Boston Harbor Islands Hopping

What shapes our environment? When I ask myself this question, the answers are usually very specific architects and landscape architects, like Bulfinch, Richardson, Olmsted, Pei, Cobb, Kallmann and McKinnell, Machado & Silvetti, Anmahian-Winton, Utile, etc.

But on a recent camping trip to the Boston Harbor Islands with my son, I came away with a much broader understanding of our little corner of the world. It started with a visit to the outstanding new Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion on the Greenway, designed by Boston architects Utile, Inc. — the perfect place to find out more about this wonderful treasure we have right in our front yard.

We started by driving to the Hingham Harbor and taking a little Park Service ferry just a few hundred yards to Grape Island, a tiny island that is nearly the southernmost of the archipelago that makes up the Boston Harbor Islands National Park. We stayed in nice little camping areas that allowed us to feel very remote on the island’s interior, even as we could see the city skyline from the beach.

But what makes this National Park so delightful is that you can take the ferry boats between islands as well. So after setting up camp and taking a little hike, we jumped on the ferry for Peddocks Island, the site used for a few shots in the Martin Scorcese film Shutter Island.

We hiked around this dual-purpose island (it houses small vacation cottages on one end, and a former military barracks on the other), and felt like we were taken back in time. It was remarkable how many of the old military housing units remained, and also the different purposes to which the various buildings had been put. There were giant concrete bases for WWII-era mortars that could shoot ordinance well into the harbor, as well as housing dating form the Civil War and Spanish American War.

After we finished our brief tour, it began to rain as we waited for our ferry to return, so we waited it out in a shelter on the dock. It was there that we encountered Nathan Robbins, one of the Park Rangers assigned to live on the island. As we listened to the hard rain pelting the metal roof, Robbins explained how the islands were formed.

The islands are drumlins that resulted from the receding of the ice at the end of the last ice age, approximately 20,000 years ago. According Ranger Robbins, most of the drumlins in the harbor are underwater, one of only two such submerged drumlin fields in the world. The islands are the drumlins that are tall enough to still be above water today. But the drumlins are not the largest remnant of the last wall of ice as it receded; Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are part of the last moraine of the glacier that came down from the northwest toward the southeast, and those islands are part of the last line of debris they left. The next to last is the bent arm of Cape Cod.

I learned all of this from a young park ranger who couldn’t have been better suited to his job. He obviously enjoyed “roughing it” on the island, but he was also very engaged with the history of the place. Very impressive. We’ll be back for sure.