Saturday, May 14, 2016

Marvelous Middens of Middleton

 This was a  difficult post. I was just finishing it up  when our beloved little dog Dooley died unexpectedly.  I wasn't sure how to address it in the blog.  I've decided to go ahead and post the remaining chapters of our South Caicos trip including the photos of Dooley.  We know he had a few fans looking forward to his next adventure.  He was a much loved member of our family and will be in our hearts forever. 

The weather was not the Chamber of Commerce's version of perfect when we first arrived at Cockburn Harbour. We had an ongoing threat of squalls  that kept us within a quickly twisted outboard throttle's radius of  Twisted Sheets. We dashed around on a lot on short trips. We made  daily runs into the towns dinghy dock in our rubber ducky dinghy.  Our roofless rubber dinghy.  We started venturing a little bit further afield for brief hikes as the weather cleared. Like our trips to Long Cay. But in general we'd kept within sight of our anchored sailboat.   I think I must be somewhat of a worry wart in these matters.

 Then  for a few days after the front went through the anchorage became like a big swimming pool.  The Turks and Caicos sunshine came back and blessed us with some of the nicest weather we'd seen in a long time. We were ready  to go exploring. We just needed determination, Dooley the Demented, the dingy dinghy, some digital devices and a destination to discover.

We had a wonderful forecast  stretching out for several days. Partly cloudy, warm, no rain, light winds. Typical tropical. We felt  that the boat would be okay left by itself at anchor for a few hours.   The vintage Mercury outboard on the RIB was running well.  Hot dang.

I wonder what you make of this unusual sight.  No, I don't mean the strange little dog looking for fish,  that's not  unusual. Did you see that video of him watching the ray that we uploaded in the prior blog post?  That thing really got his attention.  He did a much better job searching the waters around the skiff after that.

By "unusual"  I meant that island in the background. See the stacks of  white gravelly looking material heaped up in rows there in the mangroves? Getting a close look at these was the order of the day. If we could just navigate through this horrible dirty water..... (what's the Alt-F key for sarcasm?)  That water is over two meters  deep under the boat.  I kept finding myself dodging bottom features I couldn't have hit if I tried.   

This little side trip started when I was looking at Google Earth images of this area.  This is something that I usually do when researching places we want to visit. I also scrutinize every different chart I can find. I look for both Explorer and Wavey Line  data, for those of you who follow these sailboat navigation type things. I do follow them with interest.  Remote bathymetry surveys were once  a big part of my job description.  

Since Explorer and Wavey Line surveyors make different paths through an area,  the two data sets are sometimes complimentary so it can be a good idea to take a look at both.  And Google Earth has become almost mandatory for satellite image.  Here's one showing South Caicos and some of the surrounding features:

We'd gotten a pretty good distant look at Six Hill Cay on the way here on our trip from Providenciales, and we'd already made several trips to Long Cay.   We'd been taking Dooley the Downloader to Dove Cay and to a weedy little path in town twice a day. I'd started thinking  about putting a fire hydrant on a plywood deck on a ring buoy. Would that work, ya think?  

Anyhow, back on track here, Middleton Cay seemed like a good place to start. When I zoomed in on it, the unusual nature of the southern edge of the little uninhabited 12 acre island immediately leapt out at me. There are all of  these boat slip looking features around a cove protected from the northeast. "What the heck!?" thought I. Or the sailing equivalent thereof. They didn't resemble any rock formations we've seen around here, and this was not some abandoned marina with docks. Then we noticed the rocky terrain along the east side.  What an interesting looking little cay. We just had to go take a look for ourselves, of course.  Wouldn't you?

We came in from the lower right hand side of that sat image, looped around the southern edge of Middleton Cay, and then headed up the west side looking for a good place to put the boat while we went ashore.   I put an "X" on the image to show you where we ended up landing the boat.   We walked along the sandy beach to the east until the rocks started.  Then we doubled back and went down the western edge until we came to the strange formations. Of course by that time we knew what these things were. I had done some internet homework on it the night before.

This is the view as we approached Middleton Cay from the southeast.

The weather was so calm we had absolutely no trouble at all motoring right up close to these immense piles of conch shells.

These are called 'shell middens', and they're not all that uncommon in areas where native people have been fishing for generations.  Instead of just another wikipedia link, I actually found a fairly informative one written by an expert. It's worth a read if you're interested in history. These shell piles are actually pre-columbian artifacts.  I love this kind of stuff.

Day after day, year after year, conch fishermen have been stopping off at Middleton Cay to clean their catch before taking the cleaned conch home to South Caicos. In this case, for hundreds of years.  I've read that people have been flinging their conch shells onto these piles since around 1100 AD. That's about the same time the second crusade was being organized in Spain and Germany. The French had just started Chartres cathedral and the streets of Paris were getting their very first cobblestone pavers. The Mongols were just starting to get organized in Asia,  the Maya were ruling in Central America, and here in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the indigenous natives were cleaning conch in these same beautiful waters right here on Middleton Cay. Those conch shells are still here, at the bottom of these very piles. This entire island has been described as an archaeological site.

It was very interesting to us to see how the ancient piles of conch shells are being reintegrated into the earth here. In piles high enough to reach the water surface, mangroves have sprouted.  Their roots have spread out and stabilized the shell mound, and will slowly start trapping what little sediment there is passing by on the current.That sediment  will settle to the bottom around the stabilizing mangroves and start to accumulate.  And so it begins. An island forms.

We went in close enough to see that there is still plenty of room to beach a boat here.  One end would be stabilized by the island while discarded conch shells were flung right and left, or so  I would assume after looking at the evidence.

We could see from that position that there were clearings on the other side of the taller trees.  Openings in a grassy little glade.  We boated around the western edge and up to the northwest point of the island looking for a good place to beach the boat.  A place without sharp pointed shells.   This video was taken as we went up the west side, toward the small point and beach in the distance.  There are some good views of how far  the bases of these middens spread out underwater.

There is a nice little protected beach there around the tip of that point. And  we could leave an inflatable rubber boat in the water here without worrying about Queen Conch's revenge.

The sand here is very fine and  there weren't a lot of shells.  Well, other than the obvious eleventy gazillion conch shells, I meant. I may have just found my next laptop wallpaper photo.

This is the view from the "X" I marked on that satellite image, looking toward the east.  We were interested in what might be under that canopy of vegetation over near the limestone ridge.  And we walked as far in that direction as my feet could handle. Because once again I had hopped into the dinghy without any shoes.  Walking on ancient conch shell fragments will tax even toughened feet. Those shells are  thick and form a layer all along the edges of Middleton Cay.  Even in some of the sand that looked smooth from above, sharp shells lurked just below the surface.

La Gringa had noticed the way the waves and currents were shaping the sand ripples in the shallow water where we landed.  We're constantly being amazed by the water quality here.

The sand ripples were moving even as we watched them.  Slowly, the little patterns were changing shape as the currents coming around both sides of the island converged again at this point.   They were very, very light currents, and on this near windless day we were able to watch this sediment transport process first hand. I think I could have watched it for quite a while, given a beach umbrella, a comfy chair, and a suitably stocked cooler. Might have to try that one of these days.   This would make an awesome time lapse video but we'd need a tripod.

This is the view from where we landed the boat looking south down the west side of the Cay. This is back in the direction we came from when we made that video. It's basically a mix of limestone ledges and conch piles.  We could see some old faded trails going off into the bush.   It didn't look like there had been any recent human activity on the Cay.

I had to wonder about this.   On an island literally covered with heaps of harvested conch shells, this one apparently died a natural death.  There's no hole knocked in the shell.

We did not notice any palm trees on the island, but as is common on all tropical shores coconuts do wash up here from time to time.   This one still had slosh-able liquid inside it.  I'd assume it was still potable.

We walked down that side of the island until we got to the edge of the prominent shell middens.   They start out small at this end.

And there are still scattered piles that break the surface of the water.   This one has some small mangroves just starting to take hold.  And a visiting seagull that we had annoyed by inflicting a small dog into his world momentarily.  He'll get over it.

Here a shell, there a shell, everywhere a conch shell.  Dooley had learned that he was restricted to the beach with us on this trip.  He had gotten a lot better at staying next to us while exploring new places. I think that started one time we left Pine Cay and got all the way back to Provo before discovering that the dog been left behind.  I had to go back and get him.   And he was waiting right there at the spot where we'd left, too.   He knew we'd come back for him.

He might also have been  a bit nervous running around in bushes wearing that life jacket.  And we know exactly when that phobia started. His Go-Pro Dog Cam got him caught up in the bushes on West Caicos one time. Took us quite a while to find him. All pitiful looking and forlorn, tied to a buttonwood by his pursuit of art.

I asked La Gringa to stand by one of the shell heaps to give you an idea of scale. The ones over in the middle of the cove are about twice this high.

We wanted to see if we could find any signs of old habitation or occupation here.  One of the articles I read about this place conjured that it was used for special ceremonies and as a retreat.  It's conceivable.  There have been ancient pottery pieces and other signs of early inhabitants found here. This wasn't exactly my idea of a smooth trail, but I thought I could see a small natural spot to sit around a fire in the distance.

My over-active imagination takes over sometimes. I can easily imagine the bare feet of Taino fishermen walking these same trails, almost 2,000 years ago.  I'm also guessing their feet were tougher than mine.

This is the area I saw that I thought might bear looking into a little. It's a line of small limestone boulders  facing a  flat grassy  area. These are just big enough to provide nice seating, should someone want to use it as such.   And I'm not claiming that anyone ever has.  My imagination might make that claim, but I never would.

Here's a telephoto view of the limestone ridge that runs down the eastern edge of Middleton Cay.  Of course I wanted to go investigate this natural shelter.  Of course I could imagine some overgrown cave entrance or other place to camp there in the lee of the prevailing winds and storms.  Of course I left my shoes on the sailboat.

Maybe next time.

This is a view of Six Hill Cay off in the distance. We traveled between here and Six Hill Cay on the way into South Caicos, and we'll be passing it again on the way back to Provo when we go.  The route is off in the deeper blue water on the far side of that obvious shallow sand bar.  Must have been fun being a boy with a canoe around here a few centuries ago. Heck, probably fun even now.  Lots of places to explore within sight.

We'd seen enough to answer most of our questions about Middleton Cay by now. We did want to make one more stop before turning back toward the anchorage and Twisted Sheets.   If you look way back up at the first satellite image of the area, there is a small spot that the charts label as Conch Cay.  It was only slightly to the south of us, so we headed over to see what that was about.  You might be able to make out Conch Cay in the exact center of this photo.   The land mass to the left is the southern end of Long Cay.   Conch Cay is the light sandy patch in the middle.

I think we were hoping for a more stereotypical tropical island, but what we got was, well, Conch Cay.  It could be described as a sandbar almost completely surrounded by discarded conch shells.

It would sound better if we called it a sandy desert isle, with its own small tropical lagoon....I suppose.  

At this point we were ready to head back to the house, and we really didn't see any big reasons to go ashore on Conch Cay.  So we turned the little dinghy back toward the Harbour while we still had time for another shore run to the grocery store and to order a couple of cracked conch dinners to go from the Sun Set Bar & Grill.   From there it was just a quick run back out to Twisted Sheets at anchor.

It sure is great to get home at the end of a busy day. This old boat might seem to be somewhat of an unconventional house by some standards, but for now  it's home to us.


kristine barr said...

So sorry to hear about Dooley. Hopefully he is enjoying rmunnungbwith pals at the Rainbow Bridge.

sr said...

I read your blog for many reasons ..... Dooley was the main attraction for me!!

My heart is heavy to learn of his passing. He will be missed by many!!

Anonymous said...

We are so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing him with your readers.

Wilma said...

Dooley surely lived a fine and exciting life. My condolences on his death; you must miss him terribly. Our 17 yr old cat died in February, leaving a large hole in our lives and hearts. We were happy, though, that she enjoyed her last 3 years here in southern Belize with us. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the condolences. Dooley's death really affected us, but it's been a week now and the shock is starting to wear off. He was actually having a very good day up until the minute he keeled over. He didn't suffer at all. I guess he'd say he went out while he was on top.

And he was buried at sea, outside the reef at Pine Cay where he spent so many happy days just being an island dog in the sun. We'll miss him.

ThePirateDoc said...

So sorry you lost your four-legged fur-friend, canine companion, and co-explorer ... you gave him an incredible life any dog would envy! Hell, you gave him a life most of your readers envy, for that matter. Thanks for sharing all his adventures. There will never be another Dooley, but maybe there will be another critter companion for you two in the future ... I'm glad he died doing what he loved - investigating and ensuring all was safe for his humans!

Unknown said...

So sorry about Dooley. My chihuahua/dachshund mixed died the same way; no symptoms whatsoever. He just keeled over. Vet assumed it was a heart attack.

While it's certainly no fun to deal with an aging, sick pet; it's very shocking when they just die suddenly with no warning, too.

But he had a great life! I envy him, in fact! So many adventures on land and sea.

Now, he can bite ALL of the fish that he could never catch.

As an aside; would you consider writing a children's book about Dooley and his adventures? Perhaps a series of books?

Obviously, you are a decent writer and I'm sure children, who have not been your target readership in the past, would very much enjoy watching Dooley 'fishing', boating, hiking, investigating holes and caves (in Colorado too), et al.

My condolences.

Anonymous said...

So sorry for your loss. Love to read about your adventures in the islands and especially loved to hear about Dooley. He will be missed!

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to the both of you. I have read every post but I don't remember reading exactly how Dooley became a part of your family. Would love to see some baby pictures if you feel like sharing.

Anonymous said...

We do have some early photos of him. He was two months old when we got him, and already quite a little handful of puppy. He started out by chewing up my favorite shoes, my best University of Texas ball cap, and underwear. He was raised with a cranky old cat for his first year, and the two of them were hilarious to watch.

I had planned to go through all the early blog posts with busted photo links this summer, and to fix all of those. I think it will be like having a bunch of new posts of our life here a decade ago. I'll make a special effort to include a few extras of Dooley in his younger days.

Anonymous said...

Dooley was a very good friend for my family and me also from the other part of the in peace!

Anonymous said...

We are SO sorry to hear about sweet Dooley’s passing! You two gave him such a great life, full of adventures -- which you so graciously (and creatively!) shared with all of us who read your blog. His mischief will be missed!

Paul from CT said...

I've read your blog from beginning to end and as someone who has visited Provo a few times loves your view of things. Dooley was a treat to read about and am sure he is watching down smiling and reminiscing about the great life you two provided for him!

Unknown said...

So sorry to learn about Dooley's passing.

Teresa said...

That Dooley was a mess!! Thank you for sharing him with us. I am so sad to hear he is gone. So sad for you two. I'm glad he didn't suffer. You have a good journal of your adventures and he will always be remembered.

Reynolds said...

So sorry to hear about Dooley, a true rock star. We loved reading about him and he'll always be remembered.

dmmbruce said...

Best wishes to both of you. remotely we all share your loss.

Mike Bruce

Anonymous said...

Thank you all so much for the kind thoughts about our little dog. Dooley was very much a member of our family, and will always be greatly missed. We're glad for the 13 years that we were fortunate enough to have the little booger sharing lives with us. We have to remind ourselves that pets do come with an expiration date, and not to let that eventual sadness color all the great times we had. We had a lot of fun with Dooley, and he had a lot of fun with us. Lately I've been remembering a quote by Theodore Geisel ( aka "Dr. Seuss"):
"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."

Pete Albrecht said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Dooley. I actually owed him a debt of gratitude. I always wanted a dog, but my wife did not. Then, we discovered your blog and we both fell hard for Dooley. She turned to me and said, "let's get a dog." I struck while the iron was hot and we got a dog that day. That is how Butkus, our beagle, came into our lives. That was almost 8 years ago.

Rest in peace Dooley.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us that, Pete. You made our whole day. We had just been out at the house meeting with a property management company to see if we can rent the place, since it hasn't sold. Of course everywhere I looked there was a little Dooley sized empty spot. It was really nice to learn that his exploits made life a little better for another dog.

We are not ruling out getting another one ourselves, but it would have to be a different breed and not any time in the near future. Once you get used to living with a dog, life without one seems a little too empty. Make the most of your good times with Butkus. They are only with us for a short while in the grand scheme of things.

Heather said...

Oh my goodness, I didn't expect to tear up reading this but here I am at my desk, drying my eyes. (Sheila's comment - Now, he can bite ALL of the fish that he could never catch - pushed me over the edge.....)

As the owner of a 21 yo Siamese, who will never be rivaled, I understand the grief of losing a pet with such a large personality.

We saw the three of you during our last trip to Provo and I pointed out Dooley to my son, who was beyond confused as to how I could know the name of a dog in another country.

Are you familiar with Peter Muilenburg? His writings about his Schipperke Santos remind me of your posts about Dooley-

Unknown said...

I am just finishing a two and a half week reading of the entire blog. Just wanted to say thank you for all the fun, photos, hobbies, DIY, cameras, computers, broken machinery and boats, boats, boats! But especially Dooley who was a perfect centerpiece for all of your stories. I have my own dreams of living life as an expat on an island (very interested in Eleuthera, Exuma, Long Island and Abaco).

Since you have been diligent and kept the blog up for so many years, I do hope you will continue. The two,of you and Dooley have launched many dreams and probably caused others to take more concrete shape than the readers originally envisioned.

Keep the posts coming as you start this more mobile period in your lives. And more DIY! After living on saltwater in Florida for 22 years I know corrosion and broken boats (though yours is 20 times more aggressive than mine) I enjoy the "hard truths" of living and repairing things in beautiful places.

Again, thank you very much and greatest condolences on Dooley.