Feature

Quiet Days and Rising Tides on Prudence Island

Daily life is the same as ever, but climate change is taking its toll on the jewel of Narragansett Bay

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There are no sidewalks on Prudence Island. One policeman enforces the law and a 20 mph speed limit. There’s no nightlife, no bars or cafes, none of the hallmarks of a bustling seaside town and after the last ferry departs, there are no rooms to rent. The island is a critical, largely unspoiled element of the Narragansett Bay estuary, so scientists are carefully monitoring and studying it for rising sea levels and shrinking marshes. With its one-room schoolhouse, historical museum, preserved farmlands and cottages dotting dirt roads, Prudence is the third largest island in Narragansett Bay, a passive jewel shining alongside its sisters Patience, Despair and Hope. It’s also a wonderful and welcoming anomaly existing on its own terms, a getaway spot where finding a place to park near the Bristol ferry dock might be the most difficult part of your visit.

Living on Prudence Island is all about what’s to be gained, not sacrificed. For better or worse, island life is different. “I grew up here, I went to school here, then they shipped us off in fifth grade to Portsmouth,” says islander Ethan Rossi. “It was dark when you were going and dark coming home from school.” Ultimately, with its few businesses and winding trails, the island is a rare retreat, an exception among vacation destinations crowded with shiny and noisy distractions. Through the winter, 150 people or so live in a quiet, residential town. In fact, all seven miles is zoned residential as part of the Town of Portsmouth. Mail can be picked up next to a general store crammed with candy, snacks and beach-themed coat hooks; this is where you’ll encounter the most activity on the island, otherwise you’re on your own.

“The island can be quite polarizing,” Joe Bains says. Joe’s an islander and historian with great perspective on island life and its people. Some visit, realize immediately that their life just changed and make plans to stay. Others get one foot off the ferry, “then look at their watch and ask when the next ferry leaves,” he laughs. Living on an island does mean some level of sacrifice, but it’s all about managing your expectations.

“When I was a young kid, after Columbus Day you didn’t see much of anybody until spring,” says Joe. Looking out an east window from a kitchen table busy with mandolins and sheet music, he describes the walks he takes three or four days a week, usually off the common trails, and how the island has changed and held its own over the years. Without many mainland trappings, life is cyclical and fine. Brisk winter walks, sparse and silent, foreshadow the yellow daffodils and umber maples of spring. Summer’s long shadows gradually give way to the abrupt brown of fall, full of short car rides for the mail and a coffee, with the heat on and windows down.

The summer season is a very different story. “Back in the 60’s, when I was working all summer, I knew everyone. Now it’s just not as possible,” Joe says. Upwards of 1,500 people summer on Prudence Island, taking full advantage of beaches, hiking trails, rocky outcroppings and the solitude afforded by being separated from the mainland. Ethan Rossi, the islander who was shipped off to school in Portsmouth, is an owner of A&R Marine Corp., which operates the Prudence Island and Herbert C. Bonner Ferries. Each ferry carries 150 passengers and runs seven days a week, except when a heavy northwest or southeast wind of 30 mph or so keeps them tied to the dock. On summer weekends, Ethan offers a two-hour picnic and sunset cruises around the island.

“I get to swim every day,” says Joyce Goff, who spends most of her summers on the island and works as a docent at the historical museum. Her husband Ed’s grandfather bought land at Sand Point in the 1920s and built a house and then a second, which burned down and was rebuilt. “You have to plan everything there. If you’re in the middle of a family handyman project, if you suddenly find you need a certain kind of nail or tool, neighbors will lend a hand. A lot of them are relatives,” she adds. “We don’t have central heat. We have one of the old-style cottages.”

“Every place is overshadowed by the ticks and other biting bugs,” Joyce says. Lyme disease, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis have been painful burdens to islanders and visitors, although the deer population has been saddled with much unfair blame. Those bacterial infections are carried by white-footed mice – deer are just unwitting carriers. To help control the population, estimated at 40 to 60 deer per square mile, Prudence has a special deer-hunting season reserved for paraplegics and another for archers only. Deer seek shelter in heavily treed areas and in marshes, but their prints are all over dirt roads, paths and beaches.

“My sister in law and I go to the beach every day,” Joyce says in a nod to the miles of shoreline and open space. Approximately 75 percent of the island has been preserved, including much of the marshland, which makes up more than 20 percent of the island’s acreage. Salt water mixes with fresh as tides rise and fall. It is those marshes that have Kenny Raposa so concerned.

Kenny’s the research coordinator for the island’s Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, part of a network of 28 reserves. He’s documenting how waters are rising faster than marshes can handle, how the flora is changing and how crabs are tearing apart its base. “We are absolutely seeing an increase in the rate of sea-level rise due to climate change in recent years,” he says, in evidence gathered “from the long-term network of tide stations that are located all over the country and are funded by NOAA” – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dennis Graham, a marine research specialist at URI, collected island water samples for more than a year to quantify environmental conditions on the island. “Our research was never intended to prove or disprove the human effects on climate change,” he says. “We are trying to understand the mechanics of how the carbon cycle works in an estuary and how that might relate to the oceans on a global scale.” State and federal agencies value Prudence Island for its relative isolation and extensive marshlands.

“I’m seeing less and less sea lavender,” reports Joe from his daily walks and observations. Sea lavender, also called marsh rosemary, is limonium, a lovely perennial sustained by expanses of creeping rhizomes lacing their way through salted earth, like marshes. Annual plant growth and decay adds organic matter, which mixes with inorganics, like sand, to maintain and build a solid base. More water makes the marshes softer and vulnerable to marsh crabs, which eat the grasses and tear apart the substrate as they burrow. “Our region simply does not have a lot of sand or sediment to help the marshes rise up, and new research is showing that the contribution from plant growth is also reducing,” says Kenny Raposa, adding, “Marshes historically were able to keep up with the slower rate of sea-level rise; they just can’t anymore. The exact increase varies depending on what years you look at and what tide station to use, but it’s very safe to say that the rate of sea-level rise has at least doubled, if not more, compared to the long term trend. Worse, this rate is predicted to accelerate even faster in the future.”

Time moves differently on an island; islanders have a unique perspective on the changes to their home. “The tide seems to be higher,” Joe observes. Despite the changes to Prudence Island’s environment, however, its small family feel remains intact; its main attraction might be its lack of attractions. Endless are the quiet paths, mossy rock walls curving and leaning, cold creeks releasing onto empty stone beaches and the simple solitude we desire in an increasingly busy world. From his family’s land, islander Ethan Rossi overlooks the marshes and people who walk along them just as his grandparents did. From his wheelhouse, Captain Rossi has the best perspective on both new and old. His automated ticket scanners and online reservations are at the ready but, in a nod to a slower island pace and old-school courtesy, he’s happy to turn his ferry back if finding a parking spot has you running a little late.