Doree cox and katharine wolfe sport bedrolls, water bottles, and backpacks bulging with MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) ordered from a military catalog. For these wilderness hikers, Maine is old hat, the Adirondacks a walk in the park. But roughing it in the middle of BostonHarbor? Now you’re talking.
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“We had the whole island to ourselves,” said Cox, 77, after camping for two nights on 62-acre Lovell’s Island. “We made a fire on the beach, ate dinner and watched the lights of Boston go on.” Their one regret? Not being able to harvest the wild blackberries growing everywhere in the tangled thickets. “The berries won’t be ripe for a few weeks,” says Wolfe, 64.
“We watched seagulls drop mussels on the rocks, to break open the shells,” says Cox. “The planes from LoganAirport took off right over the campsite every 70 seconds, so there was a bit of a roar, but it was an absolutely fantastic experience.”
For those who make the effort to reach them, Boston’s harbor islands offer scenic beauty and history. Yet they lie virtually unnoticed at the doorstep of the nation’s seventh-largest metropolitan area.
To transform the neglected offshore wilderness into a center- stage attraction, the federal government created one of the nation’s most unusual national parks in 1996. The 1,600 acres of land making up the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area encompasses some 30 islands and several peninsulas, all within a 12-mile radius of downtown. They range from 248-acre World’s End peninsula, whose carriage paths were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, to tiny outcrops like ButtonIsland, accessible only by boat. The National Park Service, engaged in an innovative approach to stewardship, manages the park in partnership with the city of Boston, state agencies and a pair of private nonprofit groups.
More than 100,000 ferry passengers visit annually, a figure that hasn’t budged from the days when it was just a state park. Guidebooks to Boston barely mention the park’s existence. One reason is its lack of amenities: the islands share a single snack bar and just one rest room with running water (both on George’s Island). Park superintendent George Price thinks the numbers will climb after the park’s first full-fledged visitor’s center opens on SpectacleIsland, possibly next summer. “It’s one island you can see from a lot of Boston neighborhoods,” he says. Price hopes that new attractions, from outdoor concerts to food concessions, will eventually draw half a million visitors each year.
The new park doesn’t teem with endangered species or boast pristine wilderness enclaves. Its attractions are tied to a dramatic history at the margins of society, as the island names suggest: Hangman, Bumpkin, Ragged, Shag Rocks, The Graves.
“For centuries, the harbor islands have been the place where Boston put what it didn’t want to see or deal with, from prisoners to the mentally ill to horse-rendering facilities,” says former congressman Gerry Studds, who championed the creation of the park in the mid-1990s. Since before the Boston Tea Party, everything from bare-knuckled boxing to prostitution flourished here largely out of sight of both proper and not-so-proper Bostonians. “Ironically, in a city that from its beginnings has made its livelihood from the sea,” says Studds, “most people today are unaware that they have a harbor full of islands.”
Fifty years ago, SpectacleIsland, closest to the inner harbor, was a city dump oozing toxic waste into the surrounding waters and smoldering with underground fires from burning trash. FortWarren, a sprawling mid-19th-century redoubt on George’s Island, was eyed as a radioactive-waste depot. Thanks to a public outcry, and a 13-year campaign led by local historian Edward Rowe Snow, the islands became a state park in 1970. Though nominally protected, they continued to languish into the 1990s, short of funds, attention and respect.
Part of the problem was pollution; until ten years ago, Boston and 43 other towns were pouring raw sewage into the harbor. Today, after massive clean-up efforts, beaches have reopened, clammers are digging again and harbor seals and even porpoises are back. Not long ago a juvenile humpback whale was spotted frolicking a few hundred yards off DeerIsland, site of Boston’s gleaming new 150-acre, $3.8 billion waste-treatment facility.