It is the first Saturday of October and we have just departed the town of Patchogue, aboard the 10:20 for Watch Hill. A dozen boy scouts, their caretakers, the four of us, and a couple of other hikers are all that make up the ferry’s roster this morning – an unusually low number given how stunning the day has turned out to be! As we make our way across Great South Bay, we remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be making this trip ‘off season’ 😉
It’s been over a decade since I camped outdoors – in other words, way too long! Back in the day, as I shall refer to it, camping was invariably part of a trek, either in the Sahyadris (closer to Bombay) or in the loftier Himalayas. Needless to say, I enjoyed both those activities immensely!
Despite several efforts over the past couple of years, the closest I’ve gotten to camping in this country has been ‘cabining‘, or staying in a log cabin in the woods! I know, it doesn’t quite count! So, just like I had been earlier this year – hell bent on skiing – I was determined to go camping, before the cooler weather descended on us.
Patchogue is a town on Long Island in NY State, about an hour’s train ride from NYC. Across Great South Bay is Fire Island, a barrier island that runs 50 km (31 miles) west to east, adjacent to the south shore of Long Island. A state park, a national park and a county park (in that order!) make up most of the barrier island, with Watch Hill being the point of entry to the Fire Island National Seashore.
As we make inquiries for campsite availability at the general store, the boy scouts quickly disperse to their group campsite and the hikers head out to the wilderness area! Of 26 individual sites, only 2 are taken, so we pretty much have the place to ourselves, and of course, the option to pick our sites!
We choose #11 & 12, pitch our tents, leave our belongings, and then follow the sound of waves crashing against the shore. The beach we arrive at is pristine, stretching in both directions as far as the eye can see, with nary a soul in sight. It is almost surreal.
We gape in awe for a while and realize soon enough that it is lunch time. Since this is off-season, the snack bar by the marina shuts early and we are relying on it for our first meal on the island. We scurry back there, grab some beers from the general store, order some burgers and fries, and snag a spot on the deck – this has got to be one of the best days to enjoy it all outdoors!
An hour later we are back at the beach and the surf looks more than inviting. It is a tad too cold to swim – although O thinks otherwise – so the rest of us wet our feet in the water. The water is chilly for sure but the ambient temperature is an amazingly pleasant 20C (70F), there is no wind to speak of, and best of all, the sand is as comforting as can possibly be. Given all this, I figure the best course of action for me would be to retreat a few steps from the water, stretch out on the sand and pass out..
It is early evening by now and the guilt of not having done anything remotely physical the entire day gets the better of me. While O and C continue to lounge on the beach, which they now consider their own, I convince E to come along with me, and together we set off to explore the mile long nature trail.
While the south shore of Watch Hill is all sand and surf, its north shore – facing Great South Bay – is a salt marsh. Between the two lie dunes, a thicket – where the campsite is – and a Maritime Forest. Essentially three unique ecosystems existing side by side, in an area no wider than a few hundred metres! Apropos, it is earmarked as a National Seashore!
Mesmerized by the sights and sounds along the nature trail for over an hour, we now join O and C, making it to the overlook with just enough time to witness one of the most brilliant sundown’s ever! After all, it’s not called Watch Hill for nothing!
Four fillets of Steak and three bottles of Red Wine later, we decide to call it a night! Our first day of camping couldn’t have been more perfect – blue skies, plenty of sunshine, no wind and not a single encounter with mosquitoes, poison ivy or ticks (everything we had been warned against!). We turn in and pray that Day 2 will be just as nice!
But the weather gods have other plans for us.
Three hours into a wine induced slumber, E and I awake to the loud, annoying sound of our fly sheet flapping away. Fearing that we’re about to be lifted off along with our tent, I grudgingly emerge from my sleeping bag to cold gusts of wind and make a miserable attempt at pegging the fly sheet back into the ground, sorry sand! The drama repeats itself every hour on the half hour, or thereabouts, and we get little or no sleep!
Miraculously, the tent survives an awfully gusty night!
On my 5th or 6th attempt at fixing the tent, bleary-eyed, I notice a shift in the colour of the sky and our surroundings – the makings of a gorgeous sunrise, no doubt, and about the only time I’ll be seeing the sun that day!
While I’m trigger-happily capturing the spectacle, my camp mates are still asleep – it turns out later that O and C’s tent fared better than ours and E eventually slept through the racket! I decide to make the most of it, wind and cold not withstanding, and head out for a long, brisk walk.
The beautifully designed nature trail leads me through the Maritime Forest, where the early colours of Fall are already evident!
We collectively awake around 11 – hunger calling the shots this time – and try in vain to light up a wind swept grill! The coal refuses to catch and when we’re dangerously close to exhausting our supply of matches, O comes up with a bright spark – paper!! His idea works and breakfast is served 😉
With breakfast out of the way and the weather not particularly conducive to beach lounging, there’s little one can do except walk! And walk we do! O and C hit up the nature trail while E and I decide to embark on the 2-mile round trip to neighbouring Davis Park.
Davis Park isn’t exactly a park – although it lies within the confines of the National Seashore – but a hamlet of a couple hundred summer homes, most of them beach facing! As with every other square inch of the National Park, Davis Park too is devoid of private vehicles, with unpaved trails overrun by sand making up its ‘main street‘, and a wooden boardwalk substituting its sidewalk. In such a scenario, the inhabitants of Davis Park get around on foot and cart their effects in little wagons!
Back at the campsite by 2 and its time to strike our tents and pack for our journey back to the city. We get to the marina with plenty to spare for our 4 pm ferry to Patchogue, pop open some more beers, and wait it out in the damp cold, under a menacingly overcast sky!
Only 2 other people board the ferry along with us – the smarter ones, it seems, left on the first ferry out this morning!
Choppy waters and gray skies mark our departure out of Fire Island – quite a contrast to what it was like, about 30 hours ago! We have figuratively, if not literally, transitioned between summer and fall in one amazing weekend!
A full set of pics can be seen here.