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First Glow

It wasn’t wasn’t the kind of sunrise that ends up on a postcard in one of the gifts shops in Bar Harbor. We couldn’t see the Atlantic Ocean from atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. For that matter, when the sun rose on another year in America, we couldn’t see more than maybe a hundred feet.

There were about 40 people atop the mountain. With no snow on the ground this year, most hiked. Lili Pew and Carol Bult, my tour guides for the New Year’s adventure, decided we should ride mountain bikes (with studded tires for the icy roads). When we left Carol’s house at 5 a.m., the skies above the carriage roads were clear, full of countless stars. But when we got about halfway up Cadillac, we got into fog, which kept getting thicker and thicker.

When I told people back home this later, most said, “That’s too bad.”

But I’m kind of glad it turned out this way. I’ve seen many a sunrise with vivid colors lighting up a distant horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like this.

First light was more like first glow, dark gradually turn to light, a black-and-white landscape gradually turning pinkish, the ice-covered vegetation resembling coral. And the increases in light came in spurts, as if someone was turning the switch on a dimmer a few notches. Every so often the sun would appear — but only for a few seconds — and then it would disappear again.

In its own way, it was a beautiful and memorable sunrise. A great way to start 2012. (My photo gallery from Acadia)

I chose to start the year atop Cadillac partly because of the symbolism of the first sunrise, but also because this iconic spot is a microcosm of the many issues facing the national parks in the next century. By summer, the place is packed with people and cars and tour buses full of cruise ship passengers. It’s a place where at night the sky still is full of stars. It’s a place where you see lots of kids. It’s also a place where there are reasons to be concerned about all of these things. About managing crowds. About disappearing night skies. And perhaps most troubling of all, about whether today’s kids are connecting with their national parks. And if not, what does that say for the future?

Not that I thought about much of this while atop the mountain. I just kept thinking about how cold I was. And how I might have grown up in Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota, but I’ve become a Floridian, through and through.

When I first came up with the idea of starting the year atop Cadillac, I asked someone with the National Park Service and someone with Friends of Acadia if they knew of anyone who does this every year. They both suggested Lili Pew, past chairman of Friends of Acadia.

The day I flew to Bangor, Lili was scuba diving. Twenty-five miles off the coast. In December. If this had been a who’s-heartier competition, I would have lost before I landed.

And the weather in Maine actually was warm. Well, by Maine standards. The ponds weren’t frozen over. There were stories in the paper about how climate change is affecting the region. And that might be so — it was in the 30s when we left Carol’s house on the mountain bikes at 5 a.m. — when we got to the top of Cadillac, we were greeted by something I had heard about. The wind. It wasn’t whistling. It was snapping and cracking.

Carol and Lili were prepared with hot tea and bivvy sacks. We huddled next to rocks, trying to block some of the wind. Not that this stopped me from shivering. At one point, they gave me one of the bivvy sacks and Lili tried to warm me up by wrapping her arms around me. (I hesitate to mention this, knowing that my wife already has been quite understanding about me traveling around the country all year. Now I’m starting the new year huddling with women atop a mountain? It was for survival, honey.)

When it came time for sunrise — 7:09 a.m., I believe — we didn’t actually see the sun. Carol counted down the seconds, like you would at New Year’s Eve. 10-9-8-7 … ¬†Nearby, three 20-something guys cracked open beers. And when the sun did appear every so briefly, people pointed and cheered.

Then we all headed down the mountain, many people gingerly walking down the icy road, the three of us with our studded tires magically gripping the surface. We stopped to see the waterfalls, which now are ice. And partway down, the sun peaked over the top of Cadillac, bathing Bar Harbor in first light.

I’m still not exactly sure where this year will take me. I just know it will be tough to top the way it has started.

There’s much more to tell. Thanks to Lili and others — especially the NPS’ John Kelly, park planner, and Sheridan Steele, superintendent — I learned a lot about Acadia’s past, present and future. Beyond that, I’ve already spent some time in Washington D.C., meeting with NPS staff, including the man currently overseeing the entire system, Director Jonathan Jarvis. And I went to New Hampshire and had coffee-turned-into-lunch with Dayton Duncan, the writer behind Ken Burns’ documentary, “America’s Best Idea.”

I’ve been thinking about a lot of different storylines in the documentary. But one anecdote in particular comes to mind as the year begins. It involves a visitor approaching a park ranger in Yosemite and saying, “I’ve only got an hour. If you only had an hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” And the ranger supposedly says, “Well, I’d go right over there, and I’d sit on that rock, and I’d cry.”

I have a whole year to explore our parks. And yet when I think about all the places I want to see, all the people I want to meet, I know it’s not nearly enough time. Not that I’m going to get any sympathy on this.

A layer of frost covered the vegetation poking out of the rock atop Cadillac Mountain.

While we were riding back down Cadillac -- the road winds down the west side of the mountain -- the sunrise turned from a foggy glow to this.


  • Susan


    What a great way to begin your adventure!

  • Bob Self


    And away you go! Not bad photos for a scribbler. Wish you had the budget to bring a photographer with you. Bob

  • Carol Bult


    It was a great way to start the year and so glad you were there with us, Mark! The crunching sounds of studded tires on icy roads, hunkering down in bivvy sacks, the sudden changes in light quality and color, the howling was all awesome. Glad to have this forum to follow your national park adventures in 2012.

  • Chris Burns


    I am very impressed with the quality of your photographs, since I imagine your shivering made it quite difficult to hold your camera steady. The perils of low body fat! I am anxious to learn more about your adventure all during 2012. The Society of Professional Journalists could not possibly have selected a more capable and thoughtful recipient of their award. I hope to share meaningfully in your sabbatical experience.

  • Toni


    Beautiful photos. A fitting start to the adventure. Nothing like getting your hands dirty - or, in this case, freezing your hands off - to get the real story.

  • Ron Littlepage


    Help. It's lonely being the only joy giver here.

  • Tracy


    Absolutely beautiful! I am so eager to read, watch and follow you along this journey. I completely agree with Chris about selecting such a passionate, articulate, and knowledgeable candidate! I am so proud of all you have done and continue to do! My only wish would be to join you! You are truly the fortunate son!

  • Parveen


    As a loyal "Mark Woods" reader (you are my favorite and must read every day!) over the years, I am excited to be able to read about you adventures this year. Thank you for allowing us along for the ride!

  • Lisa


    Great website, Mark! I'm looking forward to following it.

  • MOM


    Lisa helped me find your site. Now I feel like I'm on the journey with you!!!!!

  • Elizabeth Allen


    I am also anxious to see where your adventure takes you next. Have you considred a winter trip to Yellowstone? I've thought about it but living in Florida has made me a Winter Weather Wimp. We miss your columns in the Times-Union, but hope you are having a great time!

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