At the top of the list of things to do in Bar Harbor, Maine, for kayakers looking to experience some rugged Downeast mother nature, The Porcupine Islands clustered around Bar Harbor are a curious collection of evergreen-spiked domes with a unique history, to boot.
When you stay at Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina, particularly in one of the four two-bedroom Boathouse Suites, set directly on the water in the heart of Bar Harbor’s active marina, you may notice some unusual neighbors. We’re talking about the humpback-shaped evergreen-spiked Porcupine Islands, which punctuate Frenchman Bay not even a mile from your window (or rooftop hot tub, depending on where you’re spending your time at the suites). Curious about these quirky-named islands? Here’s what you need to know.
How These Islands Got Their Name
Lying directly east of the Bar Harbor Public Pier, The Porcupine Islands consist of a chain of five islands: Bar Island, Sheep Porcupine, Burnt Porcupine, Long Porcupine, and Bald Porcupine. The archipelago is actually one of the most photographed images in Bar Harbor for their resemblance to, well, a clustering family of porcupines (their rounded domes are topped with thick forests of evergreens, bearing similarity to the spikes of a porcupine). All but one – Burnt Porcupine – are owned by Acadia National Park, ensuring their rugged nature stays intact. As for their distinctive shapes, which range in size from 22 to 130 acres, they owe that to the Ice Age, when they were carved by retreating glaciers moving north to south, creating their iconic gentle slope on the north side with a sharp drop off on the southern end.
What They Are Known For
The Porcupine Islands have a long history as a hiding place. During the French and Indian War, French gunboats often hid among the islands waiting to ambush British ships; in Prohibition times, rum runners frequented Rum Key (a miniscule key considered part of Burt Porcupine Island) on their illegal liquor forays to and from Canada. Today, they are known among paddlers as one of the best sea kayaking spots in the US: In just a short 4-6 mile paddle, you can see all the islands, plus its amazing collection of seabirds (home to 273 species in all, including peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, guillemots, and even bald eagles). The islands of Burnt and Bald Porcupine are known for their dramatic natural features: steep granite cliffs met by pounding surf, rocky beach coves, and hidden sea caves. While you are welcome to beach your kayak and explore the islands by foot, no camping is permitted (but with the Boathouse Suites no more than a mere mile away, you likely wouldn’t want to).
How to Access Them
In addition to kayaking out to them (Coastal Kayaking Tours offers an array of tours), you can also book boat tours out to them, including those from Acadia Boat Tours and Sea Venture Custom Boat Tours. Or, at low tide, Bar Island (which was once known as Bar Porcupine), is actually accessible by foot when a sandbar reveals itself. Access to the bar is via Bridge Street (on the north end of West Street). Once you walk across the short stretch, Bar Island is basically an unhabituated island forest of pine and birch trees, home to some short walking trails and a rare view of Mount Desert Island with Bar Harbor in the foreground. Just be sure to take note of when the tide comes in next; strandings do happen!