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
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!
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.
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.
and Sundays, beginning at 9 a.m., throughout July and August. Meeting
place is Area 21 parking lot. Preregistration required, 732-793-0506.
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
732-793-5525. Website: community.nj.com/cc/friendsofibsp.
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