Nature nurtures a bikeway alongside the bay
From Providence to Bristol, with stops for fishing or birding, for a carousel or a cone A trip along Narragansett Bay that, when you finish, only makes you want to start again
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Signage on the 14 1/2-mile path between Providence and Bristol, R.I., couldn't be clearer. Bicyclists are to ride on the right. Pedestrians should ''walk on left facing bicycles." Nonetheless, bunnies and chipmunks break the rules as they scamper across the 10-foot-wide paved path, blithely ignoring the lane stripe.
Approved in 1983 to link the villages of the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay along an idle railroad right of way, the East Bay Bike Path wasn't completed until 1992. In the years since, the corridor along the path has slowly reverted to a near-natural state.
Possibly the toughest part of biking East Bay was negotiating the half mile of light traffic on Warren Avenue between East Providence Cycle (where we rented light and springy hybrids with suspension seats) and the north end of the path at India Point Park. Once we were on the bikeway, we were rolling. The ride offers some of the pleasures of backroad bicycle touring minus the worries of motor vehicle traffic. A few modest hills and banked turns belie its origin as a rails-to-trails project, while the straightaways tunnel through the wild interstice between suburbia and the sea. Even the 47 street crossings are a breeze, since most streets are country lanes or cul-de-sac driveways.
While we doubt that the East Bay Bike Path has done much to ease the commuter auto traffic in downtown Providence, we did observe at least one man pull his SUV into a free East Providence parking lot adjacent to the path, take a bike off the trunk rack, and pedal toward the city in his suit. Even during the workweek, though, East Bay is more a recreational corridor than an alternate route for commuters. Moms push babies in jogging strollers while older children pedal along, fortysomethings practice ski-skating, Lance Armstrong admirers huff and puff in moisture-wicking jerseys and Lycra bicycle pants, joggers pant, and distance runners train with long, easy strides.
Even with its occasional inclines, going the distance of East Bay takes little more than an hour. Markers on the pavement every half mile make it easy to keep tabs on your progress. There's too much to see along the way to be in a rush.
The route makes for some striking juxtapositions. As the northern end of the path crosses causeways over small estuaries, the frankly industrial scene of tankers and barges in Providence Harbor is visible on one side, while a wildlife idyll of preening swans, skimming swallows, and splash-fishing terns plays out on the other. Slightly farther south, manicured lawns border the path on the inland side, while egrets stalk the tidal shallows on the other.
Detours are sometimes in order. Just south of the village of Riverside, a quick ride up Crescent View Avenue leads to the classic Charles I.D. Looff Carousel, the only real reminder that Crescent Park was once a full-fledged amusement park with more than two dozen rides.
One person who remembers those days is Ed Serowik Sr., who began working on the carousel 55 years ago.
''I worked here when Helen Looff, the daughter of the founder, was running the park," he said. ''I started out as the ring boy on the carousel when I was 14 years old. Now retired from the school system, Serowik comes in daily to ''tinker with it, check everything out."
The 1895 carousel was built as the Looff company's sales model, sort of a rotating showroom of the range of carved animals. Its appeal hasn't diminished over the decades, even for adults.
''When they step over the threshold," Serowik said, ''it's like stepping back in time. Nothing has changed here. They're kids again."
The bike path has more than a bit of that Huck Finn appeal along its length. On the two long bridges that cross the Barrington and Warren rivers, anglers use the path as an access point to fish for striped bass. When we passed a man who identified himself as ''Jim the fisherman" in the morning, he was philosophical about his chances.
''I caught seven stripers so far but I threw them all back," he said. ''Too small. But when the little ones come in, the big ones will follow."
Jim was hardly alone, though we saw more avian than human fishermen: egrets, herons, and, near the swamplands just north of Bristol, belted kingfishers scooping minnows at the edge of the trail network maintained by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. The bike path passes right through the Claire D. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge, where the society's Environmental Education Center is.
''We get a lot of drop-ins from the bike path during the summer, fewer during the spring and fall," said Anne DiMonti, the education director. ''It's a beautiful path, isn't it? We're very fortunate in this part of the state. The path is almost like a nature reserve itself."
Bicycles are not permitted on the trails of the society's 28-acre refuge, but a secure metal rack is provided for locking them up. Meadow paths traverse thickets of wildflowers, while a boardwalk provides great vantages on bullfrog-infested swamp and tall marsh grass swaying under the weight of red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, and marsh wrens.
Not all the path is quite so nature-oriented. Like the railroad it replaced, the bike path runs right through the salty villages of Narragansett Bay's eastern shoreline. We stopped for fruit at the supermarket in Barrington, and perused the antiques in Warren before getting a pick-me-up at Del's Lemonade (where the bike path crosses Child Street). A bike rack sits at the edge of the pavement at the Topside Lounge & Restaurant in Bristol, where lunch at an outdoor table with a view of the harbor is a key bike path experience.
We also confess to pulling over just north of the former train depot in Riverside for a cone of soft serve at the Dari Bee Ice Cream.
Maybe the greatest pleasure of all is reaching the end at Independence Park in Bristol, turning around, and pedaling the path in the opposite direction. Jim was still on the Barrington bridge at the end of the day as we rode back toward Providence, and he was just as upbeat.
''Got some keepers but I let 'em go," he said. ''Now that the tide's running in, I'm holding out for one really big fish."
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers based in Cambridge.