Seeing Acadia Through the Eyes of Island Explorer Bus Drivers
March 13th, 2023
March 13th, 2023
BY LYNN FANTOM
If you have ever observed Island Explorer bus drivers staffing the Bar Harbor Village Green information center or driving one of 11 routes around Acadia and Mount Desert Island (MDI), you must have wondered how they can be so cheerful answering the same question again and again or how they know where to stop exactly at an unmarked spot requested only as a trailhead.
These drivers, some 120 strong, are the well-trained employees of Downeast Transportation, who are valued as much for their people skills as their ability to safely maneuver a bus just shy of 26,000 pounds (13 tons). Though some have driven for as many as 30 years, others are in Maine for the first time as work-camper nomads who are supplementing their bank accounts as they see the country.
The Island Explorer has carried more than 8.7 million passengers since it began as a fare-free service in 1999. By linking park destinations, local communities, and the regional
airport, it has prevented an estimated 3.35 million private-vehicle trips, making a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
That, along with reducing traffic congestion, are why L.L. Bean and Friends of Acadia have been such consistent supporters. But a shortage of drivers — a nationwide problem — made it necessary last season to switch to a reduced fall schedule earlier than planned and also reconfigure some routes. Many of the summer-season drivers went back to their fall jobs driving school buses.
Still, Jodi Moore, operations manager at Downeast Transportation, is upbeat as she discusses her 2023 recruiting package of higher hourly rates, bonuses, weekly commitment options, flexible time off, and paid training.
This year, she expects to hire around 20 new drivers, primarily because of turnover resulting from the affordable housing shortage in the area.
“We have about a 90 percent return rate,” says Moore. “These people are the best billboard to get others to drive here.” They include retired teachers, former reporters, even an ex-FBI agent. Just under half are women and many are older. During an interview call, one candidate said to Moore, “I’m going to start by telling you I’m 70. Is that a problem?” She laughed and replied, “No, you’ll fit right in.”
Moore herself was a driver. When she moved to Maine, she couldn’t find a job in her specialty in the medical field and began working as a school bus driver. During the summer when school was out, she took Island Explorer shifts.
The thought of “moving that giant vehicle” was intimidating at first, Moore admits. “But then you do it and it’s such an empowering feeling.” At 4 feet, 11 inches, she confides, “The guys used to tease me and ask if I needed a booster seat.”
All drivers must have at least a Class C commercial license with a passenger endorsement. If job candidates are from Maine, Downeast Transportation can help them obtain it. Nancy Mills, a former accountant from New Jersey who now lives in Florida, has been driving since 2017.
She and her husband are RVers who “fell in love with Maine” on vacation and then decided to sign up. Her first day driving, Nancy thought, “I am here in probably one of the most beautiful places in the world, in the national park, and I’m getting paid to do this with people who love being here.”
A strong esprit de corps exists among the drivers. “We do feel like we’re a family up there. I have forged great friendships,” Mills adds.
Maybe there’s something in the homemade soup that has become a staple at the annual end-of season gathering of drivers and their families. Maybe it’s an effect of the gratitude expressed during driver appreciation week each August, when every driver gets a small gift and passengers get involved in celebrating the drivers. These traditions, along with a weekly newsletter, bottled water and snacks for the taking, a Secret Santa program in July, and an opportunity to support the Bar Harbor Food Pantry, help Moore convey the role she believes
these drivers play.
As Mills puts it, “When I’m driving that bus, I’m the face of Acadia National Park. I’m the face of Maine. I’m the face of maybe the United States. I take this very seriously. I know that’s crazy—this is my retirement job. But I just love it because I want people to enjoy their time here.”
LYNN FANTOM is a former New York advertising executive who has embraced her second career as a freelance writer in Maine.
BY JODI MOORE
1. You will be part of a family. Most of our drivers have been with Island Explorer for more than five years—some as many as 30 years! We truly enjoy each other’s company, and there is always room for members to join the fun.
2. Acadia is your office! Acadia National Park and the surrounding communities on Mount Desert Island are beautiful, with mountains, ocean, lakes, picturesque towns and villages, and much more.
3. A state-of-the-art fleet. The Island Explorer has a state-of-the-art, green facility and the majority of our fleet is less than four years old.
4. Team members are more than just drivers. You would be an ambassador for Downeast Transportation/Island Explorer, Acadia National Park, and the state of Maine. Our team members are a part of the Acadia visitor experience.
5. Flexibility with time to explore. Downeast Transportation offers flexible hours and a set schedule for the season, which allows you to explore when you’re not working. Watch the sunrise, hike a mountain, visit gardens, go on a whale watch, go on a carriage ride through the park, attend a concert, or simple enjoy the star-filled night sky.
6. A chance to help save our planet. You would be helping to lower the carbon footprint of hundreds of thousands of visitors in Acadia National Park by driving our propane-powered buses. In 2019, we transported more than 550,000 passengers (that means way fewer vehicles).
7. Benefit the community. Not only does Downeast Transportation/Island Explorer provide much-needed transportation for local residents to get to work, shop, and attend medical appointments, but our Christmas in July food drive to benefit the Bar Harbor Food Pantry donated 400 pounds of food and other needed items, as well as $600.
8. The local cuisine! We have excellent food in Maine, some of the best local restaurants on MDI, and the best lobster in the world. (Most Mainers will tell you that the only way to eat a lobster roll is with butter.)
9. Part of a team. As a driver for Downeast Transportation/Island Explorer, you would be part of a team that provides award-winning service to Acadia National Park and the surrounding communities.
10. Pedestrians – and wildlife! – have the right of way. Our team of professional drivers is excellent at upholding the Maine state law that gives pedestrians the right of way when crossing the street. For us, that includes two- and four-legged pedestrians.
If you or someone you know is interested, please contact Jodi Moore at 207-667-5796 or email@example.com for more information.