We survive a week alone
Our week as stewards began at noon. For seven days, Maryellen and I are again the keepers of Smuttynose Island, and its only residents -- other than muskrats, green snakes and 4,000 pairs of nesting gulls. Neither of the two island wells are potable, so we bring all our own water. There is no plumbing in the Haley House on the low rise of the hill, built sometime in the mid-to-late 1700s. There is no electricity here, never has been. Our job is to monitor the island activity for the owners, descendants of poet Celia Thaxter. We meet each visitor, enforce the island regulations and do the chores.
We arrived by the morning Isles of Shoals ferry to Star Island, but the Smuttynose rowboat, a sturdy, worn aluminum unit, was still floating at the mooring a quarter mile across Gosport Harbor. Ben, one of the Oceanic Hotel "pelicans" (the kids who do the work for the Star Island Corporation) offered us a lift to our rowboat at the mouth of the cove that links Smuttynose with its little neighbor island Malago. There was four inches of water in the boat from a recent rain, but this year we remembered to pack supplies in rubber duffel bags. Get things wet the first day, and they are likely to stay wet all week. Even now, storm clouds threaten.
Once we are on-island the isolation of Smuttynose kicks in. From the front lawn we can see New Hampshire. Maine and Massachusetts in a single sweeping glance. Our Portsmouth home is just 10 miles to the West as the gull flies. There are hundreds of conferees at nearby Star, moving specks across the harbor, not to mention the dozen pleasure boats moored in between. But with no motorboat, no generator and no amenities, we are distinctly and richly alone. We have not even brought a radio, and by 8pm, we are asleep.
Star Island is gone. In fact, by mid morning Malaga too, just 100 yards away, is lost inside the pea soup fog. I've heard stories of rowers getting disoriented in the mist -- attempting the simple 15-minute trip across the Harbor -- but heading out to sea instead. Next stop, the British Isles.
Although we are up at dawn, breakfast and clean-up takes four hours. The gas canister that heats the water and cooks the eggs on the makeshift stove is empty. We have a fresh tank, but how to install it? When we finally find a pipe wrench, it is rusted closed. We soak it in DW-40 and bang it on a rock. It's hot, but there are no rays to heat up the solar shower, an overlarge plastic Baggie that, in theory, warms in the sun. Then you hold it over your head with a Y-shaped stick and wash in a dribbling tepid gallon. Washing dishes is accomplished by squatting over a plastic tub in the back yard. I call it "indoor tenting." Even the tiniest chores seem to take forever. We grow crabby. Our brains are adjusting to "island time" again, an alternate clock that says things will get done when they get done, and not before. This is why they call Prudy Randall's home on nearby Lunging Island, the "Honeymoon Cottage." Couples who can survive a week there amid the inconveniences of island life, legend says, can survive anything.
I decide to grille breakfast instead, but cannot find the grille, then I discover it over by the outhouse, but no charcoal. We learn that the lyme, used to tame the scent of the "facilities" has all blown away in a previous storm. We substitute seaweed. It is so damp in the house that I have to light a fire in the wood stove to dry our clothes, despite the warm morning. I need more wood. I search for the saw. I'm beginning to understand why my ancestors didn't have time to keep diaries.
Torrential rain. It is impossible to get to the cove, never mind row to the ferry dock to meet Tommy and the boys, and we cannot raise them on the phone. The Shoals has its own private weather. An early 1850s travel article for the Mid Ocean House promised Smuttynose visitors temperatures 20 degrees cooler than on the mainland. If so, Portsmouth must be a terrarium. We argue about whether to brave the weather and, as the battle rages, the rain stops. We rush happily to the cove to find the rowboat hanging on the rocks six feet above and 20 feet away from the receding water. It is still just 11 am.
It's breeding season on the island. Fluffy gray-speckled gull chicks are everywhere. The one we call Peep-peep lives under the late "Rozzie" Thaxter's one-room cottage, the only other building on the island. That's also where the lawn mower is stored. Retrieving it means getting dive-bombed by screeching gull parents. Gulls perch everywhere, walk everywhere, fly everywhere as if Hitchcock were directing it all from his grave.
During May, June and July, one travels about the island with a stick raised perpetually above one's head. Tourists find it an amusing concept until they start down the trail behind the Haley House, toward the stone wall, past the little cemetery and out toward the guano-streaked stones. Gulls are ferociously protective and will scream, dive, hover and squirt droppings. There is a small stabilizing hook in the center of a gull's webbed foot, I'm told. Those who have felt it across the top of their heads say it is a memorable and scarring experience, one easily prevented by a raised stick.
Maryellen's Connecticut nephews are fascinated by our primitive Lord-of-the-Flies world and bravely make the trip to the far end of the island three times in their short visit. Keeping the trail clear and well-marked is one of the steward's most exhausting tasks. The boys are up by 5:30 am, clothes hopelessly soaked from the night before, so they pull on wet sneakers and grab sticks. We head out for the cairn, a curved pile of rocks of unknown origin that is the highest point on the 27 acre island. Visitors are surprised how long the thin island is, two-thirds of a mile of rocks, bones, poison ivy, seaweed, wildflowers, thistles, muskrat holes, muskrat scat, scattered shells and gull poop.
Reaching the Eastern end of Smuttynose at dawn is a mystical experience. As the sky lightens pink and orange far beyond the breakers, thousands of gulls rise in a deafening roar and begin to circle. I swear that the cairn is a holy place for gulls. It is forever littered with ragged corpses of young and old, sacrificed to whatever gods gulls worship. Tommy Jr., aged 12, found a spotted egg, drilled open from the inside by the chick before the occupant died, its womblike cell invaded by a snake, perhaps, because the shell is empty. Michael, aged 8, was the first to see a large gull chick in the path on the return trip, a bloody clot where Its head had been pecked away.
"Out here on the islands," his father said. "There are no rules. Parents eat their young. And this sea air makes me very hungry -- so you two better behave!"
Michael ran ahead along the wet trail, his stick held high. We came upon him minutes later, tucked into a corner of the ancient stone wall. He had found two gray lobster claws that dangled from his sleeves in place of hands. He wore a bleached muskrat skull on his head, his own face hidden under his T-shirt.
"My son, my son," his father called out in mock terror. "What has happened to you?"
"I am no longer your son!" Michael laughed like a cartoon villain. He croaked from under his shirt, windmilling his claw-hands and staring with his little muskrat head. "Your son was eaten alive. Caw-caw! I am Lobsterboy of Smuttynose, King of the Gulls!"
All photos by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2001 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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