Maritime Explorations – USS Nautilus Submarine, Charles W. Morgan Whaling Ship, and Mystic Seaport

Pat really likes boats. Not as much as he likes blimps…which is a story for another time. But his inner child gets really excited about boats.

(Truthfully, mine does too.)

So I planned a nautical-themed day for us on the Connecticut coast. And I have to admit, I very much enjoyed it as well.

Stop #1 was the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Something I never realized is that much of the history of submarines – particularly nuclear-powered ones – centers around Connecticut.

The USS Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine ever built, and she was built here in Connecticut. Using nuclear power provides many advantages over conventionally-powered submarines, of which I’ll spare you the details. Mostly because I don’t really understand them.

But because she is nuclear powered, the USS Nautilus is capable of staying underwater for very long periods of time and broke many submarine-related records when first launched (longest distance traveled, highest speed, etc.). She was also the first submarine to cross over (under?) the North Pole.

Today, the USS Nautilus has been renovated and restored and is parked on the Thames River in Groton (stupid though it may sound, here in Connecticut “Thames” is pronounced “thaymes” not “tems”).

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USS Nautilus in the Thames River – Groton, CT

A portion of the submarine is open for (free!) self-guided tours, and a very thorough museum (also free!) taught me more than I thought there was to know about submarines. It was fascinating!

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Replica of the control room at the USS Nautilus Museum – Groton, CT
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Pat had a little bit too much fun pretending to man the submarine – USS Nautilus Museum, Groton, CT
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On board the USS Nautilus – Groton, CT
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Submarine dining room – USS Nautilus Museum, Groton, CT

Stop #2 was at a very different kind of ship. The Charles W. Morgan is a whaling ship built in 1841. It’s a wooden ship and the US’s second-oldest ship still afloat (only the USS Constitution is older). For 80 years, the Charles W. Morgan went on voyages and remarkably remained intact despite various encounters with stormy seas and icebergs. Her primary job was harvesting of whale blubber and whale oil for use in oil lamps.

To celebrate her resilience, she was retired, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and, more recently, underwent some hefty restorations in order to make her seaworthy once again. She now resides at Mystic Seaport but occasionally takes voyages along the New England coast. When we saw her, she was docked in New London, Connecticut, on a three-month journey from Mystic up to Maine and back.

While in New London, she was open for free self-guided tours, so we spent about half an hour exploring the deck and below deck areas of the ship.

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Charles W. Morgan Whaling Ship – New London, CT

It’s amazing to me that wooden boats such as these were ever able to successfully return from a voyage, much less 80 years’ worth of voyages. It’s really very remarkable.

On a somewhat related topic, why are boats always female?

Anyway, our final stop of the day was The Museum of America and the Sea, otherwise known as Mystic Seaport. This is the largest maritime museum in the United States. Inspired by Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is a living history museum portraying life of early American colonists, Mystic Seaport depicts 1800s maritime life.

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Mystic River at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT

There are over 60 original buildings that have been restored and are now brought to life by those practicing the trades of the times. Mystic Seaport is also home to many historic boats and ships as well as a shipyard.

We saw a blacksmith, a cooper (barrel maker), a haberdasher (one who sells garments and items for sewing), and some people working in the shipyard, to name a few.

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Historic boat, dock, and buildings at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT
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A row of historic shops line the waterfront at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT
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Shipyard at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT

It always amazes me, the amount of skill required for life back in the day. Barrel making is a very careful process, and one which I’d never given much thought to. But it’s important to use the optimal type of wood for the purpose of the barrel (for example, one that won’t impart an odor upon food), and to seal everything together extremely tightly to avoid leaks.

Blacksmithing also really impresses me, and I think it’s cool that there are still a few people who are well versed in the trade. It was amazing to watch the blacksmith make such detailed and finely-tuned metal items all with the use of hot coals and large tools.

I’m neither coordinated nor patient enough for such a thing.

Anyway, this wrapped up our maritime-themed day. But before heading home, we drove up the road to Mystic Pizza. It’s not the actual restaurant that its namesake movie was filmed at. But it was the inspiration for the film and, after the film’s release, was renovated to resemble the restaurant used on the movie set.

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After a delicious and somewhat unusual barbecue chicken pizza, we headed home full of pizza and nautical knowledge, and with a new appreciation for the challenges of maritime life in the 1800s.

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Exploring Connecticut’s State Parks (part II)

I’ve definitely complained to you guys before about how miserable and dark and cold winters are in Connecticut. And sometimes, winter just holds on for so long and won’t go away. But sometimes, spring breaks through a bit earlier, gracing us with sunshine and warmer weather. This was the case in the spring of 2014, which paved the way for many weekend adventures.

I’ve written a previous post on Connecticut’s State Parks, and there will be a couple more coming up. Most of these parks aren’t very large so it seems to make the most sense to group a few together here.

So I present to you part 2 of what has now become my Connecticut State Parks series:

1. Wadsworth Falls State Park – Middlefield, CT
Clarence C. Wadsworth was a linguist and scholar who lived in Middletown, CT for many years and was instrumental in the preservation of Wadsworth Falls. Big Wadsworth Falls is located on the Coginchaug River that winds through the edge of the park, while Little Wadsworth Falls is on Wadsworth Brook, just upstream of its merging with the Coginchaug River. The entire area, as well as some of the surrounding forest, is now preserved. Continue reading

A City of Firsts – Plymouth, Massachusetts

Fall semester of 2013 was a busy one, so aside from my Providence getaway I didn’t do much traveling. Once the holiday break arrived, I still had to stick around for a few days to take care of some things before heading home to Montana. However, not having classes or homework meant I had more free time than usual.

It was a few days before Christmas and things were pretty quiet, leaving me with an urge to explore. So I assembled a haphazard group of those who were still on campus (one roommate, one classmate, and his friend) and the four of us planned a last minute day trip to Plymouth, MA.

Plymouth is well-known as the landing site of the Mayflower (though they actually landed on Cape Cod first but opted not to settle there) and therefore the location of the first settlement established by the Pilgrims upon their arrival in the New World. It’s the oldest town in New England and one of the oldest in North America. It’s therefore the site of many “firsts,” including the first Thanksgiving, the first street, the first church, and the first Pilgrim burial ground, among others.

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Burial Hill – Plymouth, MA
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Burial Hill (the first cemetery) – Plymouth, MA
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Site of the first fort – Plymouth, MA
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The first street in America (and that’s the first church at the end of it) – Plymouth, MA

It’s also the site of the famous Plymouth Rock. For those of you who have longed to see Plymouth Rock, I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for you:

It’s not exciting.

I was expecting to see waves crashing against a giant boulder right on the coast of Cape Cod Bay.

What I wasn’t expecting (but what I actually saw) was a fairly small rock enclosed in a pavilion with the date 1620 etched into it.

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Plymouth Rock – Plymouth, MA

Underwhelming, you say? Yes, yes it was. I was pretty disappointed. There’s not even any proof that the Pilgrims ever stepped on Plymouth Rock.

The rest of Plymouth, however, was very enjoyable. Snow doesn’t tend to arrive in southern New England until January, so though it was a bit chilly, we had a great time walking around and exploring the town. Some of the attractions were closed (such as the Mayflower replica, thought we could see it through the fence), but the result was that there were very few tourists. The town was fairly empty so we had most of the attractions to ourselves.

I have to admit, after seeing how small the Mayflower is, I’m amazed that it made it across the Atlantic!

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Replica of the Mayflower – Plymouth, MA
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Waterfront – Plymouth, MA
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Cape Cod Bay – Plymouth, MA

We wandered the streets, seeking out all the historical sites and walking out along the waterfront. We ate lunch at a quaint little restaurant overlooking the water, and very much enjoyed our little getaway.

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View from the restaurant – Plymouth, MA

One thing I’ve enjoyed about my time spent in New England is all of the history. Montana has Native American history, but we don’t have the giant, beautiful 300-year old churches and old houses, and all of the history of colonization and the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

I always learn so much from visits to historical places, and Plymouth is a charming little historical town that is definitely worth a visit!

That time I drove all the way to Providence for dinner

Well, I guess the title of this post kind of gives everything away. But yes, I did once drive over an hour to Providence, Rhode Island just to go to dinner.

Why, you ask?

Well, my aunt and uncle were passing through Connecticut and booked a hotel in the area so they could spend a couple days with me. It was the middle of the week, so I had to be on campus for part of the day – but that was okay because they were able to spend time exploring Boston, and we could then meet at the halfway point in Providence and have a giant, delicious dinner at a restaurant that I’d visited once before: Fire + Ice.

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Inside Fire + Ice – Providence, RI

If you’ve never been to Fire + Ice, you should remedy that. I think of it as buffet meets Mongolian-style cooking. In other words, they have an enormous range of food options, and you load up your plate with the raw foods and take them to the center where they cook it up for you on a giant hot plate.

The food choices are many: salad, soups, fruit, many varieties of noodles, all types of veggies, meat, and sauces. You can basically make anything you want. On weekends, they have a brunch buffet that also includes pancakes and omelets made with whatever additions you choose. They also have an ice cream bar. It’s delicious and I always leave feeling like I won’t need to each for the rest of the day. Sometimes I actually don’t.

After stuffing ourselves full of food, we decided to walk some of it off by walking around downtown Providence a bit to see the city. I’ve been to Providence a couple other times as well, so the photos below are from a combination of these three trips.

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Woonasquatucket River – Providence, RI
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The Wall of Hope – these tiles were designed by school children in memory of 9/11, and are now displayed on the walkway along the Providence River in the center of the city
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Waterplace Park – Providence, RI
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Fall colors in Providence, RI
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Rhode Island State Capitol Building – Providence, RI
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Rhode Island Capitol Building and Waterplace Park – Providence, RI
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Fall colors on Capitol Hill – Providence, RI
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Looking out over the downtown area from Capitol Hill – Providence, RI
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Brown University – Providence, RI

I like Providence. Like all cities, it has its areas that aren’t so nice. But it also has a lot of nice areas, and the Providence River runs through the center of the city, making for some nice scenery. I’ve always enjoyed it. You can park at the Providence Place Mall for 5 hours for just $2 and on-street parking is free after 6pm, so it’s also a fairly cheap place to visit.

Plus, I will always remember Providence as the place where Pat and I got to see Brian Regan perform live!

(If you aren’t familiar with Brian Regan, you should remedy that also – click here or here for two of his best skits)

Moral of the story: I enjoy visiting Providence, Fire + Ice has a delicious brunch, and Brian Regan is hilarious!

The Seaboard – Acadia National Park, Maine (part II)

When I left off last week, my family and I had just crossed the sandbar back to Mount Desert Island from Bar Island. This was a fairly leisurely walk, and served as a nice warm-up for our next hike: The Beehive.

The Beehive trail climbs 520 feet in 0.8 miles to the top of this rock monolith that rises above Sand Beach. In my mind, this is one of the must-do hikes at Acadia (a second hike – up the Precipice trail – is apparently similarly spectacular but is often closed to protect the nesting peregrine falcons).

That being said, this is not a hike for those with a fear of heights. My sister was less than thrilled with the steep exposures and ladder climbing that we had to navigate on our way to the top. I, on the other hand, loved it! Continue reading

Mount Desert Island – Acadia National Park, Maine (part I)

After a wonderful week exploring maritime Canada, we crossed back into our home country for the final few days of our vacation. Our destination – Acadia National Park, located on the east central coast of Maine. This relatively small park has three disconnected sections: Isle au Haut, the Schoodic Peninsula, and Mount Desert Island. Mount Desert Island is the largest, most developed, and by far the most popular section of the park. This is where we went.

We only had 2 days to spend in Acadia, and I can say with certainty that this was not enough. Not even close. Acadia is beautiful, and it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to plan multiple additional vacations to Maine.

(This was 4 years ago. Currently, the vacations are planned but have yet to be executed. Oops.)

Anyway, after a 5-hour drive from New Brunswick, we entered Mount Desert Island from the north, which is the only way to reach the island by car. A long bridge connects the mainland to the tiny Thompson Island (home to a visitor information center) and then Mount Desert Island.   Continue reading

Exploring Connecticut’s State Parks

My first summer in CT, I learned an important lesson: grad students don’t really get a summer. Sure, we aren’t taking classes…but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Science doesn’t do itself.

Fortunately, I was still very early on in my grad school career so I did at least manage to have some free time most weekends. And my advisor gave us each a couple weeks of vacation time.

With weekend sunshine and my family 2,300 miles away, I assembled a new hiking crew: the fellow grad students in my lab. Over the course of the summer, we visited quite a few local state parks. Here is a little bit of information about each one.

1. Devil’s Hopyard State Park – East Haddam, CT
This park has a somewhat ominous name that perhaps paints a misleading picture. In reality, the main attraction here is Chapman Falls, located on the Eightmile River. The falls used to power an old mill, and a former landowner used to grow hops in the area, hence the hopyard part of the name. There are multiple theories as to the origin of the devil portion of the name.

Chapman Falls tumbles about 60 feet and can be seen with just a short hike. We continued on the orange-blazed trail out to Vista Point Cliff for some views. Continue reading