An early September’s day, four hundred and seventeen years ago, a Frenchman’s curiosity landed him in trouble in the waters around Maine.
Having spotted smoke rising from an encampment of the Native Americans, off a cove in coastal Maine, French explorer Samuel de Champlain brought his ship closer to land but fell prey to the vagaries of the sea. Namely, a rock formation that could not be avoided in time. The hull of the vessel was quite badly off and the French had to disembark and spend time at the cove in order to repair the ship. To be succinct, this is how the French came to be the first of the explorers who landed in the area, pre-empting the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock 16 years later. Naturally in those days they referred to the land as ‘New France’, before the British arrived and the epithet of ‘New England’ stuck for good.
Champlain was an intrepid character in that he made several voyages to North America and Canada, establishing settlements in Quebec and Acadia. I am fascinated by the zeal of these original adventurers. As explorers and colonists, they “yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down”, belonging to a tribe who dreamed big, who wanted to establish new colonies, who reaped profits from the new lands they came upon and imposed their own culture wherever they went while also imbibing the new, in the spirit of give-and-take that is the very fundamental premise of venturing beyond familiar territories. And they lived life kingsize. No apologies necessary. Champlain was no different, as one of the ilk who was “always roaming with a hungry heart”. For posterity, the man left behind a map that he drafted, having been a cartographer too (how many hats did these men wear, you wonder). In it, he clearly demarcated the capes and bays, islands, rivers, and settlements of the Abenaki (the Algonquian people) along the coast of Maine.
In his journal, Champlain had noted: “The island is high and notched in places so that from the sea it gives the appearance of a range of seven or eight mountains. The summits are all bare and rocky…I named it “l’Ile des Monts-deserts.” The name ‘Mount Desert Island’ stuck, ‘desert’ being pronounced as “dessert”. Is it because it is as comely as a well-presented dish of dessert? Who knows, but we were charmed to find ourselves in the town of Bar Harbor, which we drove into for a spot of lunch, and about which experience I banged on about in the previous post. The time we had in Bar Harbor was astonishingly brief. Minus the time we spent labouring over lunch — consuming food dripping with butter is tardy business — I chose to natter with an artist who was sat painting by the waters. Much to the annoyance of Adi, who was robbed of an ice cream as a result of this impromptu (and long) diversion.
All grumbles and scowls were however promptly relegated to the back seat as we left behind the twee cottages of Bar Hrbor and made our way up the road that looped around the Acadia National Park. Being short on time, we were robbed off the chance to explore the trails that called out to us from within dappled sunlit forests of spruces and firs, the forest floors matted with ferns and a dense understory. All I wanted to do was get off the car and run through the trails, hugging those awfully tall pines and cedars. The senses were enveloped in the heavenly fragrance of the woods as we wove our way through at a relaxed pace. Do you like the way forests smell? It must be one of those intangible things that just feel precious.
The views all along the park were cinematic. From the glistening blue waters, patches of conifer-laden islands jutted out from them, introducing a contrast in green — and somewhat relieving the eyes from encountering a monotonous sheath of blue. At places we observed the land claw its way into the waters. Chunky tablets of granite sculpted shaped by the elements stretched beneath our feet. In places, they were stacked up, examples of nature’s installations. Eroded by the waters and gouged by glaciers that have over the centuries scoured the land, this tableaux was at once primitive and it made me feel so very small. The play of light and shadow as the sun progressed into its journey westward, introduced a further dramatic twist to the scenery, and we were transfixed as we stayed awhile by the waters. The roads entwining the park rewarded us with more. A close look at pines, their trunks bloated by rust; whole rows of pines that were bare and bleached; rocks that looked like vast bubbles atop which people stood, tiny as ants, and then the startling sight of trees that blazed red. It was thus on the way out of this Arcadia that we had a bit of a head start on autumn.