Friday, August 15, 2014

Bar Harbor Blueberry Barrens

Hillside of campground blueberries overlooking Frenchman's Bay
One of our fondest memories of Bar Harbor Campground is the hillside covered in blueberries overlooking Frenchman's Bay to the north (by the way, if you click on the campground link, I think there is a very good chance that the orange tent in the bottom center photo is ours). The blueberries were particularly prolific this year.

Throughout the hillside is an distinctive assortment of plants making a living, several of which I wasn't too familiar with, so I thought I'd record what plants were growing there. We just love being up on that hill - the view, the plants, the singing birds. So, for somewhat sentimental reasons, I give you some of the plants.

Lowbush blueberry - the best crop I've ever seen. 
Of course the big draw here are the wild blueberries, also known as lowbush blueberries. There are a variety of lowbush blueberry species and I can't tell them apart. A few years ago a resident expert of blueberry picking was telling my son about the nuances between the various species, and claimed there were several there on the hillside, each with its own flavor. I really have no idea.  The most common species is Late Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium Angustifolium), and that's probably what most of the blueberries were.

Blueberry Barrens at Bar Harbor Campground, Hulls Cove, Maine
"Blueberry Barrens" are described by the State of Maine on their website, and I think this hillside fits that description.   I'm assuming the owners of the campground do something to keep the hillside open, because I see a variety of tree saplings popping up quite vigorously. They may burn it over periodically, for example, or just go in and cut the trees that are trying to grow in. Burning is great for blueberries, by the way.

Many of these plants are very typical of Northern New England. Which I sentimentally equate with being on vacation. These are all, therefore, lovely plants :) 

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba)
Meadowsweet is a favorite of Northern New England, and is related to a number of other Spirea species that are used in landscaping. This one is native, however, unlike some gardening favorites (such as Japanese Spirea). 
Bunchberry Dogwood or Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus Canadensis)
One of the most eye-catching plants are the tiny dogwoods with clumps of bright red berries. My son ate some those berries once as a toddler. I'm happy to report he didn't get sick. This one has a lot of common names, mostly having to do with being a dogwood or being found in Canada. It's odd that this tiny plant is in fact a dogwood and therefore closely related to shrubs and small trees. The Latin genus name for dogwoods is Cornus, which is translated as "hard (as in wood)." So the species name Cornus Canadensis translates to what....Hard Canadian? 
Reindeer moss (a lichen) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
There is a lot of very stunted vegetation and lichen on the hillside, no doubt related to all the rock. In some places there is no soil at all, and in others the soil is barely there. 

May I digress about the rock? It's always there, just under foot, and it clearly plays a major part in how things grow here. I've never known quite what it was, but it's very different from the rest of the island, nothing like the famous pink granite of Cadillac Mountain, and it reminds me of the rock underlying the Flint Hills of Kansas. (Flint, that is. This rock at the campground can break into shards with sharp edges like flint). The geology map says it's the Bar Harbor Formation, which is composed of sandstones and siltstones that often show obvious bedding layers. If you say so, but I'm not seeing it.  Looking into the matter further for this blog post, however, I now see the bedrock maps says this is "Ireson Hill", and by Googling that I find this page that says, "The rocks found along the shore at The Ovens and in the road-cuts along Route 3 at Ireson Hill on the northern side of the island also belong to the Bar Harbor Formation, but here the rock is flint-like and bedding is difficult or impossible to see. Some of these rocks are believed to be accumulations of ash that settled out of the atmosphere after a volcanic eruption." Thank you. Now I don't feel so stupid. Not only that, but volcanic ash... that's interesting. Now it all makes sense. 

Definitely not the pink granite of Cadillac Mountain!

Volcanic ash deposits of the Bar Harbor Formation. Note the blueberries.
Back to the plants. Goldenrod is well known.   But what about Silverrod?  This is the only white goldenrod species, and I didn't even recognize it as a goldenrod. There are 26 species Goldenrod in New England, so I don't usually bother trying to get down to the species level. 

Goldenrod, maybe the Common Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis.)

Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)

Some of the blueberries were black and shiny. I'm not sure if these are a different species, or it's just natural variation within the species.  Late Lowbush Blueberry can have black berries, so I'm guessing it's just natural variation.  Not to be confused with Huckleberries, which are also black and shiny, but huckleberry plants are taller (two or three times as tall) and there are a few crunchy seeds in the center. Also, huckleberries don't have clumps of berries at the end of a stem. 

Blueberries can be black.

Huckleberry surrounded by blueberries
There were some distinctive shrubs. Common Juniper was crawling across some of the larger rock outcrops as if someone had artfully planted it there to accent the blueberries. There are two juniper species growing on Mount Desert Island: Creeping Juniper and Common Juniper. I thought this might be the former because of how low it is, but Creeping Juniper has some "leaves" that are like scales, and these were all sharp needles.

Common Juniper, with oak, gray birch, and mountain maple saplings in the back

Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)
Sheep laurel is one that I never see in Connecticut, but I always see in Acadia.  This time of year, the dead flower heads midway up the branch, interrupting the leaves, are pretty distinctive. The species Latin name is the same as for the blueberries: angustifolia, which translates as narrow leaves. So we have the laurel and blueberry with narrow leaves growing together here.  I used to misread angustifolia as augustifolia (with a "u") and think, oh, it's because they get berries in August. Good thing I'm not a botanist. 

Northern Witherod or Wild Raisin (Viburnum cassinoides)?
My toughest plant to ID was a viburnum, but which one? I narrowed the search down to two closely related species sometimes called "Witherod," then settled on the one that is most likely to be on the island based on published plant lists for the area (of which there are many due to the location of Acadia National Park there). This one, Viburnum cassenoides, is also called Wild Raisin.

Witherod or Wild Raisin
From Missouri Botanical Garden: "Viburnum cassinoides is commonly called witherod viburnum. Withe (from Old English) means flexible twig and rod means slender shoot or stem. It is native primarily to northeastern North America (hence the occasional common name of northern witherod) where it is typically found in low woods, fields, swamps, marshes, pond peripheries and bogs."   Although the hillside is mostly very dry, the rock obviously does not drain well and there were pockets of wetter areas and even standing water in one location.

Witherod berries, or "raisins"

Dogbane behind a fire pit
Dogbane is pretty common in Connecticut, where I often see it growing scattered across a field. Here I found an ornamental clump of it in full bloom behind a fire pit. I've never seen dogbane that was so ornamental. Another name for this plant is Indian Hemp, and here's a video showing how to make cordage with this traditional fiber.

Several types of tree saplings were trying to make a go of it, especially gray birch, the classic pioneer of cleared lands. There were clumps of stunted gray birch everywhere, looking more like a shrub than a tree.

Gray Birch

Mountain Maple
I bought a book of Maine Trees when I was in Bar Harbor, and that's the only reason I knew the above photo was Mountain Maple. Otherwise I probably would have assumed it was Red Maple, the most common tree in all of Connecticut.  Another helpful page from the book included pictures of Pin Cherry, another one of the plants growing here I wasn't too sure about. One thing about trying to identify plants: You can never have too many identification guides.

Pin Cherry
I used to think I could smell blueberries growing, but it turned out I was smelling Sweet Fern, which often grows where blueberries grow. And sure enough, there it was. It's not a fern, but an aromatic shrub of dry, waste places. 

Sweet Fern, a shrub
Finally, there was bracken fern, the fern that grows where other ferns dare not, like dry, sandy woods. It's the fern with one main stem that goes up for about a foot and then suddenly breaks into three fern fronds.

Bracken Fern
As for the birds, I don't have the right camera (or the patience) for photos, but most of the singing was the white-throated sparrow (occasionally at 2:00 am), goldfinches, and chickadees.  One lazy afternoon a Bald Eagle circled over the campsite for ten minutes, gradually getting so high he was nothing more than a speck. And one day I saw a bird that looked like a Peregrine Falcon dive through the site. It was there and gone in a flash, so who knows.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Penobscot Forts

Fort George, Castine, Maine
Just down the road from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park in Maine are a series of old forts along the banks of the Penobscot River. I had no idea about this until I read a book by Bernard Cornwell, one of our favorite authors, called "The Fort."  It was a fascinating read encompassing the largest navel defeat of the United State until Pearl Harbor.   After reading the book, we wanted to visit the fort. And that's when we discovered there are several forts along the mouth of the Penobscot River that you can visit. Who knew? No one I've talked to has ever heard of these forts, and this may be in large part because the history behind them is rather embarrassing. That just makes them more interesting, however. There is a story there.

Fort George history plaque

In 1779, the British military landed in this location and began building Fort George. In response, Massachusetts and the United States sent a force of 43 ships to recapture the territory. With superior forces and fire power, the colonists should have easily taken the fort, the construction of which had just been started and offered little protection. But U.S. forces were not well lead or well disciplined (Paul Revere was later court martialed for cowardice), while the British forces consisted of hardened professionals.  

Fort George. The cement between rocks was full of shells. 
The British were able to hang on to their rapidly growing fort through a few weeks of half-baked battles and incompetent mulling about by the Americans until additional British ships arrived, chasing the Americans up the Penobscot River where all 43 American ships were scuttled. The American survivors were forced to retreat overland back to Boston without food or water. Do you remember learning about this in school?  I don't.  If you want to look up the history of the this battle, you should know it's not even referred to as a battle, but as the "Penobscot Expedition."  I'm now trying to imagine the South referring to the "Gettysburg Expedition."  

Looking across the fort grounds from the outfield
 One of the more unexpected sights was that of a rundown baseball field in the middle fort. Well, why not?  Here's the fort on Google Map.

Behind home plate inside Fort George
Our next stop was Fort Madison, just down the street (Perkins Street) and still within the battlefield area of Fort George.  This fort was even harder to find, but after a cranky neighbor yelled at us for parking on the street in front of his house, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Penobscot Bay and were able to walk along the rocky shore. Here's the fort location on Google Maps.

Welcome to Fort Madison, Castine, Maine
This fort dates to the War of 1812. According to the sign, the Americans built the fort and then fled withdrew as soon as the British showed up.  Nice. The British went on to sack Bangor and generate lingering resentment.

Informational plaque, Fort Madison

Penobscot Bay, Fort Madison. Pretend those are big American Ships in 1779.
This was a beautiful park and there were a number of people relaxing and picnicking nearby.  You really could make a day of just hanging out here.

Bonus stairs down to the water. Also, massive Japanese Knotweed.
After exploring the shore, we visited the nearby Wilson Museum, which housed an eclectic assortment of relics collected by a resident geologist in the late 1800s (see map). Included in the museum were artifacts from one of the scuttled American ships that were part of the so-called Penobscot Expedition. Then we wandered on down to the Castine docks and had some seafood under an umbrella on the seaside dock. It was delicious (see map).

Crossing the Penobscot River (observatory is at the top)

After lunch, we head back up the peninsula along the Penobscot River towards Bucksport, where we encountered a beautiful cable-stay bridge crossing the river very near our next fort, Fort Knox. Not "the" Fort Knox, this is another one (but both forts were apparently named after the same guy).   But before exploring our third fort, we took a ride up the elevator in the Penobscot Bridge Observatory and got a great view of the surrounding. We could even see Acadia's Cadillac Mountain off in the distance.

View downstream from the observatory
 From up in the observatory, it's obvious why Fort Knox was location where it was. There is a very sharp, 90 degree turn in the river, which the old wooden sailing ships would have had to navigate under fire.

View upstream with Fort Knox located at the sharp bend in the river
The visit to Fort Knox was completely different than visiting the other two almost-forgotten forts (see location map).   For one thing, there was a fee, facilities, and a gift shop. Also, there were no embarrassing lost battles here (no battles at all, actually). The construction of this fort in fact turned out to be a waste of money (nearly a million dollars), a reaction to the previous humiliations by the British who intended to create a "New Ireland" in what is now Maine, but was then a part of Massachusetts (Maine subsequently won statehood in part because they had not been adequately defended by Massachusetts). This Civil War-era fort was under construction for 25 years and still wasn't complete in 1869 when construction was halted because iron-clad ships rendered it obsolete.

This one was a tourist trap.
Some granite quarry owner was probably made rich by this fort. There is granite everywhere. Maine has a lot of granite.

Fort Knox, just daring to British to try that "New Ireland" nonsense again.

Lots of granite

...and brick. 

The British weren't going to take over THIS fort!  

Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge
There are additional forts along the Penobscot, including Fort Pownall at Fort Point State Park, the oldest fort of them all. Alas, we didn't have time for that one.