optimism. I hadn’t felt this way in a long time.

But, despite feeling excited about my training run, I couldn’t help worrying about the future of Acadia.

Bar Harbor hosts more than 200 cruise ships each summer, most carrying 1000+ passengers who swarm the streets of the quaint little town like a swarm of busy bees and clog traffic.  

Two years ago, the Town of Bar Harbor sought permission from the state to construct a ¼ mile pier to jut out into Frenchmen Bay to accommodate the mega-cruise ships. This effort was stalled but is still ongoing.

Now, due to overcrowding, if you want to drive up the auto road to see the view from the top of Cadillac Mt, you must first secure a parking reservation days in advance.

Most troubling, a Norwegian company is in the process of seeking permits to create a 100-acre salmon fish farm in Frenchmen Bay, right outside the Bar Harbor wharf.

So, as I cruised along, I wondered, “Would this be my last run on these pristine trails?” Shaking my head to dismiss these worries, I thought to myself, “Onwards! I am only 2.5 minutes into a 2.5 hour run and there is work to do. 

The Around Mountain loop circumnavigates Bald Peak, Parkman Mt, Gilmore Peak, Sargent and Penobscot Mts. I had chosen the longer loop that connects to the Aunt Betty Pond loop at the 5-mile mark. As I ran, I practiced my strategy for the upcoming marathon, which meant starting slowly and saving my legs for a strong finish. In my excitement, I found it difficult to hold back, and as I rounded the northernmost point on the loop, my pace continued to quicken. Turning south around the back side of Sargent Mt, the path goes up a steep pitch for one mile while crossing six little bridges, each jumping over a brook that curls down the slope toward Aunt Betty’s Pond. I slowed down a little as I wound my way up, but I still felt strong as I pushed up over the eastern shoulder of Sargent Mt. I knew a reward lay ahead. Running down the gentle slope on the east side of the loop overlooking Jordan Pond, the skies brightened as the sun rose over Pemetic Mt. The trail descended gradually for 2.5 miles toward Jordan Pond House. I was 7 miles in and still had not seen a soul. The sun’s rays sparkled on Jordan Pond. My spirits soared. I felt young again. 

As I approached the turnoff to Jordan Pond House, a woman with a wide-brimmed hat appeared and quietly walked by. Then a biker loudly announced his presence behind me and zipped past. From that point on, I shared the path with other bikers and walkers as I snaked my way around the southern slopes of Penobscot Mt and up and over Amphitheatre Bridge, an impressive stonework construction completed in 1931 featuring fashioned pink granite boulders. 

From its highpoint at Amphitheatre Bridge the path descended to the southernmost viewpoint overlooking Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Islands. There were only a couple of miles to go. At this point I wished the loop were longer so I could just keep running. I worked my way northward and finally back to the Brown Mountain Gatehouse parking lot where Mookie greeted me enthusiastically, tail wagging. It was 8:30 am and we had finished before the rain. 

By the time we turned into the driveway back on Hancock Point, the rain had finally started. I swerved to avoid the potholes. The wind was kicking up. After a quick soak in the ocean, I rejoined Mookie inside the cottage. It was time for a fire in the fireplace, something warm to eat and a good book to read.

The Run-Walk-Run Method has given me a new lease on life. There are times when I’m tired at the end of a run but often I finish feeling strong and energized. Hopefully, my reward will be that I can keep on running year after year and, hopefully, the Acadia carriage roads will last forever. 

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