Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 16 • August 10 - 16, 2007 now in our 37th season

Activities for Families:
Alternatives to the Beach

by Zoë Kirsch

At this time of year Nantucket is very much alive.  Not only does the human population soar to a whopping 50,000, but also the animal and plant populace remains enormous.  Even if your family isn’t currently interested in nature, it’s never too late to start gaining an appreciation for this broad spectrum of wildlife.  Overlooking the natural details that are Nantucket’s beauty is like swallowing a delicious cake (that contains every kind of sweet morsel imaginable) whole rather than savoring every bite.  The island experience becomes perfectly complete for kids and adults alike if they stop and take a really good look at nature.  Kids will be fascinated with unusual creatures they find through observational adventures and adults can meditatively absorb their surroundings.  So whether the members of your family are animal aficionados or nature novices, interacting with nature on Nantucket is something you all won’t want to miss.

What better way to admire the island’s natural splendor than to travel by bike?  This is a convenient, fun, and healthy way to explore Nantucket.  Bikes are available all over the island:  in Town, way outside of Town, by the airport, and near the ferries.  Rent one and you can travel to and enjoy any of the following inland nature activities!  If you’re motivated to get a serious workout, I’d recommend the ten-mile ride on Polpis Bike Path from Town to ‘Sconset… it’s intense but well worth it.

Try your hand at catching and observing some of the most prevalent creatures on the island: crabs, minnows, and snapping turtles.  This activity necessitates parental involvement and is best done at the Town Pier off of Madaket Road.  Minnow and crab catching is perfect for children ages twelve and under.  This recreation requires the purchase of a minnow trap (available at Barry Thurston’s Tackle Shop in Harbor Square).  Tie a thin piece of rope on, place some bread inside, and put it in shallow water.  Wait a few minutes, and then have your child pull on the string, shutting the trap.  Keep it in the water and let her look inside to observe the tiny fish (and crabs… if you’re lucky!)  If you manage to catch enough, try this.  Each member of your family selects a crab.  Gently place all creatures in the center of a large sheet of paper with a ring drawn on it.  Whichever crab manages to leave the ring first wins!  Remember to have your child release any animals he has caught when he’s done.  Feeding snapping turtles, another pursuit, requires that you simply buy pieces of raw chicken at the supermarket.  Tie your enticing hunk of meat to a string and lower it into the water.  Then, await the turtles and keep little fingers well away!

Hiking is a first-rate way to enjoy the great outdoors.  Gather your family, a picnic basket, binoculars, picnic blanket, and sunscreen… then you’re all set to go!  Spot number one is the State Forest.  Kids can build forts and look at bugs as well as play hide and seek and tag.  Once you’ve completed this hike… congratulations!  You’ve passed level one.  Next is Hiking, Part Deux.  Keep in mind that The Climb To Altar Rock is a bit more demanding.  If you’re up for this challenge though, it really pays off.  Once you’ve reached that 90-foot high destination the view is incredible to behold.

Another active pastime that will allow you and the kids to see nature is kayaking.  Rent a kayak and then paddle your way out to Coatue.  You all will not only get a great workout, but also see creatures like horseshoe crabs from right on the water.  Once you’ve banked on the beach, snorkel, fish for striper, unpack a picnic, or just lounge around!  Bear in mind that there aren’t any lifeguards or restrooms out here!  If you have children, choose some double-seater kayaks so that an adult accompanies each youngster.

Even if you don't have previous experience bird watching, it’s not hard to tell that Nantucket is a birdwatcher’s haven.  Mr. E. Vernon Laux, Cape and Islands bird watching expert, has shared his knowledge with everyone from The New York Times to NPR’s Cape & Islands station. He explains his favorite Nantucket bird watching locations: "The Long Pond down from Madaket Road is the best spot on Nantucket to see all sorts of waterfowl. That place is fabulous for all sorts of harriers, catbirds, and hawks. Another is the State Forest with its mature pitch pines where you've got a healthy population of pine warblers.  You might see some Eastern Bluebirds, which just recently have come into the area, too."

Laux emphasizes that the time of year affects what you'll see birdwise.  "Starting right around Labor Day, Nantucket experiences huge amounts of birds.  Because of its geographical location and the fact that it's isolated, Nantucket is an excellent place to find bizarre, vagrant birds in September, October, and November.  In the summertime you've got a high density of piping plovers."  One thing remains special year-round about Nantucket: it "is the best place to see northern harriers" says Laux.  He continues that, "the density of red tailed hawks is spectacular."

In response to the question of whether birding can be fun for children, Laux replies assuredly, "Absolutely.  I wish I'd paid more attention to insects and things as a kid.  When you're out there in nature there are so many things you don't pay attention to.  But birdwatching is like a stepping-stone into nature.  You pay attention to them, and then you start to pay attention to the plants, and so on."  Laux suggests that kids take an hour out of their days to sit outside and observe nature, with or without a pair of binoculars.  It's definitely worth giving your natural surroundings a chance!  As Laux put it, "You might like it."

If you want assistance tracking down Nantucket wildlife, the Maria Mitchell Association offers many nature-oriented family programs.  Their field trips cover Birding, Marine Ecology, Spider and Insect Ecology, and Wildflower Ecology.  Marine Ecology and Spider and Insect Ecology trips are recommended for all ages, while the Birding and Wildflower Ecology expeditions are best for ages eight and up.

Clearly, these excursions (which have been in existence for more than sixty years) are eye opening.  Andrew McKenna-Foster, Director of the Natural Science Museum, explains exactly what families will gain from the Field Trip experience, “Not only will they get to see parts of the island that they wouldn’t otherwise know about, but also children and adults will learn that there’s amazing stuff in their backyards…and how unique Nantucket’s natural world is.”  Furthermore, the learning process occurs in a completely observational way. “We try to use our property as springboards to get people learning about Nantucket’s natural history,” McKenna says.  “Maria Mitchell wanted to teach through research, not lecture, and we try to embody her ideals through hands on teaching.”

But what if you and your family members have absolutely no experience with anything to do with nature?  Could this still be a good choice for you?  “Definitely” affirms McKenna.  ““In fact, the walks are designed for people who aren’t necessarily knowledgeable in the natural world.  At the same time, we scale the experience to the interest or background of the people who come on the walk.”  Thus, the Maria Mitchell Field Trips are perfect opportunities for any family who wants to learn more about nature on Nantucket!  To reserve a trip, call (508) 228-5387.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation provides other nature-related activities, entitled “F.I.E.L.D.” Days.  Each letter in the name appropriately stands for one of the following words: “Find, Investigate, Explore, Learn and Discover.”  It allows kids to do all of the above… and in exciting ways.  The next F.I.E.L.D. day is quickly approaching. This Saturday, August 11, from 9:30 to 11 a.m., kids ages two to nine and their parents will have the chance to see and pet those doe-eyed, wooly Nantucket habitants: sheep.  On top of that, F.I.E.L.D. day participants will get to meet a shepherdess!  If your child is interested in joining in the fun, call 508-228-2884.

If your family is interested in taking a walk around a Nantucket Conservation Foundation Site such as Masquetuck Reservation, visit the foundation’s site at, click on “General Education” and then “For Kids.”  There you’ll find a scavenger hunt that’ll make observing Nantucket wildlife even more fun for your children!

Whether it be a chance to admire the natural beauty by bike, catch creatures of the deep for observation, see the view from one of the highest points of the island, watch birds, or learn more about nature from experienced guides, Nantucket has much to offer.  What choice do you have but to take advantage of these unique opportunities?  As they say…it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

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