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

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.

Yet the islands harbor a darker past. During King Philip's War in the 1670s, Indians were imprisoned and left to rot here; during the Cold War, sentries guarded hidden Nike missile bases. On minuscule Nixes Mate, executed pirates were displayed as a warning to anyone thinking about looting passing ships. Add to that the history of shipwrecks and mined waters, and it's not hard to imagine ghosts riding the sea air.

One is the "Lady in Black." This spirit of a Confederate prisoner's wife accused of helping someone escape, then hanged in a black dress, is said to haunt Fort Warren on Georges Island. There's a narrow passageway through the Civil War-era bulwarks called "The Dark Hall." Stumble through and try to flush her out.

More change is afoot: Georges has been gussied up this year with a brand new $9 million interpretive center, a playground and a covered picnic area.

But on other islands, nature still rules. Take Bumpkin, one of three rustic camping islands. On a recent trip, I found it thrillingly disorienting to pitch my tent among thickets of blackberries and salt spray rose that hide the ruins of a children's hospital and a Navy barracks - all only a dozen miles from my apartment.

Toward the end of the day, I dove into the water and found it warmer than I'd expected. But folks couldn't always swim here. Boston once reigned as the nation's undisputed champion "most polluted harbor." After a court-mandated cleanup in the 1980s that resulted in a new wastewater treatment plant for Deer Island, the water recovered.

The park's biggest attraction might be its four lighthouses, especially Boston Light on outlying Little Brewster. After a two-year hiatus, visitors can once again climb the light's 76 steps and two ladders to the top and see the 1,000-watt bulb housed in a 150-year-old Fresnel lens. It shines a light visible from 27 miles away that still helps ships navigate the channel.

The nation's oldest continually used lighthouse site, it's also the only nonautomatic lighthouse. Plus, its keeper is a woman named Sally Snowman. "Living on an island means you can't just hop over to Home Depot," she said. "You have to plan ahead."

Snowman dresses in late 18th-century Colonial garb, part of an initiative to draw visitors with programs such as kayaking and yoga lessons, jazz concerts, vintage baseball games and children's theater. On the wish list: more ferries to handle even more people. But increasing usage without wrecking the park is "our biggest nut to crack," said park superintendent Bruce Jacobson. "Over the years there have been ideas like 'Let's have a casino.' But that would not be a park experience."

It's the windswept, haunted and almost savage character of the islands that remains their main appeal. Most people don't want that to change.

At the end of a long day, 9-year-old Katherine Kaczmarski of Farmington, Conn., remarked on what she liked most about her visit.

"This experience," she said, sweeping her arms across the beach. "Just enjoying the beauty and the view."

Then she went back to hunting for crabs.

Gilsdorf is the author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." His Web site is www.ethangilsdorf.com.

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