"Got HHI" Trip
(Gem of Trip - Hingham Harbor Islands)
by Charles Underwood
[click on the photos to see larger images]
Your gear is packed and ready; the weather forecast is a beauty- all systems are go then, the local AMC trip is abruptly canceled due to an emergency. What do you do?
Recently, this exact scenario happened to me, and ten others. The NH Paddlers trip schedules are very reliable -I think one of the best, (and this blip is not a compliant,) but emergencies happen, trips are postponed or cancelled. So how do you fill the gap?
Here’s is trip report of a very spontaneous excursion that I was fortunate enough to find at the last moment and it was trip that exposed me to conditions that increased my paddling skill.
Upon receiving word of the trip cancellation, I called back the emeritus trip leader for any other possibilities. Then I perused AMC magazine and finally got on the internet www.outdoors.org which lead me to several other web sites. A lead surfaced with a club around Boston … the BSKC. The Boston Sea Kayak Club was doing an overnighter of the lower Harbor Islands out of Hingham.
In reputation, BSKC ‘s past president, Tamsin Venn published the AMC classic Sea Kayaking Along the New England Coast. As an organization concerned with our environment they and others actively lobbied until Congress passed legislation in l996, establishing the Boston Harbor Islands as part of the National Park Service.
The Hingham Islands, about 6 in number, are located around the large expanse of Hingham Bay. The excursion would be a tour of 3 or 4 of the larger islands with camping on Grape Island. A trip similar to what the colonialist did daily hundreds of years ago in small boats, and Indians did before that in their dugout canoes.
This would be a protected paddle, for either sea canoes or kayaks: defined as water vessels containing floatation bags or bulkheads. It would be a stretch for me. I was a river paddler, and had a preconceived notion coastal paddling was boring.
So, out of the blue “GOT-HHI” began -Gem of Trip - Hingham Harbor Islands. I had no idea how intense this little trip would be. Early Saturday morning I met Townsend Barker, club president and trip coordinator. To limit liability the BSKC considers their leaders “trip coordinators.” I was also asked to sign the indemnity release form. They assured me that it had nothing to do with their confidence in me or the small size of my boat- a 14.5 foot Dagger Edisto. I answered “yes” to floatbags, rescue gear, and wet suit. They do not use ratings so I volunteered my skill level or lack of it as a “d-e-v-e-l-o-p-i-n-g” paddler. I was warmly welcomed but stuck out like a sore-thumb, my boat stood diminutive next to these 17ft Kevar and fiberglass sea kayaks. Remember what it’s like joining an unknown group on the blind? Oh joy!
At 10:00 a.m. five boats put in at Iron Beach Point, Hingham. The weather was beautiful, the breeze light but the water muddy- like harbor water! Ugh!
Within minutes the clarity of the water improved. Shortly, we weaved around several islands; it was a task not to lose ones sense of direction as we past the tiny Islands of Button, Sarah, and then Langlee where a single loon was busy fishing. Up to this point the going had been easy but I was fighting off some earlier anxious moments. As we got into the bay the horizon opened to an expanse of six miles in any direction. A little different from rivers, I thought. The morning sun felt good on my face and I soon relaxed. Like on other paddles, that familiar and transcending quality of exhilaration overtook me. I was alive, paddling. Elated to be part of a flotilla of boats rhythmically gliding out to sea.
The bay for the most part was calm with a slight but gentle breeze. We proceeded to a large island called Bumpkin where we tentatively planned to lunch. The light winds made paddling easy so we past it and continued another hour toward the Peddocks. Around noon, having paddled across Hingham Bay, we landed on a shell and sandy beach of Peddock’s Island.
Peddock’s Island is 55-acres with much to explore. We landed in front of the white, New England looking church at Fort Andrews.
Ft. Andrews, circa 1900, was built during the Spanish-American war, 8 brick buildings still stand. In WWI the fort served as artillery garrison and gun placements are on the nearby ridge (drumlin) to cover access of the northern channel-Nantasket Roads.
The Island is long and the southern tip has a protected wildlife area for Black Crowned Night Herons. There are many hiking trails throughout the island. There is a WC but not fresh water and camping is permitted by permit.
After lunch and a short bit of exploration at the old fort, the group reviewed the nautical chart- a practice done at every stop - and caucused and about the subject of an afternoon paddle. What lay North was the spectacular George’s Island, but first we had to cross the currents of “Hull’s Gut” which was about a miles open seas. The conditions were close to ideal and to my delight we decided to paddle. We hugged Peddock’s North shoreline, side slipping an occasional submerged rock. As we passed Windmill Point we took a bearing and shot across the sea. The distance was deceiving. Shortly we encountered the choppy waves of “Hull’s Gut.” In the finest Yankee tradition “Gut” is a term referring to one’s upset stomach- its name was poignant. I felt the “heebee geebies”, and it reminding me of Tony Bogacki’s whitewater class on the Androscogin. In seconds those thoughts were replaced because a certain vigilance was now the task to keep the bow pointed to oncoming swells- even though their size was moderate.
Paddling was manageable until we came near the buoy marking the shipping lane of Nantasket Roads. Here, an occasionally ship passes through the channel and with our luck we met the next biggest concern to small boats- the commercial ferry. The ferry, roared by and we bobbed like corks momentarily in its wake, bracing as best we could on a roller coaster set of swells.
George’s Island is the first outer Island. The effort to get there was worth it. In the span of 35 minutes to cross the channel, it was like going back in time. George’s Island is rich in history. Its fortress, Ft. Warren, is a five-acre granite castle complete with a courtyard, moat and drawbridge (circa 1778). Its European influence is a result of the French (who started building it for us and we finished it) and it is probably the best-preserved fort along the entire eastern seaboard. Of course this in part explains the reason for the need of the ferry. The island is quite a tourist attraction who come by the ferry, what else!
We toured the fortress and I was even more impressed. Its walls are 10 feet thick and grand views are available of all Outer Islands from the upper walls. Seaward lay Gallops, Lovell, Green, Graves and the Brewster Islands.
To give a perspective of the fort’s size, during the civil war, the fort held 1000 confederate prisoners including the vice president of the South. The most notorious guest was not even a soldier, though. A young wife of a confederate officer disguised herself as a male and rowed out to the fortress in the attempt to free her husband. Her attempts were thwarted. He was killed and she was caught and subsequently hung. According to legend, her ghostly figure still walks the ramparts at midnight searching to free her husband.
As alluring as Ft. Warren was, we could not overstay our visit. We left after the ferry passed and found smooth conditions on the return crossing using Perry Cove as our bearing. We had a nice paddle along the North shoreline of Peddocks Island passing Portuguese Cove. To the West about a mile was a tiny speck of an Island called Hangman. Back in the 1800’s the island, with its single oak tree, soon got the dubious reputation of Hangman’s Island where a pirate was allegedly hung or so the story goes.
It was getting late so time did not permit a side-trip to Hangman before rounding the tip of “West Head ” to reenter the Bay. The decision was a prudent one because suddenly strong tides were encountered. It was nearly 4:00 p.m. as we entered “West Gut,” off the tip and into opposing current and strong ebb tides. Paddling hard only equated a standstill at best, anything less equated to drifting off course into more currents. These conditions divided the group; (not good), slower members required more time and one boat required the assistance of a tow. It took an hour to travel a half a mile! Yes, according to the Tide Tables we had misjudged this passage time. Our timing at “West Gut” was at its worst, and turned an otherwise easy paddle into a struggle. But no harm done we were tired, but wiser. We re-grouped in the protected waters of Hingham Bay and were soon on our way to Grape Island, our campsite.
After paddling 11.5 miles that day we pulled onto the mud beach of Grape Island near the wooden pier. It was an hour before sunset. Our campsite was west 300 yards and we portaged our equipment, but left the boats on the beach out of the tidal range. The campsites were in the woods; each was on a grassy clearing, pristine and private but no ocean views! Each site was equipped with a table. No fresh water was available and one compost toilet nearby.
Grape Island, like its name implies was originally named for the abundance of grapes that flourish during the colonial era. The island is still lush with an abundance of flora; wild flowers, raspberry and blackberry; apple, peach and pear trees to name a few. The variety of songbirds added to this idyllic setting.
In terms of the Revolutionary War, this 60-acre island accounted for an actual skirmish known as the Battle of Grape Island. Island hay was cut to be sold to the British Army, but intercepted at musket point by the colonials. The island has old cellar holes and dwellings and several hills for lookouts. In the evening we also found its only resident to be a harmless skunk, who upon meeting went about his business having little fear of humans. I also found the songbirds to behave similarly; they flittered about just past arm’s length.
That evening we ate a tasty pasta dinner. Like many AMC trips, the Group Dinner added cohesiveness and made a good trip even better. We had wine, dessert and delightful camaraderie. Since I was the first outsider from the New Hampshire Chapter, there was a question or two about my local AMC group. Naturally, I embellished our club! And, to my surprise they acknowledged that my small boat got through both “Guts Channels” with the ease (they thought) I demonstrated. Of course, I withheld the fact about the pain pills needed afterwards to alleviate two very sore arms. Finally, by 9 p.m. we were so fatigued it was time for “lights out”. The night was cool for mid-May, and a breeze kept flying insects away.
Serving a Breakfast that no one refused … Wonder Why?
Next morning, the sound of a crazy woodpecker on a nearby tree was a good alarm clock at exactly 6 a.m. No one was up and I spent an hour quietly enjoying coffee and really trying to stretch the stiffness out of the arms and shoulders. Soon, a body or two stirred, and wanted to hike. We did the circle trek of the Island, which took 30 minutes. On the North side a number of cormorants played off shore. In a foot of water a couple of small rays were spotted swimming just below the surface.
We were in the boats and on the water by late morning. We past Sheep Island en route to Bumpkin where lunch was planned. This end of the bay was busy. A few canoes were in the bay, and more kayaks and a motor boat proceeded toward Peddocks, out for a Sunday cruise.
Passing Crow Point Flats we had fun with refracting waves created by shoals. The waves hit you from the front and back but were only small. This leg of the trip was really uneventful until Townsend, with a fully loaded Kayak, flipped over for the purpose of a training exercise. The ocean temperature was 55 degrees (I measured it), and luckily he wore a dry suit. We got to him is seconds, he played the part of acting helpless holding on to a rail of his boat as we struggled to upright his heavy Kayak! Then we had difficult time. In the middle of the Bay, of course there wasn’t much to hold on too for assistance. It took several vain attempts at balancing in our own boats, finding the leverage to right his boat. The feat was only accomplish when he placed all his weight on the stern of his kayak as others flipped his bow over. Required, was an element of choreographing we didn’t quite have, yet. This is going to need some serious practice, I thought!
Back on course, we reached Bumpkin Island around noon. Bumpkin Island is another large island (45 acres) where in colonial times farming was the mainstay. In the 19th century a children’s hospital was erected and the ruins still stand in the middle of the island. The island was also turned into a military installation in WWI for 800 men stationed here.
We paddled around the island before landing on the southern tip. A boater must watch out for submerged rocks on the northern shoreline. The island is pretty and has the clearest water at the pocket beach on the southern spit. There I saw several horseshoe crabs. As for accommodation, there are campsites, hiking trails, and a compost toilet on the south end of the island, but again no fresh water. Bumpkin is an island easy to reach it is a short passage across the bay. Its campsites have ocean views and it is therefore a very popular to stay.
After lunch we continued south along the coast and past World’s End, a 250-acre conservation peninsula. This is a nice rest stop before returning to Hingham Beach and the trip’s end.
Useful Trip Information:
The islands are open from 9 a.m. until sunset for day excursions when not staying overnight. Grape, Lovell’s, George’s, and the Gallop’s Islands are staffed seasonally. Camping is permitted at Bumpkin, Grape, Lovell’s and Peddock’s Island and sites are reserved by calling the State Park Reservation Hotline at 1-877-566-9869, or 617-727-7676. Hingham Beach has a large parking area and is reported to be safe for leaving the car.
Overall, I found this trip a gem, a must for a New Englander. On this trip, with a run over to George’s Island we paddled a total length of just under 20 miles. The island hopping was spirited and the intensity of paddling was awesome, even tense at times. Because conditions can quickly become extreme, the National Park Service suggests paddlers visiting the rocky outer Islands- Graves, the Brewster’s, and Green Island- should be limited to the very experienced. If canoeing, one will likely remain in the protected bay waters which will probably result in a weekend with a little less sprinting between islands and more hiking and exploring of one or two particular islands. Since the Harbor Islands were incorporated into the National Parks in l996, their popularity have rapidly increased yet I found it a treasure still undiscovered by the mass.
Weather is variable in typical coastal fashion. Obtain an accurate forecast before leaving the shore at 617-936-1234. The Tidal Tables should be consulted prior to a trip and followed.
I certainly learned from this experience and somehow managed to hold my own and not disgrace the good name of the New Hampshire AMC Paddlers. I enjoyed meeting new paddlers and the chance to absorb island wildlife and a ton of history. For more historical information one should obtain Boston Harbor Islands, by Emily and Dave Kales.
Copyright 2000, Charles Underwood. All rights reserved.