The sun dips as I pull onto Acadia National Park’s famous loop road, a one-way stretch of smooth pavement that weaves along the rugged coast of Mt. Desert Island. I’m hours north of Portland, Maine and utterly alone for the first time all day.
Its early October, at the height of an autumn season that attracts hundreds of thousands of leaf peeping tourists to New England. Acadia in particular is packed all day long, so I’ve been sticking to remote carriage trails, away from the crowds. I’ve just left Bar Harbor with a belly full of local lobster and am heading into the park to scout foreground subjects for an astro shoot later tonight.
Night falls in the park, and the loop road is entirely empty. Through the trees I catch a final glimpse of waves pounding into Mt. Desert Island’s dramatic cliffs. My headlights weave down the lonely road, occasionally pulling over as I jump out to explore a stretch of coast for potential compositions. This is a great night to be out shooting.
I near the end of the 8 mile loop and turn back for another go. The light of day has passed and the stars are finally shining bright. I’ve spent the past couple evenings shooting overcast sunsets at Bass Harbor lighthouse but tonight the sky is finally clear. I’m no expert in astrophotography, and lack some of the truly sophisticated star tracker systems but I love shooting the Milky Way at night just the same.
I’ve mentally marked the handful of spots I want to hit on my shooting loop through the park. I cruise along to the first location about halfway down the coast. I reach a short stretch of straight road when I catch a flash of light out of the corner of my right eye. From the pitchy darkness of the forest I catch another flicker of light, this time closer to the road. I gently lay on the brakes and slow my car to a roll. Again, the light flickers on and bounces through the trees towards the road.
A moment later two young women practically fall out of the woods and onto the road in front of me. They stumble into my headlights, which I immediately dim as I roll down my window.
“Are you guys alright?” I ask, opening my door and turning on the car’s interior light.
“We were lost, we couldn’t find our way back to the road” one girl replies breathlessly.
I can see they are in a state of panic. Their eyes dart between me, the car, the trees and each other. I pull my car off the road and get out to help. They each greedily slug down the bottles of water I pull from my trunk. They seem healthy, if shaken so I clear out the back seat and offer them a ride back to town.
We’re on the road and I can’t help but ask the obvious question. It doesn’t take long to discover the truth, even though each had an equally opposite version of the story.
I was able to extract some basic facts. They were two longtime friends up from New Jersey for a girls weekend and had set out on a routine hike after lunch. They had taken the public park bus from their campsite to the trailhead, filled a water bottle and set off. They had made great time on their hike, reaching their endpoint far ahead of schedule. It was a beautiful, cloudless afternoon so they pulled out their cell phones to check for alternate stretches of trail they could use to extend the hike a little further. They found an easy ridge line track that ran to another peak and looped back to their starting point. They checked their phone clock and decided to go for it.
And of course, that’s where everything went wrong. They didn’t see that their phone battery was already on its last legs. They were hydrated but their only bottle was empty. They wouldn’t be taking the same (now familiar) trail back as they had on their way in. Their only flashlight was a miniscule, narrow beam LED keychain. They hadn’t eaten for a few hours while their bodies had burned through a light lunch.
They even made good time to the second peak, but as soon as they began descending down the east face of the mountain, it dipped into shadow. Unless you’ve experienced the phenomenon in person, a forest in the light feels nothing like a forest in the dark. If you aren’t extremely careful, you will lose a sense of direction the moment you turn around. You realize how little you’re in tune with your other senses. Confusion comes first, then anger for every decision leading to the moment. Finally comes fear.
They’d begun arguing as soon as the last phone died. One girl demanded that they use the last moments of battery to call for help, the other wanted to conserve battery power to light their way. Neither got their way as the battery winked out between them. Within the hour they were thirsty, exhausted, low on blood sugar and patience.
Acadia National Park is pretty big, but nowhere near the scale of Yellowstone or Yosemite. If one walked in a straight line for a few hours in any direction, they would cross the loop road, or reach a body of water where they could find civilization. But these girls hadn’t been walking in a straight line. They’d spent the last 4 hours stumbling around in circles, apparently missing the road by less than a hundred meters.
And by some stroke of luck, I’d barely caught sight of their faintly flickering LED light in the right place at the right time.
As their story catches up to the present, I ferry them back towards their campground a good 15 miles away. One girl can’t stop talking about how horrible she would feel if her young son had to grow up without a parent because “Mommy just had to go camping in Maine…”. I know these two will be fine and hope that this is the low point of their trip. I bid farewell and take off into the night.
I head back to the head of the loop road to make good on my plan to shoot the stars but I can’t get motivated. I feel like I’ve already accomplished something tonight, and shouldn’t press my luck out on the coast alone in the dark. I opt instead to turn back towards town and my barren motel room to get some sleep ahead of a sunrise expedition.
There’s an obvious lesson here, that no matter how short or easy you think your adventure is going to be. Carry the extra water bottle, a paper map, a flashlight, some food and anything else someone might give you shit for being over prepared with. You’ll thank me later.