julie and i went to the boston harbor islands this morning, on the hottest day of the year. we took the ferry first to spectacle island (i've never been there before) before getting dropped off at lovells island (after missing our connecting ferry to georges island). we spent most of the day at lovells, soaking in the cold ocean water and exploring the coastline. coming back, we stopped briefly at georges before catching the large ferry back to boston at 6:30. after vietnamese dinner in chinatown, we returned to camberville. photos and more detailed synopsis to come...
what many don't know about boston harbor is that it's not just an empty body of water stretching into the ocean. the harbor itself is peppered with islands, some tiny, some not so tiny. they're entirely free to visit; getting there is what costs money (unless you're lucky enough to have your own boat). the major islands have piers; the lesser islands can only be reached by dropping anchor and taking an auxiliary vessel ashore. i've visited georges island before,1 which acts as the hub for ferries to the other islands. i've also been to peddocks island (to this day fondly remembered as the place where i almost died).
julie decided we should first visit spectacle island since neither of us have been there before. spectacle is a recent additional to the boston harbor islands, originally serving as the city dump including debris from the big dig project which greatly increased its overall size. it was only opened to the public starting in 2006 after years of rehabilitation into a public recreation area.
i woke up at 7:00 after a restless night of sleep due to the high heat and humidity. after using the bathroom and showering, i made a quick breakfast, quince jelly on english muffin, a glass of orange-mango juice, and a banana. i decided against taking a motion sickness tablet because didn't think i'd get sick on the ferry and didn't want the drug to make me drowsy.
we agreed to meet at the porter square station around 8:05, rendezvousing on the last train cabin. at the scheduled time, i saw julie further up the platform, after missing the last car. we grabbed the next arriving train into boston, getting off at downtown crossing and walking to the harbor. along the way julie dropped off a fedex package at a local branch office, nicely air-conditioned on this hot day.
i thought we'd by tickets from the booths by the pier, but instead we purchased them self-service ticketing kiosks on the greenway. there are also informational displays and pamphlet racks. we bought round-trip tickets ($14) to spectacle island, coming back on the last ferry leaving georges.2
where we'd take the boston harbor island ferry wasn't where i took the boston harbor cruise boat to go whale watching last friday; it was actually located on the other side of the boston marriott long wharf hotel, next to columbus park. with 30 minutes before the spectacle island ferry was scheduled to leave (9:30), we waited on the boardwalk, putting on our sunblock. i only put lotion on my face, hoping to quickly darken the rest of my body and get rid of my farmer's tan. i assumed it wouldn't be too crowded today since it was still a weekday but we did see a large group of college kids with their coolers and boxes of supplies.
these group of kids had an international flare from the accents we overheard; maybe they were visiting the island for some bonding exercises. we sat across an old lady who smiled and waved, as if she knew us. later when we were underway, i asked her if she was with the group. "oh, you're not with them?" she said, surprised. they turned out to be harvard chemistry graduates on a summer school outing. we were relieved to hear that they were only going to spectacle island and not lovells island (where we planned to be).
we left boston a little behind schedule and didn't arrive at spectacle until after 10:00. that left us with less than 45 minutes to explore the island before the ferry would arrive to take us to georges, where we'd take yet another ferry to get to lovells.
spectacle island was very nice. by the beach along the pier were changing rooms and outdoor showers. julie jumped in with her clothes on to cool off. i kept my distance, preferring to keep my camera equipment dry. wide gravel trails went up to 2 different summits. since we only had time to do one, we went to the higher hill. it's a fairly new island, the vegetation reflects this as there aren't any large trees (sumacs, some pines). it's one of the harbor islands closest to boston, so it gave us a pretty good view of the city. there was a pavilion on the summit with a cooler full of ice water left there courtesy of the rangers.
we sort of lost track of time and only had 10 minutes to get back down to the pier. so we ran, julie with her weak knees, me with my heavy photo equipment. we took a shortcut downhill through a slope of tall grass, within eyesight of a group of outward bound kids who must've been curious as to what we were doing. we made it down in time before the ferry arrived.
we grew a little suspicion when by 11:00 there was still no sign of the 10:45 ferry. we asked one of the rangers who regretfully told us that the ferry had already left. apparently we were supposed to wait down below along the dock but nobody told us. and it wasn't a big ferry boat but one of the smaller yellow ferries (julie had actually watched it arrive and leave). there were no signs and the announcer who broadcasted the warning over the public speakers failed to give more detailed instructions (for instance, that the ferry boat was one of the smaller yellow ones).
it wasn't as simple as just waiting for the next georges island ferry, which would arrive in just another hour (11:45): this would mean we'd miss our 11:35 connecting ferry to lovells. the next scheduled lovells ferry wouldn't come until 2:50.
the ranger got in touch with one of the ferry workers (identified by colorful hawaiian shirts) via walkie-talkie. since lovells is right next to georges, it wasn't a big deal for the next ferry to just drop us off enroute to where we wanted to go. this would mean we'd bypass georges altogether, but each of us had visited georges before on our own, so it wasn't a big deal.
in the meantime we had another hour to kill. that gave us a chance to use the bathroom and check out some of the historical displays at the visitor center. i knew the island used to be a dump, but i didn't realize it was also a glue factory prior to that (where all the dead horses went). there was also a small kitchen serving jasper white food; i thought about getting something to eat but i wasn't hungry at the time (a decision i would later regret).
having learned our lesson, we were down by the pier at 11:30 for the 11:45 ferry. there would be no mistakes this time. the ferry boat was crewed by two giggly teenagers, a boy and a girl, foregoing the garish hawaiian shirts for nautical captain shirts one of them purchased on ebay. it made me a little nervous that we were being transported by kids, but it wasn't like you needed to be a rocket scientist to pilot one of those things.
julie had been to lovells a few week ago for the very first time and was so impressed with the island that she wanted to come back and share the experience (also to bring her camera, which she forgot the last time). she came on a saturday and said the place was empty. i'd never been to lovells before, just a few failed attempts. on any given day there are only 3-4 trips to the island, each spaced about 3 hours apart. miss the ferry and you're out of luck. a ranger was waiting for us on the docks when we arrived (surprising, since it was an unscheduled visit, but maybe there was walkie-talkie news of our arrival). there wasn't anybody else around except a small group of people on the beach landing from a boat. the ranger led us to the information pavilion where he gave us a quick talk about the island. last ferry is at 6:05. drink plenty of water (more here if you need it). stay away from the southeastern end of the island because of nesting terns.
the first structure we came across was an abandoned concrete watchtower. i climbed the wooden ladder up into the observation deck. the interior was covered in graffiti and smelled of urine. the tower wasn't very high, 2 stories at the most, with a view of the nearby beach on the other side of the island.
once we arrived at the beach, julie couldn't wait to get into the water. there were a few boats anchored in the water, and a handful of local families and retired couples hanging out along the shore (no swedish bikini team unfortunately). we got far enough away from them before putting down our stuff on some rocks and jumping into the water. i wasn't wearing swimming trunks but figured nobody would be none the wiser if i dipped into the water in my boxers. the sand and the stones were hot enough that it was like walking on fire. despite the blistering weather, the water was chillingly cold (julie thought it might be in the 60's). while julie had already gone all in, i was inching my way into the cold ocean. finally i just decided to quickly dunk myself and get it over with. the water felt good, like nature's own air conditioning. it's an indescribable feeling, being in the center of two temperature extremes.
afterwards we moved further up the beach to an area with some more shade underneath a few trees (next to the location of the giant abandoned tire). we used the low-hanging branches as hooks for our clothes. julie brought a towel to sit on while i just sat in the sand. she shared some fig newtons with me before we went back into the water again. we rested back under the shade. the only nuisance were biting black flies, impossible to hit, incredibly persistent, and seemingly immune to bug repellent.
after we had our fill of sitting around, it was time to explore the rest of the island. we started walking up the beach towards the northern tip. for some reason all the seaweed seemed to collect here, large floating mats of the stuff, drying on the beach, creating an awful smell.
we climbed over a pile of rocks to get across the bend. boston was visible on the western horizon, approximately 6 miles away.
coming around the northern bend counterclockwise, we came across a large fortified structure. knowing a little history of the islands, i recognized it as part of a defensive gun stand. we tried climbing it but couldn't find enough footholds. we went around to take a look inside. further back were the former oil house and range light station (1903).
we took a short trail through the forest and came out onto an open field of tall grasses, like a sea of swirly greens. there was a little building in the middle of the field, slowly falling apart, its back wall having toppled recently.
continuing down the western coast, we found broken pieces of a former pier, thick pieces of wood still well preserved. eventually our path was blocked by what looked to be the collapsed remnants of a very large structure. the only way to get across was to climb over it. this was the protected switchboard room, built in the 1920's. it caved in recently (within a few years ago) since the island brochure still warns visitors about not going inside. in its current crumbled condition there is no interior anymore. it was a nice place to sit and view boston across the harbor.
a nearby bird flew from tree to tree. at first i thought it was just a seagull before i got a better look. a kestrel! but too large. could it be...a peregrine falcon? it finally stopped on a branch, panting from the heat. i thought peregrine falcons were endangered and rare but later i discovered they're actually quite common. i'd never seen one before.
further down, the disintegrating debris along the shore were remnants of a WWI compound. this area was also close to the island campgrounds and we found evidence of campers building makeshift structures like a set of beach chairs made from broken pieces of concrete walls.
eventually we made it all the way back to the pier, from where we first landed. along the way julie had collected a handful of ocean-washed trash, mostly food wrappers. we stopped at the information center to fill up our bottles with cold water from a cooler. it was close to 2:30 and a few people had gathered to take the penultimate ferry back to georges island. i would've been fine with returning home, but i also wanted to make the most of this hot day so we decided to stay and take the last 6:00 ferry back home.
when we returned to the beach, there seemed to be a few more boats in the water, although not as many people on land. i wanted to check out the other end of the island, where the nesting terns were. julie refused to go, having accidentally wandered into the nesting site the last time she was here and nearly trampling some tern chicks. we hid our things between some large shoreline rocks and went back into the water.
while julie was resting on the rocks, i did my own exploring, armed with the telephoto lens, determined to see me some terns. i didn't make it far enough to see chicks (not that i wanted to, rather not disturb them), but i did spot a single tern flying in the air, making noises. having some experience with terns i know they can get aggressive when protecting their nests so i didn't go any farther, not wishing to get pecked in the head with a sharp tern beak. i also saw a group of eiders. apparently they're here year-round even though i thought they were winter-only ducks.
later we relocated one last night, to the base of a taller rock wall that would provide us with some late afternoon shade. julie jumped into the water one more time while i stayed on land to give my underwear time to dry.
while i went to the information center to wait, julie went to go use the bathroom. we were the only people left on the island leaving on the last ferry (everyone else apparently had their own boats, or were probably camping overnight on the island). i asked the 2 rangers a bunch of questions. i was curious about their yurt. it only looks cool; inside there's no running water or electricity, and hot enough that if you "pour water on some rocks" it could be a steam room (so says the ranger). we heard back on spectacle island that lovells gets pretty busy on weekends. busy means 200+ people on the beach and the water becomes a parking lot for boats. the rangers work from june until labor day, 5 days a week. ranger short shorts worked on spectacle last month; he was one of the few that didn't live on that island but instead commuted back and forth via ferry back to the mainland. most of the people who do island camping come to lovells. lovells is the better island if you like beaches, since most of the coastline is beach.
when the ferry arrived, i was surprised to find people getting off. it took me a second to realize they were coming to the island to camp, bringing with them enough supplies that they needed a hand truck to carry it all. julie sneered at the campers, since she does backpack camping and only bring what she can carry herself. we hopped onto the ferry thinking we'd have to pay some additional fare ($3) but they never asked us. turns out we weren't the last people on the island; an older couple hopped onto the ferry just as soon we were about to leave.
we had to wait a little bit on georges island before the 6:30 arrival of the big ferry that would take us all back to boston. there wasn't enough time to do any exploring, so we found some lounge chairs and relaxed within eyeshot of the city. when the boat was about to arrive, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers warning people that this was the last ferry; if anyone wanted to get back to the mainland after that, they'd have to take a $175 water taxi. when the boat pulled up to the dock, we scampered up to the top to get a good seat, but it wasn't necessary since there was hardly anyone on the ferry. below deck was air-conditioned with a bar serving beer.
once we were back on the mainland, we went to the nearby boston marriott long wharf hotel to use their bathroom. downstairs was an LCD information screen, where we saw today's temperature: 101°F. whoa! we knew it was hot, but figured maybe upper 90's at the most. thank god for that cold ocean water!
we took the rose kennedy greenway to chinatown. lacking any particular preference, we defaulted to vietnamese pho hoa.
they served cold tea at the restaurant (real cold tea, not code word for underaged dim sum beer) which we drank like it was most delicious drink in the world. i flipped the teapot lid for seconds. be both got the grilled chicken vermicelli bun with spring rolls for an appetizer. the waiter came out with our rolls as well as a peanut dipping sauce and 2 bowls of fish sauce. we dipped in both until we realized the fish sauce is actually for the grilled chicken. julie couldn't help getting the peanut sauce on her white shirt and finally decided to take it off. the bathroom was occupied so she quickly changed into a t-shirt at the table, scandalously flashing her bikini top.
after dinner we walked through downtown crossing and got the red line from park street.
1 my very first visit was freshman year college orientation (1992). we came to the island to do group bonding exercises. my 2nd visit (1998? i'll have to check my records) was onboard drake's boat with a handful of screen house employees. he was just learning how to sail and it made for some harrowing encounters.
2 one-way ticket costs $7, but they require you to purchase a return trip ticket as well, so the total is $14. you also have to specify the return time, but they won't refuse you if you have a ticket so we picked the latest time possible (6:30).