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Globe Editorial

Harboring recreation

AN ELDERLY gentleman hurried along the shoreline path of Deer Island on Sunday, pausing just long enough to tell a lolling couple that in just a few minutes the Norwegian Majesty cruise ship would be ``so close you can reach out and touch it" as it passes by the southern tip of the peninsula bound for Bermuda. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but a grand view nonetheless.

The 1983 guidebook ``All About the Boston Harbor Islands" describes Deer Island, then the site of a dilapidated jail and smelly sewage plant, as ``not exactly a typical pleasant Sunday excursion." A lot has changed in the intervening years, and Deer Island now boasts a 2.6-mile harbor walk around the periphery of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that has drawn praise from civil engineers and architects alike. In-line skaters, bikers, fishermen, joggers, and those simply eager for an expansive view of the Harbor Islands now find Sunday to be a perfect time for such pursuits.

It is mostly locals from Winthrop and the North Shore who use Deer Island for recreation, including an annual sundown-to-sunrise relay race. The Boston Harbor Association and area schools also bring students to tour the island and examine the plant where the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority operates 12 giant egg-shaped digesters that break down sludge from waste water arriving from 43 communities. The MWRA's interpretative signs are well-placed, giving visitors a sense of the distinction of this place where nature and technology merge.

Unfortunately, visitors are limited by scant street parking and a small lot that holds just 26 vehicles. The addition of reliable ferry service from downtown would greatly increase use and connect the island in a meaningful way with the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Another option would be to open the enormous employee parking lot for weekend visitors. It is also time to welcome boaters by replacing the moorings that were removed during the hyper-vigilant period after 9/11.

The effort to reclaim the harbor islands must still deal with the persistent proposal for a liquefied natural gas terminal on Outer Brewster. There are also questions over other islands, including Spectacle.

Suffering has been synonymous with Deer Island, as with most of the other Boston Harbor islands. Over the centuries it has served as a lock-up for Indian captives, a quarantine station for Irish immigrants, a workhouse for paupers, and a notorious county jail. But during brighter periods, it has provided inspiration to nature poets, a beautiful background for courtships, and a field of play for athletes. Now is one such sunlit period for the drumlin overlooking Boston Harbor.