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Block Island - Ghosts, Sea Monsters and other Strange Creatures


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When Adam and I decided to paddle over to Block Island for a couple of days in late October, we fully expected to find sea monsters. "The Block" is famous for huge cow stripers and other large game fish during the Fall Run, and in midsummer, when water temps hit the 70s, tropical species like barracuda reportedly can be found in the waters around the island. But we never expected to find camels and kangaroos there.

Adam was going over on a writing assignment, and, as such, scored us a "comp" room at one of the island's hotels near the beach, which was convenient since we were arriving by kayak. We enlisted Jason Kates to come with us as "safety officer", and for his company because he is such a great guy. We met down at Point Judith on Thursday, where the last remnants of Wilma were kicking up some nice surf on the point break by the lighthouse as we launched through the breakwater for the 15nm paddle to Old Harbor. The crossing was uneventful, with a light northwest wind swinging around first into the west, but then ultimately right into our faces out of the southwest. It had been a while since I had paddled with Jason, and I don't think Adam had paddled with him before, but, while neither Adam nor I are generally considered to be slouches in the paddling speed department, we weren't exactly keeping up with "JTMK", as Adam dubbed him. That's Jason "The Monster" Kates.

As we neared North Light on Sandy Point we could see the surf breaking over North Reef. The area looked like a prime fishing spot and sure enough, I hooked onto a 31" bluefish that provided us with a nice lunch on the beach. It was a good sign to be hooking up with Block Island "monsters" before even setting foot on the island.


Hooking a Block Island Monster

But a late lunch and some leisurely fishing had us reaching Old Harbor near sunset, and by the time we had figured out where to land our boats and where we were staying and had gotten some of our gear up the hill to our hotel it was quite dark. Our quarters were at the Hotel Manisses, a fine old Victorian manse, filled with antiques, dark wood and wallpapers, somber paintings lining the halls and a decanter of brandy in every room.

Later that night, Adam and I found that entirely something else inhabits those melancholy chambers as well. Somewhere in the depths of the night, I was awakened suddenly by a sustained and forceful shaking of my bed. And, whereas my own movements would cause the bedstead to creak loudly, this violent shaking was somehow accomplished in total silence. Nothing else in the room shook or rattled either. After the shaking stopped, I lay there breathless, waiting for what would follow. I listened in vain for any sound. Adam was seemingly asleep, quite silent as well. Only the next night did I find out that he was fully awake at that point, having also felt his bed shaking.

The next morning, we swooped down on the all-included, all you could eat buffet breakfast, complete with champagne, made-to-order eggs, pancakes, bacon, hashbrowns, muffins, fruit, juice and coffee. We then set out on a walking tour of the south end of the island. As we started out, Jason noticed a "Do Not Feed the Camel" sign on a barn next door to our hotel. We laughed and walked on, only to be flabbergasted at the sight of not one, but two camels watching us from their paddock nearby. We then discovered a most unlikely menagerie of emus, Scottish Highland Steer, fainting goats and even kangaroos. We met Amy, the camel keeper, who invited us in to meet the camels which we found to be gentle and affectionate creatures. I even kissed one on the, well, nose.


Block Island Resident

After lunch, Jason and I headed out to paddle around the island. We paddled south out of Old Harbor and around the south end of the island, ringed by the impressive Mohegan Bluffs. Southeast Light, sitting atop this bluff over 300 feet above sea level, has the distinction of being the highest lighthouse in New England.


The Dramatic South Shore of Block Island

As we paddled up the west shore, a stiff north wind and the waning afternoon light decided us on a detour into Great Salt Pond. While Block Island reportedly has 365 fresh water ponds, one for each day of the year, it has one salt water pond that nearly cuts the island in two. At Great Salt Pond's eastern edge, barely 100 yards of embankment seperate it from Crescent Beach on the island's eastern shore, an easy portage for kayaks. Thus, our "circumnavigation" of Block Island essentially included a paddle through the middle of the island.

Saturday dawned cold and windy with a forecast of 15-20 knot winds from the north, gusting to 30. We calculated that the slog back to Point Judith in the teeth of this wind could be expected to take us easily six hours. We debated this over another huge breakfast, complete with a whole baked bluefish, then decided to take the island tour offered by the hotel. As it turned out, the tour was full, so we got a private tour from Justin, the owner of the hotel. After the tour it was decision time. I had decided to take the ferry, not feeling up to the tough, cold slog after putting in close to 30 miles over the previous two days. But "The Monster" was game to paddle and Adam was torn. Ultimately, the clock made the decision for them, as the window closed for getting on the water and reaching Point Judith before nightfall. We wimped out and took the ferry home.

(Photos by Jason Kates)

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So Mark Stephens and Jason The Monster Kates and me head out to Block Island Thursday a.m., the 28th, from the Harbor of Refuge at Point Judith. Block Island standing dark on the horizon like a continent. We're rigged for trolling and casting. Jason is safety officer, Mark my photo model, me the writer and arranger of lodgings, and off we go to fulfill a writing assignment for a magazine.

The surf is high off the point: leftover groundswell from the hurricane. We boot it: course 220 magnetic, headed for Sandy Point. Mark is trolling a broken-back swimmer the size of a mackerel --- just as well, as its drag reduces his pace. I go into my mocking routine, lecturing Mark from several yards away (at his stern), using an old patter which essentially by mocking Mark's lack of fishing prowess guarantees that he will hook up before me.

"Grasshopper, once you have learned how pointless it is to troll a swimmer, during an eight-and-a-half mile crossing, fishing for stripers over waters that are of a depth appropriate for deep leadcore only, then you will have arrived and will be a locust, not a grasshopper boy."

It takes us two and a three quarters hours to reach Sandy Point. Mark and I have to chase Jason the whole way. The Monster averages four-plus knots for the crossing, and this character has been sea kayaking since only, I dunnow, last spring.

The rip at Sandy Point is going off: the ebbing easterly tide is getting shoved along by the westerly breeze, which is blowing now at about 10 or 13 kts. The chalk line downwater of the rip is filled with rafted birds: cormorants, gulls, terns, lots of which are wheeling and diving. Mark gets whacked by a bluefish he hauls in: a big-headed 31-incher. It takes a long while to get the treble hooks out of its jaw and gills.

I know most of the uninformed think bluefish are skanky ("ewww, they're oily!"), but we land at Sandy Point, light the stove in the lee of a sanddune, open the cooking oil, cook the fish, and after some frying the three of us are digging into that bluefish hungrily: corn meal, coriander, salt and lemon juice and fried crusty.

So back into the kayaks for the final six or so miles to Old Harbor. We land in a heavy shorebreak, at Ballards, on a steep beach east of the breakwater, then hoof it upland on Spring Street in drysuits and wetsuits to the inn where we'll be staying.

We pass a few nights there. I explore the south end of the island on foot, descend to the narrow beach beneath the clay cliffs while Mark and Jason launch and begin a circumnavigation of the island. Some shore fishers have set up with surf rods on the South Point, built themselves shelters from jetsom. Several party boats out of Montauk are working the 10 fathom line. The horizon line far south and east, and Long Island Sound's, is an angry writhing snake.

Mark trolls half the perimeter of the island, from Old Harbor to New Harbor, 13 miles, and comes up with nothing. Around 5:00 he and Jason tell me via VHF that they have taken the New Harbor saltway all the wayinto the center of the island and are about to portage back to the starting point over narrow Crescent Beach.

The water is warm: nearly 65 degrees.

Day to leave (Saturday) it dawns cold, breezey, snotty: a raw wind from the north, whitecaps, steep groundswell. We lay around the waterfront a while waiting for the sea to lay down and the wind to die, and by 12:30 that is happening. But by then Mark has drunk all of the brandy from the snifters in our rooms at the inn, and Jason and I have calculated it too small a window to attempt a direct openwater 12.5 mile crossing, with too little room for safety. So, on to the 1:30 ferry: $22 per kayak/angler. The outgoing ferry back at the mainland is loading up with revelers geared up for a wild Block Island Halloween.

Best fishing here looks to be the Sandy Point reef: plenty of bait. Had we more time I'm sure we could have done better troling the island's shores to the west and east. If the blues are still there, stripers should be too. But it's tough to fish when your hands are freezing.

Total paddling distances:

me: 15 miles

The Monster: 35 (15 plus 13 plus 7 backtracking to jeer at Mark and me)

Mark: 28 miles

fish total: 1 blue, half of which we threw away because it was too much for all three of us to eat in one sitting on the beach.

Other fish totals:

The 1661 Inn's breakfast buffet: One bluefish which nobody but Mark and me ate, between flutes of champagne, and both of which the inn put out for breakfast the day we were scheduled to leave.

I'd much recommend the place, especially the Manisses Hotel.

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I have posted the pictures that I took and they can be found at http://kates.org/t/B . I would expect Adam's pictures to be better, many of them were on 35mm film so there will be a delay getting them on-line.

It's time to set the record straight.

There was no backtracking or jeering when we were on the water together we all paddled the same distance

I think that everybody that has paddled with Mark knows that he is the true "Monster".

[li] Mark was the first to get to Block Island, dragging fishing gear during the crossing.

[li] Mark was also 1st to land during our partial circumnavigation of the Island.

[li] He regularly paddles solo or joint trips in the 30 to 60 mile range.

[li] Mark is no slacker in terms of speed.

[li] Mark also regularly leads show and goes. When I was starting to paddle last year, most of my non CRCK paddling last year was with Mark

[li] Mark also seems to be a fishing "Monster".

Adam would be another candidate for being the "Monster"

[li] Adam has been paddling for 10+ years.

[li] He is also no slacker in terms of speed.

[li] Rumors is that Adam regularly paddles 50 mile days (not that he will not confirm or deny the rumors).

[li] If you pickup a Kayak book there is a good chance that you will find Adam's name in the credits.

[li] Adam is a kayak, kayak navigation & kayak fishing instructor.

[li] Adam spends more time in his Kayak than many truck drivers spend in there trucks.

[li] We all get to read Adam's recent articles in wavelength.

[li] Adam cooks a great fish.

I don't have enough time in the boat to be a "Monster", at best I could be classified an apprentice "Monster" or "Monster In Training".

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