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Shelter Island Summer Stroll, July 2023

Trying to walk the target of 10,000 steps a day takes on a new challenge in the summer heat, even on this idyllic island.

One of my favorite stretches, along Crescent Beach, offers little shade, although the view in summer is as beautiful as always. There are, fortunately, a few other beaches that beckon on hot July days, some as secluded and quiet as Crescent can be busy and noisy.

The spit of sand known as Shell Beach, jutting out of Silver Beach, can be blazingly hot with little shade, but some days there is a breeze that makes all the difference. On either side, the waters of West Neck Harbor and Shelter Island Sound are peaceful to gaze upon, and welcoming to the wader or swimmer.

The trees and brush on either side of the road enjoy a kind of benign neglect, for much of the site is a protected nesting place for the endangered piping plovers and least terns. The abundance of shells makes it a beachcomber’s treasure, with some decorating the occasional tree with their finds.

I find people-watching as much fun as beachcombing, observing how each side of the peninsula attracts different folks. On the south side, lone beachgoers or pairs enjoy the quiet solitude, having the beach and gentle waters all to themselves, with the occasional passing boat and distant ferry varying the view.

The harbor side is just the opposite: families set up for the day on the beach, alternately swimming and feasting as they enjoy being together. On windy days, you may spot a kite surfer swooping by, or watch the lively Menantic Yacht Club Sunfish races on Sundays.

It’s also a popular destination for cabin cruisers, whose owners seem to crave a physical safety net as well as a social one. Tying up five or six abreast, they create their own islands — with their own background music, too.

A sign at the entrance to the harbor sets out the rules for visiting craft: No dumping oil, sewage or garbage. Observe posted speed. Please be reasonable.

Generally good rules to live by.

For Islanders craving a much quieter stroll as well as some beach time, Hay Beach’s Menhaden Lane offers a path through the shady woods of the Bunker City County Park. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the Shelter Island Historical Society offers the background.

It was purchased by Suffolk County in 1993 after a 23-year battle between the town and developers of Hay Beach. The property, known as “Section 9” was and remains a 35-acre pristine tract of land home to varied flora and fauna including protected species such as Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus, Red Cedar, plus numerous other wildflowers, shrubs and grasses. It, too, is a nesting area for Piping Plover. Its strategic location is important to the health of adjacent Coecles Harbor.

Passed down from Nathaniel Sylvester to succeeding generations, it was the site of the busy bunker processing factories, or “pot works,” that lined the shore where plentiful catches of menhaden, or bunker, were cooked and their oils pressed. It was a lucrative industry in past centuries, but the associated odors would not be compatible with the tourism and recreational water activities that flourish on the Island today.

This preserve constitutes a large area of the “causeway,” a unique and fragile coastal maritime ecosystem. From the Menhaden Lane parking area, you can follow a sandy, tree-lined path that winds through the preserve, mostly shaded by gently curving tree limbs.

Enjoying the yellow cactus flowers and other bits of color that pop through, you’ll hear the unmistakable call of the bobwhite, a welcome reminder that these quail have been recently introduced to the Island to re-build their numbers.

A sudden cacophony of crows disputing a bit of territory snaps you back to reality, though: this is Wild Kingdom, not LaLa Land. Just as suddenly, you emerge at the southern end of the beach. Most days, you won’t find much of a crowd on the Menhaden Beach, which lacks the amenities of Wades and Crescent, i.e., restrooms, lifeguards, food trucks.

But dogs are allowed, the waters are calm, and the view of Gardiners Bay is the best reward. Here is one of the few places on the Island where you can see out beyond the Forks into the Atlantic. The iconic Bug Light is usually visible in the distance. At night it is one of the best places for star gazing, as well.