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Rappelling into Acadia's wild blue yonder

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Greenberg
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2003

BAR HARBOR, Maine -- Acadia National Park may be one of the country's smaller federal parklands -- 46,000 acres compared with Yosemite's 750,000 -- but with 41 miles of coastline, 26 mountains, 20 glacial lakes and ponds, more than 270 species of birds, and the East Coast's only fiord, it's a big gift in a small package.

There are 27 miles of paved roads for minivans full of vacationers and busloads of leaf-peepers, but the park also appeals to those ready to journey beyond the scenic pulloffs. There are 115 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of well-tended carriage roads for cyclists and strollers, and uniquely challenging rock climbing.

While there are numerous traditional, ''start at the bottom, climb to the top" rock routes scattered on cliffs and mountainsides throughout the park, Acadia is also home to Otter Cliffs, where climbers rappel to the bottom of rocky precipices (generally about 40 feet) onto rocks that are, basically, out in the Atlantic. After ''rapping" to the bottom, climbers can turn and look out as far as the horizon at the blue ocean. At high tide, icy water laps at the base of the cliffs as well as at climbers' shoes. The routes at Otter Cliffs vary in difficulty, and anchors are set on wide slabs at the top, where views are vast and dramatic. Belayers, when not focused on their partners, can look off across the ocean, and back toward Sand Beach and distant cliffs.

If you have a warm, barely breezy, mid-October day as clear as we had, with no agenda except to climb, eat, and gaze at the sea, there is little more to wish for. The ''walk-in" for climbing venues can be miles long, or at least require some navigation through woods. At Otter Cliffs, the parking lot is a five-minute stroll across flat slabs and down a few steps. So we didn't worry about the weight we were carrying and, intending to stay for the day, brought all our gear, picnic food, and a blanket. We set up ropes for two climbs, one a ''face climb" straight up from the water, and the second, a ''chimney climb" where the cliff is separated from the water by a rock pillar, equally high, and the climb is achieved by making your way up through the middle, using both faces, through a space that resembles the inside of a chimney.

I've climbed in a variety of settings, but something about being lowered to the ocean, from the apparent safety of the cliff top, took my breath away. I started on the chimney climb, which shouldn't have been difficult, but because of the surprise of finding myself backing off a cliff, even though I was roped in and secure, with the only way out being up, I was unsure. Once you're down, though, you have no choice but to start back up.

Four of us were traveling together, and we set up several climbs during the day, taking turns moving up the damp rock. My early anxiety kept me away from most of the routes since I was still uncertain about rappelling down to an angry ocean. When I wasn't belaying or watching the others climb, I was content to lie half-asleep on the blanket, or listen to an Acadia climbing guide teach rope and anchor skills to a group of high schoolers.

We stayed for hours, and as the October sun moved across the sky, and across the rock, we moved our blanket along with it. We left once the sun was no longer lighting the climbs and the rock had turned cold.

Cadillac Mountain, our next stop, is the highest natural feature along the Atlantic Coast north of Rio de Janeiro and the first spot on the East Coast to see the sun shine each morning. Because it's easier to drive up a mountain than climb it, there was a packed parking lot at the top. The wind was cold, and the view was exquisite: the Atlantic, islands and shoals, mountains and lakes, and leaves turning the colors of pumpkin and apples.

We had made reservations at Acadia's Jordan Pond House for dinner, but with some time before we were due, we drove around the Loop Road, admiring foliage, the shifting tides, Thunder Hole (which on rare occasions -- not this one -- roars as the water races in and out), and the soft stretch of Sand Beach.

While the food at Jordan Pond House can be elegant, nobody cares if you wander in to eat lobster bisque wearing your climbing clothes. It was too dark to see the pond, but the food -- bisque, broiled scallops, fresh cold seafood, and the famous popovers, were perfect selections at the end of a day spent outdoors. After the meal, we returned to our campsite at the park's Blackwoods Campground.

There are about 300 campsites at Blackwoods, and in summer they can be overcrowded and noisy. But in mid-October, when half the sites are shut down, the place is quiet and low key. The night was clear, and as I lay on the picnic bench, looking up at the sky through a circle in the spruce trees, I could see layers of stars. Bundled up in sleeping pads, we all slept well.

Conveniently, just outside the entrance to the campground a savvy private citizen has installed coin-operated hot showers. So we started the next day squeaky clean. The weather report was questionable, so instead of planning a day of climbing, we packed up the site, went into Bar Harbor for breakfast, and set out to rent bikes to ride the carriage roads from Jordan Pond.

The carriage roads might be the easiest place to envision what the park and its environs were like at their heyday as a Victorian summer retreat for the country's elite. In their elegant, expansive ''cottages" of up to 80 rooms, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Kennedys ambled about. Two Romanesque-style gatehouses and 16 stone bridges built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. are all that remain of that opulent era. A fire destroyed much of the area in 1947, which is known as ''the year that Maine burned."

After we took a lunch break outside the visitors' center, it became rainy and blustery. But we headed into the fray, continuing on roads that in the rain seemed to run uphill more than down. When we returned to our starting point, we were soaked, and the only antidote we all agreed on was to revisit the Jordan Pond House for tea and popovers.

Changed into dry clothes and somewhat full on popovers, we decided that it was important to eat a lobster before leaving Maine. We had traveled from Boston with a huge lobster pot, planning to boil a few in our fire pit, but since Bar Harbor is home to numerous $14.95 early bird lobster dinners, we walked out of the bike store and into the Island Chowder House. The rain subsided, we chowed down, and then, as the sun was setting we pulled out of Bar Harbor, away from Acadia, moving farther and farther from shore.

Beth Greenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

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