Misery Islands

Great Misery and Little Misery Islands, known collectively as Misery Islands, lie a half-mile off the coast of Beverly Farms. Their southern side is exposed to the sea- some days the sea is quiet, and all around the islands the water is placid. Other days, it feels like the full fury of a passing storm or swell is concentrated on the islands. 

I've paddled the waters around the islands in both moods, and have seen the beauty in each. Calm days allow paddling around both islands, close to the rocks, exploring a rugged coastline that is more often associated with Down East Maine.  On more tempestuous days, the islands feel raw and exposed, and the power of the ocean can be felt in the waves refracting off steep rock cliffs, sending salt spray into the air. On these days, it is easy to understand the conditions Robert Moulton endured during his three days stranded here,  giving rise to the now familiar name for the islands. Yet on the calm days, and not knowing the story of Moulton, one wonders if "Misery Island" was given ironically, or perhaps to make the islands less appealing to any would-be settlers. 

Easily seen from shore, the islands command the attention and imagination of our paddlers.  The frequent question is "Can we paddle there?!" and the frequent response is, "We don't recommend it." The closest approach is a short half-mile paddle from West Beach, but during the summer months the beach is restricted to residents of the town. This means that during these months, paddlers must launch from Manchester By the Sea or Beverly, both several miles along the coast from the islands. And while the distance isn't so great as to be prohibitive, the amount of boat traffic buzzing back and forth makes it a daunting paddle to those without significant paddling experience (or are inexperienced enough to not recognize the dangers :) ). 

Yet the islands call. Fortunately, this time of year is a perfect time to paddle to them. West Beach is open for launching, which means the paddle to the island, which in the summer is restricted to seasoned paddlers, is now open to all experience levels (provided you go with a guide).  If weather forecasts are considered and the correct day is chosen, the approach to the island is across a nearly flat expanse, which has the feel of open water but always within comfortable distance of land. The first pass by Great Misery reveals a mostly natural and rugged landscape, but the stone foundations of an old cottage looking out from a cliff top hint at the rich history of only 100 years ago. A turn past the southwest corner of the islands leads to a narrow strait between Great and Little Misery. Swinging by the beach on Little Misery brings into view the ribs of the City of Rockland, a steamship scuttled and burned here in the 1920's.  Its full, and astonishing, history of a half-dozen wrecks and collisions isn't relevant here, but is well worth the quick read in this article by the New England Historical Society. 

Landing on Great Misery allows access to several miles of trails on the island. Marine shrubs crowd the trail, and dense trees hide the surprises that await in the form of old stone ruins of the once popular Misery Island Club. Gone are the 25 guest cottages, as well as the 9-hole golf course that drew social elites from Boston, but the imagination runs wild among the stones and shrubs, reconstructing the full history of a time passed. 

Yet while the cultural history captures your attention, it is the natural beauty of the island that will stay in your memory, especially this time of year. From the North side of the island, one looks out over House Island and an empty sea beyond, save a few lobster boats and, if we're lucky, a seal or two. This is the scene that stays in my mind of the island. Of course, you'll find your own part of the island that resonates. It's the part that will leave you wanting to linger a bit longer, and eager to return once back on the mainland. 

If you haven't seen the islands up close, I encourage you to. While the islands have drawn the attention of adventurers and nature enthusiasts over the years, they have also captured the eye of developers. Past plans for development have included a 12-million gallon oil storage facility and a secondary water sewage treatment plant. It was only through the coordinated actions of residents who knew and loved the island that prevented such environmental tragedies from happening. Exploring locally, and understanding the natural resources that lie close by, ensures that they'll protected throughout future generations. 

Aaron MearnsComment