Monday, August 01, 2005

Extra-Urban Expeditions: Watch Hill, Fire Island

Having hardly a moment's rest after the road trip to Ohio, I found myself bound for a weekend of camping with my buds on Fire Island, New York.

The place is called Watch Hill, and it's a part of the National Park system's Fire Island National Seashore. If you're looking for a little adventure at low cost and close to the city, look no further -- unless you dislike sand and mosquitoes.

After a drive of about 57 miles from Brooklyn, we took the ferry from Patchogue to the marina at Watch Hill (cost: $14 roundtrip). Then it's a short walk to the campsites. Reservations are required, but aren't tied to a specific site. Precisely which site you'll get depends on luck and beating the other campers off the boat. We pitched in a lovely little spot out of direct line of sight from the boardwalk, but well within hearing of the roaring Atlantic surf, as are all the sites here. The island is not wide. It might take you fifteen minutes at most to walk from bayside to oceanside.

Weather cooperated with cooler (but hardly cold) temperatures and some mist, fog and part-cloud -- just enough to cut the heat without being too much of a drag. Sunscreen is still absolutely a must. I saw a few very well roasted Homo sapiens during my stay.

Wildlife abounds. There are white-tailed deer -- with the requisite deer ticks, an abundance of American toads (very cute) and at least one inquisitive eastern cottontail rabbit that came to visit camp on Sunday morning. There are lots of birds. Especially abundant were catbirds and rufus-sided towhees, the latter almost constantly admonishing each and all to "Drink your tea!" I also saw or heard chicadees, barn swallows, goldfinches, mourning doves and an unidentified warbler species. There was the usual assortment of seabirds, including laughing and black-backed gulls and the extremely endangered piping plover.

The one wild beast that rules Fire Island is the mosquito. These were legion, and fierce. Nothing short of a nuclear weapon, or 95% DEET, could possibly stop them. As you may know, only the females require a blood meal, in order to obtain the protein necessary to lay eggs. Experience indicates that there are a lot of female mosquitoes in Watch Hill! You may also be aware that there are several species of mosquitoes co-existing in a place like this. There are daytime mosquitoes (looking suspiciously like the Asian Tiger Mosquito, an introduced species thought to have traveled no further north than southern New Jersey), dusk and dawn mosquitoes, and night-time mosquitoes. The night-time mosquitoes seem most numerous. Leaving one's tent to answer the call of nature in the wee hours becomes an opportunity to lose many pints of blood.

DEET and mosquito coils (little coil shaped incense-like things) are really indispensable here.

Plant life in this virtual desert is abundant and distinct. Every plant here must be equipped to deal with a harsh environment where fresh water is scarce and strong winds loaded with sea-spray threaten to defoliate. I saw plenty of catbrier, wild black cherry, Amelanchier species, American holly, winged sumac and poison ivy. Herbs included yarrow and goldenrod. The oceanside dunes were anchored with beach grass, and the bayside harbored immense flats of salt marsh, home to the hardy Spartina grasses, as well as cattails and Phragmites in less brackish spots.

There are miles of virtually uninhabited and undeveloped beach. One could practically have one's very own private 500 or 1000 foot stretch of beach. The only blight on the landscape was litter -- some of it brought from elsewhere by the restless ocean, and some of it left on the campsites by careless campers. If ever I should be guilty of murder, it will be because I've strangled the git that litters. That won't likely be necessary, however, as I think the mosquitoes and the poison ivy will have sufficiently avenged nature for these transgressions.

A few choice pics are forthcoming.

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