The Dawnland


Dedicated to Sloane Acadia

For at least the last 12,000 years, Indigenous Americans have inhabited a region of the Atlantic Coast, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec. The people called this land Wabanakik. A group of nations – the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot – allied, forming the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanakik means “Dawnland” and the namesake confederation translates to “People of the Dawnland.”

The hub of the Dawnland was a place called Pemetic. This term means “range of mountains.” The Atlantic Coast is largely devoid of peaks, so a spot on the ocean teeming with them would easily rise to a place of significance. Pemetic is an island to which the Wabanaki traveled by birch canoes to reap bountiful resources and to trade with other nations.

Today, we know Pemetic as Maine’s Mount Desert Island. This isle is the centerpiece of one of the world’s great locations: Acadia National Park. To the Wabanakik, Acadia was the epicenter of the giving lands that produced the rising sun, the genesis of their lives. One journey to this place is enough to demonstrate its ineffable magnificence more than earns the esteem of the native populace.

Image by Getty/AARP
Three-dimensional, computer-generated view of the crags of Mount Desert Island - graphic by Martin D. Adamiker

Acadia National Park is comprised of 49,075 acres of rugged coastline, mountains, lakes, forests, and meadows. Half of Mount Desert Island belongs to the unit, in addition to the nearby Schoodic Peninsula, part of Isle au Haut, and 16 smaller spits.

Approximately 375 million years ago, the Acadian orogeny – a period of tectonic mountain building – crafted gargantuan peaks, the third of four such orogenies that created what we today call the Appalachians. Over the next 300 million years, time’s sculptor – erosion – whittled the mountains of the Dawnland. Then, another major player arrived and further chiseled the mountains: glaciation. Looking at the topographical view of the region above, one can see the striations of the glaciers like brushstrokes on the globe. Still, the granite persisted, leaving us with jagged rocks instead of sandy beaches.

The glaciers blessed Acadia with two landforms not usually associated with New England. The first is the U-shaped valley, the hallmark of glacial advance and retreat. The massive ice bodies carve curved bowl bottoms through rock, leaving the shape of a giant “U.” These valleys are strewn about much larger ranges in the western United States, but are rare in eastern zones. Second is a structure usually associated with Scandinavia: fjards. The lower-relief cousin of fjords, a fjard is an open space of water between groups of land carved by glaciers. Somes Sound is a five-mile-long fjard that bisects Mount Desert Island, quickly reaching 130 feet in depth.

The waterways of Mt. Desert Island, including Somes Sound in the middle, display the movement of the glaciers across the landscape - map by NPS

Glaciers erased most of the mountains along the coast of the Dawnland, but, on Pemetic, they rise starkly above the ocean. Because of their proximity to the Atlantic, the crags do not boast eye-popping elevations, but their relief is momentous.

The crown of the park is Cadillac Mountain, which shoots up 1,530 feet above sea level. It sits just two miles from the ocean, making its ascent stark. Cadillac is the highest mountain within 25 miles of the Atlantic Coast between the Cape Breton Highlands in Nova Scotia and peaks all the way in Mexico.

Cadillac has another claim to renown, which earns the Dawnland its moniker. In folk knowledge, Cadillac’s combination of height and orientation makes it the first place in the continental United States to see the sunrise. This designation is partially true. Between October 7 and March 6, the first rays kiss Cadillac. However, because of the moving tilt of our planet, the amount of sunlight and the times of sunrise and sunset change for most locations. These changing conditions make West Quoddy Head, Maine, the easternmost point of the contiguous country, the first to receive light around the equinoxes. For the rest of the year, a mountain 150 miles north, on the Canadian border, called Mars Hill, garners the initial sunrise.

Mount Desert Island - photo from National Park Service
Cadlliac Mountain seen from the mainland - photo by Greg A. Hartford/
The sunrise from Cadillac Mountain - photo by Peetlesnumber1

Twenty-five other peaks dot Acadia. Many of them provide some of the region’s best rock climbing. Despite the paltry elevations, numerous peaks grant an adventurer the experience of mountains of much taller pedigree. 

In addition to the Cadillac summit, popular destinations with jungle-gym-like ascents include the Beehive and the Precipice Trail up Champlain Mountain. Precipice gains 1,000 feet in just 0.9 miles!

These cliffs serve as more than just a haven for the vertically inclined human. Peregrine falcons often nest on the sheer rock of the Precipice Trail and other locations, making Acadia an important avian sanctuary.

The Precipice Trail - photo by earthtrekkers
Peregrine falcon chicks at Acadia - photo by NPS

A common refrain in the National Parks is “Half the park is after dark.” In Acadia, we might amend the saying to “Half the park is on the coast.” As wonderful as the mountains are, the zero-elevation spots at Acadia are just as glorious.

Acadia’s ragged coast appears as if a giant being scattered granite blocks after a major play session. Shores such as these require lighthouses and the National Park contains three major light stations: Baker Island Head, Bass Harbor Head, and Bear Island Head.

These stations provide some of the most iconic imagery from Acadia, mixing gorgeous rocks with the familiar lighthouse form.

Bass Harbor Head Light Station - photo by Kent Miller/NPS
The Acadia Coastline - photo by Jodi Brewer
The gorgeous coast - photo by Brian Logan
Bass Harbor Head Light Station at night - photo by Kent Miller/NPS

While Acadia presents a plethora of adventure, the park also provides quite an experience for those who want to admire nature’s splendor from afar. 

A 27-mile road loop traverses the heart of Mt. Desert Island, sampling the coast, the mountains, and the forests. One can watch the tide roll in and out in Bar Harbor or peer into the ocean’s depths from Cadillac Mountain without pounding the joints.

The sheer magnificence of the Dawnland makes it extraordinarily popular. The nation’s first National Park east of the Mississippi River receives more than 3 million visitors annually. Between May and October, driving to Cadillac Mountain now requires a vehicle reservation. Acadia certainly isn’t a secret, but it’s more than worth a plan to navigate its popularity.

Two competing etymologies attempt to resolve the transition from Wabanakik to Acadia. One traces it to the French name for Nova Scotia – Acadie – which descended from Archadia, the name granted to the region by the explorer Verrazano. This term comes from the Greek word Arkadia, which referred to a place of rural peace in pastoral poetry. The other theory starts at the Micmac word akadie, which meant “fertile land.” This name then became l’Acadie to the French and morphed into Acadia in English. Though neither possibility matches the verve of “Dawnland,” they both aptly describe this magical place.

Further Reading and Exploration

Acadia National Park – Official Website

Acadia National Park – Visit Maine

Everything to know about Acadia National Park – National Geographic

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