In 1947, the reign of human terror ended on a tiny island in the Narragansett Bay. Since then oblivious grasses, feral vines, and silver shale rule the once involuntarily populated 102 acre rock.
We sailed to the island in Tinker on a close haul from our boat to the pebbled shores of Dutch Island. I (James) got the slow tack to the island, taking approximately 20 minutes to cross the harbor. We carried Tinker up the beach about 30 yards to get above the high-tide mark and made fast on an ancient steel ring built for that very purpose a hundred years ago.
We went into our trip ignorant of detail, but knowing that we’d seen both a lighthouse and a tall brick wall with empty windows. Without narrative, our experience was creative. We told each other stories – what we thought we’d found, who we thought had created it.
Rather than leave you in the same state…here’s a bit of history.
The first European settlement on the island was established in 1636 by a Dutch West India Company trader, but all signs of that original settlement have long since been erased by the evils of war.
The next and far more powerfully successful mark left was made by the original Dutch Island Light, built of stone collected from the island in 1827. The original structure was replaced with brick in 1857 and a fog bell was added in 1878, but the needs of mariners have been met on the south point for almost 200 years.
The very first thing I (James) noticed was the beach was sick with absolutely perfect skipping stones, carved by the salt water. These smooth shale slabs were literally everywhere. I was in heaven. The size and feel and weight of a perfect skipping stone is as close to a religious experience as an agnostic can possibly get. The muscles and sinews of my hand and forearm sang with the joy of sending each stone on a bouncing journey of Melvillian proportions.
Having landed far from the lighthouse, we set out once again on a walk of discovery. A trail led us upward toward the heights and into the wooded interior of the island. We struck off toward the lighthouse and kept a sharp eye peeled for poison oak (which we did not find) and nettles (which we did).
As the path wound around saplings and into and out of clearings, it split and reformed again and again. The flattened areas were our first clue, but the spoor confirmed our suspicions – these were deer trails.
All to the good – they like going around difficult terrain and so do we. We continued, trending south and upward, and happened upon a glowing gold clearing around the jewel of a perfect climbing tree.
What does one do when presented with such riches? One climbs.
The next unexpected discovery revealed itself as concrete cliffs, pockmarked with iron hatches. These were no artistic Anasazi-style designs. We quickly recognized the telltale militaristic construction of gun emplacements. Not being big gun fans, we decided not to rappel into the crumbling ruins of hate and fear.
This, of course, was the top of the island. Because of the natural recovery, the trees had efficiently obscured the birds-eye view.
As we descended toward the long, rocky southern point of the island, we began to get teasing glimpses of both the lighthouse to the south and our anchorage to the east.
We’re the boat in the middle. Seeing her out there from our hiking vantage puts our adventures into perspective. This is us, on a very small boat, surrounded by vast beauty, ornery forces of nature, and fellow boaters of questionable competence. Throwing ourselves into this world is joy.
We came out of the woods and I (Dena) sniffed the salt and sea-life on the air. Moving quickly now, I stepped to the edge of the grass, before the rocky point, and simply breathed.
Tide pools have a pungency all their own. We pounced with recognition and affection. This is the littoral zone and it is home to us all. The place where life begins is easy to recognize and it holds such fascination that we can be entranced viscerally by a single tide pool for immeasurable time.
But sometimes, it is the death part of the cycle that is most beautiful.
The beating sea water forms different landscapes of granite and shale here than we know from the volcanic youth of the Pacific Northwest.
The history exposed in layers of shale and granite, tossed into the air by the last ice age, show us how truly young we are as a species.
A simple sweeping glance brought James to the exclamation, “If I were a geologist, I could spend a few decades here!” Not being geologists, we only marveled at the range of texture, shape, and color.
We decided to walk northwest around the weather side of the island. There being something iconic about the view, I (Dena) had to capture this last picture of the lighthouse.
The sharp, shifting footing along the craggy waterline was satisfyingly treacherous, absorbing our attention as we trekked north. The symmetry of cormorants caught my (James’) eye, but they only let me get this one shot off before they fled in their often-justified paranoia.
As we rounded the island, we found to our dismay a very un-photogenic (note: no photography here) spread of blood-related humanity. The most notable vision was a ready-to-drop pregnant woman holding a yippee dog like an infant and chattering on about babies in the abandoned tossing of the local Rhode Island dialect.
Safe again on the inhospitable east side of the island, we found ourselves directly below the brick-walled internment camp.
We scouted a route up and came upon a forgotten structure riddled with jesus beams and encased in vinework.
Nature’s creeping brutality has almost overwhelmed that of the military guards who caged German prisoners of war on this site through the first and second World Wars of the last century.
Being in these ruins, you can’t help but think of all the lives that these walls permanently, negatively changed. Without a detailed history of the structure, we don’t know if the first inhabitants were the soldiers of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) or the men who sold themselves to the Spanish-American War, to fund which the illegal federal income tax was created and which swelled the US Army from 28,000 to 220,000 men.
Regardless of who lived here first, only full time inhabitants of this island today are the elusive white-tail deer that dodged my (James’) every shot.
Having circumnavigated Dutch Island, we floated Tinker and returned to our home at anchor on a fresh breeze from the southwest. The adventure left us exhausted and satisfied that we had truly discovered a perfect example of rich history that has been left alone. Simply walked away from.
Or, in our case, sailed away from.
More history on your adventure: pre-colonization, the island was originally called Quotenis and was inhabited by the Narragansett people.
Also: overgrown ruins are my favorite.
You know that facebook meme, a box with six images: “What society thinks I do” “What my mom thinks I do” “What I think I do” “What I really do”…this adventure on Dutch Island is what I think you do. You sail through sunny days seeking out the creases where human and wild worlds meet. You put your strong muscles and sweat toward exploration in service of your wonder, never toward exploitation in service of your greed. You search for your own idiosyncratic treasure.
The pleasure in reading this is found the adventure story, for sure. (What will they find at the lighthouse? How far can she get on the edge of the point? OMG he’s climbing a tree now? What terrible tales do these brick walls know?) But it’s equally found in watching you manifest the JOY of your discovery. Like little kids with badass survivalist skills, you two are.
Look at the image of you two conspirers in your little dingy, a nation of two, poised anticipation embraced with a sublime contentment. Look at the graceful, mighty angle of James’ stone skipping arm, the power in that playtime. Look at Dena bounding through the tall grass, hurtling toward the exquisite treasure she knows lies in tide pool and nevermind the lighthouse.
Even the nature pictures are sensual. The smooth surface folds of that shell? oof. The explosion of grass stalks split askew by the curly stick? The dips and bumps and textures of that rock that mimics water bubbling in a stream? Lusty.
Even if I’d somehow hauled my pale feeble body onto Dutch Island, I would not have found the abundance that you did. You brought your ebullient spirit of adventure, hearty sailors. And thus was the treasure: Located within.
Kate, you are the payoff.