October 22, 2011

Fire Island Lantern Light Tour

Saturday, October 15, 7:30 PM: As I pulled my car into the empty, unlit parking lot of Field #5 at Robert Moses State Park, I had the unsettling feeling of being in the wrong place. Earlier in the day, I had made a reservation for a Lantern Light Tour and I was quite sure that I had written down the correct departure place and time, but the field for some reason appeared to be deserted. After a bit of unsuccessful searching, I took the long drive to the far east end of the lot where I finally caught glimpse of a few parked cars and a small group of people standing at a table with flashlights.

Once everyone was checked in, an escort from the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society led the tour group on to the beach for a long walk. Just beyond the range of the lantern light, the mighty Atlantic Ocean pummeled the shoreline giving off a sound that was watery thunder. By starlight, I could make out traces of tremendous, foaming waves crashing down just mere feet from the very spot where I was standing. Every few seconds, the beam from Fire Island Light House would pass by to illuminate the intense surf for a moment before plunging it back into obscurity. It was a very humbling and scary thing to witness. The orange glow of the full moon phase further enhanced the eeriness of the scene.

Every half mile or so, a semicircle of lanterns was set up in the sand. At each stop there was situated a docent, ready to regale the group with stories of the geomorphology of Fire Island, the US Life-Saving Service (which predated the Coast Guard), lighthouse history, famous shipwrecks, rescue attempts, and local pirates. These tales were perfect for a full moon night on the coast.

From the beach, the escort conducted the group inland to the crumbling foundation of the original lighthouse, a structure that was raised in 1828 and stood at 80 feet high. Beside the brick circle is the Fresnel Lens House, which houses the lens from the first lighthouse. Weighing in at 9,000 pounds, it is a magnificent sight projecting its colorful prisms on to the surrounding walls.

Next, the group was led over a series of boardwalks to the current lighthouse, which stands at 180 feet. Its powerful, rotating beam is a very impressive thing to behold up close. The main lighthouse building houses a museum which showcases several pieces of rescue equipment from the past. An excerpt from a typed handout about the USLSS reads as such:

Imagine yourself patrolling a deserted open beach on a winter night with the sound of the surf pounding in your ears. Your job is to cast a weather eye upon the angry sea for any sign of a ship in distress. There is little light to guide you on your patrol. Suddenly, a sound makes you stop in your tracks. The cries of distress from a ship in danger is your call to action. As a United States Life Saver it is your job to get back to your station and alert the rest of the surfmen. You and the rest of the crew will do everything possible to save those aboard the periled vessel. This was the mission of the United States Life-Saving Service...

From this point, guests were given the option to climb the 192 steps to the lighthouse tower. It was a very steep and strenuous ascent and only a few people decided to brave it. Once at the observation platform, I was rewarded with a most spectacular view. I could make out cruise ships on the Atlantic horizon sailing toward Nova Scotia. To the west, I could see as far as the Manhattan skyline, the Freedom Tower, and the Empire State Building. All the while, I was being shaken by strong gusts of wind. It was such a marvelous thing to be experiencing that I stayed up there for quite a long time after all of the other groups had gone.

When I finally came down, all of the tours were over. Only the volunteers were still there waiting to close up the building. After I thanked them for a fun evening, I began the 20-minute walk back to the car over the long passages of boardwalk that bisect the swale. I was surrounded on every side by swampy ground and ghostly sea grass stalks that stretched as far as my eye could see. My only company was the circle of light from my flashlight; I never saw another person. This lonely night walk was very, very creepy and my nerves started to play with me. I kept waiting to see the Headless Horseman gallop out of the shadows to throw gourds at me. In hindsight, it was a pretty cool thing to do right before Hallowe'en. This scene was much scarier than any haunted house. I don't think I've ever walked quite so briskly. :)

"Jesus replied,
'What is impossible with men
is possible with God.'"

~Luke 18:27