Then and now
In the middle of the lower reaches of the Acushnet River, which forms the seaport known as New Bedford harbor, there is a small island that was for years the site of an operating lighthouse.
This was before the construction of the hurricane barrier in the years following Hurricane Carol of 1954. That barrier spans the mouth of the river from Fort Phoenix on the Fairhaven shore, where the Steamship Authority has its maintenance headquarters, to New Bedford across the river, where the Vineyard fast ferry is based, and then follows along the low-lying land at the head of Clark's Cove. The stone- and concrete-clad barrier incorporated Palmer's Island in its construction. It had to really, because the island was actually just an upthrust granite fold of the subsurface ledge that crosses beneath the river, from Fort Phoenix to Fort Rodman, the World War II emplacement to the southwest on the New Bedford side. It couldn't be gotten around or removed, not without prohibitive expense, at any rate.
Unfortunately, the barrier created a horrid, unflushable backwater west of the island, and rendered Palmer's Island Light purposeless. Time, neglect, and the depredations of young, increasingly unrestrained invaders ruined the light structure and made a mess of the former island. Restoration work has been attempted.
The light had a keeper once. His name was Arthur Small, and he had lived since 1922 with his wife, Mabel, in a small house on the island, a short, but exposed walk to the light itself. On Sept. 21, 1938, the hurricane still regarded by most folks as the century's benchmark storm ruined the house and submerged the path to the light.
Arthur Small had taken his wife to the lighthouse, where he thought they would be safest. He had set about starting the foghorn, but as he worked, it happened that Mabel Small's fear drove her to leave the lighthouse and run back for her house, which would ultimately prove to be no refuge at all. The keeper, trying to save his wife, was swept away but survived. She perished.
The story was widely known, and its profound horror and misery, along with Arthur Small's devotion and bravery, fired the imaginations of every neighborhood child who stood safely on the shore and contemplated the tiny island. Before the hurricane barrier, adventure lay close at hand.
Nearby were the Revolutionary War cannon, fixed on their carriages high on the bluff at Fort Phoenix, commanding the widening river mouth, where imaginary British ships threatening the busy Colonial port stood in toward the shore only to be sunk by carefully placed fire from youthful gunners. So, from the beach below, those children set out aboard a tattered but able fleet of catboats and dinghies, armed with broomstick rifles and lath swords, to Palmer's Island, barely half a mile away. There, the city's young defenders would certainly have to fight their way ashore though the resident company of debauched pirates, gunrunners, and privateers. A demanding mission, yes, but the outcome was not in doubt.
Ah, well, that was then. And where does a former man o' war-sinking, pirate-slaying youngster, now lumpishly transformed and experiencing an adulthood so much less vivid, find adventure? In Chilmark Pond, stalking swans, that's where. Indeed, even on a mild January or December day, imaginative kayak touring can transport an aging escapist to distant seascapes where he will doubtless encounter adventures real enough.
And swans are worthy adversaries. Fast afloat and on the wing, they are 50-pound Flying Fortresses with attitude. And beautiful, except for their big, flat, webbed feet. Mostly, swans are described as sociable, but that characteristic is not readily apparent to the solitary kayaker approaching the densely populated swan housing development which occupies the lovely, golden, marshy island in the middle of Chilmark Pond. To such an intruder, there is a chill in the air.
The pens lead their gray-feathered fleets away, as the cobs deliver the back-off-buster message with a belligerent swagger from a station just behind the retreating family. (Swans mate for life and live 20 years or more, so cob and pen have worked out their roles, more or less.)
What the savvy kayaker wants to do is find a narrow channel through the grassy island in which to secret himself and wait, still as cold death. It helps not to have one of those garishly colored modern kayaks in purple, orange, or yellow, with the upswept bow and stern. Best is a low-lying, swan-like, white one with a flattish sheer.
It is important to disregard the hissing, grunting, and soft snoring sounds which emanate from the disturbed troop. And especially ignore that distinctive note of triumph they sound because they think they have driven you off. Be cool.
And be prepared for a long vigil. Naturally standoffish, swans that have been forced to glide away from home by some uninvited visitor don't hurry back. But if you have merely shifted them and not launched them, they will after a while return. One needs to assume the appearance of debris, as if instead of a portly kayaker you were an especially long, discarded, white five-gallon bucket. (Pooh would suggest you hum the bucket song, but really, no noise is the ticket.)
And the reward is, of course, beyond measure, when 30 minutes or an hour later the displaced neighbors return. Then, biding his time, the stalker, his veins flowing with ice water, his heart thudding, sights the camera, and ... click.
Then, impressive commotion. The shutter noise of your camera surprises an inattentive pen just 20 feet away. Her head whirls in your direction, the huge wings beat, the immense feet flap, the feathers scritch, scritch, and the great bird lifts off the deck.
It's not hand-to-hand combat with Billy Bones, but it's not bad.