Impulsive Traveler: Boston's Harbor Islands shelter a multitude of surprises

Boston Light on Little Brewster is the nation's last nonautomatic lighthouse.
Boston Light on Little Brewster is the nation's last nonautomatic lighthouse. (Ethan Gilsdorf)
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By Ethan Gilsdorf
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 3, 2010; 2:20 PM

In the ominous opening of Martin Scorsese's movie "Shutter Island," Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, playing federal agents, take a boat out to a craggy-cliffed island off the coast of Boston.

"My friends were watching the DVD and said, 'Wow! You have an island like that?' " said Phil Rahaim, a park ranger on the Boston Harbor Islands. He had to tell them, "Not exactly."

"Shutter Island" was partly shot on an island called Peddocks, but none of the 34 real harbor islands actually look much like the movie's CG-enhanced slab of rock. Nor have any of them ever housed an insane asylum conducting experiments with psychotropic drugs.

Still, it's not hard to see why Scorsese, and novelist Dennis Lehane before him, found inspiration in these history-laden isles, part of the national park system since 1996. Each one has its own character, and leaves its own impression.

Seven of the 11 islands currently open to the public - Georges, Spectacle, Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells, Little Brewster and Thompson - are reachable by a 15- to 45-minute ferry ride from Boston's waterfront. Four others, which are either peninsulas or connected to the shore by bridges, are accessible by car. Day-trippers swim, fish, hike, bike, inline skate, bird-watch, picnic and sunbathe on the beaches. Others (like me) camp for the night, entertaining their own "Gilligan's Island" fantasies while oil tankers ply the shipping lane and jets from nearby Logan Airport pass overhead. This might be nature, but it's also a busy port. The Boston skyline remains a constant backdrop.

"At night we can see Fenway Park," said Rahaim. "We have the radio on and listen to the game and pretend we have cheap seats."

But not all Bostonians are aware of their islands, and so far, this has kept the park from becoming overrun. "Like a lot of people," said Rahaim, "I didn't know that there were islands out here till three or four years ago, when I applied for the job."

As a ranger, Rahaim teaches visitors how to fish, read a compass and make tea from staghorn sumac. He shares a yurt with another ranger on Spectacle, perhaps the island most transformed after years of neglect.

Once the site of a farm, a quarantine hospital, a horse-rendering plant and a resort-hotel-cum-gambling operation, Spectacle also served as the city dump in the 1950s. "Landfill liquids oozed into the water," said Tom Powers, president of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, one of many government and nonprofit groups that jointly administer the park. "It was a place no one wanted to go."

In a project begun in 1992 and finished in 2006, when the island reopened to the public, Spectacle was shored up, covered with 3.5 million cubic yards of dirt from the Big Dig and planted with flora. New this year is a changing station for swimmers and a food concession by local restaurateur Jasper White, who has installed his Summer Shack here as well as on Georges.

Totaling 1,600 acres, these islands are the only coastal glacial drumlins in the United States and swell in size to 3,100 acres at low tide, revealing an intertidal zone rich with sea life. About 100 bird species migrate or live here, as do raccoons, deer and coyotes.

Native Americans settled the islands thousands of years ago. Revolutionary War soldiers skirmished here, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the famous all African American Civil War regiment, bivouacked here, as did World War I and World War II recruits.

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