These stories are another installment in “A view from Bubble Rock,” a periodic collection of news items about Acadia National Park and related topics. If you have news you’d like included as part of the series, leave a comment below, or contact us through the “About Us” page.
Note: The Thompson Island and Bear Brook picnic areas opened in September 2020 after being closed during the pandemic.
When Patrice T. Robitaille, a Washington economist, returned to her native Maine, she thought of taking her 85-year-old mother to the dramatic coast of the Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park this summer. The family has some nice memories from the 1960s and 1970s when they would take the trip from their home in the Bangor area for a family picnic on Thompson Island or a visit to the nearby Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound.
But after driving to Acadia National Park during the pandemic, Robitaille said in a phone interview that she was surprised and disappointed to find only a locked gate at an entrance road to the island picnic area.
Known for its vast flats at low tide, access to the shore and ocean views, the Thompson Island picnic area is located off a causeway on Route 3, about 10 miles north of the main part of the park on Mount Desert Island.
Thompson Island also has rest rooms with stalls and flush toilets and like all rest rooms, it needs to be cleaned more frequently during the pandemic. Thompson Island Picnic area is closed partly because Acadia National Park is dealing with a lean custodial staff to clean many park bathrooms and recently attempted without much luck to hire more custodians.
Some Acadia picnic areas, restrooms closed with too few custodians
Of the areas in the park with restroom facilities, Bear Brook off the Park Loop Road and Thompson Island picnic areas receive the lowest use and are still closed partly for that reason, according to Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist at Acadia.
Acadia wants to provide the greatest access to the most number of people, so across the 30 plus restroom facilities — with anywhere from one to multiple stalls — managed by the park, the least used ones are still closed, Anastasia wrote in an email.
“We had permission to expedite hiring for more custodians, outside of the normal federal hiring processes,” Anastasia wrote in an email. “We had about 7 people apply, and only one person accepted a tentative job offer. We tried to increase our custodial staff, but without too much luck.”
In order to help prevent exposure to COVID-19, Acadia is following CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting restrooms. That means it takes longer to clean restrooms and they need to be cleaned more often.
Robitaille, who grew up in Hampden outside Bangor, had traveled to Maine in March to see her father, Maurice Robitaille, who entered hospice in Orono and later died in June. She stayed in Maine partly to help her sister take care of her mother.
The closure of the relatively little-used Thompson Island picnic area is not getting a lot of attention or notice amid other pandemic-related adjustments at Acadia, but Robitaille said that maybe it should.
Her mother, Lorraine Robitaille, uses a walker and Thompson Island is an accessible coastal attraction for the physically disabled at Acadia. Robitaille was hoping her mother could use her walker for a short distance on the island’s grassy field to one of the picnic tables overlooking the ocean.
Robitaille arrived in Maine in mid-March well before the Maine quarantine order in late March.
What’s open, closed in Acadia National Park during the pandemic
Robitaille said the elderly and the vulnerable are bearing a large burden from the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the elderly, it’s a hard time,” she said.
Offering close-up views of Mount Desert Narrows, the picnic area has a large parking lot near its shore and tables and is also known for bird watching in Acadia.
In more high-profile actions at Acadia National Park during the pandemic, the NPS has closed two campgrounds for the season and is delaying the opening of two others – Schoodic Woods and Blackwoods – until no earlier than Aug. 1. The incredibly popular, fare-free Island Explorer shuttle system never started this year and has been indefinitely postponed.
The Nature Center at Sieur de Monts, noted for a climate change exhibit, is also closed, although mask-wearing rangers and volunteers provide visitor information from behind a plastic shield.
On the bright side for visitors, the Park Loop Road, about 150 miles of hiking trails, carriage roads, the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach and other attractions are all open at Acadia National Park during the pandemic. Limited ranger-led activities are being held including carriage road bike tours and the Frenchman Bay cruise, according to the park web site.
Visitation at Acadia was down 35 percent in May to 213,000, the most recent month available for statistics, but the Park Loop Road was closed until June 1. There were some backups at the Sand Beach Entrance Station on July 4 and rangers helped move traffic along.
On Mount Desert Island, park picnic areas with bathrooms that are open include Fabbri, Pretty Marsh and Seawall.
Squirrel scares NPS staffer at Bass Harbor Head Light
At least one National Park Service staffer was “rudely frightened” by a bold squirrel that dug into the vacant Bass Harbor Head Light Station.
The squirrel, usually a tree dweller, was living in the basement of the 1858 Keeper’s Dwelling, which is joined by a covered way to the 1858 lighthouse. The squirrel entered sometime after the Coast Guard vacated the Keeper’s Dwelling nearly a decade ago.
According to the “Bass Harbor Head Light Station Historic Structure Report,” by the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center, the rodent gained access through the entrance vestibule foundation behind a modern concrete front stair.
The squirrel was discovered during a visit by the Historic Preservation Center team in May 2019.
“At Bass Harbor Head Light Station, at least one squirrel has made its home in the basement of the Keeper’s Dwelling — and rudely frightened a member of the HPTC team,” the report said.
No word on the type of squirrel, but the reddish-brown Eastern Red Squirrel is abundant in Acadia and the most likely type to enter a building and build nests, according to the state of Maine.
Ownership of the 2.75-acre Bass Harbor Head complex was transferred from the US Coast Guard to Acadia National Park on July 8, completing an effort that began in 2017. The complex has been vacant since 2012 after the Coast Guard’s commander of the Southwest Harbor Station stopped using the keeper’s dwelling as a residence.
The National Park Service is hopeful of finding a partner to staff, operate and maintain the lighthouse and other buildings, maybe, for instance, a nonprofit group such as Eastern National, which supports education and preservation efforts at National Parks through the sale of books and other products and services, or the Tremont Historical Society.
The report by the NPS urged removal of the squirrel and other pests like mice, which had infested the Keeper’s Dwelling and in the attic insulation of the Bell House.
Virtual meeting blocked for Acadia Advisory Commission
Note: Following publication of this article, Acadia National Park agreed to hold a virtual meeting of the Acadia Advisory Commission at 1 pm on Sept. 14.
Though many cities and towns and organizations in Maine have used videoconferencing technology for official meetings, the chairman of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission said the park recently shot down his request for a virtual meeting during the pandemic.
Fred Ehrlenbach, chair of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, said he asked to hold a video-conference meeting of the commission’s June 1 meeting using commercial technology, but was told by the deputy superintendent of Acadia that park officials have their own Department of Interior proprietary software and are not allowed to use commercial versions for official meetings of government bodies. The proprietary software is not accessible to the general public, he said.
“Acadia National Park can’t do virtual meetings using Zoom or Google or any of the other software,” such as Microsoft Teams, Ehrlenbach said in an interview.
Acadia issued a press release, with Superintendent Kevin Schneider saying safety is the No. 1 priority and it was not practicable to meet in person amid the public health crisis. The June 1 meeting of the commission was postponed until further notice.
Ehrlenbach, of Trenton said he was disappointed Zoom or other videoconferencing software was not an option but he said that’s the way it is.
“We could hold a Zoom meeting among the commission members but the park service would not be able to participate so there is no purpose to having a commission meeting,” he said.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills in mid-March signed an emergency law that allows municipalities to hold remote public meetings using Zoom or similar applications with required participation by the public.
The next meeting of the commission is scheduled for Sept. 14, according to a notice in the Federal Register.
Global pandemic delays work on Eagle Lake Carriage Road
The rehabilitation of the Eagle Lake Carriage Road is being delayed a year, along with initial clearing for new parking for the popular carriage road.
The pandemic has contributed to the delay of the start of work, according to Anastasia, public affairs specialist at Acadia. “We don’t know yet about the timing of the Eagle Lake Carriage Road rehabilitation…there is a solicitation out now,” she wrote in an email.
She referred to a federal website that showed the National Park Service’s contracting services division in Denver is currently seeking bids for the Eagle Lake Carriage Road and the project would start about April 15 , 2021 and must be finished by Nov. 15, 2021, according to project specifications, a year after the original target end date.
Across the country, many federal construction projects stalled, with employees required to stay at home, travel restrictions such as the Maine quarantine order and some businesses closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, among other issues.
The Eagle Lake Carriage Road is a 6-mile trip around massive 436-acre Eagle Lake with side routes to Bubble Pond, Jordan Pond, Witch Hole Pond, and around Sargent Mountain.
Acadia issued a press release in December, saying bicyclists, hikers and other users should expect closures on the carriage road from one intersection to another from about April 15 to Nov. 15 of this year. Instead, the delay means people are so far enjoying a summer of unfettered use of the carriage road.
The reconstruction of the carriage road, estimated to cost between $1 and $5 million, is also connected to plans for a new parking lot for the Eagle Lake Carriage Road. The contractor would need to build a construction access road to connect to a pit that would eventually become the new lot.
Acadia’s final transportation plan, released in March 2019, calls for the existing small parking lot on the north side of SR 233 at Eagle Lake to be removed and replaced with a new 125-space parking lot constructed south of the highway at an NPS 2-acre maintenance storage yard known as Liscomb Pit.
The Eagle Lake Carriage Road only has limited parking, During the season, numerous cars park on the shoulder of Route 233, causing safety and traffic problems.
As part of the Eagle Lake Carriage Road project, the contractor would need to build a temporary access road to the Liscomb Pit, which would be the staging and materials area for the carriage road project. When the work on the carriage road is done, the pit would be cleared and left ready for the planned new parking lot, said John T. Kelly, management assistant for Acadia National Park, in an interview in May.
If the Eagle Lake Carriage Road project is delayed to 2021, that would also delay the Liscomb Pit parking project another year or two, Kelly said.
The work on the carriage road itself will include compacting and regrading the crushed-stone surface, improving drainage, rehabilitating three Eagle Lake Little Bridges, controlling erosion and repairing and replacing culverts including reconstructing stone masonry headwalls on culverts. It is the last stretch of such rehabilitation on Acadia’s 45 miles of historic carriage roads, built with funding by John D. Rockefeller Jr.
The lake, a public water supply for Bar Harbor, was named by Hudson River School artist Frederic E. Church, after eagles he watched fly over its waters while painting on Mount Desert Island in the mid-1800s, according to the NPS’s “Guide’s Guide to Acadia National Park.”
The NPS’s Denver office held a virtual site visit of the carriage road work on July 7. Sealed bids are due July 20.
Acadia eyes new Hulls Cove Visitor Center
Acadia National Park is moving ahead with some preliminary work on a new Hulls Cove Visitor Center, aiming to make it more of a destination and transportation hub for travelers.
As spelled out in the park’s final Transportation Plan, the 270-space parking lot at the center would be expanded by 200 to 250 spaces and designed to separate bus circulation from passenger vehicles. Depending on funding and site constraints, the center would be redesigned and relocated on-site, but on grade with the parking lot, ending the need to climb a steep 52 steps to reach the center. Also, the center could be doubled in size with a new theater and office space for park employees and partners.
John T. Kelly, management assistant at Acadia, said the park does have funding this year for “pre-design” work on the new center, a process that involves testing concepts in the transportation plan out in the field. The process could produce initial designs of parking, bus turnarounds and stops, as well as space needed for the new center.
“We would really like to see it become almost a destination in itself, a rainy day destination perhaps, with a museum, exhibits and information that tell the story of Acadia, which isn’t told by the park service in any one location now,” Kelly said in an interview in May.
“I can’t think of a national park that doesn’t have something like that already. That is a long time need for the park.”
The past two years have also seen some changes at the center, located off of Route 3 in Hulls Cove.
The Hulls Cove center opened about two months late last year after it received $1.2 million in renovations including digital displays and exhibits, new carpeting, sound dampening design and materials to reduce noise in the center and a separate entrance to the park store from outside the building.
The visitors center opened with the Park Loop Road on June 1, but with several modifications to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The biggest change is that rangers with masks provide information outside in open-air tents from four separate booths with plastic shields.
Restrooms inside the building are available and the Eastern National book store is open also inside.
No entrance passes are available at Hulls Cove. Acadia National Park during the pandemic is urging online purchase and printing of entrance passes. Sales of passes are available at The Sand Beach Entrance Station from 7 am to 7 pm daily and at the Schoodic Woods Ranger Station on the Schoodic Peninsula from 9 am to 4 pm daily.
The Hulls Cove Visitor Center is open 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily.
State FAQ defines Maine quarantine order, spells out mask use
The state of Maine has an updated 23-page “COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions” that defines a quarantine in a way that allows hikers and others to exercise in Acadia National Park during isolation.
Gov. Janet Mills, who extended the state of civil emergency to Aug. 6, issued a Maine quarantine order that requires out of state visitors to quarantine for 14 days or test negative for COVID-19.
The updated FAQ says that If you are self-quarantining, “you cannot go to public places even for essential reasons, including grocery stores.”
But it goes on to say that “you may leave for outdoor exercise activities, such as swimming, hiking, provided that you abide by physical distancing guidelines and avoid contact with other people.”
States exempt from the Maine travel restrictions are New Hampshire, Vermont and three bigger states — New York, which sent the third highest percent of US visitors to Acadia in an NPS visitor study, Connecticut, with fifth highest, and New Jersey.
Excluding residents of those five states, people will be asked to sign a certificate of compliance at check-in at all Maine lodging, campgrounds, seasonal rentals, overnight camps, and other commercial lodging like Airbnb, confirming that they tested negative for the virus, or that they will quarantine in Maine for 14 days, or that they have already finished their Maine quarantine order.
The FAQ answers such questions as “Do I have to wear a mask every time I go out in public in Maine?” or “I have a complaint about a grocery store that is not complying with the Governor’s Order. Who should I contact about this?”
Mills on July 8 required restaurants, lodging operators and large retail stores to require customers to wear face coverings in key cities or certain counties, including Bar Harbor as part of Hancock County.
On its website, Acadia says visitors must comply with the 14-day quarantine. Under the governor’s order, campers would also need to sign a certificate of compliance at Acadia if they stay at Blackwoods or Schoodic Woods, which are currently scheduled to open no earlier than Aug. 1.