A Winter's Tale of Fire Island
Between Ice and Open Ocean
It's cold, and it's going to be a rough day on the beach. I can tell
as soon as I look out the window. The snow is blowing so hard that I can
scarcely see the crest of the dunes, one hundred yards away. A lone deer
walks stiffly through the beach grass, and a marsh hawk fights the buffeting
winds. Nine mourning doves line up on my porch railing; with their feathers
fluffed up to trap air and preserve body heat, they look like tiny hens.
Inside, my old dog sleeps in the corner by the woodstove, his head tucked
underneath his back legs in a ball. I won't ask him to accompany me outside
this morning: he's a fair weather friend these days, and even in his youth
he would have had difficulty getting through the deep snow that's drifting
I head first for the marina, to check the docks and buildings. In the
summer, visitors come to the Fire Island National Seashore by the thousands,
and there are lifeguards, rangers, maintenance and concession workers
to care for their needs. In the winter, a skeleton staff looks after the
resources and facilities. Watch Hill, my home, sees few winter visitors.
The ferry has long since stopped running, and even the sturdy park boat
is laid up for the winter. A good thing that it is: Great South Bay is
frozen all the way across this morning. Yesterday, the ice went only halfway
across, and the day before there was none at all. The wind is from the
north, though, and it hurts to look out toward the bay for too long.
At the stable, the patrol horses come out to meet me. They don't seem
to mind the cold, but I throw them extra hay to fuel their metabolic furnaces.
Then it's time to fill their water trough. The best efforts of portable
heaters and heat tape have not sufficed to keep the water line open to
the stable; until the weather warms up, I'll be carrying water down in
rubber backpack pumps that we use for brush fires. Four bags-full to fill
up the trough twice a day; that ought to keep me in shape.
Time to warm up the truck. If I want to check the beach, I'd better
do it soon. With the waves up the way they are, there won't be much room
to maneuver, even at low tide. I aim my truck through snow drifts along
the sand trail that leads to the beach access. The light windblown snow
disperses easily, but when I reach the beach, I have misgivings. The snow
has covered the sand completely, hiding everything beneath its deceptive
white. There may be a three-foot scarp I can't see, or wreckage studded
with nails. I don't want to change a flat in this wind. The sand is clear
down by the water's edge; I drive as close to the swash as I dare. I remember
what an old-timer once told me: "Keep your right wheels dry."
There's a lot of beach missing. Three weeks ago, my wife and I stood
atop the overlook and watched storm waves open up the dune face and peel
away three years' worth of snow-fencing. When the storm subsided, we saw
exposed the ribs of a wrecked ship, long buried beneath the sand. Today,
a few more timbers are showing.
A quick look at the boarded-up summer houses in Davis Park, then turn
to the east. Seven miles down the beach is the Smith Point Bridge, my
winter link to the mainland. There's no question of getting through today,
however; with this surf, we're completely cut off. We're well set for
supplies, so there's no rush to visit Long Island. Besides, the radio
tells me of traffic tie-ups and cars sliding into one another on the roads;
I'd rather take my chances in the sand. I guess one of these days I ought
to visit the post office; mail is undoubtedly building up in my box, and
I know the phone company will be wondering where my check is.
I head back to the ranger station and settle down to work. Summer will
return soon enough, and there's lots to be done to get the place in shape
for visitors. In the evening I climb the dune stairs and look across toward
the rest of America. The Atlantic Ocean rumbles and crashes at my back
while the lights of Patchogue and Sayville blink beyond the dark band
of Great South Bay. In between, my orange porch light seems homey indeed.