n orange-red summer sun slips above a hazy horizon east of Logan International Airport. In the morning light emerges a wonderland of which the millions of people who crowd Boston Harbor's shores for special events are generally unaware.
At the outer edges of the harbor, the first rays touch picturesque, historic lighthouses - Graves Light, perched on a barren clump of rock thrusting up from the depths, and Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in the United States, and the only one still operated by humans rather than machines.
Nearby, the steep, dramatically eroded cliffs of Great Brewster face the Brewster island group, where a wide variety of waterfowl abound year-round. In season, herds of seals are not uncommon. Big striped bass loll in pockets of water that alternate between clear, emerald green and frothy white as wind and tide come and go.
You know you're onto something special when a trout fanatic, visiting from Ketchum, Idaho, foresakes his fly rod for a camera. That's what Jim Davies, a deeply tanned retiree with the backcast of a master, did one recent morning. ''It's pretty great, having this in your backyard, huh?'' Davies muttered more than once.
A mere 15 minutes by small craft from the downtown wharves, the Brewsters really are in Boston's front yard, given the city's recent multifaceted reorientation toward the harbor on which it grew up.
Closer-in, Georges, Lovell, and Gallops islands also offer unusual urban marine experiences. Ten minutes away by small craft, 30 by harbor ferry, Georges is the focal point of what is called - somewhat pretentiously, given the current low level of services, access, and amenities - the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area.
Georges itself is pleasant and interesting, with well-maintained lawns for lounging and picnicking around Fort Warren, a Civil War-era outpost chock full of clean, dim rooms, cool on even the hottest days, where children of all ages can wander in safety and fantasize about the past.
The island can be reached - sometimes - by ferries from Boston, Hingham, Hull, Quincy, and Salem, $8 round trip for adults, $6 for children. (Service will be severely limited today for Tall Ships events.)
With the ferries, as with a number of other vital areas related to public access to the harbor, confusion and contradictory information abound. The park's recorded information line (617-223-8666) promises daily service from four municipalities later this summer, but Boston Harbor Cruises, operator of the principal ferries, says it will operate daily only from Boston and Hingham. Quincy officials say there are no plans for service from there other than on weekends and holidays.
The park recording says free shuttles are available to take visitors to Gallops and Lovell islands, which have the best swimming and some of the best camping in the park, and to Grape, Peddocks, and Bumpkin islands. But during the last week of June, all but Grape and Bumpkin - which are far away from Georges - were closed. (Peddocks and Gallops have since reopened.)
''There's going to be a lot of disappointed people coming out here who can't get where they want to go,'' said Paul Nyren, a volunteer guide with the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.
''We are disappointed!'' cried Karen Bonner, an English teacher at Boston School of Modern Languages in Roslindale. She had brought a half dozen of her foreign students out for a day exploring the harbor, only to discover they could only visit Georges because of the long travel time to Grape and Bumpkin.
Much of the reason for the confusion lies in the diffuse governance of the harbor islands, access to which is essential if the nonboat-owning public is to enjoy the 50 square miles of water that extends from downtown to Graves Light.
The 30 islands in the harbor islands park have nine ownership entities - state and local government agencies and private nonprofit organizations. Those numbers are expected to increase to 34 islands with 10 owners before next summer.
While leaders of the ownership groups seem sincere in their commitment to cooperation, their staffs often seem intent on maintaining bureaucratic turf and prerogatives. The alliance of citizens groups that is supposed to ''partner'' with the park service and other government entities has no steady revenue stream and lacks clout.
Too many ''intramural jealousies,'' said an official long associated with efforts to restore the harbor and encourage its use. Wary of aggravating the problem, the official spoke anonymously.
The problems are not all in the realm of the park service and other government entities; during recent public hearings on a use plan for the islands, some lobstermen and large boating organizations criticized a proposal to create moorings for small boaters around some of the islands, fearing it might interfere with commerce.
''It is the nature of the organizational structure that a lot of people are going to be involved,'' said Peter Lewenberg, a special harbor islands assistant to Massachusetts's secretary of environmental affairs.
''It is a strength, and also a difficulty,'' he said of the 13-member governing board whose seats are allotted to various government and public agencies by act of Congress and a 28-member advisory council. ''The goodwill that's exhibited'' in their work on the park ''is remarkable...but communication is not as crisp as it should be.''
While it is sometimes borderline chaos on Georges and at the crowded ferry-boarding area of Long Wharf, across from the New England Aquarium, the saving grace is that the volunteers and National Park rangers are polite and helpful. Nyren promptly offered the group of international students visiting Georges a guided tour of the island, and with tales of military engineering and Confederate prisoners, he eased the visitor disappointment.
He had a gorgeous backdrop for his narration.
From the ramparts of the old fort, red-hatted boys from a North Attleboro math and science camp could be seen exploring the ruins of World War I battlements. The New England Aquarium's big catamaran whisked by, homeward bound from a day's whale watch. The Brewsters were spread out to the right; a plane a minute was landing at Logan to the left. Just across the channel to Lovell, two fishing boats worked a promising riffle at low tide.
For all the organizational and financial problems of starting the new park three years ago, the harbor is teeming with activity. The public, at least, seems aware of the numerous recreational and educational opportunities made possible by the dramatic improvement in water quality accomplished by the $4 billion cleanup of the 1990s.
George E. Price Jr., the National Park Service's project manager, said some of the organizational confusion is the result of new programs being tried out this summer.
Some of these, such as weekend trips to Boston Light from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Dorchester and from the federal courthouse on Fan Pier, have been little publicized.
Even local residents often learn of them by accident. Rangers say it is still possible to reserve a berth on 24 hours' notice.
''Despite the fractiousness, the divisiveness, the failures of communication, the resource is here, now, and it has never looked better,'' said Bruce Berman, baywatcher for the advocacy group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay.
As Jim Davies, the Idaho fly fisherman, said: ''It's pretty great having this in your backyard, huh?''