Corrections or additions?

This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the July

18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Haven at Island Beach

You’ve lived in New Jersey all these years and you’ve

never been to Island Beach?" The voice was familiar (my sister’s,

from Chicago). "Why not?" she continued. I mumbled something

about crowds. About not wanting to find myself cheek-by-jowl with

sunbathers and loud radios. Sand in my face. All of that. "No

good reason," I concluded, truthfully. "Then go. And as soon

as you can," she said. "Promise me!" I promised. Which

is how I have come to stroll the pristine sands of Island Beach State

Park in every subsequent season.

The first of these excursions (in late September) opened with 30 Minke

whales determinedly heading south past Barnegat Inlet. It closed with

a red fox hosting us at his favorite beach plum bush. A more recent

(and personal best) was a four-hour birding and kayaking tour of the

Sedge Islands, led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable park rangers

and naturalists. Our crowning glory was environmentalist Pete McLain,

who has single-handedly restored peregrine falcon chicks and sturdy

osprey eggs to the Barnegat Bay region. This is a small portion of

what I had been missing, all these Island-Beach-less New Jersey years.

For no one had ever told me what my sister sensed: Island Beach State

Park is more than an island, more than a beach. For me, it has proved

a limitless haven for the spirit.

Island Beach is a barrier island, close to 10 miles long, protecting

our mainland from the sea’s full fury. From your car, the park at

first appears to be one long "ribbon of highway." The wooded

entry road divides the miles of impeccable white sand. Hikers,


bikers, and rollerbladers make the most of its shoulders, even at

high noon on the hottest days, even with sleet in the wings in the


Island Beach State Park is accessible weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,

from Memorial Day to Labor Day; summer weekend hours are 7 a.m. to

8 p.m. The rest of the year, the park is open from 8 a.m. to dusk.

Fees are $7 per car on summer weekends and holidays; weekdays: $6

per car; $4 during off-season visits. Season passes cost $35; and

a lifetime senior pass for New Jersey residents age 62 and up is


at the entrance. Real rest rooms exist at entry and two bathing


somewhat more challenging facilities can be found at certain parking


The tollbooth for Island Beach is after Seaside Park, somewhat south

of Point Pleasant, Bay Head, Lavalette. Do whatever you do (I-295

to I-195, for example) to get to Route 34, which becomes Route 35.

Keep heading due south until you can’t go any farther. It’s about

an hour and a half from Route 1 and Alexander. Be warned that you

might encounter "Island Beach Closed" signs. Early arrival

is best. They shut the gates when a certain guest density is reached.

However, later in the afternoon on closed days they do re-open. If

you’ve been admitted early and go out for lunch at Berkley’s Seafood

— high overlooking marsh and bay, and highly recommended —

your morning pass will readmit you despite "Closed" signs.

On insect days (due to land breezes) signs warn, "Flies on beach.

No refunds." People who have become smitten with Island Beach

welcome all these curt communications, hoping they will keep the human

hordes at bay.

The most startling fact about this park is that it has not been


developed, not even pruned by anything save wind, sand, and salt.

When you walk her lush allees of towering holly and bountiful sheep

laurel — blueberries ripening just beyond your reach — know

that this greenery could have been there if George Washington or


Franklin had taken a shoreside stroll. If, that is, they hadn’t been

so busy outwitting recalcitrant kings, rapacious British seamen on

and near the nearby Mullica River, as well as ravening Hessians on


We have, in our own most densely populated


a domain that belongs to the ospreys, brown pelicans, blue herons,

red foxes. The park is kind enough to open early on summer weekends,

so that rabid birders can be there to watch avian rarities make


rounds in their natural habitat. About halfway down on the left,

as you’re driving south, Spizzle Creek trail leads to a capacious

bird blind. Its eye slits open at various heights suitable for adults

and children. Broad backless benches provide sturdy perches for


unobserved observation. At Spizzle Creek, it’s not unusual to find

more black crowned night herons and yellow crowned night herons —

plus the rare immatures of both species — than an amateur can

count. If you’re very still, you’ll hear the female osprey singing

as her mate returns.

Out on the full beach, brown pelicans that cannot possibly be this

far north show a fine disdain for bird book rules. Island Beach has

two nature centers, whose exhibits share local wildlife. The Aeolium

comes first, showcasing creatures live and otherwise. It’s on the

left as you’re driving south from the entry. A large carved blue heron

decorates this sign, further explained as Island Beach Nature Center.

Here you will find rangers full of information and enthusiasm, such

as Diane Bennet and Darren Dors. Both are all fired up over new canoe

and kayak birding tours, and with good reason. Dors comes into the

limelight with the fish tank of Barnegat Bay (live) specimens. Striped

killifish are particularly intriguing because they change sex when

proportions get lopsided. Verticals are males and horizontals are

females (no comment); at least, for the time being. I asked and there

was no answer, "Who decides how many is too many?" Striped

killifish are even more important because their major food source

is mosquito larvae. Friends fret about my insect encounters in the

park, but I have been mercifully spared in countless visits. Those

killifish are really doing their job.

Bennet, on the other hand, is eager to get her hands into their


garden, for which funding has now been found (from the Jersey Shore

Audubon Society and Trust for Public Land). It will show New Jersey

how to create beauty with indigenous species. The point is, these

plants will both thrive and will not require an array of poisons to

ensure same. The buzzword is "non-point pollution:" harm that

comes to our waterways, not from identifiable factories, but from

the gardens of Mr. and Mrs. Everyman.

A little farther on, in the Boat House near one of the

original (No. 112) life saving stations, an interpretative center

takes visitors from geology through plant and animal life to human

incursions to a history exhibit. A true Barnegat Bay sneak box (flat

boat with shallow draft and clever lid that protects hunters in


dangles from the ceiling. It thrills like the Spirit of St. Louis

at the Smithsonian.

The garden exhibit is live outside (local specimens, growing


in the salt air); and preserved on plaques inside, keyed to each


Beach habitat. There’s even a set of lower and more fanciful plant

plaques for children. Each is the fruit of a de Camp legacy: Janet

and Emily’s funds making possible these two very different exhibits

devoted to more colorful aspects of the dune community.

First in-park signs insist, "Do Not Feed Fox." And you swear

you wouldn’t dream of it, really you do. Until you have a wintry


with a proud male and a scruffy lactating female. They’re sitting

right beside your car, staring you down, daring you to pass and keep

the rule. But you do keep the rule, because to do otherwise is not

only to pollute foxy digestion, but also to train their young to look

to cars and — more dangerous still — daylight for food. Foxes

are meant to be nocturnal. Our careless and misguided generosity is

skewing foxes’ biological clocks on Island Beach.

If you want to see foxes beyond counting, pick a foggy day. It won’t

do a thing for your birding list. But you could sit on a sandy


and commune from a distance with the four-legged creatures, lush and

full in their winter pelts, in absolute timelessness, while sea mist

swirls silently about you.

For me, nothing will ever surpass my first Island Beach fox encounter.

It was a late September afternoon, dusk and autumn on the wind. When

my companion and I had paid at entry, the ranger insisted, "Be

sure you find and eat some beach plums." Ever obedient, we asked

her to describe the fruit. We found it at the guided nature trail,

No. 13. The plums were tiny and succulent, a little on the tart side.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune. tasting something absolutely

new to both of us. So we started to sing, "Today while the


still cling to the vine, I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink

your sweet wine." But we were interrupted by the stately arrival

of an adolescent red fox. Elegant and svelte, he moved with soundless

grace among the sands and crisping holly leaves. Then he sat at our

feet and simply watched and listened as we finished what we now call

our fox song. Nobody moved for a long while. His long black legs


exactly like Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings of Yvette Guilbert, in her

golden robe with those interminable slim black gloves.

But we had promises to keep; a car to pack, noisily; and a road not

taken. So we started filling the back seat and the trunk. The fox

moved with us, sitting upright as a monarch, granting audience. When

we were nearly finished, I told him how I hated to leave. The Crown

Prince took it in, then folded those elegant paws, one over the other.

He lay his head upon those forepaws, almost coy, gazing up with a

foxy smile. At no point did he seek anything from us, save connection.

Opening that car door, turning that ignition key was a difficult


My motive for every return is to find him again. Which I did, on the

foggy day. I knew him by the quarter-sized black mark on his left

cheek, just above that grin. It’s interesting to have St. Exupery’s

"The Little Prince" come to life, to be tamed by a fox.


happens in Island Beach State Park.

Of course, Island Beach is a grand place for swimming and body


I especially appreciated a curious phenomenon of the sea warming as

air cooled with fall, a couple of years back, stretching beach days

out almost to Christmas. My friend and I weren’t the only ones


in the water that bright November day. The water nowadays is


clear and refreshing, clean enough now that showers aren’t imperative

afterwards, although they do exist in well managed bathing pavilions

during the season.

Each visitor tends to make Island Beach State Park his or her own.

From the businessman in a beach chair, reading about mergers gone

wrong, to the blue-collared Golden Retriever barking in the froth.

To the isolationists who long to keep each blueberry and bird blind

for themselves. People playing King and Queen for the Day in compact

RVs on morning sand. Fishermen and women and children settled in


that long array of large vehicles, some cooking their catch over


wood fires down near the light. Beachcombers of all ages, sizes, and

sexes, gathering up the treasures of the tide. (They’ll fade with

removal, as will the gatherers.)

In taller dunes, naturalists study sand whorls created

by compass grass, the delicate traceries of the smaller four-legged

creatures. Animal trails are strung like rosary beads, up and down

the sand and into surprising freshwater streams, fringed with ferns.

Ferns by the sea are new to me. Everyone wise flees the omnipresent

poison ivy, which is friend to birds (berries for fall migration)

and to few humans.

In summer, yes, there are crowds at Island Beach State Park. But they

tend to cluster around changing pavilions and lifeguards of Bathing

Beaches No. 1 and No. 2. A friend and I made a point of going there

on a flawless July Sunday. Dread was frankly in my throat at the idea

of "my" haven aswarm with visitors. But the officials manage

crowds graciously yet firmly. The many parking areas diffuse arrivals,

and the gate clangs down like a portcullis when numbers insist on

closure. Afternoons, as I’ve said, will see reopening. Fishermen can

secure permits to remain for the night, but only if "actively

engaged in fishing." I wonder if I could find someone to be my

"designated fisher."

My prime walk begins at the end of the paved road — from the place

where the trucks (yes, no escaping this) move in — along the


sand to Barnegat Inlet. There, my absolute favorite lighthouse


across a tumultuous channel. I fault others for not doing justice

to "Old Barney," let alone explaining her allure. Yet I am

no better. She is tall and slender — part ivory (the color of

unripe cranberries) and part claret (the hue of ripe ones). She shares

aloofness, as well as a kind of royalty, with my red fox. Experts

insist that Barnegat Light is too close to the sea, and will soon

fall in. They remind that her function has been supplanted by other

forms of warnings. No matter. Like the Statue of Liberty, arriving

or returning, it’s her elusive form I yearn to glimpse.

Barnegat Light is nobly tall and thoroughly elusive

across that moat of contradictory currents. To stand and gaze at her,

as the unseen foghorn suddenly sounds — because weather is


at sea — is to be a serious candidate for goose bumps. To kayak

among the marshes is to paddle in her noble shadow for hours on end.

I don’t know if she holds an elegant Fresnel lens, because you cannot

get to her, let alone climb her, from Island Beach State Park. On

the contrary, you’d have to drive way south then way north through

Long Beach Island, through some of the worst known examples of shore

congestion. Instead of seeing Old Barney as a welcome beacon, you’d

then be gazing through parked cars and ticky-tacky houses toward


you have to pay to experience. Far better the Island Beach approach.

Note that walking to and from Old Barney in the Park involves around

three miles round trip. Although barefoot can be wondrous, be aware

that Island Beach sand, though sugar-fine, can blister toes. You may

not notice during your stunning walk; later, you definitely will.

And you will declare it worth it, for communion with the lighthouse

and for ebullient pods of glistening dolphins cavorting in Inlet


You probably won’t be thinking in categories such as "thicket

community," "freshwater wetlands," "maritime


and "tidal marshes." But you’ll be among prime examples of

same. You will be thinking of shore birds and raptors as they sail

overhead, as one of the peregrines accelerates to nearly 200 m.p.h.

to catch prey on the wing; as the osprey plunges deep below the ocean

surface and comes up with a silver wriggling trophy. Birders call

this sight "osprey packing a lunch," and it’s considered good

luck for the observer as well as the bird.

New Jerseyans are lucky that Island Beach exists today because of

Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie’s partner in Pittsburgh Steel. Phipps

held a vision, unrealized, for resort development, that nevertheless

would result in the haven we enjoy today. Three homes were, indeed,

constructed. But the 1929 stock market crash put an end to his dream.

Island Beach moldered under the vigilant eye of its estate foreman,

Francis Freeman. In 1933 he and retired Coast Guard captain, Joseph

Tilton, formed the Borough of Island Beach.

After the beach was virtually closed during World War II, the National

Monument committee was formed, determined to purchase Island Beach

for the National Park Service. Herbert Hoover, among others, failed

in this attempt. So the land remained empty and available. In 1953

the State of New Jersey purchased Island Beach from the Phipps family

for $2.7 million. That’s a lot of wampum. When Governor Driscoll


the estate from the Phipps heirs, he stated, "Island Beach is

unique. It is a jewel. There is nothing else like it, anywhere else

on earth." Agreed!

Island Beach State Park, South of Seaside Park,


Ask for the 2001 Users Guide at the entrance. Activities include


fishing, limited boat launching, hiking, horseback riding, nature

trails, and canoeing. Open weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., from


Day to Labor Day. Summer weekend hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The rest

of the year, the park is open from 8 a.m. to dusk. Summer weekend

and holiday fees are $7 per car; $6 per car summer weekdays; $4 per

car at other times. Seasonal pass, $35.

Northern Bathing Beach Pavilion offers daily programs

for children and adults led by a naturalist, at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and

2 p.m. For information on park programs, call 732-793-1698.

Sedge Island Canoe/Kayak Tours take place Tuesdays,


and Sundays, beginning at 9 a.m., throughout July and August. Meeting

place is Area 21 parking lot. Preregistration required, 732-793-0506.

Beach Plum Festival , Friends of Island Beach State

Park, 732-793-5525. Fall festival with juried craft show, canoe

tours, nature hikes, beach plum picking, jelly making, fly tying and

casting demonstrations, children’s activities, food, and


Sunday, September 16, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Friends of Island Beach , Bill Degnan, president,

732-793-5525. Website:

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