The Waters of the North Fork

Written By: Judy Cochran

Long Island’s North Fork is like any other body of land surrounded by water. Yes? Well, not really. We can look at navigational issues, indigenous marine life, hydrodynamics and you still won’t lay hands on what makes these waters so, different. But it’s a difference that lures people, making them endure, albeit not happily, hours of bumper to bumper on the hot and sweaty Long Island Express. And so the water flows.

Summer, 1967 when Twiggy reigned Carnaby Street in London, “The Graduate” made Dustin Hoffman and “plastics” stars, rioting over Viet Nam stunned TV watchers, hippies smelled of strawberry incense, sported body painted peace signs and grooved to the new Beatles LP “Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band”, that was the summer we sailed into Greenport harbor on a sloop. I was thirteen, just finished a month at riding camp and had the well-worn jodhpurs to prove it! We rowed our dinghy into Greenport to shop at the Arcade for supplies and eat at Claudio’s. I still remember the rough hewed wooden floors at the Arcade; one of the few relics that have remained to this day.

Years later as an adult, I worked as a Psychiatric RN in the Mile High State of Colorado. The majestic Rockies, profusion of wildlife and down-to-earth hearts of many under those open skies made me call it home for over twenty years. But there was always something missing. Never noticed it until I suddenly realized all my watercolor paintings were ocean scenes: tranquil, tempestuous, or traveled, they all pointed to my condition: landlocked. No water. Trips home were tantalizing but never enough; apparently once an east coast gal, always an east coast gal! We need water.

When 9/11 happened, my heart went out to Manhattan’s gaping wound and a friend traumatized by being in a cab racing away from a collapsing tower. The shocking injury to the city’s soul screamed for soothing balm, kind hearts and strong hands; so I moved back immediately and found employment in the local hospital that too was surrounded by water.

As years flowed by Greenport saw waves of humanity coming out during summer, pumpkin picking time and Christmas. Claudio was still here, the Arcade, while it’s changed hands, was still here and now we had Mitchell Park and the Carousel. Monday nights the Park rocked with local bands and picnickers while Aldo’s coffee scented the town with his fresh roasted beans. Next to the park, water flowed past boats moored in the same harbor we’d sailed into so many years ago.

Opti’s herald the beginning of summer in Orient Harbor. A rite of passage for many, the Opti is a flat dinghy with small sail. This is the sailboat on which you learn the basics. And every year when driving along the causeway to Orient, you see the latest pack of students struggling to master the water and wind in their little boats. First days are always tough as they careen and crash into each other causing mini-catastrophes at sea in the shallow, well supervised waters of Orient Harbor. Nobody ever really gets hurt except maybe students’ tender feelings. But as the sun swelters, that little flotilla of bashed hulls and tangled sails becomes a streaking regatta sailing out beyond the harbor; masters of the wind, these are not only launched Opti’s but launched mariners all, for the rest of their lives. They are captains of their ships, their lives and yet it is the water that proves captain over all.

Water is a powerful presence. You see it every time a visitor rounds the corner from East Marion onto the causeway and is slapped in the face by the spectacle of water on both sides. For locals, this can be a bit of a pain because this presence demands attention causing tourists to suddenly stop or slow down to a crawl with mouth’s open taking it all in. When there’s a long-awaited package from Ebay languishing at Orient post office, and you’re forced to drive 10 miles an hour, it can result in unkind remarks, to put it mildly. But we locals need to remember the first time we felt that pulsing presence and extend grace to our visitors, after all it is their first time.

And that’s a big part of what goes on in the North Fork: aquatic first times, rites of passage, launchings that become a living part of your soul. No matter where you go, it’s there, tugging, showing you the way home like a good lighthouse. It sets up a quiet beachhead in your mind and calls through paintings or a particularly yummy New England clam chowder. It’s that intense yearning when some film captures a blustery day at sea and you’re suddenly shocked to find yourself seated in a movie theater instead of standing at the wind-swept helm. What’s launched here in these waters lasts a lifetime.

If you hanker after a beyond-life experience, dip your toes in the waters of Laurel Lake. A small body, more like a pond, Laurel Lake sits hidden in shadows down a tree tunneled dirt path. Home to tiny fish and snapping turtles that surface like rounded submarines, these fresh waters teem with inhabitants of a clearly unearthly source. That’s not a cold draft filtering down through impenetrable trees; rather it’s a bony spectral finger running down your spine from the many dark water spirits haunting this lake. Go there and beware!

Southold Town Beach is a popular destination for families. Unlike larger beaches in Rhode Island, this one is a scant few yards from parking, making it extremely convenient for bathers. The gentle current and small waves make this an ideal spot for first time training of future Michael Phelps swimmers! To be safe, lifeguards sit atop their towers, scanning the water for trouble that seemingly never arrives. Across the Sound Connecticut can clearly be seen and sunsets adorning this beach are daily painted gifts from God himself!

Another pull from the North Fork’s current is time that flows as fluid as waves. It doesn’t take much to bring a hard driving city executive to his knees picking lavender, or fast paced Type A professional stopped in her tracks by a sparkling light show of fireflies extending hundreds of feet up trees surrounding Old School House Park in East Marion. Adults flow back to a time of amazed childhood wonderment. You see it when they kick off their Gucci Jordaan crocodile loafers and lay down in Armani Jacquard trousers on the grass outside Custer Observatory to watch, and hear, the Perseid meteor shower. There may not be observable water there but the current is palpable as night time dew when they strip off citified jaded vision and drift into long-forgotten memories of youthful astonishment.

Summer 2017 finds me an ole bat with a limp pining for horses and the freedom of adolescent joints! Today Greenport hangs onto its’ antiquity like a miser while courting the cyber world. All over I see people glued to their devices passing by living history breathing on tall ships. But water-soaked kids still run out of Ralph’s Italian Ice, dripping Rocky Road ice cream all over their wet shark tee shirts as parents race after them napkin in hand. Some things, like waves, never change.

Ocean waters still collide with Long Island Sound off Orient Point at Plum Gut creating a formidable turbulence and velocity. Maybe it’s the water that makes this land so different, such a needed destination. I don’t know. Are there more beautiful beaches elsewhere? Sure. I only know there’s a draw here that’s inescapable; like a riptide or undertow pulling an increasing tsunami of humanity out here. Thousands of young families looking to inscribe new memories, the casual sailboat in need of harbor or world-wearied souls needing to forget old memories, they’re all drawn here. And like me, they’ll soon realize no matter where you go or how long it is, the waters of the North Fork catch you, knock you off your feet and before you know it; you’re pulled out in a tide heading for deep soothing currents of memory, amazement and childlike wonder that never lets you go.