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Hiking

by Rich Weissmann
  


Introduction

Many areas on Long Island offer a wide array of opportunities for people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Whether you are a couch potato, or a kid; a seasoned athlete or a senior citizen, there is a place to enjoy a walk, a saunter, or a fairly serious hike within a short drive of Bellport.

Over the years, I have covered many miles walking the back trails of the pine barrens, climbing the glacial hills that run down the spine of our island, and skirting the shorelines of its rivers, bays and oceanfront. The one thing that often strikes me when I’m traveling these trails is how few people I encounter. So, as a way of encouraging readers of Bellport.com to put on their hiking shoes and get out on the trail, I am introducing a series of articles describing the walks, saunters and hikes that almost anyone can enjoy.

 



           
The Sunken Meadow Trail

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Sunken Meadow Hike

Halfway through this hike things took on a different aura. After leaving a scenic river’s edge sparkling with blue water and alive with rafts of waterfowl we climbed a ridge through some woods and were met with the foreboding sight of crumbling brick buildings which were once the site of Kings Park Psychiatric Center. Dozens of abandoned buildings, anchored by the 13-story main asylum, loomed like something out of a horror film across the hillside. In fact, I later learned, several horror films were shot here. One was called “Blood Night, The Legend of Mary Hatchet.” Ghoulish treasure hunters still roam the grounds, buildings, and underground tunnels of the massive complex. We paused long enough to consider its gloomy history. It operated for over 100-years before its closure in 1996. Over those years it tended to 19th-century “lunatics”, WWI and WWII war-damaged veterans, and a general array of troubled souls who—according to the plaque near the graveyard—“…lived with severe illness. May they rest in peace.” A gloomy place indeed.

Happily, our hike started and ended at the wave-bright, cobbled beaches of Long Island Sound in Sunken Meadow State Park.

To begin, we parked at the end of the easternmost parking lot near the entrance to the boardwalk. There are restrooms here that stay open year-round for the parade of strollers, cyclists, and joggers who frequent the mile-long boardwalk. From here we head across the parking lot to a pedestrian bridge that crosses the creek over to the mainland. This is a tidal creek and the tide is surging to the east, mudflats gleam in the slanting sunlight and salt marshes rimmed with spartina grass stretch out towards the mouth of the Nissequogue River.

Exiting the bridge, we turn left and head up a steep hill on a paved path. Before long I can feel my breathe coming a little harder. I begin to break a sweat. During cross-country season local high schools use this area for practice and intramural meets. But, today everything is quiet except for my own puffing.

A few hundred yards up the hill an opening in the chain link fence on the left leads into a forest trail that is marked by yellow blazes. Trees and undergrowth are dense, and the serpentine trail winds through and around landscape worn by erosion into deep ravines and gullies. There are several blow-downs that we have to duck under. Here and there an entire tree has been uprooted and the massive roots stand higher than our heads.

Now we come to a white blaze. Two slashes, one on top of the other with the top one offset to the left, means that we will turn left and enter the Long Island Greenbelt Trail. A really ambitious hiker can follow this white-blazed trail more than thirty-miles to its southern terminus on Great South Bay in Heckscher State Park.

We stay on the white trail now and it leads us along the edge of the bluffs 150-feet above Long Island Sound and the mouth of the Nissesquogue River. Views here are spectacular. Across the Sound is Connecticut; way off to the east Stony Brook Hospital looks like a leggo piece nested in miniature trees; out past Crane’s Neck we see the silvery glint of the Port Jefferson ferry churning its way north to Bridgeport. The trail is soft underfoot. Oak leaves and pine needles cushion our footsteps. Every curve holds another dizzying and splendid view of the swirling waters and corduroy sand flats at the delta of the river far below.

Gradually, we realize we are moving south along the western edge of the river’s estuary. At the 1.25-mile mark we descend a railroad tie embankment onto an upper parking lot at the Town of Smithtown boat launching area on Old Dock Road. The day is bright and warm out of the woods and we pass a couple of bikers admiring their polished Harleys in the sunlight.

At the south end of the parking lot we begin walking on the river’s sandy beach past a local restaurant—the Old Dock Inn—which appears to be closed for the season. The tide is very low and the beach is littered with flotsam, cement mooring anchors, and an occasional overturned dinghy.

Before long we spot a trail marker that signals us back up the sloping sand to where the trail once again climbs wooden steps to enter the forest. This is where we begin to get glimpses of the ominous, brick asylum buildings. Two miles into the hike we reach the flagpole in front of the headquarters of Nissequogue River State Park. With its canoe/kayak launching ramp, future marina, and open playing fields and picnic area it is the new public face of the old facility. Surely a more hopeful one.

There are restrooms in the building and benches outside to rest on. The trail continues to curve off to the southwest, but we have gone far enough today. After our break we re-trace our steps back to the beach at Old Dock Road.

I used to fish the shoreline along here and remember following the beach at the foot of the high bluffs and then crossing an earthen causeway over the marsh and tidal slough back to the Sunken Meadow parking lot. It seemed preferable to go this way to avoid climbing the hill back up to the high trail and having to re-trace our route in. Jacquie is willing to trust my leadership, so we set off.

We trek west along the shingled beach with the marsh on our right and the looming bluffs on our left. This is a place of dynamic erosion. Huge boulders—glacial erratics in geology parlance—rest like prehistoric runes in the hardscrabble sand.

I look at my GPS and see we are close to the earthen crossover which should bring us quickly to the parking lot. Unfortunately, electronic gadgets cannot account for Mother Nature’s design changes. We stand looking across a fifty-foot crevasse where the former land bridge has collapsed into the slough. Chunks of earth and twisted conduit pipe lay at the bottom as muddy tide water flows past. With no chance of getting across we continue a short distance on the trail, through some woods, and right up to a chest-high chain link fence.

Now, we have a choice. We can walk a mile back, climb the hill and hike out the way we came in for an extra total of two-miles, or we can climb the fence and be on a paved path 100-feet from the bridge that crosses over to the parking lot and our car.

Climbing fences isn’t what it used to be. But, we did manage it without a clothing malfunction, and we did provide some entertainment for a few passersby on the path.

We finish with a short stretch on the boardwalk and clock the hike at an even five-miles. Well worth the 45-minute drive to get here.

Getting there: Take the Sagtikos State Parkway to its northern terminus, turn right and go to the end parking lot.




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New Trails at the Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

Wertheim

The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge opened its new visitor center in 2012 and, along with it, several miles of new trails on the east side of the Carmen’s River for hikers to explore.

I have to admit, when I first saw the new building I thought, “What? Are they kidding? This place belongs in Yellowstone or Yosemite, not in Shirley!” But, after a post-hurricane visit to the refuge, I was impressed. The sprawling, 13-thousand square foot, stone and wood structure contains an education center with displays of local wildlife, Native American history, and an ecosystem diorama. All of these are interactive with audio explanations as well as an ongoing soundtrack of bird song and marsh sounds. It should make a great resource for local schools to teach children about their native Long Island. It even has a nice gift shop.

Perhaps, best of all is the improved trail system which now allows a hike of up to six and a half miles covering both sides of the Carmen’s River.

To begin the hike we first signed in at the visitor center and then walked out the back door to where the new trail begins. The first half-mile of trail is a broad, cinder paved walk through dense growths of scrub pine and oak with a few black tupelos thrown in which give the trail its name. Quite a few blow-downs from Sandy were evident along the trail, but workers had already cut them to clear the way. Walking was easy on the soft surface. The woods were quiet with a late November chill in the air.

About a mile into the hike, the trail doglegs to the south west (right) and, soon after, views of the river begin to poke through the dense undergrowth. The weather hasn’t been cold enough yet to eliminate ticks so we resist the urge to go off the trail for a better view of the marshes, which line both banks of the serpentine river.

Soon after it turns, the trail splits to become a loop. Follow it in either direction and it will bring you back to the same spot. We go to the right and within a half-mile arrive on the bank of the river known as Indian Landing. This is the site of a Native American encampment that pre-dates European settlers. For centuries it was a place for gathering shellfish, catching fish, and hunting waterfowl.

We took a break sitting on a bench that looks out over a wide curve in the river. A kayaker was off in the distance downstream towards Squassux Landing. Rafts of sea ducks bobbed in the current on the upstream side. A nesting box intended for wood duck stood on a pole in the water, but only a blackbird sat on it contemplating the broad estuary.

Back on the trail, we followed the loop south and then north before it connected up with the trail back to the visitor center. The total distance, as measured on my GPS, was just shy of three and a half miles.

Now we continued on the trail past the west side of the parking lot and soon came to a brand new walkway that leads out to a viewing platform over the river. From here, the full sweep of river and marsh can be observed at leisure. Directly across is a new, man-made nesting platform for ospreys. This would be a great place to set up a spotting scope and to take some wonderful photos.

Another few yards on the trail brought us to the dirt road that used to be the entrance to the refuge, but is now used only for service vehicles. The road crosses the river on a metal bridge—which, I know from experience, makes an awkward obstacle for kayakers to duck under at high tide. Directly upriver from the bridge is a LIRR cement bridge with the date “1911” inscribed on it. Its Romanesque arch frames the bridge over Montauk Highway in the distance.

From here it’s a short walk to the looping, two-mile long White Oak trail on the west side of the river. I have written about this trail in an earlier part of this series, so we backtrack to the parking lot and feel good about the four-miles we did today.

 

 

   

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Exploring Our New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

New Inlet

A chapter in local history was reopened when “Super Storm Sandy” punched a new inlet through Fire Island at Old Inlet. Until the early 19th-century the historical inlet allowed ingress and egress to Bellport Bay for coastal schooners to take oysters, clams, and firewood to the docks of New York City. But storm drift and shipwrecks blocking the channel gradually closed the inlet, making it just a memory by mid-century.

The new inlet quickly became the talk of the village. Since aerial photos of the inlet, taken by Charlie Flagg and Rich Giannotti, were posted on Bellport.com, there has been a lot of speculation about the effects of ocean water flowing directly into Bellport Bay. Will the higher salinity and clearer waters of the Atlantic re-vitalize the clamming and fishing? Will the tide levels rise, and if they do, will they cause problems for waterfront residents? Will the inlet close itself up naturally or will the federal government fill it in? All good questions that may take some time to answer. But, in the meantime, I was anxious to see the inlet up close for myself. So Jacquie and I loaded the kayaks on the car and set out.

We launched from the Smith Point Beach parking lot just east of the bridge in order to follow the shoreline down to the inlet, which is about two-miles west. It was a rare, spring-like, November day with just a light breeze out of the south. We paddled against a falling tide that began to ease once we passed the narrows of Smith Point and entered the bay proper. Colorful kites flying from the parking lot and lots of small planes overhead added some festivity to the trip. Soon we were skimming over the shallow water flats and skirting the extensive salt marshes on Fire Island. A flotilla of swans were strung like pearls against the brown marsh edge and the curiously pungent odor of salt hay hung in the air. Kayaks require only a few inches of water but, even so, we began to scrap bottom and had to move farther offshore before continuing westward.

Forty minutes into the trip I began to see debris in the water ahead. Chunks of marsh, torn tree limbs, and gnarled roots that had been part of the shoreline now lay scattered about in the shallow water. Out in the bay to my right, “Bird Island” appeared unchanged by the storm. Just ahead I spotted the red buoys marking the channel into Old Inlet. A few more minutes of paddling brought us in sight of the Old Inlet dock—once part of the shoreline—now stranded like a shipwreck in the center of the new inlet.

As we paddled into the current of the ocean tide I saw that the Pattersquash Gun Club was still intact, but instead of sitting on a marsh island as it did before the storm, it now was attached to Fire Island by a newly formed sand spit. Several boats were anchored in the bay side of the inlet, and I passed a man rowing what appeared to be a whaleboat with ten-foot oars.

Making our way towards the ocean I was glad we were in kayaks. The water was over six-feet deep in places but quickly went to only a few inches in others. The bottom was scoured clean by the current and patterned with striated ridges like abdominal muscle. A ranger on an ATV roared across the sand on the western edge of the inlet to warn away some people who had beached their Zodiac and looked to be in a partying mood.

We passed the stranded dock where, in summers past, I had often tied my boat and walked across the long boardwalk walled in by shadbush, bayberry, beach plum and tangled growths of catbrier and poison ivy, through the swale and up over the dunes to the ocean beach. All that was washed away now and the raw scar of barren sand cut a swath more than 100-yards wide from bay to ocean.

White capped ripples appeared up ahead and a tandem kayak bounced through them as it returned from the edge of the sea. A little rowing skiff, with Tom Schultz at the oars slid past, and then we too were out to the surf line. The tide was low and the inlet on this ocean side appeared to be a foot or so deep. We bounced and rocked a little in the waves and then turned the kayaks towards the east side of the inlet to pull up for a rest.


Jacquie went off beachcombing while I sat down in the sand to ponder this once-familiar place now made unrecognizable by the fury of the storm. My relationship with Old Inlet goes back to the mid-seventies when I served several seasons with the Fire Island National Seashore as a summer park ranger. Back then, a large structure that was the Old Inlet Club stood here on the dunes. Summer activity was busy with families from Bellport, Patchogue, and Brookhaven who belonged to the club and enjoyed the privacy of their own beach. In Autumn, National Audubon birders gathered to watch the spectacular hawk migration from the big raised deck above the clubhouse. I remember a fellow ranger, Paul Stoutenburgh, and his wife Barbara spending a season living in the house after the club lost its lease to the Seashore—Paul wrote about watching fox cubs growing up in the swale behind the house and of great schools of bluefish on the beach. And I remember the void in the dunes in 1980 after the clubhouse was finally dismantled and hauled off to create the National Seashore’s 8-mile wilderness zone stretching from Smith Point to Watch Hill.

In those days there was always talk of the old inlet that silted in and disappeared more than a century before. Talk about the sailing ship “Savannah” which was equipped with a steam engine and a side wheel and had been the first steam ship to cross the Atlantic before it sank near the inlet in 1821. And talk of the schooner carrying grindstones for the mills up the Carmen’s River when it sank in the channel and hastened the final closing of the inlet. But always there was talk of when some great storm would reopen the inlet to, once again, connect our little bay to the wide sweep of the open Atlantic.

Jacquie returned from her wanderings and we folded ourselves back into the kayaks to ride the current of the incoming tide back into the bay. As we paddled back towards Smith Point I couldn’t help thinking that the bay already seemed refreshed and healthier with the return of a new Old Inlet.

     


"New Inlet" Comments...



11/2
5/2012, William Post Hubert wrote...

The Old Inlet Club - Generations of our families sailed across the bay from the Carmen River and Squassux Landing to enjoy the ocean and beach. Of course not every sail was uneventful due to shallow waters and a motor that was started with a leather strap and a lot colourful language!

A great sight was to see some of the beautiful mahogany boats, particularly the "CARAMBA" tied up. Would love to know what happened to her.

Once we reached the dock there was the long board walk which was always good for an occasional splinter. There was a gap in the walkway to allow the few sand cars to pass. They were stripped of all the body and were the forerunners of beach buggies. We knew we were close to the club when we heard "put put put" from the one lung gas engine that powered the well pump which stored the water in a water tank. Never could figure out how you could get fresh water under the sand. Whenever we dug down in the beach we always struck salt water!

The buildings were not elaborate but served well as two large bath houses with showers. At the top of the dune was a snack shack which really did not get much business from us because we certainly did not have any nickles to spare.

We used to discuss the "old" inlet and how efforts were made to keep it open to the bay. The force of nature on the area was not lost to us kids because we could see the remains of the bridge from Smith Point to Shirley that had been destroyed.

The trip back often included Clam chowder made with bay water and Crown Pilot Crackers. The perfect ending to the day at the Old Inlet Club that seems such a short time ago but was over half a century past. The news of the new old inlet made it seem "like deja vu all over again"

 



11/25/2012, Robin Horsley wrote...

Knowing Rick from his, long ago, days at Watch Hill you would expect that he would be enthralled with the 'new' Old Inlet 'inlet' . These are gentle days for this baby intrusion into the bay and a wonderful time for exploring...and a time to be ever grateful for the barrier beach that serves as a buffer between the terminal moraine known as Long Island and the mass of water known as 'The Atlantic'. As with so many things, this 'recreation' is a two-edged sword. We know we need a cleaner bay but can it be done without hurting people who have built on low lying land...let's hope it can work for everyone. Thanks Rick for a delightful day.

 



11/25/2012, John Petraglia wrote...

Rich, Love your articles on LI Hiking Trails. Thought I would update your article on Wertheim NWR trails. With the opening of the Long Island NWR Complex Visitor Center an additional trail was opened. The 3.3 mile Black Tupelo Nature Trail starts near the new visitor. It runs along the east side of Carmans River and has two new observation platforms offering scenic views of the river.

 

 


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Caumsett State Park

Mild winter and early spring days are perfect for getting out on the hiking trail. These are also times when we can best enjoy hiking in some of Long Island’s State Parks—there are no hunters to worry about, they have interesting and diverse vistas, and they are free during these off seasons. Here in central Suffolk we have Heckscher, Connetquot, and Sunken Meadow State Parks, all of which I will write about at a later time, but one of our favorite hikes is in a lesser known park in the northwest end of the county—Caumsett State Park in scenic Lloyd Neck.

This magnificent 1500-acre park embraces woodland, meadows, marshes, and a boulder strewn shoreline on Long Island Sound. It was once home to Marshall Field III, philanthropist and grandson of the department store tycoon. A brick manor house, stables, and several barns still stand on the property, and a series of dirt roads, equestrian trails, and bike paths make it an easy place to plan a stroll or an extensive hike.

We went on an early spring day with the basic plan to circumnavigate the park—a hike of almost six-miles. I stuffed a bottle of water, a few granola bars, and an apple into a light backpack, hung binoculars around my neck, set my GPS, grabbed one of my hiking poles and we were off. Jacquie, as usual, travelled light and was already outpacing me.

Leaving the parking lot we walked north on the dirt road that cuts between the two barns. This quickly connects to another dirt road, known as Fishermen’s Drive, which loops through meadows that once served as pasture for Marshall Field’s eighty head of prize cattle. The road slopes gently downward with a forest of mature hardwood on the left and a rolling meadow on the right, which park employees keep mown. We watched a red tail hawk circling high above the field looking for mice or meadow voles.

After about a mile the road enters deep forest of mixed hardwoods, including massive eastern plane trees which rise straight and branchless for fifty feet before opening out into a high canopy far overhead. Now the walking became a little more difficult as the road began to rise gently toward the coastline. It curved around a salt marsh which we could just make out below us through the trees. A great blue heron took off with a honk of annoyance as we passed.

The two-mile mark brought us to the beach. Here there is a wooden deck with a bench and a stairway that descends to the rocky sand below. This is a good spot to take a short rest and look out at the vista. Off to the left the salt marsh stretches a mile or so before giving way to the mouth of Oyster Bay. Directly across the Sound is the Connecticut shoreline from Greenwich to Westport. To the right the distant stacks of the Northport power plant intrude on the natural beauty.

The break over, we take the stairs down to the beach and continue our hike along the water’s edge working our way east. The bluffs that loom fifty-feet above the beach show the effect of winter storms. Erosion has caused massive slides, in some cases undermining mature trees which now lay like pick-up-sticks at the base of the bluffs. Out in the water, shed-size boulders expose their barnacled sides in the low tide. Gangly cormorants crowd the exposed tops fanning their wings out to dry, while out in the current sea ducks bob in the waves. Sometimes a winter walker is rewarded with a seal sighting, but none show themselves today.

There is no shortage of beach wrack though. This is a beachcomber’s paradise. Everything from lobster buoys and crab traps to driftwood and shiny beach glass is scattered along the high tide line. Jacquie searches for the perfect stone to carry back as a memento of the hike.

Just over a mile on the beach we round a point of land and the line of bluffs ends. Here we climb a few feet up to the tree-line and find a well worn hiking trail that meanders eastward through a dense undergrowth of wild cherry trees, catbrier, and vines. Some of the cherries are just starting to put out pink buds, and the side of the trail is lined with daffodils.

Now, the trail curves right and we walk south along the edge of a fresh water pond several acres in size. At least a dozen species of ducks congregate on the far side: mergansers, teal, buffleheads, and eiders are just a few that I recognize. This would be an ideal spot for serious birders to set up their long lens cameras.

Finally, the trail breaks out of the undergrowth. Ahead of us is a long, steep, grass covered slope crowned by the imposing brick mansion that Mr. Field built during the roaring twenties. By the time we make it to the top of the hill we are both panting and out of breath. Several benches on the grass next to the mansion provide a chance to rest and, again, take in a view that only a billionaire can afford to have as a backyard.

During the summer months, the mansion is leased out to Queens College for use as an environmental and arts center, but the place is vacant this time of year. In its solitude it seems to hark back to another era. Luckily, the former carriage house next door has restrooms that are of this era and open. There are even some vending machines offering drinks and snacks.

The remainder of our route is on a blacktop path that includes a bike lane. Continuing south we have views, through the trees, of open meadows where I imagine the clarion call of the hunting horn led Field’s guests as they rode to the hounds. Indeed, we soon pass some blanketed horses standing watchfully behind corral fences that surround the riding stables. The elegant brick stable that once housed Field’s polo ponies looks a bit time-worn now. Instead of housing a rich man’s pastime, it serves as part of the Caumsett equestrian center where middle class suburbanites get to ride the park trails.

We’ve walked about 5.5-miles in a couple of hours by the time we come to the high brick walls of the Walled Garden where straight rows of formal flower beds are ready to be prepared for spring planting. Just around the corner is the parking lot and the car. It’s been a long, exhilarating walk and we plan to cap it off with an early dinner at a restaurant in nearby Huntington. Perfect!

  
  

Getting There

From 25-A, at the west end of Huntington Village, make a left on West Neck Rd. and go about five-miles to the park’s entrance on the left.

    


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Cathedral Pines County Park

HikingJacquie and I were looking for a close-by, easy walk on a recent September afternoon—just enough to get in an hour’s worth of exercise before dinner. Cathedral Pines in Yaphank seemed like a good choice. Situated on the central spine of Long Island’s moraine, it has hills, forest, and good walking trails. During the summer months the park is pretty crowded with campers and picnickers, but by mid-September most of them have left.


HikingA Suffolk County Green Key is required to enter the park, but I have never had anyone ask to see mine. We started our hike from the dirt parking lot just inside the entrance. As usual, the parking lot had a few cars with bike racks attached; one of the main features of this park is its trail bike loop that snakes through the hilly terrain.




HikingWe headed up the fairly steep hill following the park road and immediately felt our breathing quicken with the effort. Although we were on a paved road the dense shade and pungent scent of the great white pines that we walked among were more reminiscent of the Adirondack Mountains than Long Island. Some of these pines soar overhead to the height of a cathedral and seem to embrace us with their peaceful sense of sanctuary.


HikingAt the top of the hill the landscape opens up to a series of fields with the main mobile campground on the left. We continue straight past the flagpole and the grassy field on our right. There is a large family or company picnic in progress out in this field. As we pass, the aroma of barbecued ribs and chicken wafts over us, so I fish around in my pocket for a handful of trail mix to help stem the craving. Jacquie points to a group of older people sitting in folding chairs waiting to be served and jokes about how that would be us.


HikingThe paved road has now turned to dirt as we follow the edge of the field heading roughly north. The woods on our left are punctuated by clearings that mark campsites for tent campers, but all of them are vacant now. Soon we are passing another field that is devoted to a dog run. A man is training a huge German shepherd and we are glad to see that the dog seems to be paying attention.



HikingThe walking is flat and easy as the road loops around the field and heads back south again. But now we want to head into the woods and follow the forest trail. We find an entrance opposite the dog run and once again enter the cool depths of the pine forest. The trail is narrow but clearly worn. It slopes gently downward as it runs its serpentine path through the big trees. It is difficult to tell which direction we are going in because of all the twists and turns, but, generally, we seem to be headed south. Off to our left, at the bottom of the hill, is the headwater of the Carman’s River. It is barely a trickle here but will soon widen as it snakes its way down through Southaven Park and out into Bellport Bay.


HikingI check our progress on my handheld GPS and remember that this park is the place that I first tested it out three years ago. That time I purposely left the trail and tried to bushwhack my way back to the parking lot, confident that my new GPS would lead me there. All went well for a while until I suddenly came up against a chain link fence. So much for relying too much on technology!



HikingThis time we stick to the trail. Up ahead we hear people approaching on mountain bikes so we step off the trail to let them pass. The park’s hiking trails converge in places with the bike trail so it pays to be vigilant during a hike.






HikingThe trees are magnificent in some spots. Although we are probably a couple of hundred yards from Middle Island-Yaphank Road, and not much farther from a multi-family picnic, the silence of the woods is almost palpable. With the trail twisting and turning along the hillside and the smell of pine needles underfoot it is easy to think we are in a great wilderness.




HikingBut the illusion doesn’t last long. At just about the two-mile point we break out of the woods and find ourselves back on the paved road again. A leisurely quarter-mile stroll brings us back to the parking lot. An easy fifteen-minute drive gets us back home in time for dinner.

 

 

 

Getting There

Take Station Road to Patchogue-Yaphank Road. Turn right, going north to Yaphank Lake. Bear left at the lake and go about two-miles to the park entrance on the left.

 


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The Bayard Cutting Arboretum

Bayard Cutting ArboretumI am addicted to this place. Located just twenty-minutes west of Bellport in Great River, the Bayard Cutting Arboretum has something to offer for everyone. I find myself drawn to this magnificent arboretum every season of the year. It is a place of rare trees, tended gardens, intricate pathways, and isolated spots of meditation. Its several hundred acres are tucked along the Connetquot River where the 100-year old manor house has views across a vast lawn out to the river’s mouth and the Great South Bay.

This is not really a hike. There is any number of walks and strolls for those who just want to take in the views, and plenty of lawn space to sit and Bayard Cutting Arboretummeditate or read a book. But we arrive on a May morning determined to cover the entire area in one big loop.

From the parking lot we pass behind the English Tudor manor house and proceed down the paved path towards the river. On the right a vast lawn shaded by huge oak trees is often the setting for free Shakespearian productions in the summer. On the left, a magnificent weeping beech tree is just leafing out; in hot weather we have often walked beneath its ancient branches as though through a grotto, and felt its natural air conditioning.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumThe path curves to the right and we follow the sign towards the rhododendron garden. Soon the paved path turns to a dirt trail and we cross a narrow dike between two ponds. Rhododendrons line the trail as it slopes gently upward. They are fat with buds, but it’s still too early for them to be blooming. When they do, in early June, the trail will be ablaze with color.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumJacquie is setting the pace and we quickly loop around to cross another dike that separates one pond from the brackish waters of the Connetquot. The trail hugs the bank of the river where willow trees reach out beyond the fringe of reeds. A pair of mallards cruises by with half a dozen recent hatchlings trying to keep up.

Now we come to a small island in the river. A wooden bridge leads onto it and an informal trail winds through its miniature bamboo forest. Several park benches provide views of the Great South Bay and Fire Island in the distance.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumBack on the main path again, we pass through a marshy area with skunk cabbage and curious little Jack-in-the-Pulpit plants. Dozens of foot-high stumps poke above the boggy surface in the shade of trees with feathery new leaves; these are the “knees” of swamp cypress, which grow in abundance at the water’s edge. They are just one example of the many non-native plants that the Cutting family introduced to their property in the early 20th-century.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumThe path follows the bank of the river north. The Connetquot River actually begins near the Long Island Expressway and flows south as a narrow trout stream through the Connetquot State Park before passing over dams at Sunrise Highway and widening towards the bay. At this point the river is a quarter-mile wide. Out in the center a pair of six-man sculls sweeps along with the current. These are part of the Dowling College rowing team out for practice. Once known as Idle Hour when it was the estate of the Vanderbilt family, the college stands out on the opposite shore with its distinctive, white, modern style gymnasium.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumOn the left we pass a big, two story shingled building; this former carriage house/stables is now used for lectures, concerts, and gardening classes. Long Island history is deeply felt throughout this walk and soon we come to a site that is marked only by a plaque, but was once the entrance to a long, wooden foot-bridge that spanned the river allowing the Cuttings to have easy access to the hunting and fishing at the Southside Sportsman’s Club. In the 1960’s, with its membership of NYC millionaires dwindling, that club morphed into the Connetquot State Park.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumNow the trail leads across a little earthen dam that connects the formal arboretum to an island that one of the Cutting children named “Paradise Island”. That may be a child’s dramatic view of an area that is simply Long Island nature in the raw: scrub oak, pine, giant reeds, and snarls of cat brier. The trail makes a mile-long loop around the island and we re-cross the dam back to the main path.

We follow the dusty path across an open meadow which was once a grazing area for farm animals. This is the north-western edge of the property and the sound of a LIRR train seems very close by. As we approach the tree line again we pass through a formal garden of dahlias. Bayard Cutting ArboretumThey are not in bloom yet but by the end of June they offer a spectacular display of color, attracting honeybees and hummingbirds. Adjacent to the garden is a shingled cottage which is used as an office but also has a convenient public bathroom.

Soon the main path we have been following breaks off into a series of winding paths that meander through the “pinetum”—a magnificent collection of evergreens from all over the world. Some of these paths seem to wind around in circles, but we try to keep the approximate location of the river on our left as we wend our way through the Bayard Cutting Arboretumspecimen trees. Some of them are originals that the Cutting family might have planted when Teddy Roosevelt was President. There are towering blue spruces and white pines, tent-like weeping hemlocks, exotic Asian fir trees with feathery needles, and even an imposing redwood or two which may take another hundred years to reach maturity.

Finally, we begin to pass through groves of holly—thick and impenetrable with their sharp, shiny leaves and waxy red berries. Then the sweet scent of lilac hangs in the air as we approach the side of the manor house where a crew of workers is busily planting showy annuals.

Bayard Cutting ArboretumThe entire walk has been about three and a half miles and we are ready for lunch.

Inside the manor house, the Hidden Oak Café occupies the former library. The walls are still lined with well stocked bookshelves and some customers sit and read as they enjoy an afternoon tea or one of the freshly prepared salads or sandwiches.

We decide to take our meal out on the porch which overlooks the vast lawn and the ancient weeping beech tree. In the distance is the shimmering water of Great South Bay. A civilized way to end any hike.

       

Getting There

Take Montauk Highway through Oakdale and past the curve adjacent to Sunrise Highway. The entrance to the Arboretum is on the left. Admission during the summer season is $6, senior citizens are admitted free during weekdays. No one has to pay in the winter months.

     


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The Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge

Hiking 002This hike is one of the farthest away from Bellport, but it is well worth the drive which can be nicely combined with a visit to nearby Sag Harbor or Shelter Island for lunch or dinner.

The refuge is a mere 187-acres, but feels much larger. It occupies a sliver of land called Jessup’s Neck, which juts out into Peconic Bay. Unfortunately, the longest section of the hike cannot be done between April 1st and August 1st due to nesting colonies of piping plovers, so plan this as a fall or winter outing.

On one of the last days of winter, with the temperature up around 60-degrees, my hiking partner and I arrive at the parking lot off Noyac Road. There is quite a lot of activity as a large group of high school students return to their bus after a guided nature walk, and several mothers head down the path with young children. An entrance kiosk has a sign-in book and honor system entry fee donation of $4.

Outfitted as I am with binoculars, camera, GPS, water, snack bars, and a newly acquired trekking pole, I am suffering Jacquie’s teasing as she strides along hands free. I caution her that I have done this hike before—though the last time was probably a decade ago—and, as I recall it, it is a good six-miles. She laughs and picks up the pace.

Hiking 002We pass the well-maintained bathrooms on the right and another kiosk on the left that explains some of the history and habitat of this spectacular piece of real estate. There seems to be a little of everything here: from upland forest to fresh water marsh, kettle holes to salt marshes, beaches and eroding cliffs to glacial erratics. Seals and sea turtles use the beaches, ospreys nest in the trees, turkeys and foxes crisscross the forest paths.

We hear some “oohs” and “aahs” up ahead and find several people standing quietly holding one hand aloft, palm upward. Chickadees and the occasional nuthatch fly out of the nearby cedar trees, land on the hands and peck at the offered sunflower seeds. A bird in the hand!

But, Jacquie and I have forgotten to bring seeds with us today so we continue down the path. A minute later, there is another trail that leads off to the right and goes through a marsh on a boardwalk, then loops around a pond where turtles can often be seen sunning themselves. We forgo the side trip because we are going for the six-mile trek today. The trail is totally enclosed by red cedar draped in vines and matted with cat brier. It slopes gently downward in a northerly direction towards the open waters of Little Peconic Bay.

We pass two women hiking in the opposite direction and one of them says, “Excuse me, Sir. Is that a hiking pole?”

She seems quite impressed and I smile smugly at Jacquie. She rolls her eyes.

“Yes,” I tell the woman, “In fact it’s called a trekking pole.” I then go on to inform her that she can buy a pair of them at that famous outfitter of all serious sportsmen: Costco.

Hiking 002The trail is quiet again except for a lot of bird song in the dense underbrush. Up ahead, a wild turkey has stepped out of the trees and is pecking along the ground. As we approach he lopes down the trail in a comical turkey trot, swaying side to side, and veers back into cover.

Hiking 002Suddenly, the trees simply end, the sky opens, and we are standing on a gravel beach looking out on the shimmering waters of the bay. Due west, off in the distance, is Robins Island. To the north is the shoreline that stretches from Southold to Greenport. The hike now becomes a beach walk.

Hiking 002The tide is low and we experiment with the best surface to walk on. Close to the water the gravel is fine, but too soft for a comfortable stride; the high tide line is ridged with jawbreaker-sized pebbles, difficult to slog through; higher up, just below the driftwood and storm wrack, a white ribbon of sand makes a nice trail to Hiking 002follow. This is the area that is closed in spring and half the summer.

This part of Jessup’s Neck is more like a barrier beach, just a couple of hundred yards wide with a brackish water pond cupped in its center and ringed with marsh grasses. A couple of osprey nests stand upon platforms near the pond, but there are still a few days before the big birds return from their southern hunting Hiking 002grounds. Jacquie stops a few times to pick up beach glass, but none of it is sufficiently worn down enough to be worth keeping. She also points out pieces of driftwood that—she claims—look like various animals, at least her descriptions sound convincing.

Jessup’s Neck rises again at its northern end where it becomes an upland forest perched upon eroding cliffs twenty-feet, or more, above the beach. Once we reach this tree line (at 1.3-miles) we follow a little trail on the right that leads past the end of the pond and into the trees for a short cut across to the opposite shore.

Hiking 002A few yards into the forest some cone shaped mounds catch our attention. They seem to be moving. They are large anthills—some almost three feet tall—and they are swarming with nasty looking, red and black, two-tone ants. We make jokes about tired, near-sighted hikers plopping down on these convenient “seats”. But, as we notice more and more of these anthills, the creepiness of the forest gets us to pick up our pace.

It takes only a couple of minutes to get out onto the eastern facing beach. We pick a nice, clean glacial boulder to sit on for a short rest, a drink of water and a snack. The gloominess of the forest trail had reminded me about something that I had almost forgotten about: there is a grave deep inside those woods where a young woman from the early 18th-century lies buried. I tell Jacquie how a hiking buddy and I came upon it many years before, when the trail that penetrates the center of the forest was open to hikers. I can’t recall her name or the exact date, but I remember that a little iron fence surrounded the stone. What a lonely place to be buried, yet what a beautiful place to be hiking in today.

Looking east we see the shoreline of North Haven and beyond it the bluffs of Shelter Island. A line of wooden poles stick up out of the water with a few cormorants perched on them catching the afternoon sun. These form the frame for trap nets—used for centuries by bay men to capture migrating schools of weakfish, fluke and striped bass.

Hiking 002We turn to the north again, and, with the eroded bluffs on our left, make our way out to the end of the neck. We haven’t met another person since the beginning of the hike. Now, as we stand at the very tip of land where it turns into a long finger of gravel before disappearing into the bay, we must be as isolated as two people can get standing on the mainland of Long Island.

Hiking 002My GPS shows we have walked 2.5-miles before we round the point and head back along the western shore again. A stiff wind has come up out of the south-west and blows right into our faces. The afternoon is wearing on and it’s getting colder. Spring is only a few days off but winter doesn’t want to let go this year.

By the time we get back to the car it feels good to get the hiking shoes off and change socks. A check of the GPS shows the total hike to be 4.6-miles. Not quite the six miles I had predicted, but exhilarating enough to have given both of us a good appetite. We decide to take the ferry over to Shelter Island and top the day off with a pleasant dinner at a local inn.

Not bad. Very, very not bad.

Getting There

Take Sunrise Hwy. out to where it becomes a local, two-lane, highway. Turn left at Rt. 52 -- towards North Sea/Noyac. Then, Drive north for about 3 1/2-miles to Noyac Rd. Turn right and drive east about six miles to the entrance to Morton on the left.

     


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Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge

I decided to begin with a walk that is short, easy, and close by. The Wertheim is one of eight National Wildlife Refuges on Long Island. At 2550-acres, it is second in size only to the Oyster Bay Refuge, which is mainly underwater. What makes Wertheim so special is its diversity. It encompasses the Carmans River estuary, freshwater ponds, open fields, upland forest, both fresh and saltwater marshes, and the open waters of Bellport Bay. During most of the last century the property was used for duck farming and as a private hunting preserve. Over the years, generous contributions of land—most notably that of Maurice Wertheim—were cobbled together with other parcels of land, acquired through the hard work of local and national environmental groups, to make the Wertheim the centerpiece of Long Island’s Wildlife Refuges.

The White Oak Trail

White Oak TrailOf course, if you want to see the Wertheim thoroughly you are going to need a canoe or kayak. But walkers can get a good sense of the place by traversing the two-mile loop trail that starts at the refuge headquarters parking lot. * I took to the trail on the Ides of March, just a week before spring, trying to wring the miserable winter out of my bones. As usual, no one was around so I had the place to myself.

The trail is wide, easy to follow, and nicely cushioned with mulch which makes it forgiving on feet and knees. It winds through fairly tall stands of red oaks, skeletal in their March bareness, so that some far off traffic noise can be heard from Montauk Highway. At one point I see the back of a lone house and think how lucky to live with a 2500-acre wilderness as your backyard.

*A new visitor center is due to open in the fall of 2011

A little farther on an incongruous Norway spruce looked out of place among the oaks—surely the remnant of some long gone homestead?

WertheimSoon I come across a No Hunting sign and some trees off the trail painted day-glo purple. It takes me a minute to process the meaning but then I realize that hunting is allowed on the other side of this line. This was confirmed later when I talked to the refuge manager who told me that there are three archery and one shotgun session for deer during the winter hunting season. So much for a purist’s idea of a wildlife refuge. Considering the deer over-population on Long Island, I’m not sure how to think about this.

At the half-mile point there is a small clearing where wild turkeys can sometimes be spotted. But not today. All is quiet. The few numbered boxes attached to trees are for bluebird nests—I believe—but none are here yet.

WertheimAt this point, walkers have the option to take a short loop back to the parking lot for a total of only one-mile. But, I continue on and begin to pass from the hardwood oaks into the tall pitch pine forest that eventually gives way to open salt marshes fringed with phragmite reeds.

The halfway mark for the walk is a wooden platform that overlooks the marsh along the Carmans River. Although I know the river is a hundred yards to the east, it is impossible to see it through the dense barrier of phragmites that have taken over and destroyed so much of Long Island’s natural salt marsh habitat. Only the razor straight cuts of mosquito ditches slanting eastward hint at the larger body of water out there. Half a mile across the open expanse of marsh the afternoon sun lights up the oaks and pines on the eastern side of Wertheim.

WertheimNow the trail gets wider—a dozen feet across—and underfoot it turns to hardpan and crushed gravel with just a light coating of pine needles. I pass marker #9 , which is a wooden platform looking out onto a fresh water bog. Skunk cabbages push their weird, pointed pulpits up through the muck in several places. Soon the peepers will be chanting their other-worldly song come dusk.

I stop at a bench at 1.3-miles to re-tie my boot laces—have to get in the habit of double tying. At 1.5-miles I pass a pond on the left side of the trail. It has a couple of large boxes on poles protected with raccoon baffles. These are nesting boxes for wood ducks—the most colorful, and, possibly, the oddest ducks native to Long Island. In very unduck-like fashion they spend much of their time in trees.

WertheimMarker #13 is an actual wildlife observation blind. It looks out over the river and is cut with slashes like arrow slits in the turret of a castle. I peer through a slit and watch a couple of swans float and tilt upside down to feed on river weed. Curiously, the main view, directly across the river, is now dominated by a large, erector set construction clad in blue insulation which is to be the future visitor center. I envision visitors, someday, staring back at me through binoculars.

Finally, the trail passes a larger fresh water pond on the left and I see that it has a control gate and a little spillway to bring the overflowing groundwater down into the tidewaters. Suddenly, underneath the overhanging limb of a willow tree, I see the tell-tale rings of a feeding fish. A trout? A native brook Wertheimtrout? I have often caught these perfect, beautiful little fish far up in the northern reaches of the Carmans River, but never down here so close to the salt water and the pull of the tides. For me it is a sign of spring. Better than a robin or a crocus—almost as good as an osprey. A perfect way to end a pleasant walk.

Getting There

The Wertheim lies about four-miles east of Bellport Village. After crossing the Carmans River bridge on Montauk Highway, turn right at the Light—Smith Road—go over the RR tracks and turn right into the refuge. A dirt road takes you to the parking lot at the head of the trail.

*Note—the new visitor center, scheduled to open in the fall 2011, is on
Smith Rd. just beyond the current entrance to the refuge.

 


"Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge" Comments...



4/26/2011, Helen Geraghty wrote...

I love this article. It's nice and specific. Now, in April is a good time to hike the trail because the mosquitoes haven't moved in.



4/20/2011, Robin Seibert wrote...

This is terrific, I have been wondering where to hike when I'm in Bellport and I will absolutely follow up on this hike. I would also be very interested in group hikes. Thank you for this column.



4/20/2011, Renee Lennon wrote...

What a wonderful way to enjoy our Island!! Me and my husband love to hike. You gotta love Bellport.com.



4/20/2011, Dennis Desmond wrote...

I have been walking it for years and it is very uncrowded and beautiful. Sometimes, I am the only person at the place especially in the winter and late fall and early spring. It is a level, easy walk of about 3.1 miles or you can take the short loop if that is too much. Go for it, it is worth the short drive and you will not be rushed. You can set your own pace and not worry about bothering anyone. Have fun and it is healthy and secluded.



4/17/2011, Marie Desch wrote...

Enjoyed the column; been thinking about hiking for a while. Any group hikes coming up?



4/15/2011, Marilyn Supon wrote...

We have walked that trail many, many times, but now we have more insight as to what we are seeing. Thanks, Rich.......terrific article. Keep them coming.



4/14/2011, Lorraine Fosmire wrote...

I found the article on the hike through Wertheim to be most interesting and informative. I have never walked the trails but hope to do so in the future. Looking forward to the new center. Thanks Larry for this great feature of Bellport.com.



4/12/2011, Jim Dwyer wrote...

What a great addition to your already valuable website. Much appreciated.



4/12/2011, Barbara Knowles wrote...

What a wonderful column. I have been to the refuge in the past to watch the ospreys nesting, but have not taken advantage of all the walks so expertly described. I will attempt to print the column and then get together with friends to explore!



4/12/2011, Marc Rauch wrote...

Thank you Bellport.com and Mr. Weissman. This column is a valuable service to the community. I look forward to future installments.

 


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