Into The Great Green Silence

When you get a chance to get away from it all, you should take full advantage of the opportunity.  I’ve been trying to follow that principle and get in a few last hikes around Deer Isle before we have to head back to civilization.

The Edgar Tennis Preserve is a pretty good place to appreciate nature in all its quiet, colorful glory.  We’re at the tail end of the season, so there aren’t many hikers to share the trails — which means the Preserve is as quiet as the world gets.  It is as if the moss and the ferns and the pine straw on the trail swallow any random bits of noise, and all you’re likely to hear is the whisper of the breeze through the branches of the pine trees towering overhead.  If you like silence — and who doesn’t, from time to time? — this is a good place for you.

And the colors are brilliant — even if they are, for the most part, shades of green.  The leaves of the trees and the ferns are clinging to the last bit of 60s temperatures to maintain their green finery to the last, until the fall colors finally emerge. If you were looking for a particular shade of green, this would be the place to come — the Preserve has the entire spectrum covered, from the deep green of the pine trees in shade to the bright, sun-dappled green of the moss and ferns as they are hit by rays of sunlight.

You can follow an old country road down to the foundations of a long-abandoned salt water farm where apple trees planted by the settlers — with green apples, of course — mix with the encroaching forest.  A small footpath winds down to a tidal pool, where the water is clear as crystal and looks green itself, thanks to the algae-covered rocks below.

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An Introduction To The World Of Letterboxing

On our recent visit to the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Deer Isle, Russell, Betty and I not only had our first exposure to the tremendous scenic beauty found on the Preserve, but I also had my first exposure to the world of letterboxing.

Letterboxing, according to the Urban Dictionary, is an interesting combination of hiking, orienteering, travel, and sharing adventure with fellow hikers.  The goal in the letterboxing world is to find waterproof letterboxes that are kept in scenic places like the Tennis Preserve — some of which are harder to find than others.  When you find the letterbox, you’re supposed to leave a message, stamp the message book in the letterbox, and also stamp your own letterboxing book so you can keep a record of all the letterboxes you’ve visited.  Not being aware of the world of letterboxing, or that the Tennis Preserve had a letterbox, I didn’t have a letterboxing book with me when we came across the Tennis Preserve letterbox, so I couldn’t stamp my own book.  We did, however, leave a message and used the cool shell stamp to record our visit to the letterbox.  Fortunately for us, the Tennis letterbox wasn’t hard to find, either.

It was fun to thumb through the Tennis Preserve letterbox notebook to see how had visited — we were surprised to learn that somebody had been there before us on the day of our visit, even though we were hiking early in the morning — and I think letterboxing would be an enjoyable, and very healthy, hobby.  Any pastime that gets you out of the indoor world and into the fresh air in places like the Tennis Preserve has got to be beneficial, both physically and mentally.  And the stamps are pretty cool, too.

Hiking The Tennis

This week Russell, Betty, and I took a hike on the Edgar Tennis Preserve — one of the nicest trails in Stonington. You can walk on the rim of the peninsula, getting a chance to explore the shoreline and some of the tidal areas, or choose one of the trails the cross the peninsula and take you inland through piney forest and meadow.

Whichever way you go, you’ll enjoy lots of fresh air, some beautiful views, interesting colors — particularly at low tide, as it was when we visited — and exposure to some of the diverse ecosystems found on Deer Isle. There are lots of good hikes on Deer Isle, and the Tennis Preserve is one of the best.

Ram Head And Salt Pond Bay

Hikers are a collegial bunch, and when they encounter other hikers in a new place they like to swap information about their hikes. On our hike to Saloman Beach we ran into a friendly couple from Nashville who raved about the Salt Pond Bay and Ram Head trail, so we had to try it on our last full day in St. John. It definitely ended our trip on a high note — literally.

The trail is found at the far southwestern tip of the island. It’s about as far away from Cruz Bay by car as you can get, but the drive is worth it. You begin by walking past the beach at Salt Pond Bay, which looks out onto the Caribbean and offers the calmest waters we found on the island. The beach is beautiful, placid, and secluded, and a treat for snorkeling and swimming after the hike.

As you walk down the beach, be sure to veer a few yards off the trail to the east and visit the Salt Pond that gives the Bay its name. You won’t find that beautiful blue Caribbean water here — or swimmers either, for that matter. The saline content of the pond is so high that the water is gold in color, and you can smell the salt. It’s a bizarre setting that would be an ideal location for a scene from a Star Trek episode.

The trail then starts to move up the finger of rock the forms the Ram Head Peninsula. To the west there’s a black pebble-strewn beach, shown in the first photo above, where each gentle wave causes a noticeable rock on rock clatter and people have positioned white rocks against the black stones of the beach to leave messages for hikers to come. To the east, where you can see the British Virgin Islands in the distance, the surf is crashing into sheer rock cliffs. It’s a total contrast to the gentle currents seen to the west.

As you move uphill, you’ll notice two things. First, you’re not seeing the tropical foliage that you’ve seen on every other hikes on the island. Instead, you’re in a treeless desert, with cactus and other desert plant life. And second, the wind is a force that scours the ground and leaves you walking on barren territory. There are lots of dramatic views, but don’t get too close, or you’ll risk losing your balance in a surprise gust. And be sure to take off your hat, or the wind will do it for you.

At the top of Ram Head you’re hundreds of feet above the water, on a rocky crag jutting our into the sea, with surf crashing far below, the wind whistling past, the sun glistening on the water, and a commanding view in all directions. It’s unnerving to be so exposed, but the views are irresistible, and you can’t help picking your way through the stunted cactus to a spot closer to the edge where the view might be just a little bit better.

At the very tip of Ram Head, on a tiny outcropping of rock, you can go no farther. You’re looking due south and that’s St. Croix on the horizon, dozens of miles away. The view is dramatic and mesmerizing, but after a few minutes of slack-jawed wonderment you realized you’re being buffeted by windy blasts just a few feet from a sheer plunge into rocks far below, holding your hat in a death grip, and you decide it’s time to carefully pick your way back down the peninsula to sea level. A swim in the calm and warm blue waters of Salt Pond Bay sounds awfully good right about now.

Hilltopping

Over the weekend we set out on the Margaret Hill trail in a bid to scale the two tallest peaks in the western part of the island: Caneel Hill and Margaret Hill. Neither is particularly tall by the standards of, say, the Rockies or even the Appalachians. According to our excellent topographical map, available from the National Park Service for only $4.00, Caneel Hill is slightly less than 800 feet above sea level, and Margaret Hill is not quite 100 feet taller. But they certainly feel taller than that, as you scramble dead uphill from the trailhead on the northshore road, and they offer commanding views to the north and west.

To the north, pictured above, you see Whistling Cay to the left and, to the right and in the distance, you see the islands of the British Virgin Islands — or, to use the lingo of the locals, the BVI. Somewhere out there in the water the international boundary lurks, but the locals don’t seem to pay too much attention to it, especially if they are heading to the party beaches of Jost Van Dyke, which offers a kind of continuous spring break atmosphere.

From the lookout point rock atop Margaret Hill, show below, you get a bird’s eye view of the town of Cruz Bay and, off to the right, the island of St. Thomas, which is a part of the USVI. At night, the cruise ships, all lit up like floating Christmas trees steamy by St. John just to the left, south of the island, in a glittering single file parade. Who’d have thought there were so many cruise ships?

The path down Margaret Hill leads to the Caneel Bay resort, still closed in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which pulverized the island some 18 months ago. Watch your step, because the footing on the way down can be treacherous — but the chance to be a hilltopper is worth it.

Redefining “Strenuous”

The hiking trails on St. John are rated by degree of difficulty. There are three ratings: easy, “moderate,” and “strenuous.” Most of the trails are rated strenuous, and we haven’t encountered an “easy” trail yet. I think all “easy” trails may involve boardwalks and be wheelchair accessible.

What distinguishes “moderate” and “strenuous ” is more elusive. The trail shown above is rated strenuous, and the trail pictured below is moderate. So far as I can tell, they both have more than their fair share of rocks, tree roots, and constant inclines. Perhaps moderate trail don’t exceed 45-degree inclines and only have so many rocks and roots per square foot.

“Strenuous”? Well, sometimes you won’t even see a recognizable trail, be prepared to huff and puff on the unending upward switchbacks, and on the way down bring a little mountain goat with you.

On The Rooty Route To Barred Island

There are many good hiking trails on Deer Isle.  One of the nicest ones, maintained by the Nature Conservancy, is the trail that runs past Goose Cove to the Barred Island Preserve.  It’s called Barred Island — I think — because when the tide is in Barred Island is an island, but when the tide is out a land bridge forms that allows you to get out on the island without getting your feet wet.  You can see the spit of land that leads out to Barred Island in the photo above..

 

 

 

There’s just one problem:  the trail out to Barred Island, which runs through a dense forest, is just about the rootiest trail you’re ever likely to encounter.  That isn’t an issue for normal folks.  In fact, so many prior hikers have taken this route that the exposed roots are worn smooth by the tread of countless prior visitors.  But if you’re a foot-dragging stumblebum like me, it means you’ve got to carefully watch where you are planting every size 12 shoe, to make sure that you’re not going to turn an ankle or do a face plant on the next root system.

 

 

If you pause for a moment before you make the next careful step on the rooty route, though, you’ll realize that you’re in some of the nicest forest you’re likely to see.  And . . . it’s so quiet!  There’s not a sound to be heard, and if you’re walking on a day where there’s a gentle breeze, as was the case during our hike, not even insects will bother you.  There’s so much pine straw on the ground that, except when you’re walking on the roots themselves, it’s like you’re walking on a plush natural carpet.

As you approach the water, after a hike of about a mile, you begin to sense the salty ocean smell mingling with the overwhelming scent of pine.  Finally you emerge onto a scenic overlook that allows you to see out onto the water and the islands that are far away. It’s a breathtaking view. 

Once you get out to the Barred Island and the bay, you’ll encounter a fabulous waterfront scene.  To the right, across a gritty, pebble-strewn beach, is Barred Island, and to the left are more of those colossal Maine granite boulders, many of them algae covered because they fall into an intertidal zone. And beyond that lies the sailboat-studded vista of the bay.

On the way back, be sure to take the shoreline loop and the short detour to Prayer Rock.  The path leads us up to a flat granite outcropping that is far above the cove and the bay, which can be seen through the ever-present pine trees.  You’re not the first one to visit the promontory, of course — some thoughtful soul has built stone benches that are dedicated to some other people who loved this area and the beautiful view the Prayer Rock offers.

 

Alas — it’s time to return, back over the rooty path to where you began.  Watch your step, and be sure to hand that walking stick that you found to the next traveler who wants to enjoy the hike to Barred Island.