Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Visitor Center and Summer Shack on Georges Island

Last Friday was a beautiful summer day in Boston, a great day to explore the Boston Harbor Islands. In addition to the great weather, I was particularly enthused for this island adventure because it was my first opportunity to check out the brand new visitor center and Summer Shack eatery on Georges Island, home to historic Fort Warren.

After months of construction, the former mine storage building on Georges Island has been transformed into a new visitor center featuring a museum on the ground level. (A gift shop inside the center will open next year.) The museum’s exhibits focus not just on Fort Warren, but more broadly on the history of Boston’s coastal defenses from the birth of the Massachusetts Bay Colony through the Cold War. A number of the museum exhibits focus on a day in the life of the Union soldiers stationed at Fort Warren during the Civil War along with the Confederate prisoners who were held captive there. (Perhaps I missed it, but one subject I didn’t see covered was the fort’s infamous ghost—the Lady in Black.)

One of the most interesting items on display is a dinner table featuring six plates of food representing typical meals for the Confederate prisoners of war and the Union soldiers, varying by rank. Contrary to our modern-day concept of POWs, some of the Confederate prisoners dined much more sumptuously than their Union captors.

No doubt both Union and Confederate soldiers would have enjoyed the fare now being served on the island by the new outpost of Jasper White’s Summer Shack. The menu includes lobster rolls, fried shrimp, fried clams, and other summertime favorites. A new open-air pavilion offers great views of the Boston skyline along with a shady place to chill out.

There’s also a new children’s playground area that’s constructed to look like a section of the granite fort. Toddlers might enjoy the slide and peering out the narrow windows of the structure like one of the island’s former residents, but its features are limited compared to other city playgrounds.

After exploring the inside of Fort Warren, take a seat in one of the new teak Adirondack chairs that look out on Boston Harbor and some of the other islands. The captivating views are appropriate for this former island prison.

Go to the Boston Harbor Islands web site for ferry tickets to Georges Island, and be sure to tote along your copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands for a full history of Fort Warren.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

2010 Boston Light Swim

The Boston Marathon may be the city's most revered sporting tradition, but it's not the only storied endurance race that draws elite athletes to Boston from all over the globe. On August 14, an elite group of swimmers will compete in the Boston Light Swim, an eight-mile race across Boston Harbor.

Despite its name, there’s nothing “light” about the effort to complete the swim. The moniker comes from the starting location for the race, historic Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. After battling powerful cross-currents, boat traffic, and strong gusts of wind (but no sharks), the swimmers will finish at the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston where they will need to warm up as the harbor waters, even in August, can be quite chilly and wet suits are not allowed. This is old school stuff.

The Boston Light Swim dates from the early 1900s and is the “Granddaddy of American Open-Water Swims.” When 15-year-old Rose Pitonof (pictured) completed the swim in 1910, it took her 6 hours and 50 minutes. (The story of Rose's historic swim is detailed in Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.) Depending on weather conditions, most swimmers these days take between three and six hours to complete the course, although the race record is under two-and-a-half hours.

While the swimmers must battle the elements, thankfully, they no longer have to brave a heavily polluted harbor. Along their route, swimmers pass Georges and Rainsford Islands, go underneath the Long Island Bridge, and cross between Thompson and Spectacle Islands. Too bad they won’t have much chance to soak in the scenery of the Boston Harbor Islands.

Many swimmers in the past have used this swim to prepare for an English Channel crossing. But if you’re more at home in the comfort of the kiddie side of the pool—or prefer to stay dry altogether—you can still participate in the Boston Light Swim by serving on support boats that offer food, drink, and lots of encouragement to the swimmers. Race organizers always need escort boats for swimmers with captains who know Boston Harbor and have seaworthy motorboats. All escort boat volunteers will receive $300 directly from the swimmer and an event T-shirt. For more information, visit the Boston Light Swim web site.

While you’re there, check out the race’s colorful history. I love the photo of 1908 competitor Annette Kellerman being arrested on a Boston beach the year before for wearing a men’s one-piece swimsuit.