Notes: walk began at 1:18pm on January 1, 2015, dead low tide at 1:52pm, sunny, 25ºF (wind chill must have been much lower, it was darn cold.)
The Bar is a strip of land exposed at low tide that connects the town of Bar Harbor to a smaller island called Bar Island. I kicked off the Coast Walk at the Bar because 1) The town took its name from the the Bar, 2) it’s a very visible local landmark with a small footprint, so when you say, “I started at the Bar,” most people on the island can visualize that location within 10 feet, and 3) I knew there had been Wabanaki villages near it and it seemed appropriate to begin with the island’s first known human inhabitants. The Bar is one of the town’s more popular open spaces – there’s always a dog walker or a jogger down there (at low tide) – and in fact as we were gathering, the 5K Resolution Run came dashing across.
I should note that I’m presuming my readers have some familiarity with Mount Desert Island, so if you are not from the island, please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments area at the end of the post.
George Neptune, Jane Disney and I met at the Bar on New Year’s Day. I asked George to tell us about the Wabanaki encampments that were in this area around the turn of the century. George is a wonderful storyteller, so I’m going to give it to you in his own words as much as possible:
“Well, the two Indian encampments that were down here near the Bar during what we call the Rusticator period, which is a period roughly 1880-1920, … show up on the map as being on either side of the Bar, right here on Bridge Street, so one of them was pretty close to where we’re standing.” The encampments were seasonal, and the people who lived in them came to sell goods and services to the summer visitors, who were called ‘Rusticators.’ “Tourists would come to buy baskets and beadwork, [and] other trinkets made by Wabanaki people, so the encampments were kind of set up like little Indian villages: they were a huge part of the tourist attraction. … At that time I guess Manifest Destiny was still very much a big part of the American attitude so, you know, the West was still being won and there was still that idea that they were trying to conquer all of the Indians in the West and … expand the United States from coast to coast. So the tensions, the racial tensions, were very very high between Indians and non-Indians out in the West, [and] at that time it was believed that Indians were very dangerous people. But here in Bar Harbor, you could go to the Indian encampments, safely interact with the people, get gifts made by native people for your friends, and even more amazingly a lot of the rusticators, while they were out hiking Cadillac Mountain … the kids would often be sent with kind of a Wabanaki guide for the day.” I asked if that was a sign of trust or of a patronizing attitude, and George responded that there was certainly a lot of trust and also “kind of an exploitation of native culture, but Wabanaki people knew that and played on it. One of the biggest guides in Bar Harbor at that time was Frank Loring, who called himself Chief Big Thunder because everybody responded more to an Indian named Big Thunder than they would an Indian named Frank Loring. And he wore this traditional garb that was made of boa constrictor skin, because there are so many boa constrictors here in Maine. And he had this giant headdress made of big, beautiful ostrich feathers. [ed. No ostriches here, either.] And he had this [bow] – it was the last real Penobscot war bow that his grandfather used in a battle, or in the last great Penobscot war, or something like that, and it was actually something that he made himself in his backyard. And they would put on these big Indian ceremony pageants and invite people from all over Bar Harbor, and they were a huge part of the show here in Bar Harbor. And it was all fake! There was some authenticity woven into it, but a lot of it was just pageantry, it was just show, and it was totally totally playing on the idea that this is what American people think Indians look like.”
Frank Loring’s canoe rental was in a wharf building somewhere between the present locations of Stewman’s Lobster Pound and the whale watch: I found photos of it in a book George had recommended called Asticou’s Island Domain, which is in the Jesup Library’s Special Collections. Chapter 10, “Wabanakis and Rusticators,” has great quotes from contemporary diaries and travel guides, several photos of the encampments,
and even one of Frank Loring in his boa skin and ostrich feathers:
“Eventually Bar Harbor got more and more developed and the Indian encampments started getting pushed farther and farther from the main town, until eventually there was only one Indian encampment in town which was located far from the coast … at the very end of Ledgelawn on the Athletic Fields. So the Indian encampments started to lose a lot of visitation and eventually Wabanaki encampments were [banned from the town.] However Wabanaki people would still come and camp in the summer time. They would do various roadside camps, they would just be in a different spot every time, wherever they could. I believe they started to go up more toward Hulls Cove and that area. So now, Wabanaki people, we still come in the summertime to sell our crafts. We come for the annual Native American festival which is right up at the College of the Atlantic, and I’ve been coming to that since it started when I was about 4 years old. I believe I’ve only missed one. But I’m a basketmaker myself. I started weaving with my grandmother when I was 4 years old, … and I started selling my baskets when I was 7. And the Abbe Museum here in Bar Harbor, which was started in 1928, started collecting my baskets when I was 12. And now I work there full time as one of the museum educators, … honoring the history of my ancestors, and now [MDI is] my home, I live here full time and I love it!”
I asked George whether there had been camps here before the European settlers arrived. “We came to Mount Desert Island pre-contact, which we’d call Pesamkuk – we came to Pesamkuk as a place in the summer to meet with other Wabanaki. People came from the south and down from Nova Scotia…, all the way from Massachusetts, all the way to Newfoundland was our traditional territory. They would come from all over to meet and trade with each other, and hunt all over the island, and maybe get married in the summer because you were going to find somebody who wasn’t from your tribe or from your clan. And it was very much a thriving summertime metropolis almost in the way it is now, with smaller year-round communities, so the island has kind of kept its history in that way. And the sand bar itself we called Moneskatik, [which] means ‘the clam-digging place.’ So ‘ess’ is a clam and … ‘moneskat’ means to gather clams, … and then the ending ‘ik’ denotes a place, so Moneskatik. We would come here and gather clams off the sand bar.”
We had a discussion of how the Wabanaki named places, and of MDI place names, which I just can’t fit here but was too good to lose, so I’ll have to do a separate post about that. Meanwhile, Jane told us about current clamming conditions on the Bar:
The Bar is still a great habitat for clams, but “clamming on the bar is prohibited [now] due to potential pollution from the combined sewer overflow at Eddie Brook and to the amount of boat activity in the harbor in summer. The Marine Resources Committee in Bar Harbor has done clam flat surveys and there is a sizable population of clams on the bar. Probably a $100,000 per year resource. The only way the clams can be used is if they are cleaned up by depuration [ed. that’s a method of washing bacteria out of live shellfish]. In the past, companies that have depuration plants have held permitted … digs on the Bar. I think that local clammers are able to participate and earn some income for their efforts. DMR has worked to try to get the area cleaned up. Many of the houses in the area, and even COA, used to have overboard discharges …, but all of those have been removed and everyone is on town sewer. I know the town has made upgrades to the Eddie Brook CSO. Maybe the day will come when there is seasonal harvesting on the Bar!”
The last story George shared was this, as we were standing on the Town Pier: “One thing I do want to bring up since they’re right here are the Porcupines. There is this legend [which some of the tour guides tell] that there was once a chief on the island who had four pet porcupines and they were big porcupines, they were giants, and he became angry with them because they ate all of the birch trees on the island and he couldn’t make any canoes because there were no birch trees. So he took them all to the top of Cadillac and he kicked each one of them from the top of Cadillac Mountain and they landed in the bay and became the islands. And my favorite part about that entire story is that it’s total BS. No idea where it came from, I’ve looked in tribal resources and consulted with other tribal historians and they’re like, ‘That doesn’t even sound like our legends, our cultural concepts aren’t even present in it.’ That idea of that shaming or punishment isn’t always present in ours, it happens in different ways in our legends. It just doesn’t make sense. So we don’t know necessarily where that legend came from but is not actually a Wabanaki legend, [although] it has hints of Wabanaki legend – a lot of stories refer to Pesamkuk as the land of the giants, … and these islands were created in a battle between Koluskap and another giant. But it was not from giant porcupines. In our legends, porcupines, they were never one of the giant animals. There were giant animals but Porcupine wasn’t one of them. So he was never shrunk down, he was always very tiny.”
And with that, George headed off to find a hot cup of coffee (we were all pretty much frozen by then!) while Jane and I walked down the ramp to the Town Beach, discussing her water quality work there:
Jane: This is one of our Healthy Beaches – I’ve been monitoring this beach since the beginnings of the program in the 90s.
me (Jenn): And what have you found?
Jane: It’s pretty good. Every now and again we have a spike, and people leave dog waste.
Jenn: What are you monitoring for here?
Jane: Bacteria. Because there’s a lot of water contact here with people launching and day cares with kids at water’s edge.
Jenn: So not for things like gasoline and fuels?
Jane: No, no, just bacteria. … We were hired to do the cruise monitoring this summer … . For the most part the ships are doing things right. We have more problems with the small fishing vessels than with the big cruise ships.
Jenn: Well the cruise ships have more resources, too, for processing.
Jane: Yeah, I think there’s been talk of putting in a pump-out station, and I don’t know where that is, in the works, but maybe our report will help stimulate that conversation.
Jenn: So do you find spikes in the summertime?
Jane: Yes, sometimes after heavy rain. We had a dry spell and then we got that big rain, and a lot of runoff, and we … picked up a lot of bacteria out around one of the big cruise ships, but I think it was coming down Cromwell Brook. But there’s a lot of bacteria that ends up out in that anchorage, out of Cromwell Brook, so that’s a conversation to have in town. [Looking at the iron pipe emptying onto the beach near the Bar Harbor Inn pier:] But see, this is stormwater runoff, and I’ve long said to the Town, this isn’t where you want to funnel stormwater runoff. Sometimes I do get high bacteria over here. But then I have a lot of boats: I don’t know if it’s the boats, or the runoff – this [end] isn’t always out of the water, so I can’t always sample right out of the pipe.
When we finished talking, I worked my way back along the waterfront toward the Bar, beachcombing. I find I can’t pay attention to the shore and pay attention to other people at the same time! This post is already super long, so I’ll just jot some brief notes on this section of shoreline:
Commercial waterfront, heavily built up with wharves and sea walls. Remnant beaches tucked between structures are mostly gravel with some larger stones.
Shattered ledge appears between Stewman’s wharf and the Town Pier, and again on the the Town Beach.
Not much live wildlife visible: 2 female Mallards, a few Herring Gulls, 4 or 5 pigeons huddled under the docks, and thousands of periwinkle and barnacles. Dead wildlife included shells of clams, dog whelks, a moon snail, Green Crabs, and the skull of an Eider Duck, all of which were frozen to the beach.
And that’s all the adventure for today – on the next Coast Walk, Debbie Dyer of the Bar Harbor Historical Society will tell us about the owners of the original cottages along the Shore Path.
Update: April 8, 2015
I’ve finished the still life for Coast Walk 1, and you can see it here: Coast Walk 1 still life
April 6, 2017: The Rodick Herring Weirs