By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina
(click on photos to expand them—they look a lot better when they’re BIGGER!)
At 5 a.m., Vlad awoke to see the walls of the tent glowing with a fiery dawn light.
He stumbled out of the tent and, still only half-awake, quickly retraced yesterday’s path over the dunes to the ocean side of Fire Island. By that time, the fire in the sky had faded to a cool purple and blue glow over the wide empty beach and the foaming surf…
Back to the campsite. It was still early. There was time to doze off for another couple of hours or so…
Then, suddenly, the sun was well up in the sky, Johna was up, and it was high time to make breakfast, pack the boats, and go.
We set off. The continuing southwesterly wind pushed us along at a nice pace, but created problems for Johna: her boat is prone to weathercocking (turning into the wind, for you non-kayakers). The usual cure for this is to drop the skeg (a retractable fin at the stern of the boat), but for some reason this wasn’t working for her today (she found out why later). So she had to practice her edging and corrective strokes—and discovered that she could keep going straight with a strong edge and a corrective sweep every third or fourth stroke. The problem? It’s tiring, and after a few miles she had a persistent ache in one side. But as it turned out, it was a good thing her edging muscles got a workout—because she would need them in the not-too-distant future!
In a couple of miles we reached the confused shallows around Moriches Inlet, where we had to pick our way carefully past the sandbars and a couple of times almost ran aground. When birds are standing in the water up ahead, even kayakers should probably take notice…
Although there was a steady stream of motor boats passing through Moriches Inlet, we were amused to note on the chart the ominous warning that “due to rapidly changing shoaling conditions and existing dangers in Moriches Inlet, it is considered unsafe for Mariners to attempt to navigate this inlet at any time”. Something to contemplate during the day as we made our way toward Shinnecock Inlet, a rather similar inlet through which tomorrow we would actually have to exit into the ocean!
Today, though, we continued along the intracoastal waterway through Moriches Bay. The water glowed yellow with reflections from the sandy bottom that in many places was no more than inches below our keels.
Finally, we passed under the bridge at the eastern end of Moriches Bay…
… into a narrow, constricted section of the waterway, the Quantuck Canal.
In Quantuck Canal (and later, in Quantuck Bay and the Quogue Canal), the scenery changed noticeably: instead of broad grassy banks, the shores were lined on both sides with beautiful houses, each with its own dock and one (or many) boats—including, we were gratified to see, some houses with multiple kayaks!
“That house must be really expensive,” Vlad said at one point. “It’s a six-kayak house!”
And the homeowners—while a different demographic from the folks on Fire Island—were quite a lot of fun to watch. Generally they were families, sometimes in large extended groups. And occasionally a motor boat would cruise by—presumably from Fire Island—crewed with a group of well-muscled, shirtless men.
“You have help!” Johna retorted, referring to the motor.
This was a very different experience from the previous day’s, and of the day before that. In fact, it was beginning to dawn on us that one of the most salient characteristics of Long Island is its diversity: salty grasslands, dazzling white beaches, windswept islands, ocean surf, and expensive houses on canals, too. And we weren’t even finished with the South Shore yet!
We paddled on through the Quogue Canal…
We were now within a couple of miles of Shinnecock Inlet, ideally placed to start tomorrow’s long paddle through the open ocean to Montauk. There was no point in paddling farther today—once out of Shinnecock Inlet, we would be committed to paddling all the way to Montauk. So, although it was only mid-afternoon, we began scouting around for a campsite.
Soon we came across a nice sandy beach on a small, uninhabited island. Not far off was the elegant span of the Ponquogue Bridge, and just beyond that, Shinnecock Inlet!
There was only one problem. The island was flat, and overgrown with reeds everywhere except on its fringe of beach—and it wasn’t entirely clear how high the tide would come up. Dragging the boats up into the reeds would be difficult (and camping in the reeds would be uncomfortable). But we couldn’t pitch camp on the beach until we knew how high the tide would come. And the beach was so flat that even a vertical inch or two of rising water would translate to several yards of horizontal submersion.
What to do? By our calculations, it would be high tide in half an hour, around 5:30 PM. So we landed, and decided to wait out the tide.
First, Johna went for a swim. Although the shallow water near the island was warm, the deeper water was surprisingly cold—an indication that the open Atlantic was near. Once Johna could bring herself to submerge fully, she swam for about 20 minutes—not quite her usual 30-minute workout, but she had an excuse: she’d been paddling for seven or eight hours by then!
Fortunately, she’s a good swimmer, and she made it back to the island with no problems. By then it was around 5:45 PM—hopefully the tide had turned.
No such luck. For the next hour, we sat and watched as the tide inched in. And here’s the funny thing: That sounds like the most boring thing in the world, second only to watching paint dry—but it was fascinating. Each wavelet would strike slightly differently, curling around a piece of wood or pooling in a footprint in the sand. After a few minutes, Johna found that she could actually see the tide coming in (and later, she would discover that she could see the tide reverse).
If that weren’t enough, there were the birds. The island was home to a large population of gulls, which swooped down on us, and each other, and made a noise we’d never heard gulls make before: they barked. (We promptly dubbed it “The Island of Barking Gulls”.)
We guessed they were adults protecting juveniles (the juvenile gulls, Vlad noted, were the large gray ones that looked for all the world like sullen, overgrown teenagers).
And then there was a pair of oystercatchers that scampered back and forth along the beach, occasionally digging into the sand. They were quiet and seemed gentle enough.
Every now and then, though, a seagull would swoop over and launch a dive-bombing attack on the oystercatchers, barking loudly all the while.
The oystercatchers’ response? The best defense is a good offense, evidently! We got many a chuckle watching the oystercatchers gang up on the aggressive seagull, and chase it away from “their” turf.
So all in all, watching the tide roll in was exciting—actually, a high point of the trip!
By now it was nearly 7 PM, and the tide had been coming in relentlessly. If it didn’t stop soon, we’d have to move the boats to high ground among the reeds.
But then Johna noticed something interesting: although the wavelets appeared to come as far up as before, they were retreating rather tiredly, as if they’d run out of energy. Could it be…?
Yes, it was. The tide had turned. It wouldn’t be this high for another 12 hours, by which time we’d be long gone. We pitched the tent and began to make supper.
Since tomorrow would be a long day, we prepared a feast: salmon and rice, with nuts and dried fruit, and coconut milk (you can read more about our food choices in the Postscript).
A spectacular sunset put us in the mood for sleep…
* * * * * * *
The next thing Johna knew, Vlad was shaking the outside of the tent. 5:05 AM, time to get up—and get ready for the biggest adventure of the trip!