Fire Island Beach is a barrier of sand, stretching for twenty miles along the south coast of Long Island, and separating the Great South Bay from the Atlantic ocean.
To reach it, you must make a sail of from three to seven miles, and once upon it, you find it a wild, desolate, solitary spot, wind-searched and surf-pounded.
Its inner shore is covered with a growth of tide-wet sedge, with here and there a spot where dry meadow comes down to make a landing-place.
The outline of this inner shore is most irregular, curving and bending in and out and back upon itself, making coves and points and creeks and channels, and often pushing out in flats with not water enough on them at low tide to wet your ankles.
A third of the distance across the Beach, the meadow ends and sand begins. This slopes gradually up for another third of the distance, to the foot of the sand hills, which seem tumbled into their places by some mighty power, sometimes three tiers of them deep, sometimes two, and sometimes only one.
These sand hills are the most striking features of the Beach. The biggest of them are not more than sixty feet high, yet so hard a feat is it to climb to the top, and so extended is the view below you—on one side the wide Bay, on the other, the ocean stretching its restless surface to the horizon—that you feel yourself upon an elevation tenfold as high.
Through these hills the wind makes a great galloping, whirling out deep bowl-shape hollows among them, and piling the shifting sand upon their summits. Now and then you will notice a hill with its shoulder knocked off by the wind, and a ton of sand gone no one can tell where. In every storm their contour changes, and yet their general formation is so similar at all times that the change is seldom thought of. A coarse spear-like grass finds a sparse growth upon them, and does what it can to hold the sand in place; but it has a hard time of it, as its blades buried to their tips or its naked roots often testify.
But there is one part of this Beach that is ever much the same. It is a broad, shelving strip of sand between the hills and the sea, where the tide rises and falls, pounding and grinding, year in and year out—the play-ground and the battle-ground of the surf.
On a summer’s day, I have seen this surf so low and quiet that one could launch a sharpie upon it, single-handed, and come ashore again without shipping a quart of water. At other times it is a terror to look at—a steady break of waves upon the outer bar, with row after row coming in, rearing and plunging as they strike the shore. In such a sea there is no launching yawl or surf-boat, and no coming ashore.
When the tide is on the right moon and the wind has blown a gale from the southeast, the strand is entirely submerged, and people upon the main shore three miles away can see the surf breaking over the Beach hills.