Monday, February 24, 2014

Skiing on Mount Desert Island -- a Look Back
There is an absence today of downhill skiing on Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP. Years ago this kind of skiing was done by the venturesome wherever they could find a snow-covered mountain slope or trail. Downhill schussing venues included the South Face Trail of Western Mountain; the north, east and south slopes and old carriage road of Cadillac Mountain, and the summit road after its opening in 1932; the upper slopes of Champlain Mountain; and a few trails around the Bowl and Beehive.*1  Another location, but far less risky, was the slope on "Bunker Hill" on the east side of Kebo Valley Golf Course.

Sargent F. Collier
McFarland Field rope tow
This type of chancy skiing changed somewhat in 1936 with the establishment of a formal downhill enterprise on McFarland Hill in Bar Harbor. It was opposite the entrance to today's Acadia NP's headquarters off Eagle Lake Road/Route 233. The Mount Desert Island Outing Club, formed in 1935, established a rope tow and a few trails on the southeast and west sides of the hill. This rope tow, the first in Maine, started operating in December 1936. It was the highest in the state and at 1350 feet the second longest. It ran from the foot of McFarland Field to the hill's summit. The lower half of the hill was lighted for night skiing.*2 "From the summit a trail and 'semi-open' slope will wind down to connect with the top of Blanchard Field [possibly the field just east of McFarland Field], providing a fast, steep run for those who wish to take it straight …"*3 

McFarland Field rope tow area today
The devastating October "Fire of 1947" swept over McFarland Hill and put a temporary halt to skiing. It destroyed the cabins, the motor unit and tow rope and other equipment. The MDI Outing Club immediately planned to reopen the hill for skiing that winter via fund-raising dances for a new tow and hut.

In 1967 Aldene Robbins and Roy McFarland purchased the McFarland Hill enterprise from the MDI Outing Club, as well as the land from Pearl McFarland, Roy's father, and operated it for about three years. The rope tow was on the east side of the hill and powered by an electric motor at the top. Huts were at the top and bottom and manned by observers for safety. Also at the bottom was a lodge with a fireplace where people could warm up and get food and hot chocolate. Unlike in previous times, there was no night skiing. Parking was along Eagle Lake Road.*4 Skiing on McFarland Hill effectively ended when they ceased operations.

What's left of this outdoors enterprise reminds us of the thrills and enjoyment that were had by skiers and onlookers. Sharp eyes will discover at the top of the field's eastern tree line a concrete wall and nearby circuit breaker box where the rope tow motor was. Along the tow line they'll see an electrical ceramic insulator, pulleys, cog wheels, and a support cable. The lodge is still there, but it is today a private residence.

Nowadays downhill skiers must head off island. Those who stay enjoy the unrushed but wonderfully scenic activity of cross-country skiing. A Park handout, Winter in Acadia, tells us "Winter at Acadia National Park is a magical season. The slower pace provides opportunities for solitude, as well as recreational activities in a spectacular coastal setting. … and in years with adequate snowfall, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are popular activities."
Pondering the Cadillac Mountain downhill skiers of years gone by, Aldene Robbins, the 1967 McFarland Hill ski facility co-entrepreneur, opined recently, "They likely attempted that only once!" And that's probably the reason why skiing on MDI's McFarland Hill was so popular.

McFarland Field today looking north to McFarland Hill
1 These downhill venues are mentioned in numerous Bar Harbor Times articles of the MDI Outing Club. The Western Mountain South Face Trail refers to today's Bernard Mountain Trail. Re Cadillac Mountain, the north and south slopes are today's North and South Ridge Trails; the east slope refers to the now unmaintained East Ridge Trail from the summit to the Featherbed; and the old carriage road refers to the historic buckboard road that once ran from Eagle Lake Road to the summit.
2 Bar Harbor Times, December 19, 1940, p.1.
3 Bar Harbor Times, September 12, 1940, p.1.
4 A special thanks to Messrs. McFarland and Robbins for sharing their recollections with me.