Early Autumn on Great South Beach

Autumn is now blending over a natural wonderland – the Great South Beach – also known as Fire Island, which is the barrier island rimming the southern side of the Great South Bay.

This nature-filled island is uniquely blessed with 26 miles of parkland all nestled around 17 small villages and hamlet-communities. Imagine — there are less than 4,000 homes over the six miles of people-populated areas, and zero paved roads and driveways, except within two of the parks. Also – there are zero high rise buildings in any of these 17 living zones, which all have different personalities. Each community has its own unique character.

Fire Island is an important barrier beach island that protects the Great South Bay from most oceanic blustering storms. Back in 1962, when the island was hit in a devastating fashion by a massive five-high-tide storm, it was proposed that a major four-lane highway be placed all down Fire Island, supposedly that would act like a sand-dike – much as it does on Jones Beach Island to the west. For one thing, it would have ended by selling off most of the undeveloped land into building parcels and eliminated forever the primeval nature of the barrier beach. That proposed notion stirred island residents to mesh together as never before to protect the natural resource of Fire Island’s overall character. It wasn’t long before three bills of legislation were cruising channels of the US Congress to create a National Seashore a la the one begun on Cape Cod. Wooosh and hooray! A Fire Island National Seashore was signed into law by 1964. There would be no paved highways, along with thousands of driveways — thus cheered all who lived around the Great South Bay.

It was signed into Law that no new communities, or large hotel-like buildings were to appear after 1964, and by today almost all those communities — allowed to continue into history — have filled almost all building lots. Renting a house for a week or a season is the best way to experience the mystique of Fire Island and its many unique community personalities, as well as the natural wonders of the Fire Island National Seashore

Just what is the mystique of Fire Island?

Islands have a general mystique. They are an allure to people, especially this Great South Beach that tracks northeast to southwest over its 32 miles and probably averages less than a skinny half-mile in width. It embraces the majesty of the Atlantic Ocean and its many changing moods with the beauty and lure of the Great South Bay with its many ferries. It affords all people, visual and physical access to important open space, especially for those growing up in urban landscapes. Everyone can find simple closeness to the natural order of things. It stimulates considered thoughts of that beauty of being embraced by the canopy of kaleidoscopic nature.

The National Seashore parkland itself, within its long span, offers lightly developed areas such as Watch Hill, a small marina and camping area, adjacent to the eight mile stretch of Fire Island Wilderness – primeval in all respects — to the east. Just a bit west of Watch Hill, you can find Barrett Beach, with docking facilities.Further west still, you will come to the very unique Sunken Forest, nestled on the bayside with Sailors Haven, having another small marina. And to the far west, the famous Fire Island Lighthouse, lights the sky after dark.

Once the human frenzies begin to abate in early autumn, you will see the many bird varieties and Monarch butterflies that fill the high and near sky with signs that nature is now returning to be the major part of the ambiance of Fire Island. You will marvel at the flocks of ducks and geese and other birds massed together and heading southwest along the shore all the way to southern US climes, and even beyond to South America and Mexico.

Likewise — offshore in the ocean, you will see that the waters are moving briskly again after summer’s slow rollers begin to pick up. The migrating whales can be seen at times moving southward now, and it’s a strong temptation to sit for hours and just stare to sea to catch a mere glimpse of them.

If you miss seeing a whale, then you might spot a seal or a sea turtle, or dolphins playing their games.

There are more white caps, now that the autumn breezes are picking up, and there are often exciting aerial ballets offshore of gulls spying on schools of bluefish swirling near the water’s surface – gulls that are instantly ready to swoop down to pick off the smaller fishes that the bluefish are also chasing.

Along the shoreline we see fishing fans casting lures at the blues and the striped bass that circle around in a more individual strategy.

A growing sensitivity to Fire Island’s gifts

After a few hours or days of ocean watching, ocean observers gain an increasing sensitivity of the rising and falling of the tides that repeat an hour later every day to add a little interest to things; and fall higher and lower depending on phases of the moon, and many other influential things as well. Immersion in the Fire Island mystique surely heightens the senses. Just plan a long walk along the beach, or bay – those who love that mode of blending-in, do keep track of the tides. Low tide is best to plan around.

There’s one other major reason for walking at low tide as well. It offers the best opportunity to find a variety of shells, bits of driftwood, and polished stones or beach glass that sometimes appear.

Fire Island has many moods of a simple order. On a clear, sunny day, one can see for many miles out to the blue sea, and along the grass-green shore as well. At other moments, the mood can be gray with scudding thunder clouds hovering over a white-capped sea and over the bay spitting electric strikes – sometimes in rapid succession.

And try some walking on nights of full and near full-moon lighting. And night-walking without the moonlight can allow some startling glimpses of the Milky Way’s billions of stars – especially the majestic Orion constellation.

Believe me — all this nature surrounding you will stimulate you to respect the wonders of nature.

Many of us often dwell on the idea that we see the ocean as where most life on the planet began. I remember well the personal turn-on of Rachel Carson’s 1951 book The Sea Around Us. Her lifelong passion with the preservation of nature was inspired by the mysteries of the sea, which covers over 70% of our planet earth. They say that there’s more than 400,000 species of plants, animals and fish in our 300 million cubic miles of oceans. That’s a lot to inspire thinking.

Autumn’s cooler air that’s now moving in, also helps to stimulate the appreciation of what we have here, and the residents in those 4,000 homes are pledging not to lose the desire to guard the heritage of the Great South Beach of Fire Island that they petitioned so hard to preserve in 1962 by inviting in the National Seashore to partner up.

Bob can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright (C) 2009 Robert H. Spencer