Sedge Island Weekend
"You Can Eat Anything!"
by Monica Orso
Fri-Sun, September 20-22, 2013
Warning: this will be a short novel... (keep in mind it is a 3 day trip report!)
After being postponed by the State from a June date, the educational weekend on Island Beach State Park and Sedge Island finally came together. Our participants were myself, Herta D., Cory W., Robyn L, Phil B., Melody W., Bev W., Ted C., Tom B., Nancy T., Catherine M., Ken B., Tim M., and Lori B.
Friday morning started off early, meeting at the historic Freeman House on Island Beach State Park. In previous years, programs were all based at the Sedge house, a 100 year old duck hunting lodge in the middle of the bay. But due to Sandy, things were shifted to Freeman, which is where the Park superintendent normally resides. It is a wonderful old house sitting on the bay and made a great home base...it was a rare opportunity to get to stay there indeed!
Jim Merritt, the senior program director at Sedge, met us there and we organized ourselves briefly in the house, laying claim to sleeping areas and getting the weekend's food tucked away. Some of the grub went into coolers to be transported to Sedge House for dinner that night. Our caravan then began heading south about 7 miles to the put-in, which was well equipped with a dock and sardine can parking. Then off we went, our coolers being left behind to be brought out later by pontoon boat.
Seas were calm, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The network of channels, ditches, ponds etc in that area is quite confusing, especially when you consider the navigable parts all change with the tide. Some have scary names like "Snake Ditch". But fear not, Jim guided us in and about, stopping periodically for discussions about the flora and fauna, history and evolution of the area. We made our way to a point where an old dike constructed of giant sand tubes had broken through. The story of this dike was pretty entertaining, and the parts of the sand tube that remained had areas on it that reminded me of those trampoline parks I used to go to as a kid.
So we bounced along the dike, hiking east along the Barnegat Inlet towards the ocean for lunch. Some of the crew stopped along the inlet while the rest continued to the beach where we enjoyed a relaxing lunch amongst shorebirds and fishermen, crashing waves and salty air. Catherine had a swim, Tim did some surf casting and then a dip (whoops...giggle). We then hiked back to where our boats were, and saw a ton of pelicans on the way along with the usual sprinkling of cormorants and other shore birds.
Back in the water, we headed out again to explore the Sedges some more. It is amazing the variety of life that this area supports, both above and below the water. Egrets, herons, peregrine falcons, swallows, and a variety of other birds were always close by, and below us the water was teaming with life (more on that later).
I must say, I would not be able to retrace some of the routes we took. At one point Jim stopped us and began sticking his hands down into the sand from his boat. In no time at all, he came up with a clam. Almost everyone's hands went in (low tide at this point) and before long a there were enough to bring back for some dinner supplements. And "kayak clamming" was born. Herta must have hit an angry or sassy one... she got a nice cut on her finger (middle one no less), but thanks to Phil's first aid kit she didn't bleed out and draw sharks.
We worked our way back to Sedge house, and were met by Bob McMaster, another program director at Sedge, and Grace Ann, a student intern from Stoney Brook. After touring around Sedge House and then checking the terrapin hatchery for newcomers, clams and a few snails were thrown on the grill along with burgers. Everyone contributed a tasty pot luck dish and before you knew it, we were stuffed silly. We relaxed on the upper deck waiting for the sun to set and sharing one-word impressions of the day, and also tried guessing how long it takes the sun to set. Who knew you could hold your hand up a certain way, count your fingers below the sun and get a pretty accurate time for sunset?!
We had decided to leave our boats at Sedge House, and take the pontoon back to our cars. The trip back was slow...tide was low and the boat was heavy with stuffed silly paddlers. Jim timed it perfectly... about halfway across the bay the most incredible harvest moon started to peek up over the ocean...I don't think I've ever seen a moon so orange. So lovely. Unfortunately, between a long shutter and moving boat, no one's pics came out. Trust me, it was absolutely awesome.
Once back at Freeman House, we chilled a bit in the living room with dessert and coffee, and discussed options for Saturday, as well as learning more about the critters in the area, including crab sex stories...oh my! OK, lights out, we're tired and have a big day ahead.
What's that sound in the night? Rain? As in buckets and buckets of rain that seemed like it would never quit. The sun rose and the skies were not pretty in a blue kinda way. Tim was out back catching multiple fish (bass?) and releasing. (swim for your lives!!) Breakfast goodies were laid out and lunches were packed for the day, as was rain gear. ugh...I knew there had to be a hitch.
We drove down to where the pontoon boat was, did our sardine can parking thing, then proceeded to cross over to Sedge House in misty almost-drizzle. When we got there, the skies opened up. Thanks to wi-fi at Sedge and Nancy's smart phone, we saw that it was a squall that targeted us for the sole purpose of messing with our heads. Behind it were clear skies and smooth sailing. We waited it out and shortly were in our kayaks ready to go. On our way out, we passed the "ReClam the Bay" boat who were on their way to Sedge house to begin lifting large nets of baby clams that were planted there earlier in the year.
The morning was spent paddling though the marshes and more learning about local flora and fauna. We sampled (i.e. tasted) some pickleweed and learned about how the salt grasses survive. We paddled close to a peregrine's nest and spotted one hanging out, then learned about this beautiful bird and it's history, habitats and hunting methods. We paddled on through narrow mosquito ditches and learned about their creation, functions, pros and cons. At one point we stopped and got out to walk the marshes, identifying the different plants and talking more about the ecology of the area. Gazillions of tiny, non-biting bugs covered my leg at one point...Robyn snapped a pic before I looked down. There were tiny grasshopper-like bugs, which Melody tasted. (Ok, there were times when I had to look away!) I know...wading around in a marsh eating bugs may not sound too appealing, but for some reason, it was great! There were no complaints and everyone eagerly participated (except in the bug eating).
Coming up on lunch time, we made our way back to Sedge House. The ReClam the Bay folks had spent a few hours raking clams and pulled up a net, and were now sorting through the clams. Cory and Lori jumped right in and started sorting. We learned all about the seeding process and the importance of water quality in the bay. We saw clams that were victims of moon snails (someone ate a moon snail too I think), and learned all about clam parts, which previously to me just looked like a slimy glob of gunky stuff. Now it is gunky stuff with names.
Another intern, Emily, had joined us and we had enough crew to split up into different groups. After lunch Ted, Tom, Melody and Jim took off with their spray skirts across the channel to explore Gull Island. But there was work to do, if you could call it that. The newly harvested clams needed to be broadcast throughout the area, so some of us split up into 2 boats to go and give these guys a new home. Robyn, Nancy and I wound up with Marty as our captain, a retired jet pilot now volunteering for ReClam. You could tell he was a jet pilot because he liked speed! We had a great ride out into the channel and back into the marshes to spread the clams, all the while being entertained and educated by Marty. On the way back we saw a huge flock of pelicans relaxing on the waves, largest gathering I've seen to date.
We met Bob, the interns, and the other boat back at Sedge, and decided we'd like to go paddle a bit and throw a seine net down and see what comes up. Bob and the interns led us to a spot not far away where Ken, Phil, Cory and Nancy gave it a shot. They pulled up all sorts of critters...snails, fish, shrimp, etc. Most interesting to me was a pipefish, which looks like a small eel with a seahorse head...they are indeed related to the seahorse. This clever guy hides in eelgrass by aligning himself vertically with the grass and mimicking the swaying of the grass to complete the camouflage job. Learned all about eelgrass too!
It was a full day, and time to head back to Sedge House to re-group as we had to paddle back to the dock on Island Beach and load the cars. We got one last treat with a visit from a spider crab by the old dock destroyed by Sandy. Another clever critter, he throws stuff on his own back for camouflage. Who knew?!
After the paddle back and boat loading, we got back to the house where Cory (who with Tim had paddled back early), was already cooking up a pot of clam sauce. (Tim was trying for some more fish outside). People cleaned up nicely and we relaxed to a spaghetti dinner with 3 sauce options, roasted vegetables, fresh salad with home grown tomatoes, and grilled stuffed bananas for dessert. Ted entertained us with his guitar before dinner, and a few of us attempted to join in the music later. It was extremely clear who the professional musician was though! Another very full day, and we all crashed.
Sunday was a lay-back day. We had a leisurely (albeit large) breakfast, made more lunches and divvied up the remaining food, followed by the task of packing up and cleaning. I must say that our group worked like a well oiled machine when it came to the chores. People just jumped right in and got stuff done, whether it be prepping, cooking or cleaning.
Upon leaving Freeman House, we visited the Island Beach Interpretive Center, followed by a hike through the maritime forest while Jim talked about the vegetation. We wound up at the ocean, where Cory flew his kite, some of us ate lunch, Catherine took another swim, and others just relaxed. Slowly folks started dropping off and heading home.
I'm sure that I missed writing about some things, but gosh darn it there was just too much happening for me to remember it all! But one thing I'm fairly sure of is that we had a memorable trip. The Sedge folks did however suggest that next year we be sure to include chocolate on our menu. We now understand each other now in ways that matter!
On a final note, Herta, Robyn, Phil and I swung by the devastated Seaside Park boardwalk on the way home. It was a humbling experience. We walked north on the surviving boards and passed a shop that was selling live hermit crabs, their shells grossly painted in bright colors. They were all crammed in a cage, sitting in the bright sunlight, and some looked not so alive. This made me very sad (and close to feeling sick) after just coming off a weekend where the Barnegat was so full of life as life was meant to be. Countless numbers of hermit crabs were scurrying about beneath us doing what hermit crabs do in their lifespan of 20-30 years. These unfortunate guys on the boardwalk don't have as promising of a future.