By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina
Jones Inlet to the Fire Islands
20 nautical miles (23 land miles)
(click on photos to expand them—they look a lot better when they’re BIGGER!)
All was well at our Cable Crossing campsite until just after midnight, when we were abruptly awakened by a piercing siren. Startled, we peered out of the tent window: The drawbridge was going up to let through a large fishing boat that then proceeded past our camp out to sea, its green and red sidelights cutting through the darkness. The siren sounded a second time when the bridge was down again.
For the rest of the night, the siren woke us up every hour or so. Not only that, but at some point a gang of construction workers appeared and began doing some noisy jackhammering on the bridge—a healthy reminder that no matter how idyllic the surroundings, this was still essentially an urban environment!
But then, one time we woke up, the inside of the tent was no longer dark, but gray, blue, with even a touch of pink. Dawn! And time to Vlad to go for a walk along the beach and take a few photographs at this magic hour..
By now the sun was high up above the horizon, filling the tent with golden light. Johna was up, too…
… and firing up her Jetboil. We ate a nice breakfast on a tarp that we laid down after moving aside a couple of dead horseshoe crabs.
On this, our first morning in camp, we began to realize some things.
We had packed way too much stuff, especially too much food, and worse, we couldn’t remember where in the boats, in which dry bags, everything was. So we were going to be constantly frustrated at not finding what we wanted, but, on the other hand, pleasantly surprised by what we did find…
And second, Long Island is made of, ahem, sand. Sand was going to get into dry bags, tent, sleeping bags, clothes, food, everything. There was no point in fighting it—we would just have to live with sand.
Finally we packed everything into the boats and set off. It was not the early departure that we had planned. T0day’s destination was Watch Hill, an official campground near the middle of Fire Island, where we had a reservation to camp tonight. But as they say in the Army, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Today—and our entire trip—would be proof of that!
This turned out to be one of the most beautiful days of the entire trip, as we paddled along endless miles of saltwater grassland. You could call it “marshland”, except it wasn’t, really. Tall clumps of grass grew in a thick mat, more like tundra than swamp.
After a while, Johna noticed that the roots of the grass were larded with clusters of mussels. We’d already marveled at the number of birds, including many beautiful orange-billed oystercatchers, that we could see in the grass. And we’d wondered where these birds found food. Then we realized that with all the mussels, they were living atop a vast plain of food—something like (for humans) camping on top of a giant birthday cake!
Schools of fish occasionally appeared, their fins poking up in a flurry of disturbed water. Every now and then, a fish would leap out of the water.
Yesterday’s strong westerly wind continued. With the wind at our backs, and a favorable current as well, we made good progress along the intracoastal waterway, marked at intervals by red and green daymarks. We paddled past grassy island after island, our only companions the birds, the fish, and occasional pleasure-boaters.
For a late lunch, we landed on a lushly overgrown little island just off the waterway. And there, conveniently placed on a little rise with a view, was what we’ve come to call a “dictator chair” (why? that’s another story!). Just one, unfortunately…
We paddled on. The current turned increasingly against us, a sign that we were nearing the next inlet, Fire Island Inlet, and the exit of the intracoastal waterway into the Great South Bay. But first, we passed some nice houses on the water…
…and some very nice boats (although we did have to snicker at this one—do you think the owner is overcompensating for something?)
Finally, we passed under the Captree Island bridge against a stiff current. The wide Great South Bay opened up in front of us. To our right was Fire Island, with its prominent striped lighthouse, and directly in front of us the two smaller, less well known Fire Islands. We paddled out across the shallow, warm waters of the bay, sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine…
By this time, it was abundantly clear that we were not going to make it to Watch Hill, still many miles distant, before dark. So we began scouting for campsites.
After a while we located a wonderful, uninhabited island that we immediately dubbed “Paradise Island”. There was a spit of land perfect for camping. On one side was a shallow lagoon with warm, calm water; on the other side, an “ocean” beach with cooler water and waves.
We landed well before sunset, and decided to wash up and eat dinner before pitching the tent. The lagoon made a perfect bathtub, and we washed ourselves and our clothing with Campsuds (one of our invaluable purchases at REI). Then we fixed and ate dinner and watched the sun set.
Everything couldn’t have been more perfect: the day, the island, the refreshing bath, the lovely sunset. So we decided to skip the tent and sleep out under the stars—a fitting capstone to a perfect day.
Perfect… except that Paradise Island had a few tricks up its sleeve, which it proceeded to unleash on us.
First was the biting flies, which came out in force the instant the sun dipped below the reeds. Although we were liberally coated with DEET, after five minutes it was clear that we were in a losing battle, and we hurried to pitch the tent, zipping up the windows to keep the bugs out.
Good thing, too, because a thunderstorm was on its way. Just as we crawled inside the tent, the first few drops came down. We hurriedly put the fly on the tent, too.
The first round of showers was fairly benign, but some time later we were awakened by a wild rocking of the tent in the wind. We scrambled outside once more to stake down the tent and put away anything else that could be blown away. We were back in the tent just as the downpour started. So far, so good…
… until we discovered the tent roof had sprung a leak. Water dripped in steadily, and pooled in the middle of the tent floor. We squirmed and squiggled the air mattresses around, but there was no avoiding it: By morning there was a deep puddle of water, and the air mattresses and sleeping bags were soaking wet.
Never mind. It was a beautiful morning on Paradise Island, and another day’s paddle into unknown waters awaited us…
Paradise indeed. I love seeing posts of your adventure. Makes me long for the days we camped as a family. Great pics. Thanks for sharing.
Like any other paradise, with a few worms in the apple… but yes, despite the sand, biting flies, and thunderstorms, we were happy there…
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Looks amazing. What an adventure.
It gets better!
Great pics. Looks loke you guys are having a great time.
We were! This early in the trip, we were still very bouncy…
the gray, blue, with even a touch of pink sky was incredibly beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing your great adventure!
The early mornings, before sunrise, and the evenings were especially beautiful. We were lucky with the weather: mostly good weather, but not just boring blue skies—we saw spectacular, colorful cloud displays almost every day…
Great pictures! wonderful views! Thanks for sharing ;-)
You are welcome! Much more to come…
I’m green with envy – more especially with the sleeping under the stars
part:-). What a lovely and adventurous experience.
Minus the bugs, of course. And the leaky tent. But it was wonderful nonetheless!
wonderful story, tell me more, MJ
We shall, fear not! There are, I think, 10 more installments (I wrote the drafts, Vlad is polishing and adding photos–or he will when he gets back from his scientific conference this week!)
I was a ranger on Fire Island 25 years ago…your second post came with a lot of nostalgia.
Funny! Later on we saw a helicopter overhead and made some jokes about the “Fire Island Helicopter Police”—jokes because we figured helicopters are expensive, and probably unnecessary.. Wondering now if the Fire Island Helicopter Police actually exists?
I was with the National Park Service–As far as I know, no helicopters have ever been flown by the NPS on Fire Island. Perhaps a different agency.
Wow, this place looks amazing! I really envy you for being so close to nature! :)
Totally immersed in nature—if you discount the heavy traffic rumbling continually on the road just behind our campsite, which the camera conveniently overlooks…
Ain’t camping grand? What good to go and not have a story, like a leaky tent (or a raccoon that eats everything out of a cooler and splashes around in the Kahlua in the bottle left open by somebody’s husband). I’m loving your paddling and photos.
Got to take the rough with the smooth… much more of both to come!
I am so in awe of your stamina and how lovely to know that such pleasures are not so far away. Your photos capture so many wonderful, different moods!
Different moods—yes! We never knew what was coming next…
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Got to this post via your link to the sunrise — and so glad for it. Hilarious (well, if not pursued by mosquitoes and drenched by rain) and fascinating, and I wouldn’t have missed for the world that guy’s COMPENSATING boat!
Now you can go on and read about the other 9 days! ;-)
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