Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Dunes of Plum Island

protected beach
Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge
Is there a place, or a landscape that stirs your soul more than any other?  For me it’s probably the simple beauty and marvelous symmetry of sand dunes.  I’ve traveled to the Saharan sands, walked along the dunes that line the coast of Florida, and visited Great Sands National Park in Colorado.  But the truth is, I don’t have to go very far at all to stand in the hills of sand I love most.

One of my favorite natural places is an eleven-mile long sandbar in northern Massachusetts called Plum Island.  It’s a wildlife sanctuary and as a child I saw my first bald eagle there; and also my first red fox, great blue heron, piping plovers; and the place I caught my first striped bass fishing at night along the surf.  Last year, I witnessed a young seal making its way along the surf, and a great cormorant wading in the offshore swells.

The southern 2/3 of the island has been designated as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. There is so much wildlife because Plum Island is an estuary, a place where the ocean tides mingle with the sweet water of two rivers, the Merrimac to the north and the Ipswich to the south.  As are all estuaries, Plum Island is one of the most productive natural habitats in nature, and plays a critical role in the local environment.

The dunes of Plum Island are filled with a wide variety of plants.  Beach plums and short hardy grasses abound on the side that faces the Atlantic by the haunting sound of the surf, on a long seemingly endless beach.  The inland side sits on some of the most beautiful tidal marshland you will see anywhere.  In between, you can walk along dunes that run for hundreds of yards and stand fifty feet tall, hosting a shrubby forest and the occasional tall pine.

Beach DunesIn my first trip on the island, with my tenth grade biology class, I never could have imagined how a sandbar would shape my life.  When I lived in the Andes and wrote my first novel about an ocean world, I thought about Plum Island and how it often closes long stretches of the beach for nesting plovers.  Can you look upon a scene so beautifully free of human footprints without being inspired?

It is one of the first natural places I visited with my wife, when we were so very young and the possibility of our now life-long affair was as ephemeral as the icicles that hung off every branch around us.  It was in the middle of winter and the place sparkled from a blanket of ice and crusty snow of a New England nor’easter.  And now, twenty five years later our teen-age son swims in the tall waves, oblivious to the chill of the North Atlantic.  It is his favorite place as well.