With a few strokes of a kayak paddle, Rhode Island's developing Blue Trail offers a new perspective on Narragansett Bay, the watery heart of the Ocean State.
The first markers on the 10-mile trail, which hugs the shoreline of Aquidneck Island, are to be installed Aug. 22. Even a short trip offers a glimpse into life on the bay, a place many visitors see only when heading to the beach or zipping over the Claiborne Pell Bridge to Newport.
On a quiet summer afternoon, a lobsterman anchored his boat off Coggeshall Point and patiently mended his trap. Seagulls squawked and swooped off the shoreline of nearby Dyer Island. Massive pleasure yachts were docked on shore. Military sites ranging from Revolutionary War battlegrounds to mothballed aircraft carriers dotted the shore.
Supporters hope the Blue Trail will be the start of a larger mapped trail system allowing people to paddle down Rhode Island's rivers and across its coastline.
"Our goal from the very start is to get people using these resources so they appreciate them and are interested in conserving them," said Meg Kerr, treasurer of the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance, which promotes the trail.
While the Blue Trail is OK for novices, beginners should take precautions since Narragansett Bay can get rough, said Tina Dolen, executive director of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, which helped create the trail.
Dolen, a kayaker, recommends that daytrippers wear a lifejacket and bring or rent a closed-top kayak or a canoe with a spray cover to avoid getting swamped by waves. She suggests that paddlers listen to weather reports before planning a trip. The bay is normally calmest in the early morning or late afternoon, when the winds are typically light.
"In some conditions, it would be for experienced paddlers only," she said.
When the route is launched in August, a Blue Trail sign will greet paddlers at its start, a boat ramp near the lush grounds of a Benedictine abbey and school in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Abbey has installed the only major wind turbine in Rhode Island, and its slowly spinning blade is a major landmark from the water.
The northernmost launching site is near where American forces fought the British Army and its Hessian mercenaries during the so-called Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.
From there, paddlers head south along the shoreline and past a yacht club and marina. Small islands dot the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, once a major shipping channel, and several are open to the public. Island-hopping helps break up the kayaking and allows paddlers to experience their own private Robinson Crusoe moment.
"I like going out to the islands," Dolen said. "It's just more fun to go to a destination."
An early option is the park on the southern tip of Prudence Island, the large landmass opposite the start of the trail. Dyer Island sits farther south between Prudence Island and mainland Portsmouth. Paddlers can stop there, but they should beware of least terns that will swoop at interlopers during mating season.
The Blue Trail continues south along the Middletown shoreline and passes Coddington Cove, part of Naval Station Newport. The cove is a secure zone, off-limits to paddlers, but passers-by can see the former aircraft carriers USS Saratoga and the USS Forrestal parked there.
An obvious landmark is just ahead: the Claiborne Pell Bridge, which connects Conanicut Island to Newport.
Beneath the bridge sits 19-acre Rose Island, a dot of land that has housed a lighthouse, a Navy ammunition dump and now functions as a museum and wildlife sanctuary. Adults willing to pay $5 each can land on the beaches near the lighthouse. Tours are available of the lighthouse grounds and a former military barracks there.
From April 1 to Aug. 15, island visitors must stay off most of the island beaches to protect the migratory birds that nest on Rose Island, including great and snowy egrets, little blue herons, black crowned night herons and a variety of ducks.
The trail ends in Newport, the summer playground of industrial age millionaires such as the Vanderbilts and Astors and their palatial "summer cottages." Paddlers pulling into the harbor can buy a meal or snack from the many restaurants and vendors lining the piers.
Staring in 2011 or 2012, paddlers will be able to ride a shuttle train back north to their launch points in Portsmouth. Bob Andrews, owner of a Newport-based train service, said his company recently bought two diesel cars, including one with storage room for bikes and a limited number of kayaks.
If You Go...
RHODE ISLAND'S BLUE TRAIL: New 10-miles water trail in Narragansett Bay along the shore of Aquidneck Island. Signs for the Blue Trail will be posted in August at boat ramps at Cory's Lane and Weaver's Cove in Portsmouth.
TIPS: Narragansett Bay is generally calmest in the early morning and in the evening. Trail organizers recommend closed-top kayaks or canoes with spray covers. Wear a life jacket, travel with a partner and listen to weather forecasts.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Rhode Island Blueways Alliance: http://www.exploreri.org/
Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation: http://www.roseislandlighthouse.org/