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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Land shaped by glaciers and the Navy

Charlietown (a.k.a. Ninigret Wildlife Refuge) Winter Walkabout
Text and photos by James Bedell

The sun was warm on my face, not a cloud in the sky, a little grey bird hopped alongside me, and I could almost hear winter sigh as it was letting go of our part of the world. It was hard to imagine that sixty years ago this same place was alive with the sounds, smells, and deadly preparation of machines of war.

About a mile west of the intersection of Route 2 and Route 1, the entrance to the Ninigret Wildlife Refuge leaves the north bound lanes of Route 1. It is adjacent to Ninigret Park which is owned by the town of Charlestown.  Both were created in 1970 when the properties were released from federal property roles.

Three trails leave the parking lot. One continues down the main runway to the south (Charlietown Runway Trail; .8 miles connecting to the Grassy Point Trail on the pond), one goes east into the woods (Cross Refuge Trail; 1.1 miles), and another enters the woods and parallels the main east west runway (Foster Cove Loop Trail; 1.1 miles).

This was my first surprise.  I had no idea that the trail system was that extensive! As I started out, I passed the sign which delineated what activities are and are not appropriate for a refuge.  Walk, photograph, and nature watch to your heart’s content; but NO dogs, NO biking, NO picking, No littering in the refuge. 

A separate tick warning was alongside, not to be taken lightly in our area. But the trails are very wide and clear and there is no “pushing through” underbrush, where the ticks are waiting for you, on these walks.

I went down the Charlietown Runway Trail heading for Ninigret Pond. Surfaced with black top, sometimes the remains of the old runway, other places new road material, this trail is perfectly flat and suitable for walkers of all physical ability.  As a matter of fact, long stretches of some of the other trails are smoothly graded stone dust which also looked eminently wheel chair friendly to me.

A few football fields along the way you cross the main NE/SW runway and the view is extensive. Just over the refuge border to the left is the town park and the bike/walking track, and the runway seems to go on forever to the SW.  The runways at one time were of course perfectly flat, but here it seems the developers have sculpted the land to create a small vernal pond and a slight hill behind it to enhance the ecological variation.

Continuing on, the path follows along the east edge of the runway, but there is now no runway. Remembering what it was like in the 70’s, when the land was first released by the feds, I am still astounded at the amount of black top which has been ripped up and taken away.  Not merely acres, but probably square miles of material are gone.

In its place are the native grasses and shrubs which the refuge managers now nurture and promote along the succession of stages back to pre-military and even pre-colonial wildness. 

I noticed that the ground surface in between the plants making their comeback is bare, sandy gravel.  On this sterile mineral material grows a covering of mosses and lichens, slowly breaking down the tiny rock particles.  

With the help of the plants and microbes they are creating the soil for the next stage in the evolution of this environment. In some ways today’s process is very much as it was 10,000 years ago just after the last ice age, when life had to re-conquer the desolate post-glacial landscape.

As I crossed the other main runway area trending to the south I could see Block Island directly down the airstrip.  When all of this area was cleared for plane traffic, it must have been quite dramatic, with the Block floating on the horizon like our own little Brigadoon.  Alas, now the view is slowly disappearing as the trees grow up.

Near the end of the runway this path leads to a half acre or so of parking which is accessible through the town park, demarcated by large boulders arranged on the tarmac. Here I had my second surprise. 

There is a  set of signs for, and a gravel drive to, a public launch site for kayaks and canoes! I recall being disappointed when the parks were created because there was no such opportunity in the town section.  This access to the pond is sorely needed, and it has been done right. The drive is for drop off and pick up with a small handicapped parking area near the water. The idea is to bring the boats to the water and then return the cars to the larger parking area, which is only a few hundred feet away.

The launch site is along a section of the Grassy Point Trail, and is an idyllic setting. Next to the small sandy launch area there is a picturesque wooden foot bridge leading to the east. It goes over the tidal flow channel to a small reed and marsh girdled salt pond. A viewing bench adds to the scene.

Going over the bridge, I followed the trail around its easternmost loop, up and around a wooded peninsula. The path then brought me back to the end of the runway, where there are things to see and trail decisions to be made.

On the blacktop surface is a huge “30” still clearly marked…this was runway #30. A local sage shared with me that the “30” means it was oriented at 300° on the compass. It is now littered with the carnage of the current local bombing squadron, and the broken shells of clams, scallops, and crabs attest to the efficacy of their tactics. For a seagull with a tough shell between themselves and their meal, “bombs away” is soon followed by “bon app├ętit”!

There is a kiosk here with park information as well as tips on wildlife, etc. From here the main part of Grassy Point Trail followed along the shore of a crescent shaped cove off of Ninigret Pond. The water was crystal clear, the sun was low over the western view down the pond, and a pair of swans flew overhead glowing gold in the light of late day.  Transfixed by the whole scene, and hearing the soft whistle of their flight feathers swishing through the air…I realized they were heading NORTH, and that put a smile on this New Englander’s face.

Out at the point there is a viewing station replete with two telescopes, benches, and an information plaque. The point juts out into the pond and commands an unobstructed view both east and west down the pond. Just a few weeks ago the pond was iced over and looked like an arctic landscape. But now the sound of the crashing surf rode the wind from the southwest over the barrier beach and across the open pond to my ears… sounding like it was at my feet.

A great adventure would be to kayak/canoe across the pond to the ocean side, cross the dune barrier, and enjoy the several miles of natural ocean shore available on the lengthy East Beach parkland.

Walking back to the main shore I noted the tracks of two deer along the water’s edge. That was very cool. But nearby were the tracks of a human and two dogs. That was not cool. Signs are posted all over the trails that no dogs are allowed, yet here they had been, and not on leashes as the tracks meandered back and forth.

That owner may not consider their “Fido” a problem, but our dogs, a.k.a. “Canis familiaris,” are not in the taxonomical order “Carnivore” without reason. The scents they leave with their droppings linger a long time. “Fido” may not think he is a predator, but the rest of the wildlife know better, and that drives them deeper into the shrub land and further from the sight of the people who come to a wildlife refuge to see the wildlife.

From Grassy Point, the trail returns to the end of the runway and the parking area. On the way back, I took a left on a wide, level path to the west and connected with the Cross Refuge Trail. This walk weaves back and forth to the north (eventually back to the main parking lot) through dense shrub and some young tree stands. 

The glacial landscape includes some low hills and hollows, small ponds, and grassy open areas. Just delightful! On my late winter day, because the trail was in slight shadow from the winter woods, the snow was still eight inches deep. Where the snow was gone, the path was grass covered and flat, though probably not enough to be wheelchair friendly.

From time to time the path pops out onto a runway or other once paved area, and the refuge staff have continued their restoration efforts on these areas. The Cross Refuge Trail intersects The Foster Cove Loop Trail, but it’s not perfectly clear which is which, or if they run together for a distance. 

Just follow the clearly marked paths and keep aware of where the “you are here” on the convenient map displays is in relation to the whole refuge.

I did not go all the way down the most western runway to the fishing access at the water, but rather continued into the woods and Foster Cove. Marching along I had a seasonal epiphany. Though it is chilly and sometimes wet, late winter/early spring has a great selling point. NO bugs! Especially a little later on, right into April and early May, we can enjoy the occasional warm day without the insect intrusion on our outing.

The path then took me to the shore of Foster Cove (the Willows Motel on Route 1 is at the head of the cove).  I found the ice still in place but in decline. Like a mini polar breakup, the area near the shore was ice free for ten feet or so, and there were melt puddles on top of large sections of the ice surface.

The trail touches the shore of Foster Cove in two places, one of which has a sunset facing bench for our enjoyment. The path here is actually a causeway road from earlier times, built up and straight. I mused that it was for perimeter patrols at the airbase, or perhaps leading to landing lights which needed maintenance. I did read on an information plaque that naval night flying techniques were pioneered at this airfield.

I arrived back at the main parking area with more than I had expected. The trails were longer than I thought, and I was bushed. The kayak launch was a total surprise and I looked forward to making use of it.  

Also, as I took a last look down the long view of the Charlietown runway, a faint wave of melancholia passed over me.

What was it like during the war? I pictured oil drums, hulks of wrecked planes, with no time for considerations of wildlife or environmental quality. I wondered how many of the young men, who learned the art of mechanical warfare on this same blacktop, shipped out and never returned home.

But how many others sent into that conflict, probably a great number more, did return home because of the skills and courage of the pilots who learned their deadly craft here in Charlestown, R.I.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the Naval Auxiliary Air Field in Charlestown, Click here.

I drove home picturing a scared kid from somewhere U.S.A., maybe pinned down in the open, or out of ammunition; sure that he was at the end of his days without hope…when a fire breathing angel of war roared down out of the heavens and gave him back the rest of his life.

The young pilot, probably just as scared, was living up to the motto of “Charlietown,” which is inscribed on the memorial in the town park, “THROUGH THESE PORTALS PASS THE HOTTEST PILOTS IN THE WORLD.”

See you on the trail.