Local legend says that the artists who visited Mount Desert Island beginning in the 1830s named these four islands in Frenchman Bay, just offshore from Bar Harbor. Staring out at the rounded tops with jagged tree points sticking up from them, and using an artist’s imagination, the story goes, they saw porcupines. With an emphasis on the pines.
Land surveys from the late 1700s, however, show that the name Porcupine had been applied here long before the artists arrived. (Thomas Cole wrote in his diary on September 3, 1844, during his first trip to the area, “Some of the islands, called porcupines, are lofty, and belted with crags which glitter in the setting sun.”) The names of the individual islands, however, have shifted over time.
Remembering the names of the Porcupine Islands, from left to right as you stand on the Shore Path, is easy with the help of this mnemonic: Sheep Burnt too Long go Bald. Sheep (once called Bald, or even She) did provide pasturage for sheep in the late 1800s. Burnt (earlier called Middle) gets its name not from the Fire of ’47, but because the rocks around its base look like ashes or charcoal. Long (once known as Great), obviously, is the longest (and the largest, at 130 acres).
The name Bald (previously South, or Round), recalls a time when the island was cleared for livestock grazing. It’s distinguished from the others by the breakwater extending from it towards shore.
These islands were hilltops some 6,000 years ago before the waters of Frenchman Bay began rising. In the human era, they have been used for grazing, logging, haying, and drying fish. Burnt Porcupine today is privately owned. Sheep and Bald, home to nesting bald eagles, are administered by Acadia National Park. Bald and Long, owned by the Nature Conservancy, have populations of nesting black guillemots as well.
FUN FACT: Bar Island, known as Bar Porcupine in the 1780s, is of the same geologic formation but technically not one of the Porcupine Islands.