The case of the stolen red canoe


It was our last full day of a family vacation on Pilgrim Lake, a small glacial kettle pond, in Orleans, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  We got up early since we had scheduled a nature explore on a pontoon boat with the MA Audubon Society.  The kids, Eli and Viv, were excited —  a boat ride and discovering shore life.  We left the house at 9:30.  The 2 hour ride was delightful; we saw some shore birds — terns, egrets, laughing and black-backed gulls, cormorants — we pulled up traps, no lobsters but crabs and a baby flounder.  Captain David, a classic Orleans salt, dropped us off on a tidal flat for an ocean explore — horseshoe crabs (a species that lived with the dinosaurs), green crabs, various clams, moon snails.  The kids gathered around our young guide to see, touch and learn about the creatures.

About 12:30 we got back to the house.  I went out on the back deck and gazed at the pond.  I blinked, our rental canoe which had been tied up to the dock, resting in the grasses,  was gone.  I ran down to the dock and, yes, no canoe.  The rope that had been tied to the bow of the boat was crudely coiled on the dock.  I scanned the lake, no sign of the canoe.  I had used the canoe the previous night.  At 5 o’clock, the wind was strong and I felt lucky getting back to the house.  But about 7 o’ clock, the lake was a a smooth sheet of glass.  A beautiful time to canoe.  A few teenage kids in the house next door were out on paddle boards.  A bit rowdy, but a  parent sat on the shore attempting to limit their antics. I canoed around the entire lake.

I know that I tied the boat to the dock when I returned.  In fact it lay behind the dock in just several inches of   water.  Even if  wasn’t tied, I doubt that it could drift away.  But it was gone.  And strangely whoever took it, left behind my rope — about six feet of 1/2 inch nylon rope.   How strange?  Was it a slap in the face, here’s your rope?

We considered several possibilities.  Someone in a boat — possible kids — took the canoe.  Was it a joy ride?  Was our canoe abandoned somewhere on the lake?  Unfortunately we had no way to fully check that hypothesis.  Did they have a car parked at the small beach across the lake from us — loading the canoe on their car?  Or maybe they were regular canoe thieves who drove up to the house, seeing no one home, loaded the canoe, life preservers and paddles on their car and then gone?  These were all possibilities.  But why had they left my rope coiled on the dock?

I called the local constabulary and outlined the situation.  My daughter, Jenny, drove to the sandy beach across the lake to see if there were any witnesses.  Officer Higgins arrived at the house on a motorcycle in about 20 minutes.  He pulled out a notepad, wrote down name, address, telephone, hours we were gone, details about the size and color of the canoe (12 feet, red).  We never noticed the brand; nor did we see the name of our rental provider, Goose Hummock, on the canoe.  I assured Higgins that the  canoe had been tied up and that it was there at 9:30 when we left for our boat trip.  I explained that the thief had left our rope coiled on the dock.  He didn’t even walk to the dock.  “Usually turn up in Town Cove,” he said.  I asked about a police report and he informed me it would be ready in several days.  Before Higgins left, Jenny returned.  No one on the beach had seen anyone load a canoe on a car or noticed any unusual activity at our dock.  Some people had been at the beach since 9 a.m.

I had read in the local paper that the English detective, Sherlock Holmes, was visiting Orleans.  He was staying at the Nauset Beach Lodge outside of town.  Could I call Holmes?  Well, it was worth a try.  For many years, I have been a Sherlock Holmes follower.  Maybe this was my chance to meet the great detective and even witness him solve the mystery of our stolen red canoe.  I looked up the number of the Nauset Beach Lodge on the Internet and dialed.  The voice at the other end of the line initially claimed that Mr.  Sherlock Holmes could not be disturbed.  I lied and said that I was Doctor Watson, a close friend and chronicler of Holmes’s many criminal investigation.  If he did not transfer me to Holmes; he would pay the piper.  I never quite understood what that meant but it worked.

Holmes said that he was resting in Cape Cod after a severe bout of depression and addiction to a 7 % solution. But he said a good mystery always helped him engage his mind and overcome these  dreadful conditions. He would visit us at Pilgrim Lake.  Holmes arrived in a 1950s dark gray studerbaker.  His dress didn’t conform to the usual Cape Cod attire — stripped woolen pants, a checkered cape and deerstalker hat.  We retired to the back deck overlooking the lake.  “Now tell me what happened,” Holmes began.  He drew from the cape a pipe and pouch of tobacco.  As I began the narrative which is recorded above, Holmes packed and lit his meerschaum pipe.  I told my story.

Holmes questioned, “Now let me be clear.  You rented the canoe from Goose Hummock on Sunday, for a week.  The following Saturday, you called Goose Hummock and asked to extend the rental.”  I responded that this was correct.  We had planned to return the canoe later today (Friday) or early tomorrow morning before the two week due date this Sunday.  “And,” said Holmes, “Let me be clear, you used the canoe last night, about 5 o’clock in strong wind and later when the lake was like a sheet of glass.”  “Yes,” I said, “It was  a beautiful evening on the water.”  Holmes continued, “You tied up the canoe, saw it this morning before you left the house.”  I assured Holmes that he had all the facts.  “And most important,” said Holmes, whoever took your canoe left your rope coiled on the dock.”  “Yes, yes,” I said.

Holmes drew on his pipe. “I think I can explain what happened?”  He asked for a pen and paper and my I-Pad (I never imagined Sherlock Holmes using an I-Pad).  “Call this number” he said a few minutes later, ” and you will find out who took your canoe.”  “Holmes, you are  amazing” I said.  He smiled and took another draw on his meersham.  “Not at all, just look at the facts. If my friend Doctor John Watson recorded this case, he would probably title it “The case of the Coiled Rope” instead of “The Case of the Stolen Red Canoe.”  I was a bit confused but I called the number, 508-255-0455.

Do you know who took our canoe?  Do you know whose number I called?  And of course, how did Holmes solve the mystery?



Exploring New England: the early years

imageMy first time in New England was a trip to the Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA.  My guide was Father Henry Brown, a teacher at Holy Ghost.  It was probably 1964, my Junior year. I remember stopping to ask a young girl directions and I heard the NE, Kennedy accent live for the first time.  We weren’t in Philadelphia or Kansas.  We stopped at the Red Barn in Milford, CT for dinner.  A extremely nice restaurant from my perspective; it’s still in business today. On the way home we stopped in the Silvermine Tavern in Norwalk, CT which only recently closed.  I don’t remember a lot about Spencer.  I stayed in a retreat house; Brown in the monk’s quarters.  He said a mass in a small chapel and we listened to some prayers and singing.    I recall monks silently going about their business, some working in the fields, the one who ran the retreat did speak to us. Recently the Spencer Trappists began brewing beer.  I was given a few bottles; a future trip with my craft beer friend, John Pag.

My next New England trip was in September 1965.  I was going to Boston College.  My parents drove me to Boston and we unloaded at a private house in Newtown Center, several miles from campus.  Seven of us occupied five bedrooms on a second floor.  With  the college enrollment explosion in the 1960s, BCs expansion to a national (not just Irish Boston) campus, housing was limited.  Many things happened in the next four years, my New England, Boston experience.  I graduated with a degree in English, married Diane, worked in a leather bindery, discovered Cape Cod and some MA small towns — Concord, Salem, Marblehead.  I didn’t ski (lack of money, maybe) which was one of the reasons I wanted to go to college in NE.


I recall several early trips to Cape Cod.  My roommates (after the Newton Center housing, some of us rented an apartment), and I went to the Cape in early September.  A year later, Diane had a friend with a Cape house and we (and a lot of others) visited for a weekend.  The next Cape trip was Easter Sunday in my Junior or Senior year.  We were married and decided to visit the National Seashore dunes.  We spent hours rolling down the dunes; walking the surf.  Late afternoon we returned to our car (a vintage, gray British Sunbeam); no keys.  No cellphones either.  I guess we found a pay phone and somehow got in touch with the local fire department.  Fortunately the Sunbeam was a simple car; the fireman crossed some wires and we were off to Boston.

Diane was very familiar with Cape Cod.  A favorite family vacation destination.  We met her parents and brother there one year.  I don’t remember where we stayed or where we ate.  I do remember Mr. Smith getting a kite from the car and flying the kite in the ocean breeze.  How neat.  Something my father wouldn’t have ever done.  (Footnote, my parents did honeymoon on Cape Cod and Nantucket; probably the longest drive my father ever made.)


Diane and I loved Boston and thought maybe we would live there but I was a hometown boy and after our Peace Corps experience, settled in Bucks County.  In the early 1970s, we took several camping trips to New England, definately New Hampshire. Franconia Notch State Park sticks in my mind.  One evening, Diane was cooking dinner and I began a walk up a trail — up and up and I came out in 30 minutes on a rock cliff — above tree line.  I was blown away.  On the same trip, I took a glider ride and the pilot buzzed the rock outcrop where I stood.

A unique New England adventure was a trip to visit Helen and Scott Nearning.  We were living, “back to the earth” style in New Hope with the Paglione’s.  We read the Nearing’s “Living the Good Life” and “The Maple Sugar Book.”  I wrote them; could we visit.  Response: “Why not.”  My father joined us.  Bill Lynn of Bristol had small structure that he dragged to ME on a trailer.  We got the address and stayed a night. Then the drive to the coast,  Harborside on the  Blue Hill Peninsula. Scott Nearing was a Penn Economics professor blacklisted due to his socialist views in the 1930s.  He and Helen moved to Vermont to live the “good life.”  When the ski industry took over VT in the 1970s, the Nearing’s sold and moved to Maine.  (My father commented that in the 30s they bought from people devestated by the depression; and in the 60s sold to the ultra rich — “living the good life.”)

Our trip was memorable, Scott and Helen had become gurus of the drop out, back to the earth movement.  The day we visited, a variety of other people showed up.  They ate a vegetarian lunch, talked gardening and sustainability. Helen was a bit aloof, Scott (about 90) was very friendly.  We drove down to a beach and collected seaweed for fertilizer; stacked saplings for firewood (warmth from the stacking as well as the burning), and toured a new house under construction (some visitors helped with construction.)  Scott was a fountain of wisdom, “Pay as you go.”  No credit.  Although they had a large garden (blueberries a cash lcrop), there were no animals, they tie you to the land.myself to him,

Scott Suggested we visit Elliot Coleman, a young organic gardener on a adjacent property, Four Seasons Farm.  We stopped and were intoduced to raised bed organic farming.  About seven years ago, Diane and I returned to the Blue Hill peninsula.  Rob and the Cabin Dogs were playing at a festival.  We realized this was the Nearing-Coleman peninsula.  The Nearing property is now “The Good Life Center” but amazingly Eliot is still farming, in fact if NPR is looking for an organic farmer  to interview, its  frequently Elliot Coleman.  I annoyed  Diane a bit when I went up and introduced myself to him, “Met you back in the early 70s.”  I don’t think he was impressed.


In 1974, Diane and I spent a summer in Bethel, ME with Garret and Melody Bonnema.  Melody was a college, “Pratt” friend of Barbara Paglione.  She was a potter and lured her husband, a math teacher, into the craft.  They left Bristol and moved to Maine.  Bethel is located on the edge of the Maine White Mountains.   Bonnema’s had a large in town house.  Diane helped with throwing pots; I did some carpentry in the studio and displays for shows.  My thought was I would write while in Maine. But I didn’t.  We did hike several times a week.  Mount Jefferson was a favorite walk.  In august, I  found an advertisement for the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport.  I signed up.

My first Rockport class was a sailing trip to a small sland.  The instructor was Bill Curtsinger, National Geographic photographer, who specialized in underwater photography.    It was pretty amazing.  We spent a week photographing the island, rocks, and sea. Bill opened my eyes to composition, light, and waiting for the shot. I remember a story he told about waiting for an early morning photo in the Pine Barrens. It became a cover for NG issue.  He also illustrated an edition of John McPhee’s “Pine Barrens.”  I frequently recall a bit of Curtsinger wisdom, “You can’t do every photo shoot, watch every movie, read every book; you need to make choices.”   Back on the mainland, we developed film — all slide, the favorite of National Geographic photographers– and critiqued our images.

The following year I returned to the Maine Photographic workshop for two weeks.  The first was with National Geographic photographer, Bruce Dale.  Bruce looked at my portfolio and commented, “There are no people pictures, you need to learn to photograph people.  From Bruce I learned how to use my camera as a tool to meet and photograph.  I hung out in Rockland outside a grocery, met people in the park. I  learned to interact with my subjects and to sometimes sneak a picture.  These lessons I took to my first European trip to England.  My mission was photographing people and we met a lot of interesting characters with the camera.  This skill also helped me tremendously in Nicaragua where I didn’t speak Spanish but communicated with young and old through photography. Taking the photographs and returning the following year to give them prints and take more pictures.

During the 1980s, we made several New England trips.  When Jen was very young we spent a week in Searsport Maine.  The house was across railroad tracks, on a small pensiula outside of town.  We explored the coast, had lobster, corn and potatoes at roadside stands, flew a kite, took walks.  As Jenny got older there were several ski trips to Vermont and at least on trip to Boston.  There we showed her Laselle and Boston College, where we lived, worked, ate, all our college haunts.  She wasn’t too impressed, sulking about not getting a swatch watch.  On another Boston trip, Diane and I stayed in the Parker House where her parents had their honeymoon during the war.  We did a lot of Boston history – – amazed we hadn’t visited the sites when we lived there.  On several trips we stopped and visited the Bonnemas in Bethel.  Jen and Leah Bonnema were the same age. John Paglione and I made one four night backpacking trip in the White Mountains.


We spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1980s.  Ryder’s, Carmel friends of Diane’s family, had a house boat on the Vineyard.  We didn’t have ferry reservations but got in line.  They offered Diane and Jenny a ride and I would have to wait for the trash ferry — no passengers.”OK.”  I think we let Jen sleep in the back of the car. But when I arrived about midnight, Diane was not there.  I discovered that the regular ferry and trash ferry docked at different places.  Finally located Diane and we drove to Egartown Harbor. Of course at 1 in the morning, there was no boat to take ou out to the house boat, The Floating Prime (Ryder’s were bankers).  In the early morning we got out to the boat.

Edgartown is much smaller than Nantucket town.  Most of the beaches are private.  Many more hidden large private homes.  We rode our bicycles out to CHappaquiddick one day and got caught in a sudden rainstorm.  We drove around the island visited Oak  Bluffs (religious community of gingerbread cottages), Tisbury, and Chilmark and the famous colorful clay cliffs, home of the Wampanoag.  Diane’s parents visited one day and Mr. Smith got the engine going and we took a boat ride. The Vineyard was our first island vacation.

In the 1980s many of our summer vacations shifted to sailing on the Chesapeake with Jerry and Susan Taylor.  And then in the 1990s we discovered Nantucket and spent usually two weeks every summer for over a decade.  With Tom Corley and Bill Gallagher I took several camping trips to the White Mountains.  One strong memory was the car breaks overheating and disappearing on the way down Mount Washington.  Somehow we made it and slowly I followed the van to our campsite.  Next morning the breaks were back. One year we lead a group whale watching at Provincetown.  Another Jen and Diane went whale watching with her middle school class.

More recently we’ve taken three night  trips to Vermont.  One was to take a baking class in King Arthur’s school.  Another in winter, to enjoy the snow, but no skiing.  We’ve been to Boston several times.  One year stayed in the old Statler Hilton (where Diane and I met at a party).  On another trip we stayed at the Copley Plaza.   We’ve been coming to Orleans on Cape Cod with the kids recently.   This year we stayed two weeks.  The Cape is beginning to feel like home.  And our New England explores continue.