Isles of Shoals
Our time at Lake Winnipesaukee ended too soon, and we returned to Windleblo where she waited safe on a Cohasset town mooring. Over the Fourth of July weekend I relived my boyhood summers playing around Cohasset – shooting the rips at Mill River, climbing Government rock, partying on Bassings Beach – before finally dropping the mooring line and slipping past Whitehead at high water. Smooth seas parted before the bow as we covered the 20 nautical miles to Gloucester under warm hazy sunshine. A WEEI Red Sox radio broadcast entertained us en route.
Gloucester’s charm is in its rough edges. No polished yachts here. Rusty fishing boats lined the docks and battered working-class houses rimmed the shore. The harbor master was very welcoming, though, and the place buzzed with activity. Several fish processing plants remain busy but now with frozen fish flown in from across the globe rather than fresh catch just in from the Grand Banks. We spent two nights in Gloucester.
Fresh southerlies propelled us wing-on-wing 20 nautical miles to Isles of Shoals. What we witnessed as we turned into Gosport, the isles harbor, made the place immediately memorable.
A PA boomed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as about two dozen performers mimed the song’s signature dance moves to the delight of a crowd of two hundred watching from a large whitewashed building. This certainly wasn’t what we expected to find at such a remote outpost. All our research suggested this place would be more deserted than Cuttyhunk, possibly only inhabited by seagulls. But we could see at least three hundred people crawling all over the main island. We rowed ashore to learn more.
On the dinghy dock, we were immediately greeted by a smiling female 20-something in a bikini who welcomed us and proceeded to list the island’s rules: no smoking, wear shoes, stay on the trails, in case of fire meet at the rally point. She pointed to a flagpole at the head of the docks. Jocelyn nodded ascent, apparently comforted that someone (other than me) was in charge. I, however, bristled at the notion that a visit to a remote island would start with a litany of rules.
Never mind. Obedience came without a price as we toured the island. It took less than 30 minutes to visit the small museum and memorials and 30 more to stroll the perimeter paths. Once away from the buildings, the seagulls seemed to rule and the waves crashing against the rocks dominated impressions.
Back at the buildings, though, all manner of human activity was in evidence. There was a stone building with a live rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “A Look of Love” emanating from open windows, practiced by a jazz ensemble in preparation for a future performance. In another building labeled the “Art Barn” several projects were in various stages of advancement. Down a footpath the island’s physical plant hummed, attended to by several tie-dyed 20-somethings attempting to get a small engine to behave. Several young men played catch with lacrosse sticks on a green lawn; a foursome engaged in a tennis match on the clay court; small children were entertained by young female minders; and many older adults sat reading in rocking chairs perched on the edge of a long deck looking out over Gosport harbor. In the main building people played cards and engaged in a variety of crafts while more staff busied themselves in a large kitchen behind an even larger dining hall, presumably preparing the evening meal.
Along the way, Jocelyn paused to ask one of the staffers what the place was all about. Turns out, the entire island is owned by a joint Unitarian/Congregational church entity as a conference center and summer retreat facility. All the people there were either “Pelicans,” the title awarded to staff members, or conferees. A brochure related the many types of retreats offered, from yoga/meditation focused to music/art focused to sports/recreation focused. Everyone certainly appeared to be getting the most of it.
Interestingly, Wikipedia mentions nothing of the conference center. Here’s some of what it does offer:
“The Isles of Shoals are a group of small islands and tidal ledges situated approximately 6 miles (10 km) off the east coast of the United States, straddling the border of the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
Some of the islands were used for seasonal fishing camps by Native Americans and first settled by Europeans in the early 17th century. They became an important fishing area for the young British and French colonies. The Isles of Shoals were named by English explorer Capt. John Smith after sighting them in 1614. The first recorded landfall of an Englishman was that of explorer Capt. Christopher Levett, whose 300 fishermen in six ships discovered that the Isles of Shoals were largely abandoned in 1623.
Smuttynose Island, at 25 acres (10 ha), is the third-largest island. It is known as the site of Blackbeard’s honeymoon, later for the shipwreck of the Spanish ship Sagunto in 1813, and then for the notorious 1873 murders of two young women. The latter is recalled in the story, “A Memorable Murder”, by Celia Thaxter, in the 1997 novel, The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve (and in the film of the same name), and in the song, “The Ballad of Louis Wagner” by John Perrault. There are two small houses on the island. One of them, the Samuel Haley house, was once believed to be the oldest structure in the state of Maine.”
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