When 8-year-old Benjamin Ball found out that he wouldn’t be attending summer camp during the COVID-19 pandemic, he came up with a new plan. With a newfound love for hiking, Benjamin decided to climb to all of the named peaks in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.
And when Benjamin sets a goal, he sticks to it, his parents said.
Over the course of the summer, the young hiker covered more than 200 miles in the park. To date, he’s climbed to 29 mountains, with just one more to tackle.
“I’d like people to know that stuff that’s bad can sometimes also be an opportunity,” Benjamin said. “COVID has really been affecting our country, but it’s also giving me a chance to get into a thing that I love, which is hiking.”
Benjamin and his family live in Pennsylvania but started spending their summers in Maine last year when they purchased a condo in Northeast Harbor. His mother, Amy Wlodarski, grew up in Orono, and her parents still live there.
After arriving in Maine this spring, the family of four quarantined for two weeks, then started exploring the park just outside their door. It wasn’t until June, after hiking to the top of Sargent Mountain with his father, Jeremy Ball, that Benjamin decided to challenge himself to visit every single peak.
“After that experience, I thought: I have a passion for it, this is what I should do,” he said.
Accompanied by his mother, father and sometimes his 5-year-old sister Ellie, Benjamin hiked to all of the peaks in the park that can be reached by an official hiking trail. These mountains include Cadillac (the tallest mountain in the park), Dorr, Acadia, Sargent, Beech, Pemetic, Penobscot, Champlain, Norumbega, The Bubbles and some lesser-known peaks such as Cedar Swamp Mountain and Conners Nubble.
Beehive — an especially popular climb located near the park’s famous Sand Beach — is the only mountain he’s yet to hike. He’s just waiting for the summer crowds to die down.
Clockwise from left: Benjamin Ball, 8, walks along the Beachcroft Path in Acadia National Park, while hiking to complete a personal challenge to visit 30 peaks in the park this summer; Benjamin takes in the view from the top of Conners Nubble in Acadia National Park; Benjamin and his sister, Ellie Ball, explore a small cave while hiking Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Wlodarski
“We have to go early in the morning because we’re not getting stuck in crowds and people who might not be wearing masks,” Benjamin said. “We want to stay away from COVID and keep other people safe.”
Benjamin’s mom is keeping a list of the hikes he’s accomplished, and they’ve taken plenty of photos to document his journey. In addition, Benjamin has an incredible memory for the details of each hike, including elevation gain and trail lengths, to the tenth of a mile. Off the top of his head, he can even give driving directions to trailheads.
“Benjamin has a very good spatial memory,” Wlodarski said. “He has been fascinated with systems and maps ever since he was a little boy … When we lived in Basel, Switzerland, [and] he was in kindergarten, he memorized the tram system to the point where we never needed a map. We just asked him where to transfer to get a point, and he never led us astray.”
“My favorite moments from this summer have been when he used his memory to help someone,” she said. “Last week, when we were hiking Conners Nubble, we encountered a family without a map who were lost, and one member of their party had sprained their ankle. He was able to tell them how to get back to their car from memory, and also sent them on the gentlest route back because he knew the young girl would have a hard time walking.”
This love and skill for navigation is one of the reasons Benjamin’s family supported him on his ambitious endeavor.
“We knew that it was something that could satisfy him holistically: stimulating his mind, working his body, and filling his heart with a love of nature,” Wlodarski said. “In a time when all kinds of opportunities were being taken away — school, time with friends, swim team, in-person music lessons — it also felt like a way that we could enrich and grow his life experiences. As parents, we were determined to create positive moments in a time of uncertainty, and Acadia offered us all that and more … All of our lives were enriched by seeing the beauty of Acadia from a variety of new vantage points, including through his eyes.”
One of Benjamin’s favorite trails, the Giant Slide Trail up Sargent Mountain, is one he has done a few times and remembers especially well.
“We talked to a ranger about it, and it’s the only Acadia trail that has a big cave on it,” Ball said. “The cave is only like 50 feet long, but it’s pretty tall. I’m 4.5 feet and I can walk right through it without even ducking.”
Clockwise from left: Benjamin Ball, 8, picks a few blueberries on Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park, while hiking to complete a personal challenge to visit 30 peaks in the park this summer; Benjamin poses for a photo at the summit of Norumbega Mountain in Acadia National Park; Benjamin enjoys a dip in Sargent Pond while hiking in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Wlodarski
Benjamin also especially loved Beachcroft Trail, which goes up the west face of Champlain Mountain.
“It turned out to be a beautiful hike with all these cool boulders and stonework, which was really incredible. It had stairs cut into a field of rocks,” he said. “It was sort of like walking on a sidewalk made out of cut slabs of stone, except you were walking up a mountain.”
For his age, Benjamin can cover a lot of ground in one day, and his hiking skills only increased throughout the summer. His longest day hike was 13 miles — or the length of a half-marathon. The trek began in Northeast Harbor and led over Norumbega and Parkman mountains before looping back around past Lower Hadlock Pond, he explained.
“Probably the only hike I was really afraid of was the first time I hiked the Ladder Trail on Dorr Mountain,” Benjamin said. “I’m afraid of cliffs, but I wanted to face that fear.”
So he did. Then he decided to hike the trail a second time, and it wasn’t so scary. Now he’s aiming to climb Precipice Trail, famed to be the most technical hike in the park, with multiple ladders, rungs and narrow walkways leading up a dramatic cliff.
He’s also interested in hiking Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, which is located at the heart of Maine in Baxter State Park.
“One thing about hiking I like is there’s always something new to try because say you finish all the hikes in Acadia, you can do the ones outside Acadia,” he said. “And let’s say you finished all the hikes around Acadia. You could go to Baxter. You can never do all the hikes in the whole world.”
Benjamin is eager to revisit his favorite trails at different times of year to see how the natural landscape changes.
“The experience never gets old,” he said. “So you go to this hike that has a waterfall by it, and the waterfall is just a trickle. But the next time you go there, the waterfall has a lot of water and it’s pouring down. It went from this small waterfall to this great, roaring waterfall.”
He’s also excited about experiencing hikes during different seasons, if his family decides to extend their stay or visit during the winter.
“In the winter, there would be a blanket of white, maybe some frozen ponds,” Benjamin said. “And in the spring, there are all these green things, grass, the trees have leaves on them and flowers are growing all around. Ponds are unfrozen and water is rushing again.”