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 everywhere.

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.





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