A Bike Trip to Swan’s Island

In this my eighth summer on Mount Desert Island, I decided to start exploring some of the smaller islands around MDI.  On a Saturday morning Fred and I took our bikes on the 9 o’clock ferry from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island.

You wouldn’t like it.

The island is hilly for biking.  There are no restaurants to speak of, only two or three take-out shacks.  And we were told the islanders don’t like cyclists.  That’s why the ferry service charges $16.50 per bicycle, in addition to $17.50 per passenger.

Still, you might like the ferry trip.  Packed in with some pick-ups, a lobster bait truck, and a few SUVs loaded with kayaks and vacation gear, we spent the 40-minute crossing both on deck and above, marveling at Acadia’s mountains as they became more and more distant, then turning our attention to Swan’s as it emerged to the south.  Ferry rides are exciting, and this one passed quickly.

Then we arrived, and something surprising happened.  Every time we pedaled past a motorist, he waved.  Sometimes it was a full-fledged wave, sometimes merely a finger off the steering wheel.  But it was nearly universal.

We biked past freshly painted white Victorian farmhouses and the Methodist Church (1891) on our way to our first destination: the Burnt Coat Harbor Lighthouse on Hockamock Head.  It marks the entrance to Burnt Coat Harbor, a curious name that seems to have come from the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who in 1604 called the island Brule-Cote or “Burnt Coast.”

(Speaking of the origin of place names, don’t look for swans on Swan’s Island.  It’s named after James Swan, one of the Sons of Liberty and participant in the Boston Party, who purchased the island in 1786.)

The Burnt Coat light station, built in 1872, was operated manually until 1974 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The lighthouse and the keeper’s house are pristine white forms, topped in black and red, handsome geometry straight out of a Hopper painting.

A man on the ferry had kindly mentioned to us that there’s a hiking path at the top of the hill leading down to the lighthouse.  We found it past a huge outcropping of raspberry bushes and followed it among moss-covered boulders and stunning silvery birches down to Burnt Coat Harbor.  And there was the second surprise of the day, a lobster pound.

You’re thinking, “She said there were no restaurants.”  Such lobster pounds (aka lobster shacks) derive their name from the holding tanks where restaurateurs keep the live lobsters.  But this lobster pound in Burnt Coat Harbor, created by wood fencing and pilings with netting, is where lobstermen hold their catch until pricing is favorable for them to bring it to market.  It wasn’t in use, perhaps reflecting the low price of lobster.

This focus on lobster made us hungry.  We biked back past the Post Office, the busiest spot on the island from what I could see. During the 2000 Census, the population of Swan’s Island was 327, and a good percentage of them seemed to be at the Post Office on Saturday morning.  We headed to the Carrying Place, a beautiful narrow spit of land between Toothacher Cove and Back Cove, so named because it is where the Indians carried their canoes from one body of water to the next.  At the Carrying Place Take-out (40 North Road, 526-4043) we ate lobster rolls and curly French Fries at a picnic table beside a meadow.  (They had a Shrimp Basket with French Fries for $10.35, a Clam Basket for $13.95, and an entire lobster dinner for $10.95, not surprising considering the island’s primary industry.)  Then we headed for Sand Beach.

There’s also a Sand Beach on Mount Desert Island and, as beach lovers, we recognize that “sand” is a relative term when it comes to the coast of Maine.  We were somewhat skeptical.  We cycled north on the paved road 0.4 mile and took the second gravel road on the left.  Over several hills and around bends, we pedaled another 0.7 mile, whirling in dust as a couple of cars passed on the loose gravel.  We stopped where four or five cars were parked and took another left almost missing a rather unpretentious sign to the beach.  We walked another half mile on a pine-needle path, sporadically overtaken by roots or mud. 

When we emerged, it was paradise. 

We discovered a perfect crescent of fine sand beach with only a few appreciative people playing lacrosse and building sandcastles with their children.  It looked more like the Caribbean than Maine.  We waded in the water, quite warm by Maine standards, and sunbathed on towels that had been squeezed into our backpacks.

I had wanted to visit Quarry Pond, from which granite was mined and taken out on ships for cobblestones in major eastern cities.  But we had lingered at the lighthouse and lobster pound and beach.  The last ferry returning to Mount Desert Island was at 4:30pm. 

On the way back I noticed a woman taking in laundry that had been drying all day in the sunshine.  The stretch to the dock seemed longer than when we had arrived.  The fragrance of the rosa rugosa intoxicated us with the idea of finding a B&B for the night, or buying a farmhouse and staying forever.

For more ideas of things to do when you visit Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island, click here

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