Paddle to Esther's island for quahogs and sunsets
Beats walking on hot sand
Ethers Island, the portion of Smith's Point containing three beach cottages, has separated and reattached to Nantucket many times in Nantucket's history. It's a place I love to hike out to during the fall and winter, and also a place that I enjoy paddling my kayak to. In my first book, "Walking Nantucket: A Walker's Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot", I included a walk out to Smith's Point and back. In my forthcoming second volume of walks, i'm including a kayak paddle route out to Esthers Island because in the event that it separates from Nantucket in the future, I want people to have a way to get out there and walk the temporary island. If you desire more information on the formation of this part of Nantucket, I urge you to pick up my latest book, "Nantucket: A Natural History".
The other bit of news before I share that kayak/walk with you is that ealier this year, Nantucket and the state's Division of Marine Fisheries re-opened Madaket Harbor to the taking of all shellfish, which right now, means quahogs and Sept. 15-June 15 on Sundays only; steamers. The north side of Esthers Island is a great place to dig quahogs and steamers, so if you head out there, get a recreational shellfish licence at the town's Public Safety Building at 4 Fairgrounds Road and bring a clamrake.
Bear in the mind that this kayak/walk was wriitten with Esthers Island detached from the rest of Nantucket and that if you want, you can ignore my landing instructions and pick your own spot along the north shore of Smith's Point/Esthers Island.
Have a great trip!
Exploring Esther Island
Paddle Length: 2.9 miles, 25 minutes one-way
Walk Length: 3.1 miles, one hour and 24 minutes
Difficulty Rating: Moderate to difficult
Hither Creek and Madaket Harbor form the west end’s gateway to Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer, Hither Creek is packed with boats, many traveling in and out of the Creek down a narrow channel that zigzags out into Madaket Harbor. Cottages and houses line the east side of Hither Creek and at the southern end, the wooden Millie’s Bridge connects Madaket Village with the beach community of Smith’s Point.
Free of the boat-clogged channel leading boaters out to the great briny beyond via the north side of the harbor, is a shallow oasis for kayakers and small sailing craft because of the ever-growing sandbar in south portion of the harbor running just off Esther Island nearly to the beach in front of Massachusetts Avenue.
=This little island is sparsely developed with three small summer cottages and is walkable mostly on its south, west and portions of northern sides. It sits between Nantucket to the east and Tuckernuck Island to the west, which along with Muskeget Island west of Tuckernuck, makes up the town and county of Nantucket.
Esther Island regained her true island status on April 16, 2007, during the Patriot’s Day So’easter that blasted through a few hundred feet of barrier beach into Madaket Harbor. Packing wind gusts up to 64 mph with 18- to 20-foot seas, the storm surge had already been washing seawater over the beach by early morning that day. For just over two-and-a-half years, a tidal channel that grew to roughly 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep, at low tide, ran between the temporarily stunted Smith’s Point and the east end of Esther Island.
Prior to this storm, Esther Island was considered to be the bulk of Nantucket’s western peninsula and Smith’s Point the very tip. Beach hikers who learned about my walking route on this part of the island, Smith’s Point, on Page 75 of “Walking Nantucket” know that in September 1961, Hurricane Esther hacked off a portion of Smith’s Point leaving the aptly named island that remained isolated from Nantucket Island until the process of erosion and accretion reconnected Esther Island with Nantucket in 1988.The process, known as littoral drift, is the movement of waterborne sand by tides and currents, and for this part of Nantucket, littoral drift runs east to west.
Around mid-October 2009, that process reconnected Nantucket with Esther Island after more than two years of accretion on New Smith’s Point and erosion of the east end of Esther Island.
So yes, there is a bit of glaring redundancy here, as the Smith’s Point walk in “Walking Nantucket” already provides directions for walking out to Esther Island and further westward to Smith’s Point beyond. However, due to the dynamic state of this peninsula, I felt it necessary to offer another way to reach this extraordinary part of Nantucket, as Esther Island is likely to separate and reattach to Nantucket through time.
What You’ll See
Beware the nesting herring and great black-backed gulls, and least terns that are busy laying eggs, raising and feeding their young, and teaching them to fly (fledging) early May through the beginning of August. Although they will not come in contact with you, they will dive bomb you repeatedly until they’re sure you pose no threat to their chicks.
Paddling through Hither Creek, you’ll inevitably have to hug the salt marsh shoreline of the creek and will get the chance to see many species of shorebirds including little egrets, great egrets, great blue herons, American oyster catchers, whimbrels and lesser yellow legs. On a short telephone pole on the west side of Jackson Point there is usually a nesting pair of ospreys raising fledglings.
Once out in the harbor, if Esther Island is free of Nantucket, you’ll notice the coolness of the water due to the ocean and sound water flowing back and forth through the two channels. As you approach Esther Island, variations in the color of the water alert you to its depth. Darker means deeper and lighter, shallower. If the water is calm and or glassy, look for striper bass, dogfish and bluefish swimming among the waving green fronds of eelgrass, and red jellyfish dangling nonpoisonous, but rash-producing tentacles.
Nearing Esther Island, cormorants, gulls, cranes and herons bask on exposed sand bars or forage for fish in shallow water. With an open channel between Esther Island and Nantucket, geological dynamics in action on this part of the island become instantly apparent when you get close to Esther as you paddle through the current coming or going through this channel to the ocean.
Once on shore and walking south along the beach, the water is constantly carving away sand, beach grass and chunks of harder soil imbedded in the low bluffs of the island. On this first leg of this hike you’ll be passing through a gull rookery where herring and great black-backed gulls nest and raise their young. A little further on is the brackish pond formed as a result of littoral drift. This pond was a deep inlet opening into Madaket Harbor before the storm in April 2007. The inlet itself is what’s left of the channel cut through Smith’s Point by Hurricane Esther. After Esther Island rejoined Nantucket in 1988 with the ocean side beach closing the gap, closed off channel became the inlet that is now a fetid pond where gull chicks learn to swim.
As you walk west along the south side of Esther Island you’re likely to see hundreds of least and common terns flying, resting on the sand and diving into the water for Atlantic silversides and other baitfish. You’ll also probably see gray seals just off the beach swimming in the surf and sometimes encounter them hauled up the on the beach. If it’s the latter, give them a wide berth. If they appear sick or injured and you have a cell phone with you, call the Nantucket Police Department at 508-228-1212 and tell the dispatcher the seal’s location and its condition. The police will contact the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding Team.
Out at the west end of Esther Island, you’ll quickly understand why I strenuously recommend against cooling yourself off in the channel between Esther Island and Tuckernuck. Standing waves two to six feet tall and strong tidal current are enough for me to wander down the north side for a more placid swimming hole.
When to Go
Your time on Esther Island should be scheduled before or after the gulls, plovers, terns and oystercatchers have fledged their young. With this protocol, you will also miss the intense portion of the greenhead fly onslaught. Needless to say, early spring, late summer and early fall are the best times to get out to see Esther Island.
If you go on a sunny day, try for one with a good breeze to keep you cool on the beach. Bring plenty of water, food and energy bars based on your needs. Tell someone where you are going, when you’re leaving and when you intend to return. Bring a cell phone if you have one.
There are two good launching spots for kayaks in Madaket for this adventure; Walter S. Barrett Public Pier at the end of F Street and the Jackson Point Pier at the north end of Massachusetts Avenue. I prefer the F Street Pier because there is usually more parking.
From this pier, paddle over to the west side of Hither Creek and follow it south as it snakes around at a right angle to the north and when you get the chance, cross the channel to the salt marsh on the west side. Still heading north, when the grass ends, hook a hard left around the point and loosely follow a heading of -----degrees west-southwest. Use the sand bar between you and the channel and Esther Island as a guide. Follow the northern edge of this sandbar as it runs along west, parallel to the beach and eventually wraps around to the southwest, keeping the first cottage in your sights. As you approach the island, beach as far to the east as possible without entering the channel. The aim is not to trespass on private property. Once on the beach, pull your kayak well beyond the high tide mark.
For the return trip, paddle out to the edge of the sandbar now on your right and follow a heading of ----. As you approach the tip of Jackson Point and the channel into Hither Creek, you’ll be able see the red channel marker and eventually the white no-wake buoy. Head toward these and when you reach the grassy tip of Jackson Point, paddle around it southward into Hither Creek.
From the landing spot walk to the left following the channel on your left, walking south out toward the ocean. Depending on how much erosion this end of Esther Island sustained over the winter, this part of the walk may be impassable. If it is not, continue along the beach as it wraps around to the southwest.
Aside from the churning waves inside the channel and just outside in the ocean, a subtler sight but with equally profound impacts, are the newly exposed dune faces visible along the first quarter mile of the hike out to the other end of Esther Island. Waves hitting the dunes expose the root system of the beach grass. In many cases, the grass’ roots extends 10 and sometimes 15 feet from the surface down into the sand, also running laterally to send up new stalks. This latticework of roots is what holds the sand in place. If you have to walk through the dunes for any reason, do not step on the stalks of the grass, as they die when broken. Find an open patch of sand up into the dune and you’ll get a great view of these magnificent beach grass fields.
From here, the hike is simple; keep walking until you find the channel between Esther and Tuckernuck islands. When you reach the west end of Esther Island and want to go for a swim, avoid the channel and keep following the perimeter of the island. Swim only where there is no current and where you can easily get your footing.
Continue down the north side of Esther Island only to within site of the western most house and then backtrack to where you left your kayak.
From Caton Circle at the top of Main Street, go five miles to F Street in Madaket. Though there is no street sign, you can’t miss the large pale yellow and green sign that reads. “Walter S. Barrett Public Pier.”
The pier is at the end of the street. Get as close to the pier as possible, park and unload your gear and then park your vehicle only on the north side of F Street or the east side of Tennessee Avenue. If you want to launch from Jackson Point, continue on past the turn for the F Street Pier and just before Madaket Beach, turn right onto Ames Avenue.
Follow Ames Avenue across Millie’s Bridge and follow the sand road as it goes through a pine grove and then goes left. At the next intersection, go right and when this road reaches a T-intersection with Massachusetts Avenue, go right. The Jackson Point Pier is at the end of this sand road. Park in the lot just before the pier, but not near the loading area where Massachusetts Avenue comes to an end.