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Guidebook that Aims to Capture ‘Spirit of Acadia’ a Travel Essential

March 28, 2016 - Bar Harbor-A good guidebook can really make a difference. It can save a vacation. It can give a person confidence to venture somewhere new, perhaps even off the beaten path. And a truly great guidebook can go one step further, elevating an enjoyable trip to an educational, even life-changing experience.

That’s why James Kaiser, a Bangor native, created and self-published his first guidebook “Acadia: The Complete Guide” in 2000 and has continued to improve it in subsequent editions over the years.

“When I travel, I don’t just travel to have a good time,” Kaiser explained. “I do have a good time, but that’s not all. To me, travel is also about education, learning new things about new places. I consider it to be as valuable a part of life education as going to school. And that’s where a good guidebook can come in and really bring your vacation to the next level.”

In celebration of Acadia National Park’s 100th anniversary, Kaiser is publishing the fourth edition of “Acadia: The Complete Guide” this month, and he’s donating 5 percent of book sales to the park as an Acadia Centennial Partner.

The book, retailing at $19.99, contains 287 pages of useful and fascinating information about Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island. The writing is polished and succinct, broken up by stunning color photographs, detailed maps and interesting graphics. From hiking trails to historic events, Kaiser covers a wide range of topics, providing readers with just enough detail to spark their curiosity, then providing the resources they might need to dig deeper into any given topic.

Kaiser is especially excited about the food section he created for this new edition, consisting of vignettes about local food, such as lobster, popovers and wild blueberries. The new section also includes information about special local drinks.

“It’s a delightful thing to research, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.

Kaiser is one of several Acadia Centennial Partners producing special Acadia Centennial Merchandise. The list includes many local artists and organizations, as well as companies such as Gifford’s ice cream, New England Nauticals and House Wine of Bar Harbor. All of the merchandise has the option of displaying the official Acadia Centennial logo, and a portion of the proceeds from all items will be donated to Acadia National Park’s nonprofit partners to support Centennial projects and other important work in the park.

Information about the merchandise, including where to buy each item, is posted on the Acadia Centennial website at acadiacentennial2016.org.

The long list of organizations, businesses and individuals donating to the park this year reminds Kaiser of the philanthropy involved in creating the park 100 years ago.

In 1901, conservationist George B. Dorr and other MDI residents established the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. With the sole purpose to preserve land for public use, the corporation acquired 6,000 acres on the island by 1913 and offered the land to the federal government. In 1916, President Wilson announced the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument, which grew and later became Acadia National Park.

“That’s sort of the spirit of Acadia — private philanthropy and private citizens being engaged and involved,” Kaiser said. “This [donating by Acadia Centennial Partners] to me is just another iteration of that. It shows me how strong the spirit is and always will be.”

Kaiser grew up visiting Acadia National Park with his family and friends. During high school and college he spent several summers working in Bar Harbor.

After graduating from Dartmouth College with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, he returned to Maine and created a guidebook for the park and island “on a whim,” he said.

“I just had this idea,” Kaiser explained. “I’d gone to Hawaii with my dad, and there was a guidebook there that was written and had clearly been self-published by some of the locals, and it was the best-selling guidebook of Hawaii. I thought this was really cool.”

What started out as a “fun project” soon blew up into a “monster of a project,” as Kaiser attempted to explore every inch of the Mount Desert Island, picking the brains of local residents for insider knowledge, details about the area that would really make the guidebook special.

“When I started this out, my feeling was there’s no way anyone is going to publish me,” Kaiser said. “I was a 21-year-old engineering major.”

To overcome this obstacle, Kaiser simply planned to self-publish the guide, and produce the entire guidebook — the writing, photography, maps, graphics and layout — on his own.

“It was way more work than I ever thought it would be,” Kaiser said. “But I was too invested in it to stop.”

Kaiser has self-published all the editions of “Acadia: The Complete Guide,” which has became a top-selling resource for people visiting Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, according to Kaiser, who tracks his book sales compared to other Acadia guides on Nielsen BookScan, a data provider for the book publishing industry.

The success encouraged Kaiser to make guidebook writing his full-time gig. Over the past 15 years, he has traveled to create and self-publish guidebooks to Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon national parks, as well as a guidebook to Costa Rica.

“National parks are such important places where people can come into contact with nature and learn about nature and hopefully start to care about nature,” said Kaiser, who especially enjoys hiking and paddling as he gathers the material he needs for his guides.

It’s difficult producing the entire book by himself, Kaiser said, but he enjoys seeing it all come together. He distributes the books to bookstores through Legato Publishers Group.

“If you look at the first edition of the Acadia guidebook compared to the edition that’s coming out now, it’s night and day,” Kaiser said. “A lot of that is because after you spend so much time writing and taking photos, you get better and better at it. All of those things have improved significantly for me over the past 15 years.”

Over the years, Kaiser has expanded sections in the guidebook on geology, history and wildlife, and he’s always updating information and looking for something new to offer readers.

While the word “complete” is in the title, the guide doesn’t actually cover every single attraction, beach, hiking trail and historical feature of the island — a feat that may very well be impossible. Instead, Kaiser carefully selected the information he thinks is most useful and interesting to a wide readership.

“A lot of people who are visiting are there only a weekend or a week,” he said. “They need a filter, suggestions on what to focus their time on. That’s why they buy my book. They have a limited amount of time.”

Nevertheless, Kaiser said that even people who’ve long purchased an annual pass to Acadia National Park will likely learn something new from the guidebook. After all, it has taken him about 15 years to compile the fourth edition, and in that time he has sought the advice of MDI residents, park staff and local experts on geology, wildlife and other topics.

“There’s this whole community of people who are into amazing things on the island, and they’re an incredible resource,” he said.

Kaiser lives and works in Austin, Texas, but he plans to return to Maine for the spring, summer and fall and celebrate the Acadia’s centennial. Every year he makes it a point to volunteer for Friends of Acadia, the nonprofit organization that will be receiving the donation of 5 percent of his guidebook sales. Friends of Acadia works hand in hand with park staff to address the park’s needs through stewardship, volunteerism, conservation grants, programs and advocacy.

“There are always things that can be done to improve the park and make it a better experience for everyone,” Kaiser said. “Hopefully this year is going to be a really big really for [Friends of Acadia] as far as money coming in. And knowing everything there, I know they’ll spend it wisely.”

To learn more about Kaiser and his guidebooks, visit jameskaiser.com. The fourth edition of “Acadia: The Complete Guide” is available on Amazon.com and will hit bookstores on March 29.

Aislinn Sarnacki, Bangor Daily News, March 2016

Regions: Downeast

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