Acadia National Park superintendent Sheridan Steele (front, left) and Schoodic Institute president and CEO Mark Berry (yellow jacket) led the group to our animal-tracking hike on Schoodic’s Alder Trail. Sheridan and the national park provided enthusiastic support to Mark, Mark’s team (including events coordinator Megan Moshier) and other organizers, most notably behind-the-scenes dynamo Mary Laury of Schoodic Arts for All.
It can be scary to launch a new event. Will anyone come? Will the weather hold up? Will participants enjoy it? The Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park took that toboggan ride into the unknown with its 2015 Winter Festival, held from Feb. 19 to 22 at the institute’s 80-acre oceanside campus in Winter Harbor, Maine. I hopped on board for what turned out to be a bracing and memorable run down the hill.
The experience was best summed up by one of the more than 100 people who came from as far away as Boston and New York to attend some portion of the festival, be it a talk by the great naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich or a birding hike or a paper-snowflake workshop. “This is so much fun,” she told me in the cold morning sunshine as she and others built a multi-piece, illuminated ice sculpture atop a snowbank. “It has changed my whole relationship with winter.”
For those of you who didn’t make it to the event, here is a glimpse of 10 things you missed:
1) A new way of enjoying Maine’s awesome, historic, bring-on-the-blizzards winter.
Our happy group of snowshoers clomped along the Alder Trail, where we saw tracks of deer, snowshoe hares, squirrels, possibly a coyote and other animals.
The secret to surviving a season of sub-zero cold and 100 inches of snow is to embrace the experience. I put on my warmest snow boots (which I bought before covering the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway back when I was the editor of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine) and headed out for a variety of activities, among them an animal-tracking hike with outdoor educator Chuck Whitney, the birding expedition (also led by Chuck) and a peaceful walk through the forest to visit the winter camping site set up by wilderness guide Garrett Conover. Other festival participants cross-country skied, built a quinzhee snow hut (more on that below), tried open-fire cooking (more on that too) and found other ways to explore and engage with the winter world. They loved it.
A bitter wind didn’t stop Chuck Whitney’s birding group from scouring the coast for eiders, goldeneyes, buffleheads, scoters, cormorants and gulls.
2) Frozen Water Balloons. The illuminated-ice-scupture workshop, taught by sculptor and art educator Blake Hendrickson, brought out the creative inner kid in participants of all ages. Blake brought vessels in which to freeze ice pieces of many shapes and sizes.
- The frozen balloons were one of many creative ice forms in Blake Hendrickson’s workshop.
Blake also provided white and colored lights to weave through the outdoor installation of those pieces. Some of the lights changed color in response to sounds—clapping, talking, even the strong wind that gusted one night.
Artist Sherri Streeter helped create and assemble the ice forms.
The installation came together over the span of a couple of days.
At night the sculpture lit up and changed color, a snowbank transformed into art.
3) Nature. This is the essence of Schoodic at any time of year. Hearing Bernd Heinrich describe how animals survive here in the harsh winter conditions changed how many of us looked at the landscape we were exploring. We envisioned the tree holes, dens, snow nooks and other homes keeping animals alive. Bernd told of grouse diving into the snow and making temporary tunnels in which to hide from both cold and predators. The next morning, as I walked through the woods, a grouse exploded from the snow and flew past me. An electrifying winter moment.
Lichen and lines of sapsucker holes adorned the Schoodic woods.
Snowshoe hare tracks. The front track marks were made by the animal’s snowshoe-like back feet as the hare hopped.
We debated whether this stick-and-lichen construction could have been a nest, perhaps for one of the many types of warblers found at Schoodic in warmer months.
In the foreground you can see the tracks from a river otter that slid down the snow to the water’s edge to feed.
I loved this tree.
Here’s naturalist Chuck Whitney, whom I mentioned earlier, sharing his outdoor expertise. He was a cornerstone of the festival, not only leading hikes but also giving a winter-birds talk, playing the Irish flute in evening music jams and sleeping each night in the quinzhee snow hut that he and other festival attendees built.
After Bernd Heinrich held a Moore Auditorium audience rapt with his talk on animals in winter, his fans lined up with books and nature questions.
4) Outdoor beauty. This too is a Schoodic hallmark, and the snow only enhanced it.
Even the drive Schoodic was a wintry escape.
The ice floes filled inlets.
This forest trail took me over a wooden bridge well-trodden by snowshoers.
I popped out of the woods at one spot and saw clammers in the distance taking advantage of the day’s unusually low tide.
5) Great indoor food. We fueled up in Schoodic’s cafeteria-style dining hall, which has the warmth of a woodsy lodge. Home-baked lasagna, seafood chowder, chicken-salad wraps, Caesar salad, pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies, blueberry pancakes, vegetarian options—the food was all delicious, and we shared it at communal tables where new friends were made at each meal.
For my Saturday lunch I went for the hot-out-of-the oven, homemade chicken pot pie.
Hungry participants had to check their snowshoes at the dining-hall door.
6) Great outdoor food. Naturalist and outdoors educator Alexandra Conover Bennett taught the workshop on baking bannock bread, a camping favorite cooked on a stick over an open fire.
Instructor Alexandra Conover Bennett assembled the ingredients and built the fire.
She demonstrated how to cut wood shavings for the fire with her homemade crooked knife, a type of tool long used by Native Americans. She constructed hers from a crooked piece of yellow birch, a straight razor she found in an antique store and a wrapping of moose hide.
The ingredients of bannock bread are simple: flour, baking powder, water, a touch of salt and a bit of oil (optional).
You wrap the dough around a long stick.
Roast until ready. Not a bad way for the chefs to stay warm either.
Tastes great with jam.
7) Snowflake-making. Instructor Breanna Pinkham Bebb was adamant: Snowflakes are hexagonal (six-sided), not octagonal (eight-sided), and to cut eight-sided snowflakes—as some crafty types apparently do—is inauthentic. I’m science-based all the way, so I was on board to learn the correct, if more challenging, technique of folding and cutting a piece of copier paper to resemble real snow crystals.
Breanna tried to keep it simple for us.
Follow these steps, snip here and there, and you too could be a snowflake maker.
No, I didn’t make the lobster snowflake.
I did succeed in making a snowflake featuring birds.
8) A different view of Cadillac Mountain. Schoodic Peninsula is a bit more than an hour’s drive up the coast from Mount Desert Island, where the larger portion of Acadia National Park is located, but by water the two bodies of land aren’t far apart. Time and again during the festival I looked up and saw Cadillac—the tallest mountain on MDI—rising in the distance.
Each day Cadillac looked a bit different from Schoodic Point. Sometimes crashing waves sent spray far in the air in the foreground.
9) The quinzhee snow hut. Unlike an igloo, which is made from piled blocks of snow, a quinzhee is hollowed out from a mound of snow. It’s a survival cave, but a cozy one. The group had a blast building one near the Schoodic Institute’s baseball field.
Side note because I’m a word nerd: The term quinzhee was coined by a Native American tribe in Canada, and last summer it was one of about 25 Canadian-originated words added to the official Scrabble dictionary. Quinzhee was the most exciting addition for Scrabble players because it includes a q and a z (each worth a lot of points) and, if played on the top row of the board, ending on the top right square, can supposedly score 401 points for a player. That’s an almost unbelievable total for a single play.
The quinzhee hut became Chuck’s nighttime home.
The view from inside the quinzhee.
I took a break in there myself.
In case you were wondering about that winter tent site set up in Garrett Conover’s workshop, here it is. Look closely and you’ll see a metal chimney coming out the left side.
Now that’s the way to go if you’re camping in a tent in the Maine winter.
On the subject of lodging, here’s a look at the Schoodic Institute’s historic Rockefeller Hall, where some of the attendees stayed.
I overnighted in another option on campus, a condominium apartment. It’s a rare privilege to sleep within the boundaries of a national park and Schoodic Institute enables visitors to do that at almost any point in the year (space permitting). The nearby village of Winter Harbor has B&Bs as another alternative.
10) The people. Shared experiences build unique camaraderie, and the pioneering group that attended the winter festival bonded with each other as well as with the place.
Here’s our animal-tracking group again. Notice how many are smiling. Enough said.
If this sounds like an event you might like to attend in 2016, check out the Schoodic Institute’s website (http://www.schoodicinstitute.org) and keep following The Naturalist’s Notebook here and on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Naturalistsnotebook?ref=aymt_homepage_panel). Keep enjoying the winter! —Craig Neff