Block Island 101
Whether you are here for the day, a week or the whole summer, try to do at least one of these things — you'll be glad you did!
1. Swim at Sunrise
Plan to be up before the sun, that alarm clock may come in handy — even on vacation. No need to make a fuss about what to wear, just throw on a bathing suit and an old sweatshirt and go. Ride a bike, jump in the car or walk to your beach of choice— but on the east side of the island so you can see the sun coming up. Go in any direction to get to a beach — the entire perimeter of our 3-by-7 mile island is virtually lined with them, 17 miles worth and all free and open to the public. There are some beaches where it may not be safe to swim, like at the North Light, so choose wisely.
Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’re standing at the ocean’s edge. Breath deep and take it all in. Dive in and let the magical salty water cleanse your spirit.
2. Bike around the island
There’s no better way to see the sights of Block Island than by biking. And the Block Island Tourism Council laid out the perfect route — a 7.5 mile loop that includes nine stops along major sights at the southern end of the island, plus an option to add 8.5 miles that wind through some of Block Island’s most beautiful landscapes.
Bikers will see bright white and blue signs at various stops along an island loop, and on those signs they’ll see what is known as a QR code. They’re recognizable, even if everyone doesn’t know what they’re for. They look like digital spaghetti.
Using the QR code application on your mobile device (if you don’t have one, there are many and some are free), you can either scan the QR code or take a picture of it. That code will then take you to a website: www.so-new.org.
And on that website will be a short video about the very site you’ve stopped at.
The narrator of the videos will be familiar to many Block Islanders: Jessica Willi, Executive Director of the Tourism Council. The Tourism Council helped pay for the map and the signs for the project.
The videos are brisk, well edited and provide brief descriptions of island locales.
There are a dozen such videos, ranging from the expected (Fred Benson Town Beach) to the unexpected (get a little forgotten history about Dead Eye Dick’s).
Willi said she has visited each site on the tour and there is cellphone access all along the way (never a minor consideration on Block Island). There is also an informational brochure to go along with the video version, providing proof that we’re not completely out of the printed age just yet.
Route maps are available at the Chamber of Commerce in Old Harbor, at all bike rental shops and at hotels and inns around the island.
1. Tourist Center (off Water Street) 2. 1661 Farm & Gardens 3. Spring House Hotel 4. South East Lighthouse 5. Mohegan Bluffs 6. Painted Rock 7. Rodman’s Hollow 8.Dead Eye Dick’s 9.Fred Benson Town Beach 10. Great Salt Pond, New Harbor 11. North Lighthouse 12. Water Street
3. Catch and prepare a local meal
First You Rake the Clams . . .
By Kathy Crocker and Dennis Valade
Although Quahogs can be found all along the North Coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Narragansett, Rhode Island can certainly claim to have coined the name for this edible clam. In 1643 Roger Williams referred to it as ‘poquauhock.’ Today’s use of the name “Quahog” is derived from “Quoque” back in 1753. In more recent times, South County’s own, cartoonist Don Bousquet has entertained us with his many depictions of the ‘long armed’ quahogger.
As soon as the season opens, quahoggers check their waders for leaks, clean the rust off their rakes and make sure their clam basket will stay afloat on the surface. Now they are ready to wade into the cold, chest deep water, wearing high rubber gloves, to gauge and gather these culinary delights.
For my husband quahogging isn’t just about spending time out of doors, sloshing around in waist deep water. Nor is it only the feel of sunshine offset by a cool breeze, the sounds of shorebirds working the shallows, and watching the action of small fish snapping up morsels of food as the clam rake disturbs the sandy bottom (except when the tide is right but the weather isn’t). As soon as he feels the scratching contact of the rake on clam shell, his mind is off and running on how these clams are to be transformed and savored. As each one is removed from the rake and dropped into the basket, he is daydreaming about how he will use the various sized clams - “this ‘little neck’ is for slurping off the half shell; these ‘cherry stones’ are for linguine and clam sauce; this bunch of larger quahogs are for ‘stuffies’ and chowder”.
The selected recipe is adapted from Moonan & Finnamore’s ‘Fish Without a Doubt’. This cookbook has been my husband’s seafood mainstay over the past few years. It has proven reliable and a jumping stone to creativity. The beauty of this recipe is its simple rustic elegance. The ingredients are few, easily obtained, and a proven complement to the noble clam.
CLAMS AND CHORIZO
Large skillet with cover / foil / parchment A few sprigs of Thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan) Dozen of clams / the smaller the better
3-4 ounces Chorizo, casing removed, sliced ¼ inch thick. 1/3-1/2 cup dry sherry or white wine
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped Parsley / Cilantro for garnish
1 medium sized tomato diced
1. Heat a large skillet over medium – high heat. Add the olive oil and Chorizo. Sauté until
the Chorizo starts to brown.
2. Add the garlic and thyme and sauté until the garlic is fragrant.
3. Add the tomato, clams, sherry (or wine) and cover the skillet.
4. Shake the pan till the clams open. This will take several minutes due to the individuality of each clams
– you can pry those with slight gaps to assist opening.
5. Remove the clams as they open to a serving bowl. (You’re looking to maintain tenderness.)
6. Reduce sauce slightly if necessary and pour over the calms.
7. Add garnish and serve.
This dish could serve as a main course. I’ve used it more as an opener to share with others over drinks and conversation. A hearty bread for sopping up the juices is a requirement. So feel free to expand/ enlarge the proportions to suit one’s needs.
A recently encountered comment from a culinary professional encourages “start with simple, awesome ingredients and then do as little to them as possible.”
4. Take a Hike
Hike Clay Head Trail
From "On This Island" by Keith H. Lang and Scott B. Comings
Distance from Old Harbor ferry landing: 3 miles
Location: There are two places to access the Clay Head trail off Corn Neck Road. The first can be found just north of the Transfer Station where there is a gray post marked “Clay Head Trail.” We encourage people to leave cars here and walk, as the dirt road is actually private. Parking and bike racks are available, however, about .4 mile down the dirt lane, near the fence marking the trailhead.
To locate the second access point, follow Corn Neck Road north until you come to the last dirt road on your right, before the main road bends to the left toward Settlers’ Rock. Follow the dirt lane for about .25 mile, until you see the walking trail opening on your left.
Degree of difficulty: Moderate (some steep slopes and uneven ground)
Walking time: 1.5 hours
Distance of trail: 2 miles (one-way)
History of Trail
The walking trail system on Block Island was born here on Corn Neck in the 1960s when David and Elise Lapham cut paths through their property and welcomed the public to use them. The area became known as “the maze,” and the Laphams maintained it for the benefit of the public. If you think it is impossible to get lost on Block Island, think again. We have known many people who have become disoriented here, and one of our relatives, who shall remain nameless, missed the boat while going for a “brief walk in the maze” to pass the time before the ferry left.
This guide will only describe the Clay Head trail, the path that runs primarily north to south, paralleling the bluff. If you choose to branch out into the maze, you are welcome, but you are also on your own. These trails are not shown on any map to preserve the enchantment of the area. If you become disoriented, remember that the Clay Head trail is to the east. It may take a while, but heading in that direction and listening for the sounds of the ocean will bring you to the marked path, and you can continue your walk with the confidence of knowing where you are. There are approximately twelve miles of trails in the maze system, running to the west of the main trail and frequently intersecting it.
This property was permanently protected in the late 1970s and was one of the first major conservation projects on Block Island. Clay Head is one of the most beautiful places on the island—or anywhere, for that matter. The Laphams cannot be commended enough for their generosity, hospitality, and foresight. Not only did they give a protective easement over this entire area, but their gift also qualified the state of Rhode Island for federal matching funds that were used in the preservation of areas of Rodman’s Hollow, Clay Head, and the Mohegan Bluffs.
Description of Trail
This walk can be done in a number of ways. Beginning from the southern entrance, one can walk out to the beach and back, continue on to the end of the trail and make a round-trip, or proceed north out to Corn Neck Road and complete a loop back by road to the dirt lane and trailhead.
Regardless of how ambitious you feel, there is a lot to see in Clay Head Preserve. Heading east from the trailhead toward the ocean, you will see some big trees, Sycamore Maples, which mark the site of an old farmhouse. Look in the holes of the trees for nesting birds, such as the Black-capped Chickadee, Yellow-shafted Flicker, and Carolina Wren. The trail then proceeds through a meadow with open views across Clay Head Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean. You can see Old Harbor to your south. The path proceeds downhill and parallels the swamp. Across the water are the Littlefield and Ball Farms, two of the best remaining examples of the saltwater farms that once extended up and down the coast of the island.
Clay Head Swamp has only native fish, such as Brown Bullhead and Golden Shiner, which is rare for any pond in New England. As you go downhill toward the swamp, you will notice many wetland plants as you cross a bridge. In the late spring, listen for the “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” of the Yellow Warbler. Just before the beach, the trail heads to the left and north. You might want to take a break and explore the beach. If you do, look up at the bluff and notice all the holes; these are home to the Bank Swallow. If you are here in the summer, watch for them darting and in and out of these holes in the bank. Further down the beach, to the north, the remains of “Pots and Kettles” can be found. These are glacially formed underground water channels composed of rocks and sand, which have been fused by iron oxides and exposed as the bluff erodes.
From the beach, the trail climbs and then levels off, paralleling the bluff all the way until the path ends at a dirt lane, which leads back out to Corn Neck Road and beyond to Settlers’ Rock and Sandy Point. Along the way are majestic views and a number of overlooks where you can see the waves crashing below. Be careful not to get too close to the bank, as the bluff is fragile and undercut, and it is a long drop to the beach. There is no better evidence of the severe erosion of these clay bluffs than the point where the trail meets Little Sachem Pond.
The pond is perilously close to draining off down the bluff, and The Nature Conservancy worked closely with the Laphams in the mid-1990s to save it, at least temporarily, by installing a drainage pipe to control overflow and revegetate the area to slow the erosion. It would be a shame to lose this exquisite pond, which defines this part of the path and is where one can often see Great Blue Herons or Yellow-crowned Night Herons.
Clay Head is a hot spot for migratory birds in the spring and fall because it provides their two main requirements: ponds to drink and many types of food to eat, from insects to fruiting shrubs. They especially like the numerous shrub-covered ponds because there is protection from migrating raptors, which feed on smaller birds that are worn out from the exertion of their migration.
Though many of the Japanese Black Pine trees here have died—victims of the turpentine beetle—the dead trees provide homes for insects that provide food for migratory songbirds intent on storing up fuel for their long flights north or south. One of the prime places for songbird observation is at the extreme north end of the trail, to the west of where the path meets the dirt lane. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserved this property in 1999. The parcel was a priority for protection because it is at the northernmost extent of the island and is a launching pad for migratory birds that orient north before their migration.
There are many fine views from the walking trails on Block Island, but none are finer than the vistas along this path. To the south is the village and Old Harbor Point. You can even see the top of the Southeast Light in the distance. Looking west from the southern part of the trail, there are views of Beacon Hill and beyond. The northern part of the path hugs the bluff closely in many places, and there are incredible views of the ocean. The Rhode Island shore is in the distance, and on clear days the Newport Bridge is visible. At the northern end of the trail, on the rise before it begins its descent, look to the northwest for Sachem Pond, the North Light, and the National Wildlife Refuge along West Beach.
Natural and Historic Features
This is the first large area on the island to be preserved and opened to the public, which was possible through the generosity of the Lapham family. This area was meadow when the Laphams purchased it in the 1950s, but it is now coastal shrub, which is optimal habitat for bird life, especially migrants. The trees here are what remain of the twenty thousand planted by Elise and David Lapham as part of their measures to enhance the property for wildlife. The Laphams have been banding birds here every spring and fall since 1967, which makes it one of the longest continuous monitoring projects on the East Coast. Many prominent ornithologists have done research here.
The distinctive eighty-foot high bluffs are the first glimpse of the island for those arriving by ferry from Point Judith. We can thank the Laphams for the fact that most people’s initial view is of unspoiled hills, an open landscape still reminiscent of the island the European settlers discovered upon their arrival. These same bluffs are also home to the state-endangered Barn Owl, which builds its nest toward the top of the bluff, just under the vegetation. There are approximately four nests on the island, the only place in Rhode Island this species of owl can be found. This is yet another example of how Block Island has become an offshore refuge for species that have disappeared elsewhere in the region.
5. Star Gazing- Summer Stars
Star Gazing is About More Than the Stars
By Kim Gaffett
“I know that I am mortal by nature, and ephemeral; but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies I no longer touch the earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia”
~ Ptolemy, Ptolemy’s Almagest
Find a dark spot in the evening, set up a comfortable beach chair, and gaze above and away from land-based lights towards the night sky; and, you will be doing what human beings have been doing for millennia. That is, looking to the stars, first, for the sheer beauty of the views, and then with questions of identification, meaning and awe.
Night Sky Viewing is too limited a term for the endeavor. If you attend an Ocean View Foundation Night Sky Viewing program, the experience starts with a leisurely amble to a mowed viewing circle in the Hodge Preserve. Your ushers, in the long dimming twilight of June, will be the sound of settling robins, sparking fireflies, and the silent shadow of a barn owl. When arriving at the viewing circle the buzz of activity – choosing a spot, laying out a blanket or stretching open a beach chair, and dousing flashlights and other electronic devices – gives way to peaceful moments of quiet, as eyes adjust to the growing darkness.
Soon the curtain begins to rise, and the firmament is revealed; it is subtle at first, but on moonless nights, the deepening darkness allows uncountable numbers of stars to materialize. At first, only the brightest stars are seen. This is when constellations – a named pattern of stars – are most easily observed, because your eyes and mind are not confused by the great number of other stars looming in the same area of the sky.
As a night of sky viewing progresses, the nuances of the celestial tapestry above can be glimpsed, for it is not only stars that can be discerned. The stars and constellations are draped in stories. It does not matter what the civilization or culture is, human beings around the earth, and throughout time, have made stories to accompany the night sky. And, some stars, are not stars at all, but rather planets two-stepping with us, in orbit around the same sun. Other observations in a night sky may include smudges of comets, distant galaxies, streaking meteors, satellites, and the marvel of the Milky Way. The gazing and wondering becomes mesmerizing; we are drawn like moths to light.
Eventually, while our hearts and minds drifted skyward, the evening chills and the dew tugs us back to the summer field, where the fireflies have retired for the night, and the cricket chorus is summoning a reverse alarm - directing us to bed, and sleep, and dreams.
Night Sky Viewing programs will be on July 29 at 9 p.m., August 5 at 8:30 p.m., August 27 at 8 p.m. and September 3 at 7:30 p.m. (or the following night if sky conditions are unfavorable) at the Hodge Preserve, Corn Neck Rd.