06/17/18 6:00am
06/17/2018 6:00 AM

Last week my dog, Mabel, found a starfish on a Shelter Island beach. I measured, Googled and identified it as a knobby starfish, native to Malaysia. It was so perfect, and so far from home that it either fell off a seashell truck or was left as a prank. (You got me!) Mabel was in favor of eating it.

I like beachcombing and rarely return from the beach without something in my pocket. It’s a practice I share with Mabel, who frequently accompanies me, although what she finds rarely makes it home. We walk between the low and high tide lines, noses down, searching the sand for stories. And we are not the only ones who find interesting stuff on Shelter Island beaches.

Thrift is one thing that motivates PJ Lechmanski to beachcomb. “Almost all my fishing lures come from the Ram Island causeway,” PJ said. “I haven’t bought one in 15 years.” In 2010, PJ found a television on the first causeway to Little Ram Island just after Hurricane Igor, but did not attempt a salvage. 

Since PJ is an expert at dealing with animals in places where they shouldn’t be (he works in pest control), a friend called him after discovering a four-foot-long pinkish fish with a distinctly prehistoric look washed up at Big Ram. They identified the beast as an Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered deepwater species rarely seen in these parts.

Where did it come from? How did it end up here? 

Paul Shepherd thinks the reason people love finding things on the beach is “the mystery of the journey.” Mystery indeed. He’s taken home two sets of stairs from the beach — which he installed and used — and a very large, well-made plastic container with a ring lock top that once held olives. 

Some people beachcomb for aesthetic reasons. A friend who visits me every summer is so enamored by the jingle shells on Shell Beach that she’s redecorated her bathroom to match, and displays her collection in a glass dish next to her toothbrush.

As a child, Tim Purtell collected scallop shells in shades of orange, yellow, brown and white, including tiny, perfect ones he would fit on the tip of his finger. “I kept a collection of the best ones in an old black velvet jewelry box,” Tim said. “I loved holding them up to the light.”

John Pagliaro is an artist who started looking for arrowheads on Island beaches to use in his ceramic pieces. The handful of Dalton point arrowheads he says he found here — tools used about 10,000 years ago — turned his beachcombing into a way of documenting thousands of years of Islanders who called this place home long before Nathaniel Sylvester showed up.

Meryl Rosofsky prowls Wades Beach and Reel Point on the lookout for symmetrical stones. “If I see a heart-shaped stone that catches my eye, I keep it for good luck,” she said. Meryl also looks for jingle shells, which she refers to as “grandmothers’ toenails,” a name that may explain why so many grandparents keep their shoes on.

The primary difference between finding an antique of historical interest and beach trash is one hundred years. Some of the bottles from Prohibition-era drinking binges, collected by Lawson Brigham from the Island shoreline, are so rare and beautiful that it’s easy to forget they are evidence of the same impulse as today’s pile of crushed beer cans and empty bottles of Jim Beam.

One thing that has changed over time is the variety of creatures found by beachcombers. There are fewer. Vicki Weslek used to look for frogs living near the walls under the white fence at Crescent Beach. She recalls that she and her mother would stay at the beach until prime frog-finding time near the end of the day. It’s one joy of the beach that Vicki can’t share with her own youngsters since she hasn’t seen a frog at the beach in years. 

Dulcinea Benson grew up on the Great South Bay and now does her beachcombing on Silver Beach, where she keeps an eye out for mermaid’s purse, “little black horned pods with a magical creature inside.” As a child she learned that those egg cases contained fertilized skate embryos waiting to hatch. “As I get older there is still a romantic possibility I will find something special on the beach from far away,” Dulcinea said. “Sometimes treasure is a little egg sack waiting to hatch.”

Some people find the idea of beachcombing disgusting, and JoAnn Sherman admits she is one of those. “I’m not a beach person,” she said. “I enjoy standing in chlorinated water with people. And the feel of concrete under my feet.” 

JoAnn gets her beach glass from a store.

Julia Labrozzi, home for the summer after her first year at college, remembers childhood dreams of finding buried treasure on the beach, fueled by outings with the family metal detector. She’s still a beachcomber. “I’m fascinated with things I find on the beach because each has its own story,” Julia said. “Even beach glass, once hard and sharp, has been transformed into something soft, dull and beautiful. Finding creatures on the beach is fascinating because their lives are so unknown to us. And it’s a great way to get out and appreciate our Island.”

The author is a writer for the Shelter Island Reporter.

04/29/18 6:00am
04/29/2018 6:00 AM

In 2014, with no prior connection to the North Fork, I bought a house in Southold on a wing and a prayer, fingers crossed for a good local community — to go with the irresistible natural appeal of the beaches, farms and vineyards. I had a good vibe. I also knew good vibrations don’t always play out like a Beach Boys song. READ

04/22/18 6:00am
04/22/2018 6:00 AM

A strange wailing noise startled Elizabeth O’Reilly at her East Marion home late Saturday afternoon. She walked back on her deck, with a few neighbors, and looked up toward a tree, where she spotted something that looked at first like a plastic bag. But as she looked closer, she could see it was an osprey. (more…)

04/15/18 5:58am
04/15/2018 5:58 AM

Suffolk County’s visionary farmland preservation program has just achieved a triumph. The state’s Appellate Division last month rejected a ruling by a state Supreme Court justice in 2016 that hamstrung the program. Conceived by County Executive John Klein, the program, begun in 1974, is based on the brilliant and then novel idea of purchasing development rights. Farmers are paid the difference between the value of their land in agriculture and what they could get for it if they sold it to a developer. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity. READ

04/14/18 5:58am
04/14/2018 5:58 AM

A framed Newsday obituary for George Wybenga, a painter and longtime educator, hangs in the hallway at the Stony Brook University Hospital Blood Bank. The 2016 article details his journey to the United States as an immigrant during World War II and the paintings he created as an artist until he died at 79. READ

04/05/18 6:01am
04/05/2018 6:01 AM

Recent news that the remains of Louise Pietrewicz were found in grave six feet beneath the basement in the house that once belonged to her married boyfriend, William Boken, rocked this small town — and beyond. Finally, it was the answer to a 51-year-old mystery. READ