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Tent, city

Need a quick getaway? Try camping out in Boston Harbor.

(Josh Campbell)
By Jay Atkinson
July 31, 2011

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Seven miles away, on the Boston waterfront, men in suits and women in high heels are racing to meetings and appointments. On Lovells Island, just 25 minutes by ferry from Long Wharf, the only meetings taking place are between seabirds and the minnows they’re hunting in the shallows. The double-crested cormorants float along serenely, disappearing for several moments beneath the surface, while the least terns divebomb in between, with plenty of the wriggling fish to satisfy both species of predator.

The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area comprises 34 islands and peninsulas scattered across the harbor. Amounting to 1,600 acres and 35 miles of coastline, the area has been home to mental institutions, military fortifications, and prisoner of war camps, and was even the site of an early skirmish in the Revolutionary War. Most of the historic structures have been removed, though some ruins and overgrown fragments remain. Now teeming with birds and wildlife, the four harbor islands open to campers offer a handy, inexpensive overnight getaway for overheated city dwellers.

Recently I ventured out to Lovells Island – also known as Lovell Island – for a midweek camping trip with a buddy of mine, Joe McCain Jr. We arrived by ferry from Boston, landing first on nearby Georges Island, where we hopped a water shuttle for the five-minute cruise to Lovells. (The summer-only Hingham and Hull ferries go directly to Lovells; boats from Quincy to Georges.) One of the grittier destinations among the accessible islands, Lovells is a strange admixture of wild blackberry bushes, tangled scrub, and stony beaches in proximity to abandoned military bunkers, giant slabs of crumbled masonry from ruined breakwaters, and rusted bits of old gearing and machinery. Upon reaching the dock, Joe and I chatted with a park ranger, arranged our tent at a campsite, and went about exploring the 60-acre island, which is just seven-10ths of a mile long.

Joe, a Somerville cop and former Marine, steered us toward Battery Terrill at the northwest corner of the island, a massive concrete bunker dating to the turn of the 19th century and used as late as World War II. Obscured by scrub brush and small trees, the battery has narrow gun slits facing the sea, then expands underground into a dank, forgotten city. Inside the catacombs, it was damp and chilly and smelled of rotting mushrooms. Massive iron doors led downward into other passages, connected by rusty ladders and moldering stairways. The mood was reminiscent of old horror movies, and when we resumed walking along the beach, a ranger told us that parts of the film Shutter Island were shot on nearby Peddocks Island.

On the islands, you’re separated from the breakneck pace of life on the mainland, but unless you’re traveling in your own boat, you’re going to feel marooned. Water shuttles stop at Lovells a few times each day, and, after eating the simple lunch we’d packed in, Joe and I went to visit two of the other islands.

Sea and sky blended to a hazy blue-gray that softened the afternoon light. The boat pilot was a middle-sized fellow with a gray crew cut and wraparound sunglasses named Kenny Dumas. As we passed Peddocks Island, he told us over the boat’s roaring engines about having visited the buildings – now torn down – where Italian POWs were interned during World War II. A ranger once showed him a barracks with intricate drawings adorning the walls. “A ship at anchor, birds flying, whatever they could see out the window,” Dumas said. When Italy surrendered partway through the war, the rules became more lax, he told us. “Some of the POWs were given passes into the city, and a lot stayed after the war.”

Bumpkin and Grape islands – located south of Lovells and Peddocks in the shelter of Hingham Bay – are more pastoral, dotted with meadows and grassy pathways. Rangers told us that a US naval training station established on Bumpkin Island during World War I contained 56 buildings and graduated 15,000 sailors. Few traces remain. On Grape in May 1775, shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord, British soldiers arrived to pick up hay grown by a loyalist, Elisha Leavitt. American militia fired upon them from shore, to little effect, but later sailed out to burn the remaining hay.

Back on Lovells Island for supper, we made short work of the bagel sandwiches and spring water we’d carried in, since no food or water is available on the camping islands. With so few distractions, visitors can become absorbed by the enthusiasms of childhood. At dusk, we returned to the beach, and I skipped rocks toward the Boston skyline as a gigantic container vessel steamed past, headed out toward the north Atlantic.

A brief but insistent rain pelted our camp around midnight, after which a blanket of cooler air settled around the tent. At sunrise, we awoke to clear skies and a symphony of trills, cheeps, chirrups, and twittering.

Since there are no showers on the island, a swim in the harbor became our morning constitutional. I made sure to dive in first, persuading Joe that the water was warm, then laughed when he sprinted down the beach, plunged in, and erupted in a primal scream. The water was so cold it burned the skin, but we had all day to loaf around and recover.

Jay Atkinson is the author of six books, includin Legends of Winter Hill. He teaches writing at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

GETTING THERE

Passenger ferries for the Harbor Islands leave Long Wharf, Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Hingham Shipyard, and Pemberton Point in Hull several times a day through the summer. Round-trip fare is $14 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for children ages 3-11; water shuttles connecting Georges and Spectacle with the other islands cost $3 per person per trip. For more information, including ferry schedules and how to reach the islands by private boat, go to http://www.bostonharborislands.org or call 617-223-8666.

CAMPING OUT

There are 45 campsites on Lovells, Grape, Bumpkin, and Peddocks islands, open this year (with some group sites available) until September 3. Individual campsites cost $6 per night, plus a one-time reservation fee of $9.25 (reservations are required on weekends); you can check availability and reserve sites at http://www.reserveamerica.com. Visitors should bring drinking water and plan to pack out all trash. Composting toilets are available. Small campfires are allowed only using driftwood and only below the high-tide line. No pets. Visitors with disabilities should call 617-223-8666; although the islands are not fully accessible, special arrangements can be made.

THINGS TO DO

Park rangers offer nature walks, tide-pool explorations, nighttime sky watching, and historical tours. Several of the islands have beaches where swimming is permitted, but most have no lifeguards on duty.


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