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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 2, No. 2

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Winter harbor cruises get warm reception

Image: A winter wildlife cruise in Boston Harbor offers opportunities to see seals, seabirds, and other marine species just a few miles from the Boston skyline.Boston, Massachusetts Exquisite summers in the Gulf of Maine can make you forget about winter entirely, but victims of cabin fever in the Boston area needn't fret when the temperatures drop a few months from now. There are ways to enjoy the colder seasons on the Gulf's waters, even if the only sunscreen you'll need is for the tip of your nose peeking out from under your parka hood.

Each winter for the last 10 years, the Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) has contracted with Boston Harbor Cruises, a private company, to run three monthly wildlife cruises out of Boston and Hingham to Georges Island, about nine miles/14.5 kilometers from downtown Boston. "It's a way of breaking up the winter," said Bill McCormack, MDC site supervisor for the harbor islands.

Times have changed since Boston Harbor's islands were considered little more than a location for activities too unsanitary, unpleasant, or dangerous for the mainland. Last year they were designated a National Recreation Area as part of the National Parks System (NPS). Though 11 private parties own the islands, NPS contributes a dollar in funding for every three dollars raised by the island owners or private contributors for their management.

Seventeen of the harbor's 30 islands are managed as a state park, and eight are open to the public during the warmer months, managed by the MDC and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (DEM). They are linked with a free water taxi for easy island hopping. Campers can stay overnight at four of the islands.

McCormack explained that MDC closes the harbor islands it manages around Halloween. Except for the three winter cruises, they're not accessible to the public until spring, when a full schedule of cruises, including day trips, overnight camping trips, lighthouse tours, and evening harbor tours are available.

Bring one more layer

Image: Binoculars and lots of layers are essential for an enjoyable winter wildlife cruise.It's worth bundling up for a winter nature cruise in the Gulf of Maine. And don't skimp on the gear. When you think you've piled on enough layers, add one more. At least. And keep another in reserve in your day pack.

Wind chill on the water can make a crisp late winter or early spring day downright bone-rattling, especially once you're beyond the protected inner harbor. Unlike a winter hike or ski trip, which keeps you moving and your blood flowing, your physical activity on a nature cruise is mostly limited to keeping your balance on deck while peering through binoculars at lounging harbor seals. There's nothing wrong with an occasional break below deck to warm up, but if you end up cowering there the whole trip, you've wasted the price of your ticket.

On the last cruise of MDC's winter season rescheduled to April 4 thanks to a first-day-of-spring snowstorm that brought 15-foot swells passengers were treated to frequent glimpses of common eiders, harbor seals, and double crested cormorants. The various wildlife were pointed out by a naturalist and described in chunky handouts.

Other points of interest in the harbor included several lighthouses; Boston's new sewage treatment plant, credited with helping improve the harbor's water quality; and Nixes Mate, where the bodies of executed pirates were once displayed as a gruesome warning to would-be marauders contemplating a stop in Boston.

Once off the boat, passengers explored George's Island, the site of Fort Warren, a large earthworks that held confederate prisoners during the US Civil War. Winter cruisers have the option of picnicking on their own, or taking a guided tour, soaking up information about the coastal flora and fauna including what sea urchins eat and how to make a tasty, tart beverage from the berries of the Staghorn sumac.

Image:The most enthusiastic of nature enthusiasts enjoy the view from the deck., but an occasional trip below to warm up is no disgrace.Offering winter cruises to the outer harbor reminds people of the natural and cultural resources available to them, and part of the proceeds from the winter cruises supports MDC's summer programming, said McCormack. "It's been pretty well accepted [all along]," he noted. "But now that the National Parks Service is involved, more people are finding out about these hidden treasures that are located less than one hour from the city itself."