If you go, Isles of Shoals
The problem is this: The baby black-backed seagulls on Appledore Island have recently hatched, and now the mama birds are keeping, uh, gull-eyed watch over their brown fuzzball offspring (so cute!). And they do not like it — no, not one bit — if you come between them and their little dumplings.
Which is what our tour group is about to do, here on the path leading up the hill to the lookout point over the cove. The mama gull’s on one side of the trail, and her adorable chick is on the other, and we’re just about to go up the middle until Elisabeth Fischer, the docent leading us, calls a halt.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” she says. “Not good. Hmmm.”
Well, we’d been warned. “Three things you need to know on the islands,” said docent Eric Schroeder pretty much as soon as we got off the boat, waggling three fingers in the air. “Animal, vegetable and mineral.”
Animal, that’s the gulls. “If you get between a mom and her baby, and you see her take off into the air and come circling around, watch out,” he said. “She’s getting ready to [poop] on you, or maybe even attack.” Yikes!
Vegetable: That’s poison ivy. Lots and lots of it, all over the place, so beware. And mineral is the rock that is the islands’ basic component. Watch those slippery boulders!
As for the islands? Well, those would be the Isles of Shoals, a cluster of bumpy, barren outcroppings in the Atlantic about nine miles off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H., straddling the Maine-New Hampshire line. Remote and windswept, mostly uninhabited and immensely haunting, they’re probably best-known these days from the 1997 Anita Shreve novel “The Weight of Water,” about a horrific 19th-century double murder on the island with the coolest name, Smuttynose (sailors approaching its tip thought the algae on the rocks made it look like a dirty honker).
Once upon a time, though, the isles were a bustling place. In the 17th century, they were home to fishermen who barely had to lift a finger to pluck the cod from the surrounding waters: They say the fish were so plentiful, you could walk to Portsmouth on their backs.
When the fishing dried up, the tourists teemed in. That was in the mid-1800s, when an enterprising lighthouse keeper (on teensy White Island) named Thomas Laighton opened a couple of grand hotels on the isles — one on Appledore and one on Smuttynose (both long gone). A third hotel also sprang up on Star Island.
Soon folks were flocking over from the mainland to enjoy the cool, revivifying sea air, and Laighton’s daughter, Celia Thaxter (she was married to Dad’s slightly ne’er-do-well business partner), was busy growing a little cutting garden in front of her cottage to provide decorative blooms for the hotel. Oh, and also being a famous poet whom the great literary lights of the day — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, John Greenleaf Whittier — would visit at her island retreat. Along with artists such as Childe Hassam, who immortalized her garden in numerous paintings and lithographs.