Offering free parking, a tiny loop trail and even a quiet little beach, Deer Island provided a perfect place for us to get outdoors and into the dark without venturing so far as to scare young imaginations. Under an intensely bright moon and a twinkling clear sky, we fumbled with our lanterns, determining whose was whose and lighting them while excited little hands did all they could to stay still.
We walked together through bare trees and along the south shore of the island. The old Chain Bridge clicked and rumbled behind us with crossing traffic, while pack ice crashed and crunched in the river below. It was cold, and the ground was frozen hard as a rock. The kids all swayed their lanterns, then held them to their faces to see their warm breath disappear into the darkness beyond their light’s reach.
After a few short minutes, we reached the east point of the island and made our way down to the water, where an outgoing tide had left huge sheets of ice precariously suspended by cattails and boulders. Watching the kids shatter the ice was as infectious as watching someone pop bubble wrap. Before turning back, we had all joined in the smashing of ice and exploring the pockets of air underneath. We had a blast, but it was cold and the candles would only burn for so long — it was time to turn back.
We climbed up through a stand of reeds and cattails and back into the tiny forest of oak, pine and hemlock. Our lanterns glowed warmly and flickered in a soft but frigid east breeze blowing in from over Ram and Carr islands. Looking across to Newburyport’s modern living, I couldn’t help but think of a time when lanterns and candles dotted the shorelines of the Merrimack Valley. It must have been beautiful.