Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living the High Life

Although Newport, RI, had a long history as a seaport, it may be more well know as the summer playground of the very wealthy during the late 1800's and early 1900's. On a rainy morning, we took the tour of The Breakers. The Breakers is the grandest of Newport's summer "cottages" and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. Mark Twain coined the phrase "gilded age" and did not mean it to be a compliment.
The Commodore's grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became The Breakers dining roomChairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Cornelius Vanderbilt only got to spend two summers here, since he died shortly after it was completed.
The Vanderbilts had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, inherited the house on her mother's death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, she opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark.  
The tours are well handled - each visitor is given an audio device, and can proceed at their leisure, with side tapes of related information, such as the servant's life in this mansion. I cannot imagine changing clothes 5 or 6 times a day for each activity. The house was built with electricity, and an option to change the lamps back to gas if the power failed. 20 bathrooms were available as well. 
Those are cast iron ovens on the wall in the kitchen. It must have baked the cooks as well as the bread! Each servant had one task to do each day, over and over. Their quarters were on the fourth floor, with small windows and little ventilation. Some servants had their children living in the house as well.  
After the implementation of Income Tax, two world wars and the Great Depression, even the wealthy could not afford these homes any more. Many were donated to the Preservation Society, while others were donated to small colleges in the community. Salve Regina College has a beautiful campus in the middle of this neighborhood.  
 The Cliff Walk winds along the rocky shore in front of these mansions. We saw several brave folks surfing in the cold water, timing their rides carefully to avoid being dashed on the rocks by the "breakers"!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sailing with Madeleine

On Labor Day, the docks in Newport were packed elbow to elbow with people, and mast to mast with boats. Many boats were moored to buoys in the harbor. I wondered how the harbor master knew which one to assign to which boat to allow all of them, no matter how large, room to swing around in the wind and tide without running into the boat next door. The boats going out on trips were docked against the pier itself so passengers could easily board. I have trouble parking the big RROKI van, and was filled with admiration for the captains who drove these boats in and out of the docks.
 There were several companies to choose from, and we took the schooner Madeleine, shown above in full sail. It had 3 crew members, and promised a trip under sail around the bay.
The crew raised the sail when we had space and off we went!
We tacked, swinging the boom over, we heeled into the wind, and got splashed by water! What fun!
The big bridge was designed to come apart if damaged, so Navy ships could get out if the Germans attacked in WW II.
The green navigation buoys rocked with the waves. The bell mounted on it clanged, but the clappers were on the outside of the bell and there were four of them. No gulls or seals resting there as we saw in California.
Some cotton sails were dyed with tannins derived from tree bark, which gave them the reddish color. This was primarily to help preserve the sail, though it did also add a degree of camouflage when sailing near a sand/dirt shoreline. The red sails, especially on smaller vessels, would not stand out as much as bright white sails.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Rhode Island: The Ocean State

When we go on vacation, we usually spend the day exploring and hiking around, then in the evening, I go through the day's photos and post to this blog. In fact, I often become quite distraught if I am unable to do so. I get anxious if I get behind, because I know the risk that I will never get around to posting everything we did once we get home. The salt marshes and ponds dot the landscape in Cape Cod, but we seldom saw trails or places to park to explore them.
Beach Rose
Beach Roses grow everywhere, with small pink petals, which produce gigantic red rose hips. At first, you might think they are some kind of strange cherry tomato!
The Woods Hole Aquarium is closed on Mondays and holidays, so we were unable to go there this trip. We found a hiking area called Lowell Holly Reservation, owned by the Massachusetts Trustees. In the spring of 1891, the legislature voted to establish The Trustees of  Reservations “for the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public…beautiful and historic places…within the Commonwealth.”
At Lowell Holly, it appears that little or no activity by man –such as burning, plowing, or the felling of trees – has taken place for more than 200 years on the majority of land. The result is a forest that has largely escaped the influence of man and thus represents a unique natural resource for Cape Cod.This is the largest beech forest I've every seen, along with ponds and marsh lands. We got on the wrong trail, and ended up walking every last foot of the place before finding our car again.
It wasn't a long drive into downtown Newport, RI. I normally don't like "city" vacations, but Newport was absolutely wonderful! Our condo units were right on the docks - across the street from the Newport Shipyard and the piers for the lobster fishing fleet. Our first RI food was lobster bisque from the Lobster Shack, right on the dock where the fresh lobsters are brought to market each day. YUM!

"Lobsta' rolls" are a staple, and available at fancy expensive restaurants and the snack bar at the beach (which was actually the best one we had).

The harbor goes on and on, with boats of all sizes and prices bobbing on their mooring buoys. On Labor Day, the crowds were elbow to elbow, but the next morning, it was much easier to walk the docks.What shall we do with all these boats? Go sailing, of course!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

New England Ospreys

While we enjoy finding new birds for the first time, it's enjoyable to find a bird you can confidently recognize. In fact, the Ospreys at Cape Cod were the only raptors we saw the entire trip.
We would hear their distinctive call, then look up to find one soaring overhead with a fish in its talons. They carefully turn the fish into the wind so they don't interfere with efficient flight. Ospreys should be starting on their fall migration down the Atlantic coast any time now. I hope they don't get caught in any of the hurricanes brewing there.
Ospreys are tolerant of human presence, and don't mind nesting near people. They readily build on nesting platforms, or navigation buoys or even the parking lot lights at Walmart. Several large boats where parked on land near our Yarmouth condo units, and some enterprising Osprey had built a small nest on top of a platform on the boat. Don't know what it might be used for on the water, but it works fine as a nest platform.

On the marsh across the street from our condo, a pair of Ospreys had a large nest on a platform. They had no chicks by this time of year, but the male had just presented his mate with a fish. She stood on the nest to eat it, while he perched nearby preening his feather.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Destination: Cape Cod

When our niece from Houston invited us to her destination wedding in Cape Cod, we accepted with great excitement.  Here's a great chance to see part of the country new to us, and to visit with relatives we haven't seen since the last wedding 3-4 years ago. Let's go! Her timing was wonderful, since Houston was trying to deal with all the flooding from Hurricane Harvey that weekend. The minister only arrived the morning of the wedding itself on Sunday.
On the map, Cape Cod doesn't look that big. We reserved rooms in Yarmouth, and the wedding was in Chatham, 15 miles away. Of course, being Labor Day weekend, the traffic was much heavier than we anticipated, so a 15 mile drive took 30-40 minutes. And the traffic round-abouts! (Here they are called rotaries). The roads all went though commercial districts, and one town blended into the next with only the Welcome sign giving any indication that you were in the next town at all.
There were no views of the ocean from any road whatsoever, until we reached Provincetown, at the very northern tip of the fish- hook. We had booked a whale watching trip before leaving home for Saturday morning, and it turned out to be the best weather of the weekend.

As soon as we left the harbor, we were surrounded by birds skimming the surface of the water and keeping pace with our boat. We couldn't identify them, and asked the naturalist, who said they were Great Shearwaters - a life bird for us! She also pointed out some Sooty Shearwaters, a pair of Gannets and some Kittiwakes, making 4 life birds within 10 minutes of leaving the harbor!
 The brown duck-like birds were Common Eider - another life bird. On our way back to the harbor, a pair of birders were counting the numbers of birds along the shore. "Darn! I lost count at 4,000! I think we must be about 6,000 of those shearwaters!" I think it must be migration season for them.

 The Cape Cod National Seashore isn't visible from the road, but we got a fine look at it as we cruised around looking for whales. The naturalist spotted some seals in the surf, but I missed them.
 The whole area around Cape Cod was formed by the glaciers. If we ever go back, I need to study the geology of the region more.

We cruised along the Cape Cod National Seashore, and found 3-4 humpback whales within a short time. Yes, I did actually shout "Thar she blows!" when I sighted one for the first time!
The naturalist identified one as Bay of Maine 1405, and said it was a young whale, swimming alone. We saw it just underwater, about 15 feet from the boat. You could see the white on its flipper through the water. Then, it would surface, blow, and roll over to wave hello with its flipper.
After a short time, it slid silently into the water to cruise below us for a while, waving good-by with its tail.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Canoeing on Beargrass Creek

Beargrass Creek is the watershed for most of Jefferson County, Kentucky. It has a long and discouraging history if you are an environmentalist. Originally, it flowed into the Ohio River at 4th Street in downtown Louisville. In the early 1800's an outbreak of malaria caused the city fathers to drain all the small ponds and swampy areas, as well as moving several miles of the creek so it  flowed into the Ohio River from what is now known as the Butchertown area. In the rapidly growing city of the 1800's, sewage disposal was always an issue - what to do with it and how to pay for that disposal. Slaughterhouses along the creek dumped their offal directly into the creek, so bodies and blood floated and stank. A distillery caught fire and the creek burned with floating whiskey for 10 days. Looks like the same issues we have today. Yesterday, the Louisville Audubon Society sponsored a canoe trip on Beargrass Creek with David Wicks, a local educator, paddler and activist who has made Beargrass Creek something of a pet project. We rode in a big voyager canoe from the police station in Waterfront Park upstream to Beargrass Creek.
The Ohio River is a liquid highway through this part of the country. It was the easiest way for settlers to reach the west, and provided transport for commerce of all kinds for over 200 years now. The US Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the river, controlling it through a series of 21 locks and dams to keep the navigation channel at the proper depth.
As we turned into the creek entrance, we watched the Great Egrets fishing in the shallows. Human fishermen sat along the banks fishing as well. At one point, David informed us, Beargrass Creek had been declared a "dead" waterway due to all the pollution, so he says it is improved a lot since then.
I asked if all the trash was coming downstream or had floated up from the river and he said it was coming downstream. Can we reach out and remove some of it? No, it takes special equipment (gloves, etc) because of the poor water quality.

Although we paddled in mid-afternoon, we did see some birds - the Egrets, several Black-crowned Night Herons, ducks, and Barn Swallows. David said there were more birds in the cool of the morning.
Cliff Swallows had built their nests under the I-71 bridge. The Muddy Fork was straightened when they put in the Interstate because it was in the way. In many places, the creek in channelized in concrete banks to keep it from eroding and meandering.
 David says there are "bank beavers" in the creek, that don't build dams. I just saw a rat scampering along.
When the river floods, water can back up into the creek of course. MSD built a pumping station with gates to block the flow from the river at those times. Then as the creek builds up from the rain, they pump it over the flood wall, and back into the river. I understand that MSD (Metropolitan Sewer District) has a big problem and not enough funds to deal with it. Over time, they have been short-sighted, and we are paying the price now. When the storm sewers can't handle the rain, it flows directly into the creek, with raw sewage and anything else that washes into the drains from the street. It wasn't flooding for our trip, of course, and David wasn't sure why the gates were closed, preventing us from going any further upstream.
We got out to look around, and saw the next big problem. The city impound lot is right next door, and gasoline and oil leak out of the vehicles directly into the creek. There is a move to put the impound lot somewhere else and let the new Bontanica Garden have this property. The creek banks were also used as a dumping ground for tons of concrete slabs when the Belevedere was removed along the river downtown.

David Wicks has retired from teaching, but is dedicating his life to these waterways. You can learn more about his efforts at . You may become as engrossed with the issues as he is.