Starting a new old tradition on the Harbor Islands

Dad hopes they get the happy camper pleasures that go with pitching a tent

Lila and Cal Hempel-Edgers, the author’s children, make themselves at home on Grape Island, one of the Harbor Islands.
Lila and Cal Hempel-Edgers, the author’s children, make themselves at home on Grape Island, one of the Harbor Islands.

Rain crashes down on onto the tarp, thunder shakes the ground, and I’m getting religious. We are here, on Grape Island in the middle of Boston Harbor, and we’re going to die. I alternate between hating myself for putting us in this position and mining my brain for what little I know about lightning.

Does the fact we’re on a high spot — an island in the middle of a bay — turn us into a magnet? What about the metal rods holding up this nylon tomb? Why didn’t I do the sensible thing and follow the weather report and cancel this experience?

Cal, of course, is fast asleep. He’s just 3 and wearing a sleepy-suit with footies. We’re sharing the space because he’s been moving around so much his sister, Lila, 11, abandoned the kids’ fort to share a tent with her mother. Nobody else seems worried, or awake. But I know we’re going to die. I beg the man in the sky I don’t believe in that we get out alive.


Which, of course, we do, and despite the horrific storm, our first camp with Cal is a relative success. That’s important. It means we can return, sooner than later, and experience one of my favorite semi-secrets in Boston, the harbor campsites.

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I’m not sure how we became a camping family. As a kid, I don’t think we had a tent. Camping just wasn’t in the Edgers family DNA. My parents grew up in Dorchester, headed to the suburbs to raise the kids, and never had much interest in rubbing sticks together. I do remember in those days we once caught a fish. The thing was so small — an oversized guppy — that my mother added bread crumbs to create tiny cakes we begrudgingly sampled.

I started camping in college, heading to Mount Katahdin and the Adirondacks with a few buddies. Something about long hikes and cold beer. I’m only half-embarassed to admit I read Hemingway stories on those trips. Then I got a future wife and we began to camp. This is before we were tormented by our various electronic devices and the need to always be available. We just liked walking for miles, eating outside, and cuddling in a sleeping bag.

Lila arrived and we would cheat a bit by searching out sites with already-assembled cabin tents. No need to be hustling to raise a tarp with a baby squealing. As Lila got older, we discovered the Harbor Islands and developed an annual daddy-daughter escape.

Carlene was swamped with work, correcting papers for a summer term class she was teaching. So Lila and I hopped a ferry at Hull and headed to Bumpkin Island. The Harbor Islands are pristine, inexpensive, and relatively easy to reserve. They’re really like renting a private beach.


Those first years, I couldn’t really get Lila to carry much gear over the tenth of a mile from the dock to the site. She tried. But while I was weighed down with the tent, sleeping bag, portable stove, water, books, and other assorted materials, she struggled over the grassy path with her stuffed animal. I would grumble a bit and urge her to come along, but ultimately hustled over to help.

I loved those early camps. We swam, we hiked, we read. We argued a little when my editor called me to ask about a story — yes, unfortunately, the Islands get excellent cellphone service — or when Lila wouldn’t even humor me by trying a crumb of brown bread. We tried to fish off the dock but I’m a terrible fisherman (and had a panic attack when I caught a skate and misidentified it as a stingray eager to Steve Irwin us).

One year, Carlene crashed our single-day camp. She hopped a late ferry and sauntered up to our site with a book. What she didn’t do was consider that we had brought only enough food and water for two. And no extra sleeping bag. We rationed the remaining hot dogs and snuggled.

With Lila pushing 12, I’m not sure she’s as eager now to camp with Dad. More to the point, she’s got a life to lead. This year, for the first time, she’s heading to overnight camp. As a family, we’ve also taken to renting a cabin in Maine for a couple of weeks each summer. It becomes harder to find an open day.

So I’m glad we decided to take Cal for a trial run. He’s a hearty kid, loves adventure, and I have a hunch that he’s going to be an excellent companion for a new old tradition. I’ll even look the other way if he refuses the brown bread.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at