‘There are no ghosts on the Isles of Shoals’

One of the Shoals’ snowy owls. Inside a shuttered-for-the-season building, they sure can be scary. Photo by Jack Farrell

As normal life on the mainland began to close down in response to the spreading virus in late March, I made a run out to the Isles of Shoals in Utopia with an especially large supply order for the caretakers. In a normal season there would be a day in early April when the first of the seasonal work staff would load up with food and supplies and head out to occupy Star Island in order to repair winter damage, get the systems running, and dig into whatever construction projects were in the budget. But in this extraordinary time our usual transition to what we call “open-up” had been delayed by at least a month due to uncertainty over the spreading pandemic. The winter caretakers would be staying on for a while, with the possibility that there would be no further deliveries until some time in May.

The caretakers, Alex and Brad, have created their own very private world on the Isles of Shoals over the last 22 winter seasons. They treasure the quiet solitude, interrupted only by the occasional supply trip or radio chat with a passing fisherman. They make their daily rounds through the mothballed buildings checking for leaks and broken windows. They also create art and music, build boats and clear the buildings of snow and ice. They feed the geese. They write. They have built their lives around this peaceful seasonal bubble, in sight of, but almost completely apart from, the rest of the bustling world just seven miles away. When the crew arrives to start the open-up season, they leave on the next available boat.

I recall my first trip out to Star Island after being hired to manage the facilities. Having grown up as a frequent visitor I was steeped in the lore and legends of the Shoals – the tales of shipwrecks, pirates, murder, treasure and ghosts. On a gusty March morning I went ashore at Star Island for an insider’s tour lead by Alex and Brad. We ascended the wide main stairway four floors up through the Oceanic Hotel. The towering old wooden frame creaked and groaned in the blustering gusts as we rose. We finished a scan of the spartan guest rooms and climbed the last steep rickety flight of worn wooden treads to the attic 60-some feet above the shore.

At the top of the stairs were the old wooden water tanks that had once supplied the bathrooms below with pressurized flow. Great wide planks of clear pine were clamped to oak stringers by thick black iron rods to create two sturdy cisterns that held over a 1,000 gallons each. Use of the old tanks had been discontinued years before, but they remain in place – a relic of simpler times. We made our way along the tops of bare floor joists, careful not to step through the lath and plaster of the ceilings. Crouching under the rafters at the eaves on the north face of the building, Alex explained to me how the snow would blow through the gaps in the overhang during the worst nor’easters. As she explained her process of sweeping the snow into baskets to be dumped out of windows from the floor below, a particularly strong gust slammed the attic door closed.

“Was that one of the ghosts?” I asked jokingly.

Alex replied with a seriousness that came from years of living alone through countless dark and stormy nights in this isolated place. “There are no ghosts on the Isles of Shoals.”

We descended to the main lobby, darkened by the boarded windows. In the shadows beyond the door I could make out looming shapes of furniture shrouded (ghostlike) under bed sheets. Suddenly out of the gloom a large shape flew toward us. Like an apparition it approached in a threatening swoop only to retreat back into the shadows. Lost again in the darkness, it collided with a large mirror and slumped to the floor in a heap of white feathers. The ghostly specter turned out to be a snowy owl. How it had found its way into the shuttered hotel remains a mystery. Unsure of the wisdom of approaching the injured bird of prey, we retreated back outside and continued the tour, leaving the back kitchen door open to the sunshine. When we retuned an hour later, the recovered owl was grandly perched on the edge of the roof calmly surveying the harbor and its rock-strewn 43-acre domain.

The contrast between the winter Isles of Shoals that Alex and Brad experience and the other three seasons is striking. During the peak of summer there can be as many as 500 overnight guests. While some find solitude in the rocks and outlying eastern shore, for most the island is a noisy, jovial, close-knit experience. With its many crowded events and meetings, common dining and shared bathrooms, the island is a place especially suited to the spread of contagious illness.

So it was during the 2013 season when a norovirus epidemic ravaged staff and vacationer alike. In spite of frequent hand washing, deep cleaning and obsessive sterilization, the virus spread easily through the close staff quarters on the fourth floor. Weekly waves of guests were unknowingly inoculated upon their Saturday afternoon arrival to become fully symptomatic by Tuesday. The problem lasted until the end of the season.

At this point we don’t know what will happen on the islands this year. It is quite possible that Star Island will remain closed. While deeply disappointing to the thousands who make an annual pilgrimage, it will not be the first time. During the American Revolution colonists ashore forcibly closed the island in fear that the renegade Shoalers might provide refuge to British spies. Whole houses were floated to the mainland during this exodus. Some of them remain standing today in Rye, York and other coastal towns. In 1918 the First World War and the flu epidemic caused similar closures. During the Second World War, the island was commandeered by the Coast Guard as a security post. We still use the building they left behind as a staff residence. An early radar tower and submarine monitoring station were built by the Navy on nearby Appledore Island. The diesel-powered German submarines could be detected at night when they surfaced to run their engines and charge the batteries to be chased away by the Navy’s patrols. In 1946, the guests returned – and they’ve been coming back out every summer since.

The earliest residents of the Isles of Shoals and its easterly neighbors like Damariscove and Monhegan came to fish. Much like Brad and Alex, they preferred to remain on the islands for security and protection from the hazards that certainly lurked in the woods of the wilderness mainland. As a consequence, the Native Americans were spared from the plagues of European disease that decimated their populations until the settlers finally moved ashore. Today our caretakers are among the safest people in the country when it comes to the virus pandemic. I’ll shuttle more food out to them if they start to run low, and they will enjoy the peace, solitude and healthy air for at least a little bit longer this season in the company of the geese, the gulls and a snowy owl or two.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.