SOMESVILLE, Dec. 12, 2020 – In some ways they were typical young men in their late teens or early twenties. They jousted for bragging rights. They teased each other relentlessly. They were competitive. But they were a very special cohort – a dozen or so Harvard students – which for almost 10 years during the end of the 19th century made it an annual rite to study MDI’s voluminous bounty of things alive.
Not unlike Charles Darwin’s work on the Galapagos Islands, the Champlain Society – as they called themselves, or “the Harvard kids” as others called them – studied and documented insects, birds, fish, plants, geology, hydrology and meteorology, as chronicled by Catherine Schmitt and Maureen Fournier: https://friendsofacadia.org/the-champlain-society-transcriptions/.
Led by their captain, Charles Eliot, son of Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, they trekked all over the region and sailed the waters off Frenchman’s Bay and beyond. They lived in tents, fished, hunted and played whist by the light of a campfire. Most importantly, they wrote everything down in notebooks bound by string.
They left future scientists a trove of knowledge and information . Their commitment to nature helped build the modern-day conservation movement and the creation of Acadia National Park.
Now, a group of MDI’s most distinguished institutions is organizing a “bio blitz” in 2021 to activate an army of MDI volunteers to collect species in the footsteps of the Champlain Society.
The gathered data “will be analyzed against historic data to better understand the impacts of climate change, including invasive and extinct species, and warming water temperature,” said MDI Historical society Executive Director Raney Bench.
MDIHS is collaborating with the Schoodic Institute, College of the Atlantic, Acadia National Park, A Climate to Thrive and the MDI BioLab to host this blitz.
In 1880 Charles Eliot and fellow Harvard classmates sailed his father’s yacht Sunshine on the first of what became many annual expeditions to MDI. The Eliot family had spent summers here since Charles was young. This photo of the yacht was taken July 20, 1881 by Marshall P. Slade, a member of the group. (Photographs courtesy Mount Desert Island Historical Society)
MDIHS is seeking volunteers to help map historic data, “which will then be converted by COA students into digital story maps as a graphic layering of data that shows change over time,” Raney Bench said. “New observations collected in 2021 will be added at the end of next year, creating a unique document that can be added to in the future.”
The 2021 project is called Landscape of Change.
“Working with the maps, we will train residents, visitors, and students to collect and record observations as citizen scientists. These new observations will be added to the story map,” Bench said. “At the end of 2021, a year of observations taken in all seasons will give a clear picture of change over time which can be used to better understand island ecosystems. This record will be an important benchmark for people in the future.”
Here are examples of a story map … https://usfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=a4babe8e2fe849739171e6824930459e
The island non-profit A Climate to Thrive will lend support throughout 2021, making this data relevant to MDI communities and coordinating conversations about how it can inform conservation and preservation efforts in the future.
MDIHS is simultaneously raising funding for the second phase of data analysis to be done by scientists at the Schoodic Institute. “We would need two rounds, one when all the historic data is complete and mapped, which hopefully will be in early winter 2021, and another after the bio-blitzs are complete at the end of 2021,” Raney Bench said. “I will be using this project as an example of the importance and relevance of history in the hopes it will engage new donors and grant support throughout the year to underwrite both the costs of the project and in support of MDI HS’s budget.” She is hoping to raise $18,000.
Harvard President Charles W. Eliot understood that the sheer beauty of MDI was a gift which demanded a commitment and a responsibility to keep its virginal state as uncompromised as possible. Eliot found this purpose circuitously. His first wife died at Age 33 of tuberculosis leaving him with two young sons.
In 1871, two years after her death and after he was named president of Harvard, he told friends he needed a break.
That July he loaded his two sons and a few friends onto a 33-foot sloop with camping gear and headed Down East for waypoints along Maine’s coastline.
“They reached Portland in a day, then sailed on to anchorages in Herring Gut and the Deer Isle Thorofare. As they made Bass Harbor Light on the third day out, the fog cleared away. They passed Long Ledge and Great Cranberry Island and sailed into Southwest Harbor,” wrote Catherine Schmitt in https://maineboats.com/print/issue-129/influenced-nature. They then encamped on Calf Island with a westward view of Mount Desert.
Eliot had re-married in 1877 and was the first “rusticator” to build a summer home in Northeast Harbor.
“In the spring of 1880, the elder Eliot announced that he and his second wife, Grace, would be traveling in Europe for the summer,” historian Schmitt wrote. “He offered the yacht and camping gear to Charles and Sam, then students at Harvard College, who jumped at the chance to sail downeast and camp on Mt. Desert Island. The younger Charles invited friends and classmates to be part of an expedition, in which each member would “do some work in some branch of natural history or science.”
“Champlain Society members chose which “specialty” or department they would contribute to: collecting flowers for the botanical department, dredging for marine invertebrates, shooting birds for the ornithology department, recording the weather from their meteorological station, or surveying geology.”
The 2021 edition of MDIHS’s Chebacco Magazine will feature annotated excerpts from the 1880-1882 Champlain Society logbooks. Chebacco was a two-masted boat, the kind that brought Abe Somes to settle on MDI in 1761. You may read the logs on the society’s website … https://mdihistory.org/research/champlain-society-resources/
WARNING: The logs are an addictive read. QSJ whiled away many hours poring over the pages of the notebooks and romanticized vicariously of camping without any of the appurtenances of today’s nauseating concept of “glamping.”