Pine Neck Nature Sanctuary

Location: East Quogue, NY

Size: 77 acres

Date of hike: Feb. 21, 2015

I definitely didn't plan on hiking Pine Neck Nature Sanctuary.  In fact, I didn’t even know it existed.  My intention was to hike Wading River Marsh, a preserve under the jurisdiction of the Nature Conservancy that I'd tried to hike two weeks earlier.  Unfortunately, the parking area wasn't plowed at the time and I wasn't willing to risk getting stuck in the snow.  By now, I figured the white stuff would either be plowed or sufficiently melted to accommodate a car.  I was wrong.  That's when I pulled out my cell phone to research other nearby spots – and I learned about Pine Neck.

My first thought upon arrival was that it too was inaccessible.  A big mound of plowed snow was blocking the parking area.  But unlike in Wading River, the cross street was not heavily trafficked, enabling me to park on the side of the road less than a block away.  After scaling the mound to enter the preserve, I noticed that some previous visitors had already broken in the trail.  There were strings of footsteps, paw marks, and flattened stretches likely left by a some skiiers.  But before I began exploring, I realized the cold temperature was more brutal than I had anticipated.  It was finally above freezing for the first time in weeks, and I thought an old-fashioned pair of jeans would be sufficient.  Wrong again.  Hence, off to the Kmart in Riverhead I went for some thermals.  It took about 45 minutes before I was back on the trail.

Before hiking, I brushed up on the preserve to familiarize myself with its history and habitats.  Apparently, Pine Neck is one of the few places where the pine barrens extend all the way to Long Island's south shore, according to the Nature Conservancy website.  The land – which crosses forests, skirts a salt marsh, and ends at Shinnecock Bay – is the former waterfront estate of a lady named Zoe Syck DeRopp, who donated a dozen acres to the conservancy starting in 1972, with additional acreage purchased through a joint agreement between the conservancy and the Town of Southampton in 2000.  Depending upon the time of year, its wildlife ranges from migrating waterfowl to endangered roseate tern to long-tailed ducks.

Luckily, the preserve was totally worth the detour.  It's a loop trail about 2.4 miles in length, according to a kiosk near the preserve's entrance, and it was beautiful in the snowy setting.  After reaching a T-intersection early on the trail, I opted to head left.  Within 15-20 minutes, I'd found myself face to face with snow-covered marshlands bordering the Shinnecock Bay.  The beauty was unbelievable.  It looked much more like the Arctic Circle than Long Island.  But I froze in my footsteps when I stepped on the frozen marsh.  Due to a blanket of white weather around me, I couldn't tell whether I was on ice or solid ground.  I decided it wasn't worth the risk with no one around for miles, so I stayed along the edge close to the trees.

It wasn't long until I surrendered to my inner urges and walked across the hardened marsh, giving myself a point of view that had probably only been seen by insects or low-flying birds.  I tiptoed until I made my way to the shore.  Everything was a sheet of ice, but I liked seeing the preserve in that state.  I passed osprey nests set high off the ground on wood platforms.  I passed piles of dead crabs that hadn't survived the winter's wretched weather.  I passed a small speed boat stuck out in the middle of the marsh and buried beneath a coat of snow.

Upon completing the loop, I quickly went around again – but not before picking Tool's 2001 album Lateralus on my iPod.  For some reason, I was in a Tool mood.  I've begun to better appreciate their music in recent years, realizing the role they've played in the evolution of progressive metal, which is my favorite genre.  Their aggressive album was just the right accompaniment on this day.  Now if they'd just finally release a new album this lifetime.

I felt refreshed after banging out the loop a second time.  It had been about a month since my last hike due to the wacky weather, and I was in desperate need of nature.  I knew we were due to get a few more inches later that day and, almost on cue, a few flakes started falling just as I reached my car.  It was perfect timing, and a perfect end to a lovely hike. 

Video: Pine Neck Nature Sanctuary (360-degree view)    

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