Lili Pew buckles the strap on her helmet, clicks one foot into her bike pedal and takes off from home in Seal Harbor. The cyclist, whose family ties precede Acadia National Park’s establishment in 1916, lives just minutes from the park’s 45-mile carriage road system.
A Knowles Company real estate broker who handles properties on and off Mount Desert Island, Pew is tucking in a bike ride before a late-morning business meeting. In a former life, she was an elite racing cyclist who competed in road, velodrome and mountain bike races. She got her start riding on Harvard’s cycling team.
“We’re going to climb for about 10 minutes now, then descend, then climb some more,” Pew tells her biking companion who is riding John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s carriage roads for the first time. The wealthy financier and philanthropist was an experienced horseman who enjoyed riding and driving carriages on roads without automobiles. So he not only commissioned the construction, but played a major role in designing the network of broken-stone roads that gracefully ascends mountains and spans 17 stone-faced bridges. The roads feature scenic views of brooks, waterfalls, valleys, islands and other sights.
Rockefeller’s roads took 27 years to build and were completed in 1940.
“You have the opportunity to really step away from modern life and embrace a moment of antiquity where life was simple,” Pew said.
Riding in the woods, morning light filters through the canopy of spruce and pine trees, striking the forest floor. Jordan Pond, its calm waters sparkling in the morning sun, swings into view. The Bubbles, a pair of small, rounded green mountains, loom beyond.
Emerging from the woods, the carriage road sweeps upward and loops around Sargent, Parkman and Penobscot mountains. The road twists and turns, making riders work for their reward of a view. That’s how JDR Jr. planned it — an episodic journey.
On each hill climb, Pew rises out of her bike seat and powers up. Without a hint of fatigue in her voice, she manages to point out Somes Sound and other visible bodies of water along the way.
Pew, whose own family hails from Philadelphia, has been coming to Acadia for more than 50 years. Her grandmother first began spending summers on Mount Desert Island in the early 1900s.
Her grandmother loved the wildness and peace and quiet of coastal Maine in contrast to other resort towns and Philadelphia. Both she and her sister each bought a house in Northeast Harbor. Now, more than 100 years later, their descendents still vacation here between spring and fall.
“This is the one place everyone calls home no matter where they live,” she related. “Everyone calls this area and this island home because it’s where everyone comes to be together as a family.”
As a young girl, Pew remembers hiking to the top of Bald Peak every year with her family and walking to the Jordan Pond House for tea and popovers. She treasures memories of sailing with her dad and three brothers beyond Baker Island in the open Atlantic looking back at Mount Desert Island.
“You see the amazing vista of the mountains rising out of the sea, and you feel like the very first travelers that crossed the ocean to come here,” she said.
Pew had been strictly a “summer person” up until the mid-1990s. She happened to visit MDI in the off-season and saw the area’s wild beauty at all times of the year.
After a 25-year career in the corporate world, she made her summer getaway her permanent home in 2001. Besides selling real estate, she sits on the nonprofit Friends of Acadia’s board of directors. The group’s mission is to preserve and protect the 47,000-acre park.
In addition, the former cycling racer serves on Acadia’s volunteer bike patrol of the carriage roads. On patrol or not, she gives directions and always carries a first aid kit, spare tire tubes, maps, food and water for anyone in need.
“Every day I try to work harder and harder to make sure that this area is both accessible to people who want to come here to visit and want to be part of the community,” Pew said. She also seeks to convey “that we’re accountable to maintaining, sustaining and protecting the land, sea and environment.”
On this particular morning, Pew passes a trail crewman who is repairing a washed-out section of the carriage road. She stops to thank him for the work and shakes his hand.
A love of Acadia shines through all her endeavors, whether it’s introducing new homeowners to the park or patrolling the trails and striving to instill in visitors a care and appreciation for the park as it was envisioned over a century ago.
“It has never worn off, and it only gets more precious every day,” she said.