Once word got out that the Weekapaug Inn in Westerly had brought in a naturalist, neighbors started showing up with questions. And … creatures.
“I’m always delighted when people stop by to talk about nature or learn more about our programs,” said Mark Bullinger, who directs the Inn’s ecotourism and recreation offerings. To be clear, if you find a seal on your front lawn, it’s best to call Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Team. But most of the questions Bullinger fields involve identification, say, of a new species of bird at a feeder or a shell found during a shoreline walk.
He welcomes it all.
“Weekapaug Inn is a beautiful stop, especially if you’re on a day trip. And you can learn a couple of things.”
From the Inn’s sprawling green yard, the blue waters of Quonochontaug Salt Pond stretch into the distance. Songbirds call from the trees. All the accessories for New England summer leisure are here: Adirondack chairs, lawn games, kites, Frisbees, dining tables with umbrellas, a shimmering pool, kayaks, sailboats, paddleboats, standup paddleboards, fishing poles and fish traps.
Bullinger said kids delight in setting and hauling up the traps, which almost always contain eels and skittering crabs. Excitement also runs high during the seine netting outings Bullinger leads for young guests, as the nets most often reveal blue crabs and spider crabs jostling impatiently. “The crabs can get pretty ornery,” he laughed.
And the pond’s calm, shallow pond waters are ideal for new explorers, especially paddlers. “It’s only a couple of feet deep, which is hugely reassuring,” Bullinger explained, joking that that the depth is still sufficient to absorb your fall if you’re trying out SUP yoga for the first time.
Bullinger leads a rotating, year-round calendar of events for both Inn guests and public visitors. There are guided beach walks in which participants can learn about the glacial geology of our area; and astronomy nights when the inn’s powerful telescope illuminates interplanetary wonders.
“There’s so much light pollution, people aren’t prepared for how brilliant the stars are here,” Bullinger said. “Saturn, to most people, is a little dot of light in the sky. But when we view Saturn through the telescope, it’s so detailed it looks like an illustration – and its moons are clearly visible.” Jupiter also makes a fine showing, he added.
Weekapaug Inn offers a range of adventures for guests. The summer slate of activities includes outings to sandbars and unoccupied islands nearby to swim and hunt for razor clams, moon snails and sea urchins. Light-tackle fishing expeditions yield striped bass, bluefish, and flounder. Evening paddles are a chance to observe the gentle glow of bioluminescent jellyfish.
Yet the Inn’s management team also sees itself as a devoted community partner and neighbor. The public is always welcome at its several indoor and outdoor dining areas: from fireside, farm-to-table gourmet dinners – to bright, casual breakfast and lunch on the sunlit deck.
And there are many nature-oriented activities open to all. The annual moonlit horseshoe crab outing is among the most popular. Decked out in headlamps and boots, participants get to witness one of the most ancient reproductive rituals still knowable to man. Crabs await the highest spring tide to come ashore and place their eggs deep in the sand above the waterline, safe from other crabs and fish.
“Horseshoe crabs are over 400 million years old. They are in the fossil record. Technically, they are living dinosaurs,” Bullinger explained. “It’s mind-bending, that this cycle is still taking place” he said, in a world that has been so radically altered by humans.
Some aquatic organisms seem equally curious about their human neighbors. During a boating excursion, “we’ll bring a lamp out and the squid are attracted to it,” Bullinger said. “You can watch them change [color] right before your eyes, from grey to pink, to polka dot…”
Cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefish) can change the appearance of their skin for, in theory, a variety of reasons: camouflage, to warn away potential predators or rivals, and to communicate with others of their species. This capability is complex, resulting from the creatures’ ability to contract or expand pigment-filled cells below the surface of their skin. Some of these pigments are iridescent, allowing the animal to reflect or mirror the color scheme of its surroundings.
The work is energizing, Bullinger said, because people most often respond to this kind of discovery with appreciation and awe. He considers it a privilege to guide people to a deeper understanding of the world they inhabit.
“Once people – especially children- have a personal experience or encounter with nature, it sticks with them,” he said. Even the simple act of pulling a net and coming up with a sample of teeming forms of life makes quite an impression. “’I had no idea,’ people often say – how much there is living in such close proximity to us, all the time.”
“That’s what my job is, to create opportunities for wonder and adventure. To create memories,” he said.
The Weekapaug Inn has several activities planned in the coming months. Water events are subject to change due to weather. For the most up-to-date information, and to see details about dining and accommodations, visit weekapauginn.com.
Rhode Island Off the Beaten Track
Explore the hidden gems of the southern shoreline. Join the Weekapaug Inn Naturalist on a four-hour van tour past scenic mills, dramatic rock formations lighthouses, lovely communities and beautiful beaches. You will disembark along the way and enjoy a boxed lunch at a scenic overlook.
Oct. 19, 2-6 p.m.; $75/person ($60 for hotel guests).
Early November is the best time to see wonderful harbor seals from the water. During Seal Days, boat excursions will run Friday at 1, 3, and 4:30 p.m.; Saturday at 9 and 10 a.m., and 2, 3, and 4:30 p.m. Nov. 1, 1-5 p.m.; $25/person ($15 for hotel guests).
A seal slide show will take place at 6 p.m. on Saturday and is open to all at no charge.
Trustom Pond Refuge Birding Walk
Mark Bullinger will lead a guided refuge walk and help participants identify waterfowl and other fascinating creatures. The well-maintained trails meander through native grasslands, upland forest and lead to a large coastal pond. Viewing platforms afford fine views of sweeping vistas of the beach and marshes. Nov. 16, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; $20/person (please note, cancellations are subject to a fee).
Transit of Mercury Event
You don’t have to be an astronomer to enjoy the beauty of our solar system. A transit of Mercury across the Sun takes place when the planet of mercury passes directly between the Sun and a superior planet.
Nov. 11, 10-11 a.m.; free, reservations recommended.
Birding Trip to Sachuest Point
Captain Mark leads a van outing to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge where participants can experience an up-close view of the ducks, as well as a bevy of other waterfowl and seals. During the excursion, catch a glimpse of a variety of raptors and owls often found in the area. Participants are encouraged to bring cameras and binoculars. Trip departs from Weekapaug Inn. Price includes a box lunch for each guest.
To ensure the enjoyment of all guests, this event is open to guests 16 years of age and older. Participants should be in adequate physical shape for two miles of moderate walking on single-track woodland trails over modest rolling terrain. Dec. 7, 1-5:30 p.m.; $60/person ($40 for hotel guests)