An Off-Season Trip to Maine Becomes an Autumn Master Class

By Janet Hook

I quit my job this fall not knowing what was next, but I was sure of one thing: I wanted to leave the Washington D.C. area immediately to spend a month in Maine on a tiny, rocky island near Acadia National Park.

I retreated there to postpone decisions about the next chapter of my life. But by dropping down onto Great Cranberry Island in October rather than July, breaking a pattern that has held every summer for the last 27 years, I got an unexpected tutorial in the cycles of nature and how thoroughly the seasons transform a place. That’s an obvious truth, but one easily missed as seasons change in the city, where about all I notice is temperature change. 

The light and sky, seas and stars, flora and fauna; all that was different in early October when I showed up on the tiny ferry that shuttles people, Amazon packages and the U.S. Mail between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles.

A city girl question arose the moment I stepped out to the rocky shore in front of our house: Who moved the sun? It set in a completely different spot on the horizon than in the summer, and took its sweet time dropping. All day, its low angle rays bathed the island in a softer light than summer’s glare.

At night I noticed: The constellations had shifted! The Big Dipper, which dominates the night sky from our bedroom window in the summer, was not in sight. It was so dark in the morning — a big change from the pre – 5 am sunrise that rouses me in the summer — that I could stargaze over coffee. Orion and his dog Sirius loomed as I stepped out for the first breath of Maine air.

The Cranberry Isles from Penobscot Mountain

Looking out to the water, the sea and wind churned so much, it was hard to go kayaking, my favorite summer pursuit. One morning, lured by a rare day of calm water and light wind, my husband and I set out for a paddle. But by the time we returned, the waves were so big that our boat capsized as we tried to land on shore.

Amid the scramble that ensued, there was one welcome surprise: The water, glacial in the summer, was pleasantly warm. That was a relief as we struggled to cope with a double kayak filled with hundreds of pounds of sea water.

Many birds had migrated south, so there were fewer species in our spruce-and-birch woods. But I welcomed the hardy ones that linger through the winter, including loons, whose ghostly call is part of Maine’s soundtrack; bald eagles, whose grand wingspan and haughty posture never gets old; and the chattering, busy flocks of black-capped chickadees that monopolized our feeder.

The island was swarming with deer, but many faced their maker when hunting season began on Nov. 1. It was the first time I’d been on the island when the non-deer population had to don bright orange to be safe.

During the off season, some routine tasks of life on the island were just a little bit harder. It was a little harder to get food and household supplies (the only year-round commercial establishment is a small general store). It was a little harder to stay warm (our house has just a wood stove and electric heater). When the power went out — as it often does in blustery October — we had to go to the community center to get water: Our home’s water pump runs on electricity.

The off-season, of course, drastically thinned the tourist crowd especially after the leaf-peepers tailed off.  When I went hiking in Acadia, I made a beeline for some of the most popular trails in the park, the ones unpleasantly packed with people in the summer. Setting off one clear 40-degree morning, I was rewarded on the summit of Penobscot Mountain: I had the 360-degree panorama to myself. 

Back on Great Cranberry, most seasonal residents had left by mid-October. The island’s year-round community numbers around 70, a fraction of the hundreds who are there at the summer peak. On Halloween, I handed out Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to the island’s eight young trick-or-treaters.

It was hard to leave in November, but when I returned to the Washington area, I found a consolation prize. I’d arrived in Maine just before the peak of autumn foliage. I got a repeat performance when I returned home hundreds of miles to the south, and it was just before the foliage peak. Nature rewarded me with an autumn double-header, and I returned with fresh eyes to appreciate the cycles of nature even in the city.

Janet Hook is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal who lives most of the time in Maryland. She is a nicer person when she is in Maine.