MOUNT DESERT — Jack Russell was born and grew up beside Acadia National Park. When he retired, he returned with his wife, Sandy Wilcox, to live beside the national park he grew up hiking in and exploring.

Russell said not even The Great Fire of 1947 that destroyed 17,000 acres across Mount Desert Island and drove him from his home at age 4 could diminish his fond memories of a charmed childhood spent in “the park.”

“I remember looking back as we drove off the island seeing sheets of flames on Cadillac. I have fragments of memory from that time,” said Russell, 73. “From that experience I think I gained a sense of where I’m from, that this is my home. And my park was wounded by the fire. But even then it was a source of wonder, satisfaction and peace.”

Today, as he looks from his deck across Echo Lake to the Acadia parkland on the other shore, Russell recalls growing up in a coastal community that shared a deep love for the spectacular natural beauty in Maine’s national park.

“My first four years looked out to Beech Mountain. So my earliest landscape was the park,” said Russell, a Friends of Acadia board member. “The first water I swam in was the park. And I’m told my first hike was up Flying Mountain, when I was 2, a fat blob passed up the mountain by my parents.”

The son of two geneticists at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Russell grew up with the freedom to hike unsupervised up the park’s rugged, scenic mountains. He recalls playing baseball at a field that looked up to bald mountain peaks colored by Acadia’s unique gray and pink granite.

He remembers after visiting his father and stepmother in Tennessee in high school, how flying back into the airport at Trenton he looked out over the park that was his playground and felt a rare warmth and happiness.

“I remember feeling a calmness I never felt at the same level,” Russell said. “At some point I realized, the East Coast doesn’t look like this down in Portland and Boston.”

Russell eventually left Maine for Michigan to raise a family but returned every summer and knew he’d retire here. That happened in 2006. Now, as he entertains his two granddaughters from Arizona for a month each summer, they retrace together in Acadia the steps Russell took here as a boy.

“When all my atoms are repurposed, I want them put back in the park,” Russell said of his dying wish. “My survivors will take my ashes to three to four special places in the park, and I’ll be happy to become part of the cosmos of Acadia National Park.”

– Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming