The backside of Plum Island is a world apart, a variegated landscape of creeks, marsh grass, and towering phragmites reeds. It stretches from Woodbridge Island south to Ipswich Bluffs. Indigenous species of toads, rabbits, coyotes and deer inhabit tiny thickets of vegetation that thrive in the swales of the ever-changing dunes and former drumlins.
By day, hollows in the dunes act like natural solar collectors. The sun reflects off their sides, concentrating its rays on the floor of the depression. In the summer their sands reach foot-scorching temperatures that rival those in many deserts and mold a singular assortment of plants and animals.
It is also the habitat for numerous endangered species. Piping plovers and least tern’s nest in new washover areas and tiger beetles scuttle over the dunes.
Equally endangered are the humans who call this land of marsh and creeks home. Elizabeth lived at the end of a little travelled sandy road that wound through the extensive marsh. She kept her boat in a deep creek that flowed past her lone cottage toward the Parker River and Ipswich Bay beyond.
In late September she hurried through the sandy twin tracks that cut through the bogs of Hell Cat Swamp. She loved this spot. Ever since her husband died she had made her living raking cranberries, collecting beach plums and digging clams.
She wanted to get home before dark to cook up some of the sand dabs she had caught off Emerson rocks. She paused to listen to a copse of phragmites that rustled in the wind above her head. It was a scratchy, ethereal sound that matched her restless mood. She imagined the terns felt the same way before they started their long migrations south.
Elizabeth built up her stove and her camp was soon filled with the smell of the fresh caught flounder and cranberry muffins she had baked the day before. The dishes could wait for tomorrow. She turned down her kerosene lamp and crawled into her wooden bunk bed.
But later that night she heard the sound of a long, sleek, black boat putter up to her dock. She knew a mother ship full of Canadian whiskey had been lurking offshore for the past few days. Lights flickered and a truck coasted to a halt outside her camp. Then she heard voices inside her kitchen. She reached under her bunk and felt her husband’s old shotgun.
“Who’s down there? What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry lady. You have nothing to fear. You just stay upstairs and we’ll make it right for you.”
She couldn’t make out any more words but figured there had to be at least three or four men, a boat and a truck parked beside her camp. She huddled back down under the blankets and waited until the house was quiet for several more hours before venturing downstairs. Sitting on the edge of her kitchen was a crisp new hundred-dollar bill.
“Now isn’t that nice of those kind gentlemen. Next time they come I think I will make them some nice hot cranberry muffins.”
It is said the mutually beneficial business arrangement continued for many profitable years.
Read more in William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach, available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingram.content.com.