Rhode Island

Finding Glass Orbs on Block Island

A new tradition is taking hold on Block Island: Finding Glass Orbs on Block Island. The search is on for Eben Horton’s blown-glass pieces.

By Justin Shatwell

May 26 2016

Glass-Orb-Opener

A float is hidden in a stone wall at the Hodge Family
Wildlife Preserve, overlooking Block Island’s historic North Light.

Photo Credit : Justin Shatwell
Glassblowers Jen Nauck and Eben Horton take a break at a “beach fort” while hiding floats at Dorries Cove.
Glassblowers Jen Nauck and Eben Horton take a break at a “beach fort” while hiding floats at Dorries Cove.
Photo Credit : Justin Shatwell

Eben Horton reaches overhead to hide his treasure in the crook of two branches. “That’s a great one,” he says. “You can see it, just barely.” “A little twinkle,” agrees Jen Nauck, his girlfriend and partner in mischief. The pair admire their work, then move on.

The treasure isn’t much—just an orb of thick, clear glass—but it’s enough to get hundreds of people out hunting. For the past five summers, Horton has been littering Block Island with glass “floats” (so called because they’re modeled on the orbs once used to lend buoyancy to fishing nets). He’s left them in washed-up lobster pots, in restaurant flowerbeds, and even in the community garden’s com-poster. It’s a simple game with an irresistible hook: The floats might be anywhere, and if you find one, you get to keep it.

The project started simply enough—just something to keep Horton busy during a slow economy. Inspired by a similar project in Oregon, he began crafting orbs during down moments at his glassblowing studio in Wakefield, Rhode Island. But why hide them on Block Island? “So I can come out here,” he says matter-of-factly, smiling beneath his bushy beard. “That’s really it. I want to come out here.”

Finding Glass Orbs on Block Island
Floats may be found anywhere: in lobster pots, in flowerbeds, or even up in a tree.
Photo Credit : Justin Shatwell

It’s easy to see why. Horton and Nauck are hiding in one of their favorite spots, the Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve, a series of stone-wall-lined fields that roll down the island’s spine. Wild blackberry bushes hug the path amid stands of tall grass that burn golden in the evening light. You can see the entire northern spit of the island from here. Historic North Light sits tranquilly on a distant strip of sand like a discarded dollhouse. It’s a view worth walking for, and one Horton would like more people to see.

Horton pulls out another orb and bowls it down the path. The glass is so thick (think the bottom of a Coke bottle) that it’s almost indestructible. It skips over the grass and disappears into the brush. “Even I don’t know where that one is,” he laughs.

It’s hard to say exactly why Horton does this. It’s an art project, of course, and also an incredible excuse to take long, romantic walks with his girlfriend. But more than anything else, it’s a love letter to an island that, thanks to zealous conservationists and draconian zoning laws, remains defiantly sleepy.

A float is hidden in a stone wall at the Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve, overlooking Block Island’s historic North Light.
A float is hidden in a stone wall at the Hodge Family
Wildlife Preserve, overlooking Block Island’s historic North Light.
Photo Credit : Justin Shatwell

Block Island is charming in a quiet way. You’ll often hear people brag about spending every summer here for the past 20 years, and then in the same breath comment on how little there is to do. That’s not a complaint, though; it’s the island’s main selling point. The island forces people outdoors to find their own entertainment in nature—like sleep-away camp for adults—and there’s plenty to explore. Almost 45 percent of the island is conserved land, with 28 miles of hiking trails and more than 16 miles of beaches, every inch of which is open to the public.

Horton says that he wanted to give people an added incentive to leave their barstools and beach blankets and really explore these idyllic wilds. The floats are a perfect lure. Hiking is exercise, which is often mistaken for a chore. But when you add the hide-and-seek element, when you offer the potential for discovery, you make it something childlike and magical—a real-life island treasure hunt.

It’s working. Across the island, people are stopping to peek into bushes or check behind signs. The hunt has become something people look forward to—a genuine summer tradition. “It makes a lot of people really happy,” Horton says. “And a lot of people really frustrated,” Nauck adds.

Part of the hunt’s appeal is how devilishly hard it is. In 2015, Horton, Nauck, and a handful of friends hid just 516 floats; they don’t intend to expand any further. That’s a tiny number, considering that the orbs are the size of a fist and the island spans almost 10 square miles. They release the floats a few at a time, never telling people when or where they’re hiding. When people ask for clues, Horton only replies, “Walk a little slower than usual and really look.”

People who possess the right combination of karma and kismet to actually find a float can register it on a website Horton set up. Many have contacted him through it to relate their tales of triumph or (more frequently) failure.

Horton heard from one hunter who spent three days searching beaches with his family only to have their joy quashed when what they thought was a float turned out to be a lightbulb. Another hunter wrote to tell him that she searched for two days, dawn to dusk, before discovering a float in a bush, just inches from a snake. She went in after it anyway.

“We never get that joy out of someone who comes to buy a vase or something like that,” Horton says. It’s one of the ironies of the project. Both he and Nauck are talented glassblowers, and the floats are by far the simplest things they make—yet Horton readily admits that this project is “the most successful thing I’ve ever done with glass.”

As the sun sinks lower, Horton and Nauck move on to Dorries Cove. Rich orange light slants across the sand as they hike around a rocky point and onto the secluded beach beyond. They’re well out of sight before they start dropping floats.

Horton originally fell in love with Block Island as a sport fisherman, so he has a soft spot for hiding the orbs on beaches (always above high tide and never in the dunes or cliffs). After a few minutes of walking, the pair come across a “beach fort,” a kind of driftwood shanty that summer residents sometimes build on the beach. This one is a simple lounge, with logs for couches and fishnets strung through the rafters. On a makeshift shelf, someone has lined up trinkets they’ve found in the sand—sea glass, a crab claw, a scallop shell. Horton mutters something about rewarding the effort and places a float beside the rest of the treasures.

It’ll get snatched up quickly, he knows—a “gimme,” as Nauck puts it—but Horton won’t be around to see it happen. In the five years he’s been hiding floats, he’s never actually seen one found. He’s at peace with that, though, content with his half of the project: the crafting, the walking, and the hiding. The rest of the story belongs to those who hunt.

For more information, go to: theglassstationstudio.com; blockislandinfo.com