Block Island
Sept 10th-14th, 2009

I should have realized what was coming when I looked out across the sheltered harbor and saw 20 meter tall spouts as Atlantic rollers crashed on the breakwater.

Once the ferry cleared the harbor and headed into open waters we were in the midst of swells the length of our boat and 2-3 meters high. The ferry pitched and rolled and the crew searched for the car owner who had not set his parking brake.

Kristina and I sat in front of the bridged and watched a horizon pitch back and forth, and back and forth. I expected to be seasick, but wasn't. The world, the ocean, was too interesting, too dynamic to leave time to think about my stomach. However a great many of the passengers were not so possessed by this excitement. How much dose the ship pitch? At first I wanted to believe that it was 30-degrees. But then I watched the horizon compared to the rail and compared the angle to 90-degrees, visually bisecting that right angle and comparing our tilt to 45-degrees, then 22.5 degrees. In truth I think we pitched +/- 10 degrees most of the time with the occasional greater roll.

Rolling was not all the ferry did. It pitched forward as it crested a wave and back and we started to rise. And when we crossed a wave on the diagonal I could feel the whole vessel yaw, pivot around its smoke stack.

Within a few minutes Point Judith, the mainland, had vanished and the great engine ground on, pushing us further out to sea, further out into that pea-soup fog. Why pea-soup? It maybe thick but it is not green. Why not an old grey chowder?

Nearly and hour later, Sandy Point, the northern most cape of Block Island appeared off our starboard. Then the bluffs and Ball's North Point and finally the breakwaters of the old harbor. Terra Firma.

Pitch and Roll
(video .MOV)

Pitch and Roll
(video .M4V)

Thursday, Sept 10, 2009

This trip to Block Island is our last great fling of the summer. Classes at Dartmouth start in just under two weeks. Will has been at Bard for a month and Robin has been at the high school for two weeks and completely submerged by soccer. But Kristina and I were still free agents and so left after work on Thursday (Sept 10) and headed south. We dropped down the Connecticut River valley, then east on the Mass Pike and south into Brooklyn Connecticut to spend the night at the Lambs.

We have know the Lambs since our kids were in pre-school in Durham together (15 years ago?). Last time we saw them at there home they had just moved to Brooklyn, a small town and a small house. The town has not changed much as far as I could tell, but the house has doubled in size - with a wonderful high ceilinged great room, or conversation pit if you view it from the balcony. Susan, Chip and Avery are all doing very well, telling us about life at the Pomfret School, and Evans experience starting college.

Friday, Sept 11, 2009

In the morning we continued south and east into Rhodes Island and eventually to Point Judith. Here we left the car and strapped our duffel bags and backpacks onto our bikes and wheeled them onto the ferry "M/V Carol Jean".

After an hour on an aqueous roller coaster, we disembarked into a downpour and since we were not suppose to be at our hotel for a few hours we had a very long, slow lunch next to Ballard's beach. There is not much going on during a week day, especially in the rain. We poked about downtown for a while and then cycled out of town about a mile to our inn.

Payne's Harbor View Inn is build to look like all the old classic `Grand Hotels' which dot this island - except that all the lines are straight and the floors don't creak. At first I thought it was old and had just been completely gutted and then rebuilt in a Victorian style but meeting modern code. But in fact this inn was build in 2002.

The rain was abating and so I took myself running along the West Shore Road. First down past New Harbor and then a climb and a series of gentle rolls. Nothing like the rolls on the ferry. The landscape is lush, generally an open terrain, often kept in fields and pasture lands. But there are very few animals grazing upon these pastures. Occasionally a few horses. But most of the land is attached to lovely summer homes. Apparently the winter population of the island has recently passed a thousand, whereas the houses could shelter five times that number. Over forty percent of the island is under conservation easement - so don't look for a growth in the number of these villas. But villa is the wrong description. There are most certainly of a New England Seacoast architecture. Cedar shake siding gone grey in the salt breeze, with a subtle white trim. As I run the kilometer marks on the road count down, 8, 7, 6 and so forth. Apparently tomorrow there is a fifteen kilometer (9.6 miles) road race. I am not tempted. But I am enjoying this trot. The rain has waned, now I am just pushing my way through a salty mist.

On past Beacon Hill, where 300 years ago a lookout was maintained looking for a French invasion of the English Colonies. Past the graves of the legendary "Palatine" ship wreak of 1738. Past Rodman's Hollow and the Indian Cemetery, the airport and home. All told, about five miles.

That evening Kristina and I walked into town via Crescent Beach. The surf continues to roll, wave after wave off the Atlantic. We decide to eat at Eli's, but the wait is over an hour. So we walk around town. At the south edge of the village is the `Spring House', a Grand Hotel from the 1850's, with a vast veranda, and tonight very full. In the middle of town is the `National Hotel' of a similar vintage. We stop at the bar and have nachos. Finally we return to Eli's. The dinner was worth the wait. But we had eaten so much en route that we carted off a substantial package of leftovers.

The rain is falling in curtains as we walk home that evening. Curious the words we might use to describe the rain, "sheets" or "curtains" is provocative of the waves of water we see. But here the "waves" are drawn into a third dimension. Waves cross the length and breadth of the surface of the sea. The 'curtains' are stretched into the deaths of the air as well.

Kristina during
the crossing

Saturday, Sep 12, 2009

The events of the day are straight forward, but the impressions of the day are a great deal more interesting.

After breakfast we walked into town to find a Latte. It was not raining at the moment, but it felt like the clouds could change their minds at any moment and blanket us with a steady drizzle. Off the beach was a large rock covered with a dozen cormorants, huddled in the spray and mist. I thought to myself that there is sometimes a name for a flock of a certain type of bird. For instant a gathering of eagles is called a convocation. We also speak of a "a murder of crows" and "a parliament of owls". My suggestions for a gathering of cormorant is a "commiseration". They looked like old men in long black coats, huddled together in the rain in some type of communal misery, partaking in a communal "commiseration".

After our Latte and Cappuccino we walked back to the inn. We changed rooms to one which looked out over the new Harbor, then packed our leftovers from Eli's last night, as well as raincoats, mounted our bikes and headed north.

Block Island is a tear drop shaped island. It was left, like Long Island, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, when glaciers retreated from the North East. It is a moraine which happens to poke its head above the wave of Block Island Sound. I expect that the boulders, gravel and sand where broken off from the White Mountains, or maybe even further north. The granite feels familiar.

The island is three miles wide at the southern shore and stretches six miles north to Sandy Point. In the middle of the island is the Great Salt Pond, nearly a mile across. In the 1890's a channel was cut through the western sand dunes, connecting this pond to the ocean, and creating New Harbor.

We cycled to east of the pond, up Indian Head Neck and Crescent Beach State Park to the northern part of the island. There is only one road here which winds up the spine of the land. A number of dirt roads branch off to houses, ponds and bluffs. Finally we top Lot Hill and coast downhill past Chaqum Pond and Settlers' Rock to the end of the road.

The sky is still grey and foreboding as we walk out Sandy Point. We tuck ourselves up against a bit of log which has drifted ashore and have our lunch. The log has clearly come from the mainland, it is much thicker then any tree on this island. For lunch we have bread with garlic spread, salad, swordfish and lemon cheesecake. The advantages of having not finished dinner last night.

The surf is still rough and I enjoy listening to the pebbles tumbling over the cobbles on the beach. They remind me of popcorn, when dozens of kernels all pop at once, but a bit muffled by the water. Or perhaps like fireworks, not the initial boom, but when the long dandelion arms reach out and pop in a spray of magnesium white. Fireworks at a distance.

There is a classic stone lighthouse on this cape which dates from 1867, and beyond that the sound on the west and the ocean on the east merge over Block Island Reef. The last sandy spit is covered with gulls. The Great Black Backs are a bit up wind, the Herring Gulls downwind, and the Cormorants, in their commiseration, shunned and relegated to the last few wet meters of sand. If the Gulls are the "jets", the cormorants are the "sharks". If the cormorants gather in commiseration, what do the gulls gather in? They are not gangs or mobs because they really are without malice. Maybe they gather in parties? But they are so clueless, sheep-like. Perhaps flock is the right term for them.

When cycling south, we stopped and walked out one of the many trails through conservation land to Middle Pond. The pastures are fast growing back into scrub brush and tangles. After three hundred years of farming (I do not know what the Manises Indians did before that) the land is returning to woods. Although when trees start to impede people's view - the meadows and pastures may return.

We had hoped that Billy and Kathleen would boat over from Shelter Island this afternoon, but a message awaited us saying that with three to six foot swells they were not going to make the forty mile crossing. So we biked over to a restaurant on a pier in the Great Salt Pond and enjoyed shrimp. Yes, all we do on our trips is move from breakfast to brunch to lunch to tea/fica to dinner. This was fica. We talked about riding another loop around the southeast corner of the island but decided to save that for tomorrow. The forecast calls for sun.

So I cycled into town to make reservations at Winfield's, and did a bit of exploring including walking out on the break water. The waves are hardly worth mentioning after yesterdays. The spouts measuring a meter or two.

Later we walked into Winfield's. We sat out on the deck while waiting for a table. It is Saturday night and the island is hopping. Apparently there are some big extravagant weddings. The Atlantic Inn was completely booked for one. There was a pavilion tent set up on Indian Head Neck with a booming sound system all afternoon. And here, on the deck, we could either watch the traffic, foot, bike, car and taxis, or we could stare up into the starry night. The Milky Way stretched overhead.

The food here was also very good - however we had no leftovers, and so will have to forge for an original lunch tomorrow. Sandy Point and the North Lighthouse

Lunch on the Beach

Birds at Sandy Point

New Harbor Dock with
sign from Vermont

The Old Harbor Breakwater

Sunday, Sept 13, 2009

We again started our day by biking into town and have a Latte and Cappuccino at 'Juice 'n Java' - along with the Sunday Times. The day looks promising, the sun is out and the sky is blue!

We cycled out to where Old Town Rd. meets Center Rd. This apparently use to be the business and culture center of the town. I think the building of the "Old Harbor" breakwaters in 1870 and the "New Harbor" in the 1890's - and then the establishment of the Grand Hotels shifted the town's center. The Spring House (1853) predates the old harbor break water, but is next to the Old Harbor Landing. The Atlantic (1879) and The National (1888) surround the old harbor. Over on the new harbor is the Narragansett Inn (1909). And back at the Center and Old Town cross roads - almost nothing. A few nice old houses - but no sign of a town center.

We continued south on Central past the airport and the old Indian Cemetery, Fresh Pond and Seneca Swamp and finally up onto The Mohegan Trail. The Mohegan Trail is a road that runs along the top of the Mohegan Bluff. In 1590 a band of about 40 Mohegan Indians set out from Montauk, about 15-20 miles west-southwest of here, to attack Block Island, or "Manisses", the "island of the little god". The native at that time were the "Manises", which were a branch of the Narragansett. The Manises repealed the Mohegan, possibly even throwing them from the top of this bluff. It is 160 feet down, but most of that is a soft sandstone. We parked our bikes (the island is well equipped with bike racks), and climbed down the steps to the beach.

A woman on the steps told us that it was the most perfect beach. I will grant her that it is very nice and pristine. But I am not certain how to compare it to Point Reyes or Laughing Bird Caye. Two dozen people were clustered near the foot of the stairs, but a hundred meters down to Sheffield's cove and we were all alone. Kristina sat with her toes in the sand and surf while I walked a half mile down to Fishing Rocks and watched a few surfers riding the waves - much much diminished since we first arrived on the island.

After soaking up some sunshine we again climbed the stairs past a tangle of Beach Plums (Prunus maritima), and then cycled past the old Southeast Lighthouse and back into town. We had planned on lunch at Harry's Cafe, but it closed at 3:00 - which is just when we arrived. So we got a small pizza and took it to a stone bench just north of town overlooking Crescent Beach.

Kristina went off to buy postcards and then planned on spending the rest of the afternoon on Crescent Beach. I took a walk on some trails near Trim's Pond and went out for a run.

My run started like our bike ride, up Central Rd. to Mohegan Trail, but here I branched off onto Payne Rd. This is a narrow dirt lane, lined with trees and old stone walls. Past Sand Pond and a few neat horse farms. As I crested the hill the old harbor and village lay below me. I wound down past the school, the old Atlantic Inn, poised in the middle of acres of grass and down into the village, the back to the hotel.

Tonight Kristina and I walked over to the new Harbor and ate at the "Oar House". A simple meal compared to the last two dinners. It is also Sunday evening, and most of the weekend traffic has left the island. You can feel the energy ebb and pace of the island slow down. There are still a number of boats from Oregon, Florida and South Carolina in the harbor which wouldn't follow that weekend crowd. But the Oar House is quite tonight. We watch the sun go down and the lights come up. Most of the houses are dark tonight.

Then a pleasant and slow walk home under the stars.

Down from Mohegan Bluff

Kristina - with toes
in surf and sand

Surf on Fishing Rocks

Mohegan Bluff and Sheffield's Cove

Tim & Kristina

Kristina on Stairs

Beach Plums

Riding along the coast

House on Trim's Pond

New Harbor in Twilight

Monday, Sept 14, 2009

The day dawned clear and we sat out on the inn's back deck for breakfast. Check out is at 10:30 and the boat at 11:45. That is enough time to be leisurely in our movements, but not enough time to set off and do something else.

Again we stopped with a newspaper at 'Juice n' Java', walked around the harbor and then went aboard the M/V Block Island. The day is so clear, yet with a hint that summer is on the ebb and autumn on the rise. The waters were a mill pond and it seemed as if it couldn't be the same crossing as three days ago. Now the air is so clear that Block Island appears to be at no great distance from the mainland. We can not only see Point Judith, but well into Narragansett Bay.

And then it is all over. We are on the continent again and soon in our car headed north back to Hanover.

Payne's Harbor View Inn
and my bike
TPS - Sept 2009