Adventure to the Isles of Shoals

Renee Doran – SCA NH Corps – Discover the Power of Parks Interpretive Ranger.

One of my favorite parts of my week is the two days I spend at the Seacoast with the Pawtuckaway Interpretive Ranger, Matt. My time at Wallis Sands and Rye Harbor has been marked by the backdrop of the Isles of Shoal on the horizon line. On clear days you can make out six or seven of the nine islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. On hazy days you may only be able to see the two largest. There even was one foggy day the islands disappeared completely.

The New Hampshire historical marker for the Isles of Shoals at Rye Harbor State Park.

These islands just off the coast that have marked such a constant in my season have a rich and storied history. They are composed of nine islands about six miles off the coast of New Hampshire. Four of the islands are considered part of New Hampshire: White, Seavey, Lunging, and Star. The other five are part of Maine: Smuttynose, Appledore, Cedar, Malaga, and Duck.

Appledore Island (right) and Star Island (left) the two largest islands in the Isles of Shoals.

The Isles of Shoals was first charted by settlers in 1614 when Captain John Smyth came across them and named them Smyth Isles. The name that stuck though was the Dutch name the Shoaling Islands, named after the schooling or shoaling behavior of the cod fish that were once abundant off the islands. From there the name became Isles of Shoals as many of the islands began as fishing islands. Fishing communities lived on the islands shortly after settlers arrived in New England and lived there until the mid 19th century when the hotel industry took over on the larger islands.

Smuttynose and Cedar Island from Star Island.

Perhaps the most notable of the islands is Appledore; the largest island and once home to the Appledore Hotel where noted 19th century poet Celia Thaxter lived part of the year and hosted other notable people such as Childe Hassam, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Franklin Pierce. Today Appledore is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory who have recreated Celia’s garden on the island. Another notable island and the second largest is Star Island, home of the Oceanic Hotel, a 19th century hotel still in operation. Today Star Island has a conference and retreat center on it that is used throughout the summer and day visitors can visit the island.

Map of Star Island one of the first sites upon docking at Star.

Appledore and Star Island may be the largest and easiest to see, but some of the other islands have just as interesting history. White Island has a still operational lighthouse that was once run by Celia Thaxter’s father. Lunging Island supposedly has some of Black Beard’s treasure buried on it and Smuttynose Island was the location of an 1873 murder that has gone down in New England legend.

White Island and the lighthouse where Celia Thaxter grew up.

Having seen them from a distance for so long. I recently took a ferry over to Star Island to get a closer look at the isles myself. Ferries go to the islands from Rye Harbor and Portsmouth Harbor. I left from Rye Harbor and stopped on Star island for about an hour. On our short trip over to the isles we saw an ocean Sunfish. These huge fish are sometimes mistaken for sharks from the shore as their pectoral fins breach the water while they are sun basking. It was amazing to see a sunfish in person after talking about them in our shark program this summer.

An ocean sunfish we saw just before reaching the isles.

I truly enjoyed my day going out to see the islands I had told so many people about through out the season. If you want to see the islands yourself, in addition to the ferries that visit the isles, they can be seen from many of New Hampshire’s Seacoast State Parks and Beaches. The historical marker for the Isles of Shoals is at Rye Harbor State Park and there are tower viewers at Wallis Sands State Park for a closer look.

Rye Harbor State Park on the way out of the harbor head to the isles.
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Discover Power of Parks SCA Interpreters

Discover the Power of Parks is presented by New Hampshire State Parks in collaboration with the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps and made possible by generous financial support from Eversource. The program offers a look into the natural world through hands-on programming. Interpretive programs focus on connecting participants with nature and building appreciation for New Hampshire's unmatched natural heritage. Programs include guided hikes, interpretive tours, and imaginative environmental workshops for children and families. Programs are offered free to guests with paid park admission fee. No pre-registration is required.

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