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The Art of Island Packing

Smuttynose Cove (c)


It takes years of training. Getting just the right stuff from Point A to Point B into a boat and out to sea. Those who love to live on tiny islands learn or starve.




VISIT Smuttynose Island Trail

Island packing is different from other forms of vacation packing. It may even be a skill. On our island, ten miles out from Portsmouth Harbor, there is nothing. What you don’t bring, you don’t have, and that includes water, lamp oil, batteries and the special sawdust that goes into the chemical composting toilet. Forget your sunglasses, and you have to create a new pair out of beach glass and driftwood. We island stewards are required to bring everything and leave nothing, not even a gum wrapper. For those of us without a boat of our own, it’s a long swim home.

Cove boulder leading to Haley House on Smuttynose (c), photo by J. Dennis RobinsonWe’re just back from our eighth annual week on Smuttynose Island and, we are, finally, learning how to prepare for the trip. The process begins each year with a search for last year’s packing list. We never find it, so we make another. My wife Maryellen is in charge of the list, and pretty much everything else. I’m in charge of making sure she makes the list. There’s an equality there, but it doesn’t come across well in writing.

There are two fundamental concepts to island packing. The first is, like I said, pack everything you want or need. Secondly, you have to carry everything you bring. I do most of the carrying. Food, liquids, sleeping bags, clothes, books, and all other paraphernalia go into waterproof containers. Those containers go into the car. The car goes to the dock where the containers are transferred to a wharf, and eventually, from the wharf to a tour boat that drops us at the Isles of Shoals.

Since the cove at Smuttynose is too shallow for a large boat, we have to transfer all the boxes from the tour boat into a dinghy that is supposed to be moored in Gosport Harbor just a few hundred yards off the island. If the rowboat isn’t there, everything gets dumped onto the pier at Star Island way across the harbor, then loaded into a rowboat there, and transported back across the harbor to Smuttynose Cove. The ease of this process is directly proportional to the weather. Fog can make it difficult to find the mouth of the cove. People have actually died rowing from one island to another in a bad storm, and lightning loves an aluminum boat.

Weeklong provisions at Smuttynose Cove at the Isles of Shoals (c) J. Dennis Robinson

The last step can be the worst. If the tide is low, everything that was in our living room hours before gets tossed from the rowboat to the sandy shore. There is a large boulder at the head of the cove that leads to the wild and expansive lawn of the 1770-era Haley Cottage. The boulder can be slippery even in the best of times. If the tide is high, the stuff is transferred from a wiggly rowboat to a large slippery rock. Then we lug everything up a steep hill to the house. A week later, we do the whole thing in reverse.

This year things were made trickier by the mess over the fire regulations at Star Island. Because things were not precisely up to the new fire code the island was closed to visitors. For us on Smuttynose, that meant no backup at the island store. No rowing over for toothpaste or Kleenex. No candy or ice cream at the snack bar. No replacing a forgotten cap or sweatshirt in the little gift shop. Without Star, Smuttynose is more primitive than Gilligan’s Island.

So each year we pack more thoughtfully, essentials first – matches, bug spray, sunscreen, fuels, sponges, soaps, towels, antibacterial gel, tp, spare glasses, aspirin – check and double-check. Things are spread out on the living room floor a week in advance. We then shop specifically for nonperishables – cereals, dried stuff, things in boxes and cans. Maryellen plans the meals and lately she has been cooking a bit and freezing entrees. Our fridge is tiny, so two days before the trip we clean it out and stock the perishables – dairy products, meats, bread. Then in the final hours we do a vegetable and fruit run. We know the half-life of everything edible and packed in ice.

We have clothes down to a science. Smuttynose in June is usually perfect, but the nights can be chilly and the afternoon sweltering. If it rains for days, you stay wet. Whatever happens, we’re ready.

We think of the two rooms in Haley House as a big wooden tent. With no plumbing or electricity, we are literally camping-in, rather than out. We bring no booze and mention that fact to potential guests, who usually get the hint. We’ve gone days without seeing any life forms beyond gulls, muskrats and green snakes. Other days the place is a zoo with Star Island conferees, Appledore Island biologists and "boat" people from yachts and sailing vessels moored in the harbor.

There is a third island rule, of course. If you don’t have it, you don’t need it. It’s amazing what one can live without. One year we forgot cilantro. It was touch and go, but I survived. We go without showers. We thrive without email or TV.

Then there was the time a few years back when Maryellen put on a worried look just as we were dragging the stuff up the hill toward the Haley House.

"Relax," I told her. "You did a great job. Whatever it is, we can live without it for seven days."

Maryellen bit her lip. "I don’t think so," she said.

"Forget it," I insisted, piling a couple hundred pounds of baggage against the side of the old cottage. C’mon, give me the key, so I can get this stuff inside.

She bit her lip harder and shook her head from side to side.


Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. 

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