The Ultimate Classroom

Best Educational Parks

Acadia at dawn     Photo: Comstock

The Black Guillemot

What's not to love about the black guillemot, a seabird with brilliant red feet that squawks like a bath toy? This raven-size bird with a distinctive white wing patch nests on Long Porcupine Island, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Scan the island's steep ledges for this raucous cousin of the auk and the puffin. A breathtaking treat is watching guillemots dive—they can go as deep as 165 feet—to snag cod and mollusks.

ONE OF The nation's tiniest national parks—a diminutive 35,500 acres, smaller than any Ted Turner ranch—Acadia National Park ranks second only to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the dubious distinction of most tourists per square foot: 81.7 annually. However, adventure in Acadia isn't an oxymoron. The park's humpbacked Porcupine Islands are one of the most coveted paddling spots on the planet: Hop in your sea kayak and lose the crowds (most of them, at least).
The Porcupines are a collection of four small islands in Frenchman Bay, off the larger Mount Desert Island, where much of Acadia proper is located. While Frenchman Bay can be calmer than the water in most bathtubs, there is lobster-boat traffic to contend with, and the weather here, even in summer, can change at the drop of a spray skirt. When it does, the winds pick up suddenly and the tides get muscular; there's no choice but to find the quickest route possible back to port. These are reasons why a guide is a wise investment, especially for first-timers to Acadia. We threw in with David Legere, a gregarious and thickly accented Maine-iac who owns Aquaterra Adventures. The outfit's dock is right in downtown Bar Harbor, the little town on Mount Desert Island that is most convenient to the Porcupines.
You can easily see all four islands in one day. Burnt Porcupine and Bald Porcupine islands have the most dramatic features—steep ledges, pounding surf, bristling stands of thick spruce and fir. Getting to Burnt Porcupine, 1.25 miles offshore, involves an exposed open-water crossing with potential for extra-choppy seas and strong winds.
Acadia is silly with birds—273 species in all—and from the sound of it, most happily hang out on Long Porcupine. Look for peregrines, ospreys, blue herons, and guillemots. Sheep Porcupine Island hosts an active bald eagle nest—you may spot young eaglets poking out in early summer. In the water, keep an eye peeled for harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
No camping is allowed on the Porcupine Islands. So at day's end, throw the boat on the car, drive 65 miles from Bar Harbor to the fishing town of Stonington, and hop the passenger ferry to Isle au Haut. We like the lean-tos at Duck Harbor Campground, just off the south ferry landing. This 4,000-acre island is the perfect spot to bring your own craft for a second day of low-key island exploration.
THE DETAILS
LODGING – Acadia National Park (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad) allows camping at Duck Harbor campground. The fee is $25 per campsite per night, and a permit is required; call the park or stop by park headquarters, three miles west of Bar Harbor.
OUTFITTER – Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007) offers a two-and-a-half-hour paddle around Sheep Porcupine for $37 per person. Kids must be ten or older. Or David Legere will customize an Acadia sea tour for your family (price depends on number of hours).

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