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A place where gulls outnumber people

Another season is winding down — turning over, packing up, digging in, heading south. A couple of old gaffers at the marina are hauling an old boat for winter. The helper returns to the slip and kneels to remove the dock lines. He turns and smiles, and I find myself looking into the face of an ancient Yankee fisherman-farmer already anticipating in his bones the iron cold lurking just a turn or two away on the calendar.

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I leave the marina and run down a channel just east of a long, low strand of sand and dune grass, where I overtake a handsome motoryacht with a Palm Beach hailing port on the transom. Southbound. Some year it would be nice to join the migration, but not this season. And not in this little boat.

I am looking today for a bit of a lee, a sanctuary from the fronts and wind and the buffeting of a listing economy. I find it for several hours behind a sandy island that probably has little more permanence long-term than a large sandbar. It will outlive me, but it’s not built for the long haul. It moves, retreats, bends and is sometimes breached by winter storms. None of that seems to bother its quarrelsome crew of gulls, terns, cormorants and associates.
The island makes me think of Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University and a staunch defender and advocate of the coastal sands. It would be just his kind of place — dynamic, constantly moving, alive. I interviewed Pilkey a number of years ago about barrier beaches and our many attempts to hold the shoreline in place by armoring it with jetties and groins and the like. His philosophy was — and remains — let nature take its course on the barrier beaches and islands. Let nature rip. At the time, he lived in a farmhouse with a big, old anchor in the yard tied to his chimney with a sturdy rode — a good metaphor, perhaps, for this world of shifting sand. Hold tight.
I drop my anchor in about 6 feet of water no more than 30 yards off the southern tip of the island, which was overwashed and flattened in several spots by surge from Hurricane Irene. It is lumpy outside today, and a pretty fair swell has made it over the flats and is now breaking on the lee shore. The tide is flooding and there is little elevation to stop the waves from climbing the beach face.
I light a cigar, fiddle with a Pandora music channel on my iPhone and thumb through a book. When I look up, the wash has crested the berm, and two little rivulets have successfully scored the breadth of the beach and are now draining into the calm waters on the backside of the island. It is a sawing process that, in time, will sever one more limb from the island. Depending on the storms this winter, this southern tip might well be submerged come spring.
There are but two boats anchored within a mile of me. I am alone, save for the wind and clouds and these left-breaking waves. As my fishing partner, the Codfish, is wont to say, “You know you’re in the right place when the gulls outnumber the people.”
An electronics manufacturer recently told us that its typical customer spends about 100 hours a year on the water — and probably another 2,000 hours a year thinking about being out there. Sounds about right.
The “doing” is winding down, the dreaming just warming up.

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“The sea drivesthe truth into a man like salt.”
— Hilaire Belloc

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.