AN ISLAND UNTO ITSELF

“Adventure travel seems to imply a far-off destination,” wrote legendary travel writer Paul Theroux, “but a nearby destination can be scarier, for no place is more frightening than one near home that everyone has warned you against.” Theroux was embarking on a kayak trip from Cape Cod to Nantucket when he wrote this. Along the way, he encountered a mysterious island so flat and treeless that it barely broke the horizon. “By midmorning I was paddling off Musgeket [sic],” he wrote, “one of the most remote and least visited pieces of land for hundreds of miles—just a low ledge in the sea.” For a group of local kayakers, this “low ledge in the sea” proved the perfect waypoint for finding adventure in our own backyard this off-season.

We set out from Littleneck Landing in Madaket Harbor just past midday, with the tide running in our favor and a light wind at our backs. Paddling along the cusp of the channel in Madaket Harbor, we passed schools of snapper blues snacking on sand eels on the surface. An hour later we met the shores of Tuckernuck. More experienced, adventuresome kayakers might set a course around the south of the island, exiting through the opening between Smith Point and Tuckernuck’s Whale Shoal, and then heading to Muskeget by way of the open Atlantic. But with our kayaks filled to the gunnels with gear, we opted for the safer route, sneaking along the protected shallows to the north of the island. We paddled past stately homes perched over the bluff where families splashed in the water below. An old man pushed a clamming rack. All were reluctant to return our waves, staring at us curiously as if we were the first pilgrims coming to the new land.

Muskeget emerged from the ocean to our northwest, pancake-flat, a lone structure breaking the horizon. The tide was pouring in around the southwest corner of Tuckernuck, creating an obstacle course of current as we paddled on towards Muskeget. Grey seals popped up all around us, big, curious “horseheads.” The seal population has exploded in these waters over the last decade. “There were nineteen grey seals on the island in 1994,” Muskeget’s majority landowner, Crocker Snow, Jr. told me. “Now it’s 3,500 to 5,000 during the breeding time.” How many there are exactly, we can’t be sure, as an accurate census hasn’t been conducted. What is certain is that Muskeget has become the largest seal-breeding colony in the country.

It was hard to stroke through the inky black waters of Muskeget Channel without thinking that where there are seals, there must be sharks. Just two days earlier, a great white attacked two kayakers paddling a hundred yards off shore in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The shark took a bite of the hull, but thankfully both women escaped injury. I remembered what shark expert Greg Skomal told me about sharks in these waters. “If everything plays out as it should, then there should be lots of white sharks around that island,” he said. “But Muskeget is very shallow. There are lots of shoals and sandbars and it’s not easy access for animals that don’t want to be in shallow, shallow water. So Muskeget may never become a white-shark hotspot.” I was banking on that to hold true.

Dragging our kayaks on the shores of Muskeget, we discovered another world. The three-hundred-acre, twenty-foot-high spit of sand is home to pirate spiders, endangered piping plovers, roseate and Arctic terns, and an extremely rare species of rodent that exists no where else in the world called the Muskeget beach vole. As far as humans go, however, the island is entirely uninhabited. When once there were nineteen or so fishermen shanties scattered about the beach grass and poison ivy, now there are but two, each teetering on the edge of a watery extinction.

It’s a far cry from the island’s early days, back in the mid-1800s, when Muskeget was pretty much up for grabs, and local fishermen and hunters built scalloping shacks where they saw fit. Not surprisingly, the matter of ownership became complicated and contentious, with hundreds of heirs claiming a sliver of the island as their own.

In the 1890s, a group of Boston sportsmen set out to take advantage of Muskeget’s abundant waterfowl and hired a Nantucket lawyer to buy up land to create the Muskeget Island Club, a hunting preserve that would host bird shooting. The club expanded from two modest buildings to a veritable compound complete with bunk rooms and a boathouse. Local fishermen were outraged, and an epic feud ensued that saw court battles and at least one instance of a local Nantucketer’s Muskeget retreat being set ablaze.

Today the only sign of the Muskeget Hunting Club is a lone Coast Guard boathouse built in 1910 that now sits precariously at the island’s eastern edge. In 1949–50, an industrious Ipswich-based aviator named Crocker Snow, Sr. bought the boathouse along with seven other structures and fifty percent of the island for $15,000. He split the cost with two other partners, $5,000 a piece. His son Crocker, Jr. still remembers first touching down on Muskeget when he was just ten years old with his father behind the controls of a Piper Cub. “He dropped me there alone and went back to Nantucket [to get supplies],” Snow remembers. “It was like the old Hitchcock movie Birds; there were seagulls everywhere and they were bombing us…at the time the island was the biggest herring-gull rookery in the East Coast.”

The Snows spent two days shoveling seagull poop out of the boathouse, the only structure Crocker, Sr. predicted would survive. Over sixty years later, that same boathouse has been moved twice, most recently this past October. Snow and his five sons traditionally enjoy spending Thanksgiving there. The island itself has also moved over the years. Erosion has reshaped and migrated the island to the east, so that the Snows now own 2/3 of the island, and the town of Nantucket owns the rest.

Crocker Snow, Jr. has become a steward to the natural wonders of Muskeget, which was named a National Natural Landmark in 1980. In collaboration with the Nantucket Land Council and Nantucket Land Bank, Snow succeeded in having a conservation restriction placed on the island in 2009. Over the years, he’s hosted many scientists at his boathouse, who come to the island to study everything from the Muskeget beach vole to the rare species of pirate spiders that crawl through the beach grass. One study, however, has amazingly eluded Snow: the impact of the seal population on this fragile island environment.

As the seal population has grown, more of the island has been taken up during the winter for breeding. “They’re going more and more inland,” Snow says, “knocking down the grass and the spartina and going into the freshwater ponds that the rest of the island depends on.” Snow has also witnessed aggressive behavior from eight-hundred-pound bull seals that will often kill seal pups to mate with their mothers. They’ve also become more territorial. “When you’re in the middle of it, it’s quite amazing,” Snow says. “It’s like being in the Galapagos. The smell everywhere. They’re very vocal at times. It’s pretty overpowering.” As a member of the Seal Awareness Coalition, Snow is now pushing for a formal study of Muskeget’s seals and their impact on his island and beyond.

In the meantime, this remote island remains a place of wonder, a rare window into what Nantucket might have been like in the beginning. And as with all things built of sand, who knows how long it will be around.

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