Column: The faces of Mashomack

JASON SHIELDS

Each morning when I step out to leave for work the murmur of pink in the southeast sky is a little stronger and the silhouettes of the trees gain texture by degrees. Each lunch hour the sun is higher and warmer and on my return trip home it is still beaming. We are almost free of the winter doldrums, mitigated last year by the mild winter. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Sandy (yes, sustained winds recorded at Fishers Island qualified the storm as a category one hurricane for our state), this winter delivered several frigid cold snaps and one powerful blizzard to date. A combination of inhospitable weather and too much work reduced my outdoor recreational time to zilch.

So I anticipate spring and its welcoming warmth with the intention of walking my favorite beaches and wooded trails, as well as exploring some new ones on the forks straddling my town. I don’t have to go far to find the most diverse wildlife refuge on the East End. Shelter Island is blessed with Mashomack Preserve, more than 2,000 acres of open space, much of which has never been disturbed by plow or shovel. Its shoreline rambles like a charm necklace strewn across a night table, bedecked with jewels like Miss Annie’s Creek, Split Rock, Mashomack Point, Sungic Creek, Cedar (Taylor’s) Island and Foxen Creek. On the east side between Sungic and Nicolls points several salt ponds and small creeks dot the perimeter. Similarly, a salt pond and some larger creeks and marshes are interspersed along the beach in Smith Cove and are more accessible to hikers.

From south to north around the preserve, the beach transitions from sand to rocks of every shape and size and back to the sand spit of Sungic Point guarding the mouth of Coecles Harbor. As a kid fishing around Cedar Point Light, I was in awe of the huge menacing boulders lining the east side of the preserve. Devoid of any signs of civilization, the landscape seemed prehistoric to me, as if the gulls flying above the huge monoliths were pterodactyls and T-rexes roamed just over the cliffs.

As a reporter for the local paper years ago, I was invited many times to access parts of the preserve that are normally off-limits to visitors. One such adventure involved banding ospreys way out on Mashomack Point, well away from the marked trails. It is truly another world out there where tidal marsh dominates the bulbous peninsula and nature carries on free from all but the most insidious imprints of man. The stand of woods seems oddly out of place, like palms on an atoll, but plays as vital a role in that habitat as the grasses surrounding them. This section of the preserve, named the Katherine Ordway Wildlife Refuge, is set aside as a true sanctuary and that covenant should not be violated. Viewed through binoculars from a boat is the most sensible way to enjoy this outer region.

The north shore of Mashomack is where man and nature mix, each comfortable with the boundaries established by the other. Less than 10 private residences are amassed between Cedar Island and Foxen Creek and most have been there so long they are part of the natural order. So, too, is Taylor’s Island, which juts several hundred feet from the beach with its landmark cabin perched on the bulkheaded dot of lawn. Once the summer retreat of industrialist Frank “Borax King” Smith and later Greek hotelier and philanthropist Gregory Taylor, who bequeathed the island to Shelter Island Town, it is as much a part of the culture of the place as osprey nests atop poles.

Today it is undergoing renovations and is the centerpiece of a water trail in Coecles Harbor. That trail includes Mashomack’s Foxen and Fan creeks, which were my summer playgrounds growing up. The latter lies in the belly of Cedar Island Cove. Its sometimes narrow passages wind into the preserve, absorbing kayakers in marsh grass and tall oaks, which create an amphitheater for the birdlife.

I am partial to the places where land meets water, but Mashomack offers so much more than the coastal attractions I’ve described. The hiking trails bring visitors through a spectrum of habitats, from the fringes of tidal marshes to freshwater kettleholes, old growth forests, moraines, meadows and the Manor House compound. The house and its outbuildings blend into the natural landscapes and are, in fact, one of the green trail’s attractions. The Manor House and each of its buildings house elements integral to the operation and mission of the preserve, from fundraising for the Nature Conservancy to accommodating interns who assist in the upkeep and maintenance. The preserve also hosts scientists and field researchers and conducts its own studies.

On entering the preserve, hikers encounter the Visitors’ Center, which houses a learning area and the preserve’s education outreach staff. Guided and themed nature walks, age-appropriate learning activities, volunteer-driven maintenance projects and many other activities are offered. And annual social events, the summer dinner dance and the winter holiday cocktail party, hosted by the preserve, are staples of the Island’s community calendar and help raise funds and awareness for the preserve’s mission.
One morning very soon we will awake to purple crocuses and dogwood buds. The air will feel different and the water will cease to be cold and foreboding. We’ll pour our coffee, look out our windows and feel a sudden urge to take a walk. With this in mind, consider experiencing the vivid and colorful canvas of biodiversity found in Mashomack. Whether a ferry ride away or in your backyard, it’s worth discovering.

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