There’s an old Native American legend that explains the origins of the Porcupine Islands.  It took place a long time ago, before white men ever set foot on what later became known as Mount Desert Island. One day, a wise, old chief was hiking to the top of Cadillac Mountain to meditate. It had been a hard day for the chief, and he wasn’t in the best of moods.  All he wanted to do was sit in peace at the top of the mountain overlooking the ocean.

But when he sat down and began to relax, four porcupines crawled out from under the pine trees and started making noise around him. Always patient and reserved, he tried to get rid of them without any violence:

“Shoo, you lil’ buggers,” he said. Only it certainly wasn’t in English, and probably much more stoic.

They paused, looked at him, and then continued making noise. What exactly they were doing is rather vague in the legend, but I assume it had to do with giggles and perhaps generating porcupine farts.

“I’m telling you,” he said, “I’m not in the mood.”

Momentary silence. Then another fart and more giggles.

The chief wasn’t amused. “This is your last warning,” he said, “then you’ll be sorry.”

This time the silence lasted five seconds, and the chief thought he had finally gotten his point across. But then, from the smallest and perhaps most innocent of the four, came a small “pftftft”.

Faster than any of them could squeak “I’m sorry, it’s the blueberries!” the chief picked them all up, and in anger, threw them out into the bay where they landed with a splash. They were instantly turned into islands, the north side of which was rocky and jagged, the other smooth and sloped, like a porcupine.

Thus, according to legend, the Porcupine Islands came into existence.

At least six or seven times a week, I paddle around those islands. They occupy the area of water known as Frenchman’s Bay, where Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor reside. I tell this story routinely on the 8-12 tours I lead a week, along with many other things. It is, in fact, part of my job to know these things.

Ergo, I know about the natural history of Mount Desert Island and the surrounding area. I can explain how the Wisconsin Glacier moved into this region from the north (approximately 15,000 years ago) and carved the landscape out of the rock. I know that the Rockefeller’s once owned much of the land now called Acadia National Park, and that in the 1800’s there was a hotel at the top of Cadillac mountain, which you could get to by train or horse. I can tell you all about guillemots, cormorants, seagulls and eider ducks, and I know a little bit about lobsters. I know why there are different colored buoys, what the traps look like and how they function. I know that the Maine lobster species is one of the few in the world with claws, and that it’s closely related to the cockroach (according to Food Network, at least).

I also know how lobsters mate.

Don’t ask me why, but this past winter I read a book all about lobsters and their mating process. It goes in several stages. I’ll spare you a majority of the details, but there are interesting highlights. For instance, there is a semi-ritualistic foreplay process that occurs when the female lobster rubs the male lobsters with her antennae. It looks like she’s tickling him. This information has provided me with my most inefficient pick up line to date:

“Hi there, why don’t we be like lobsters and tickle each other for a while at the bottom of the ocean?”

Excuse me?”

Point being, much of my job demands that I know things. When people on tours ask questions, they expect me to know the answer. A majority of the times I do. But when I don’t, there are two options:

I could admit that I don’t know the answer. And I do. I’m very familiar with the phase “To be honest, I’m not sure”.  But every now and then, I like to exercise my creative thought and go with the second option: make it up.

Now, I know what your thinking. You all just let out a little gasp, and are now staring at the computer screen in disbelief while asking in a tone that sounds as if I’d killed your favorite cat: “You lie?”

The answer to that is: no. I do not lie. What I do is not lying. It’s fiction. The difference is I have a degree in it therefore it’s legitimate.

And I want to add that I do not do this often. In fact, it is very rare. Any misinformation I may give on a tour is more a bi-product of my own stupidity, not fabrication. I only fictionize on special occasions, specifically when the client sets me off in the wrong way. And there’s a type.

Generally speaking, the people who provoke me are overweight, wearing a polo (to go kayaking, mind you) and are from Boston, New York or were from there but recently retired somewhere tropical. They usually start off the tour by asking me how long I’ve been “doing this”, and what my “accreditations” are. Things go cordially for a while, the tour begins and I relay facts about the area. But then the conversation lulls, and small talk seeps in.

“So did you go to college?” They ask at some point: note the emphasis.

“Yes, indeed I did,” I reply, before adding, “I just graduated in May actually.”

“Oh, well that’s nice. Where from?”

“Wheaton College, just outside Chicago,” I respond.

“Oh, I’ve never heard of it,” they reply. “It’s a college?”

“Yes,” I reply, “Wheaton…College.”

“Oh, interesting, I’ve never heard of it.”

I say nothing, but unfortunately they don’t require prompting.

“What did you major in?” they ask.

“I studied English…English writing.”

“Oh!” They say, as if they’ve finally found the right donut in an assorted pack, “well, that’s…”-they look at me, and raise their eyebrows –“fun.”

“Yea,” I say, not sure of how else to take that. There is silence, and I can sense them waiting for it, so I reply, “Where did you go to school?”

“Oh, you know,” they start, in a fake nonchalant manner, “I went to” and then they ramble off some east coast, exclusive private school, making sure to add a European sounding emphasis on the vowels. They follow this up with “And I studied Biology. Let me tell you. That was work. It took a lot to get a degree from (they say the name of the school again, just to make sure I caught it).”

“Oh. Cool.” I nod.

There’s silence for a moment, but then I pick out a huge rock on the side of the coast and point:

“Hey, do you see that rock there?” I ask.

They turn and look in the direction I’m pointing. “Yea, what about it?”

“That rock is part of a new fad here on the east coast,” I explain, “it’s a combination of engineering and art. Designers take large boulders, and balance them along the coastline in precarious positions. The more precarious the balance, the more esteemed the work. “ I pause to let it sink in, then go for the home run:

“It’s a very prestigious up-and-coming pursuit. In fact,” I add, “I think (I name their alma mater) has one of the best departments in the nation.”

They look back at me, usually through their Oakley sunglasses. “Do they now? Well, I didn’t know about that department. I didn’t get out too much besides studying and the fraternity you know…but that wouldn’t surprise me. We’re very cutting edge for new developments. Oh, that’s simply marvelous. Look at the balance on that rock…yes, yes, well done. Another great achievement from (their school name, still with the European emphasis on vowels).”

And that’s how I craft my fiction while paddling among the Porcupine Islands. Like I said, this doesn’t happen often. Most of my clients are modest, humble folks. I tell them all I know about anything they want to know and things proceed pleasantly. On those days, rather than working on fiction, I devote my thoughts to crafting pick-up lines:

“Hey, are you a lobster? Because I think you’re turning red.”


3 thoughts on “Porcupines

  1. One of the unofficial requirements I always make my ww rafting students do is invent folklore while they guide the boat. My personal favorite is the Tale of Sleeping Baby Giant Island. haha It’s all about the tips.

  2. I totally make up stories while I give people tours of the golf course. It’s the best part of my day. Although you’re ingenious rock-balancing department bs puts mine to shame!

    Keep it up, friend. Hope you’re doing well!

  3. Now, just hold on a little second there Bryn. I am not obsese, from New York or Boston, and I have never worn a polo. I am simply an innocent (slightly gullible) young lady from England and you told ME that story! So don’t go pretending you only make stuff up for the obnoxious tourists, pah!!

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