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Charity’s Column: Adventure among the cornstalks

Looking for something to do with the last of the local corn? Get lost.

A family visit to a North Fork corn maze is a great idea. In theory. The anticipation of a golden fall day, of an outdoors frolic with children, maybe a nice drink of cider afterwards… it sounds wonderful. But ask people for their maze memories, and you’ll hear stories; of backed-up traffic, disappearing children and scarecrows that frighten people, not birds.

It sounds straightforward. A few acres of corn planted in crooked rows, pay $10 a head, and off you go. Soon, you’ll recognize the turns, find your way out, and be rewarded with a cider donut. Or walk endlessly in circles. I have a friend in Southold who swore off corn mazes forever when she got lost with her two children, and had to yell for help to be guided out of the corn puzzle they were stuck in. This is not a position any parent wants to be in.

Some mothers just won’t go there. “I don’t remember taking my kids to a corn maze,” Janet D’Amato told me, “I had a hard time keeping track of all of them as it was.”

The one time I took my own children to the corn, reviews were mixed. One has fond memories of Krupski’s maze as a place where he got to wander around on his own. The other can’t remember if he had fun. “Judging from my dislike of looking for things, probably not.”

Perhaps no North Fork corn maze is better known than Harbes. Maggie Murphy and David Browne of Burro Hall Lane won’t soon forget a visit there with their daughter, and a large contingent of family and friends, including Maggie’s mom, who was then in her early 80s, but still game. 

It was a warm day, and one member of the party wore shoes that were not maze-appropriate. As they moved through the turns, everyone was getting hungry for lunch, and eyes started to water, but that was probably just allergies. “After about 25 minutes we had looped around twice, and I decided to be a city slicker,” said Maggie. “I found a scarecrow and asked if his brain and $10 could help me find the maze’s fast pass exit. He obliged. He would have done it without the cash, but I thought it was the least I could do for getting us to the cider donuts faster.” Her advice to maze-goers: “Comfortable shoes, a crisp $10 bill and respect for the hard-working scarecrows you meet along the way.” 

Harbes has innovated over the years. This year there are three ways to experience the maze of maize; one for the timid with Wizard of Oz characters (presumably without the flying monkeys); two that involve answering trivia questions as you progress through; and one with nighttime admission that starts at sundown, requires a flashlight, and scares me since it costs about twice as much as the same maze in daylight.

Shelter Island School Superintendent Brian Doelger grew up on Long Island, but did not go to corn mazes as a young child, although his parents did bring him and his brothers out East to visit farm fields. “I remember feeling excited and a bit scared, that I would get lost in them forever,” he recalled. “I do think there is good pedagogical value in visiting these farms; to teach children to learn directions and not be scared, to allow children to figure things out on their own. When we were younger, it seems like the kids were left to figure out a lot more on their own than they are now. Any time a child can problem-solve on his/her own, I think it is an excellent opportunity to grow.”

Linda DiOrio did not go to a corn maze as a child in Sweden, but she did take her own children, Mia and Christopher, and they seem to be none the worse for it. “We had a good time. Once it was a little scary and I thought we would get lost, but I am an adventurer so what can I tell you.”

When Susan Cincotta’s kids were little, she took them to a corn maze for the feeling of adventure. “Knee high by the 4th of July was what my kid’s Dad always said. He was from Wisconsin and corn was serious business…A maze was a relief from the stress, where kids could run, and get lost, and find their way.”

These days, my own fear surrounding corn mazes centers on the likelihood of being stuck on the way to one in slow traffic with a passenger who has to go to the bathroom. If not for that dread specter, I would visit Stakey’s in Aquebogue, where a corn maze purist can still find the emphasis on navigating through a vast expanse of corn rows, and less on interactive videos and trivia questions. The ability to navigate a maze is an important life skill and I intend to keep improving it.