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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sandy Hook: Birds & Beach

I‘d heard of Sandy Hook all my New Jersey life. But

for odd and useless reasons, it had remained a place for others. Perched

at New York Harbor’s entrance, the Jersey Shore’s northernmost point,

Sandy Hook has protected these reaches for centuries. Only in recent

years has it been devoted to hedonism.

"Location, location, location" is as true of navigation and

coastal defense as in real estate. The spare and creamy Sandy Hook

Light — which began service in 1764 — is our country’s oldest

in continuous operation. Fort Hancock has bristled over New York Harbor

since 1874. Both can be visited, if you can tear yourself away from

Sandy Hook’s seemingly limitless six miles of beach.

I had unjustly overlooked Sandy Hook as unworthy of my nature treks.

Ever since my first amazed visit in the summer of 2000, "my heart’s

been in the Highlands." (You cross Highland Bridge to reach the

entry to this expansive, pristine park.) This paradoxical place lies

perilously near Manhattan, yet you can find yourself alone in dune

and marsh. Crossing its threshold transforms visitor into a time traveler:

For thousands of years, "The Hook" served as prime hunting

and fishing grounds for Lenni Lenape Indians. Sagas of shipwreck and

vigilance, skullduggery and heroism fairly pulse from dunes and venerable

park buildings.

We were given brochures as we paid at entry. One insisted, "For

birding, try Plum Island and Spermaceti Cove." We chose the latter,

the romance of that name conjuring "Moby Dick." Whales beached

here long before New Bedford and Nantucket sailing ships carried harpooners

and their try-pots to mid-ocean. Spermaceti must have been recovered

on these very strands. This rare and costly substance is found near

the whale’s blowhole, not where the name implies. Waxen, almost crystalline,

a cache of spermaceti could bring in heftier profits than whale oil

itself. Spermaceti was essential in certain medicines, lubricants,

perfumes, and in candle manufacture. This substance was literally

light years ahead of wax candles, these luxuries scarce in the days

of odoriferous sheep tallow. Spermaceti’s steady flame made it the

fuel of choice for most critical lighthouses. Wealthy Colonial women,

sewing the night away, appreciated its steadiness. The standard candle

was then defined as "a candle of spermaceti, of which six weigh

a pound, burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour." I hope Melville

had the blessing of spermaceti as he crafted his story of the ultimate

whale.

As we discovered, Sandy Hook’s Spermaceti Cove held a wildly different

treasure for us. A few feet onto its too-brief boardwalk over marshland,

I looked up into a a sparse pine. At its tip presided an enormous

dark bird with glistening white head. My glasses showed the golden

beak, confirming my fierce hope: a bald eagle. My companion’s first.

A life bird. True birders insist on a dance for each life bird, and

my friend was quick to comply. Other winged wonders awaited on that

walk. Terns and ospreys, herons as a matter of course. Two elegant

cedar waxwings feeding in the eponymous cedar. Black skimmers slicing

shimmering bay water with scarlet beaks. After that eagle, we were

tempted to say, "we can go home now." But we didn’t.

Sandy Hook’s birding instructions suggest Horseshoe Cove, North Pond,

or fields at Fort Hancock. Ultimately, we covered them all. The day’s

prize was the seriously endangered Ruddy Turnstone, welcoming us at

the tip of the park, virtually on the apron of Manhattan. These brick,

black, and white shore birds feed on eggs of horseshoe crabs, whose

numbers in our Delaware Bay have been seriously depleted by overfishing

for bait and fertilizer. Without those eggs in May, turnstones cannot

make it to Arctic breeding grounds in time or shape to reproduce.

No matter how early you get to Sandy Hook, you may wish you’d arrived

earlier. I’m not only talking about possible crowds. Succulent as

shore light always is, you’ll sense and regret having missed dawn

sweetness. You may be scolded by mocking birds hopping on the roof

of the 1894 Life Saving Station, now restored as the Visitors’ Center.

Hundreds of voyagers owed their lives to Herculean efforts of those

manning this building in the days of sail. In the 1800s craft breaking

up on nearby shoals were the norm.

Walking among (but not on) dunes, your trail will be framed by winey

rose hips, bursting and begging to be turned into jam. Soft pink Bouncing

Bet picks up each nuance of sea breeze. Poison ivy is bountiful. Rejoice

with migrant warblers whom it generously feeds. Keep away yourself.

When you come upon a rise, you’ll be treated to that atavistically

thrilling sight of water on two sides. The full heaving glisten of

ocean lies to your left, a serene saucer of bay to your right. There

is no sound save rustle of breezes in dune cover, whispery whistle

of overhead terns.

World War II echoes chill as bunkers hunker among dune cover. Across

the bay, a seemingly limitless destroyer claims the horizon. Larger

than a city block, the ship brings to mind May West’s question upon

boarding the Queen Mary: "What time does this place get to New

York?"

"Immaculate" is not a word that jumps to mind in the shadow

of the Verrazano Bridge. Yet "The Hook’s" sands glisten, unmarred

by trash or tar. There are glittering wrack lines, "the newspaper

of the tides." The sea writes her story of previous hours in clear

and elegant script: Citrine jingle shells sing when you cradle them.

Sleek black "mermaids’ purses" (skate egg cases), with their

four curly antennae. Seaweeds look shampooed. Healthy opalescent blue

crabs and limpet-studded horseshoe crabs attest to the viability of

these waters. We wish for sand pails to fill with these unbroken treasures.

Always walking toward the park’s ultimate point — being connoisseurs

of Land’s Ends — we expected to be disappointed by the nearness

of the city. But the scintillating contrast of those six sandy miles

and that legendary skyscape only astounded. In 2000, two sooty towers

served as exclamation points, marking the power and culmination of

that seemingly invincible site. Returning two years later, I stood

with 50 Audubon birders, wordless, staring across sand and brush toward

an unrecognizable altered horizon. Absence burnt itself onto retinas

attuned to Barrow’s Goldeneye and Buffleheads. I brushed a baffled

hand over my eyes, cleaning my monocular, as if, then, I could find

the lost towers. What city was that, over the Verrazano Narrows? One

I no longer know.

Back in August, at the Hook’s ultimate tip, a most elegant great egret

lifted dainty legs, fishing a tidal pool, aloof to humans and towers.

This queenly bird was as comfortable in that setting as though subways

didn’t weave their sinuous webs within a few thousand feet of her

webbed feet.

It’s not difficult to find Sandy Hook, but good maps come in handy.

From the U.S. 1 readership area, go north to the New Jersey Turnpike,

then south on the Garden State Parkway to exit No. 117. Take 36 East

for 12 miles, crossing the Highlands Bridge to the park entry. Summer

fee is $10 per car, levied from Memorial Day to Labor Day, no charge

at other times. A $50 seasonal pass is also available. Park staff

recommend you make the Visitors’ Center, located two miles from the

park entrance, your first stop. However, it does not open until 10

a.m. Summer weekends at Sandy Hook may be busy. When parking areas

are full, the park closes until parking becomes available. To avoid

delays arrive before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. For superb views and

seafood, Bahr’s Restaurant, on the water to the north of Highlands

Bridge, will not disappoint.

— Carolyn Foote Edelmann

Sandy Hook Visitors Center is open daily all year round,

from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 732-872-5970.

Fort Hancock Museum is open daily during summer, from

1 to 5 p.m. History House, an officer’s row home, furnished

to the 1940s, is open on weekends from 1 to 5 p.m. Also open weekends,

1 to 5 p.m., is Battery Potter, a battery built in the 1890s

as the first of the defenses against enemy ships approaching New York

Harbor.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse is opened for tours on weekends

only, from noon to 5 p.m. Same day bookings are taken begining at

noon; stop by and book early in your visit to Fort Hancock, then return

for your tour. This lighthouse first burned oil to guide ships in

1764. Paid for by New York, it stood sentinel to the northernmost

strand in New Jersey. Her "48 blazes" were replaced in 1856

by a third order Fresnel lens.

Sandy Book Bird Observatory, Building 20 on Fort Hancock

Officers Row, 732-872-2500. Newly opened and operated by New Jersey

Audubon Society, the center is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10

a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. It has a

bookstore and displays dedicated to the state’s environment.

Beach parking fee ($10 per vehicle daily; seasonal pass

$50) is in effect from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. This is

for use of beach parking lots. If you plan to only visit Fort Hancock

or birding areas along Sandy Hook Bay, tell the Fee Collector when

you arrive and the beach fee is waived.

Sandy Hook is park of Gateway National Recreation Area,

a 26,000-acre area located in the New York metropolitan area, extending

through New York boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island,

and into Monmouth County, New Jersey. The National Park Service website

www.nps.gov/gate offers information on travel directions,

facilities, camping, fees, and events.

Sandy Hook Summer

Salt Marsh Walk, Horseshoe Cove Parking Area. Explore

a wetland salt marsh along Sandy Hook Bay. Friday, June 28 at 6

p.m.

Guns of Fort Hancock, Fort Hancock Parking Area. Visit

Fort Hancock’s oldest gun batteries and discover how the Mortar Battery,

Battery Granger, and Battery Potter protected New York Harbor. Bring

a flashlight. Saturday, June 29 at 6 p.m.

Seining Sandy Hook Bay, Sandy Hook Visitor Center. A hands-on

program that uses a seine net to gather creatures from the bay. They

provide the net and hip boots. You wear sneakers and plan to get wet.

Reservations needed, call 732-872-5970. Thursdays, July 11 and

25 at 1 p.m.; Saturday, July 27 at 5 p.m.

Salt Marsh Walk, Horseshoe Cove Parking Area. Explore

a wetland salt marsh along Sandy Hook Bay Friday, July 12 at 6

p.m.

Birds of the Salt Marsh, Sandy Hook Visitor Center. A

walk with Monmouth County Audubon Society along the salt marshes of

Sandy Hook Bay to see ospreys, egrets, herons and cormorants. Thursday,

July 18 at 6 p.m.

Dune Grass to Forest Walk, Sandy Hook Visitor Center.

Learn about some of the basic needs of plants and animals living in

Sandy Hook’s harsh maritime environment on this beach to woodlands

walk. Friday, July 19 at 6 p.m.

Night Prowl, Sandy Hook Visitor Center. Bring a flashlight

on this after dark walk along Sandy Hook’s beaches or trails. Saturday,

July 20 at 8:30 p.m.

Birding for Beginners, Sandy Hook Visitor Center. New

Jersey Audubon Society evenings ramble in search of towhees,

terns and turnstones. Tuesday, July 23 at 6 p.m.

Horseshoe Cove History Walk, Horseshoe Cove Parking Area

Discover the long history and historic sites at Horseshoe Cove from

the days of sail to the modern missile era on this ranger-led walking

tour. Thursday, July 25 at 6 p.m.


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