Part of a series on New England parks and their people. For more, click here.
Susan Kane still remembers when she was first smitten by the Boston Harbor Islands.
It was summer 1995. She was the resident caretaker of Bumpkin Island, living in a small stone cottage with no electricity or running water. She woke up with the sunrise. At night, she listened to Red Sox games on the radio while looking out on Hingham Bay.
“I fell in love with the beauty of the island, the simplicity of life there,” she said. “I liked the outdoors, but I didn’t know that I loved the outdoors until I was there.”
Since 2006 Kane has been the islands district manager for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which shares jurisdiction and management of the harbor islands with the city of Boston, the National Park Service, and the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now. Her job is to protect and preserve the property, which is both a national and state park, so the public may experience what she felt 23 years ago.
The park includes 34 islands and peninsulas covering between 1,483 and 3,067 acres, depending on the tide, according to the National Park Service website. Each island has a different feel, Kane said; while some of the larger islands have seen development and activity, many of the smaller ones have not, remote and shrouded by their tree lines.
The islands were designated as a national park in 1996. Six of them — Bumpkin, Georges, Spectacle, Grape, Lovells, and Peddocks — are accessible by ferry, and visitors can tour them, learn about their histories, camp, and kayak. About 500,000 people visit the islands every year, according to the Boston Harbor Islands website.
“The islands grab everyone for different reasons,” Kane said. “I think everybody finds a separation of life out there. You feel like you’ve gone somewhere different, and it changes your perspective.”
The serenity provides a stark contrast to the bustle of the city just a few miles away. At Georges Island, which acts as a gateway to all of the islands, the peaceful vibe is accentuated by the distant crashing of waves and rustling of leaves. When the wind and tide are just right, you can hear the rhythmic clang of a bell buoy in the distance.
Kane said she never thought, long ago, that she’d someday work here. She wanted to be a teacher. Then she found a way to combine her love of the islands with teaching by working on the Thompson Island Outward Bound program, an outdoor-education program for children.
In 2004, Kane, at the time a member of the Army Reserve, was deployed to Iraq. She said it took that experience to show her how much she cared about the harbor islands.
“I thought about the islands all the time,” she said.
Three days after she returned from Iraq in 2005, she saw an ad for the islands district manager’s job, the first job posting she saw online. She applied, started working the next year, and hasn’t looked back since.
She’s overseen various enhancement projects on the islands. At Georges, they’ve installed a new staircase, added a visitor center and fences to improve safety, and improved roads.
But some things about the islands don’t change.
“The magic has stayed the same,” Kane said. “The boat ride, proximity to Boston, the separateness but closeness — it just captures people.”
Kane takes special pride in improvements to the islands. In 1985, she said, Boston Harbor had some of the dirtiest water in the country. Spectacle Island used to be a landfill, and the trash would sometimes combust spontaneously, she said.
“We’ve reclaimed landscapes that were abandoned and neglected for a long time,” Kane said. “There’s a sense that you can make a difference.”
Another park employee who believes he’s making a difference is Bryan Conway, who’s worked on the islands for 11 seasons. Conway grew up in Hull, and would travel to the islands with his parents and later, when he was older, in a small skiff. He said he wants to make sure that future generations have a chance at the same experiences he had when he was young.
“There’s a sense of exploration that makes it special,” he said.
On a recent Wednesday, several summer camp groups experienced that sense of exploration at Fort Warren, the main attraction on Georges Island and a national historic landmark. Completed in 1860, the fort was used by Union forces during the Civil War and as a prison for Confederate officers.
Kane said if a door is open at Fort Warren, anyone can walk in and explore. And hundreds of youngsters do come to visit daily during the summer.
The children in the camp groups amused themselves climbing on the fort’s reproduction cannons, peeking into some of the large empty rooms, screaming as they rushed through some of the pitch-black tunnels, and casting fishing lines off the dock.
As her boat pulled away from the dock to return to her office in Hingham, Kane smiled and waved at some of the children, hopeful that the magic that captivated her 23 years earlier had begun to take effect on them as well.