Camping on Montauk's outer beaches

Billy Lomnicki, president of the L.I. Beach Buggy

Billy Lomnicki, president of the L.I. Beach Buggy Association, organizes outings and beach- maintenance trips. (July 14, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington)

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Most summer weekends, Billy Lomnicki drives a one-man caravan of truck, camper and boat from his home in Levittown to the end of one of the last roads on Long Island, in Montauk. There, he fills his water tanks, lets out half the air in his tires, then keeps going as the road turns to sand.

The 67-year-old semiretired auto-parts salesman is one of thousands of area residents who summer on Long Island's remote outer beaches, where bathrooms are trucked in, there are no stores or paved roadways beyond the entrance and "parking lots" are made of compacted sand.

This variety of camping is not for the faint of heart -- getting stuck in the sand can lead to a long, heart-pounding dig-out. But the most experienced outer beach campers, and the most daring, are those who have been doing it for decades. Many are in their 60s and 70s.

Beach custodians

Lomnicki has more than a casual interest in these isolated areas. He heads the Long Island Beach Buggy Association (libba.com), which lobbies for the right to drive and fish on the outer beaches. The group also organizes beach maintenance and outings and provides air compressors to refill tires when the campers head home.

Most Long Islanders use the Suffolk and state outer beaches for four-wheel day trips or overnight fishing, though several -- Shinnecock East County Park in Southampton, Theodore Roosevelt County Park (soon to be known again by it's former name, Montauk County Park) and Cupsogue Beach in Westhampton -- allow campers (not tents) on the beach itself. Suffolk County describes outer beaches as areas without lifeguards that are used for "other recreational purposes such as fishing and camping."

On a recent weekend at Shagwong Point in Theodore Roosevelt County Park, a group of nine people, all 60 or older, are roughing it in four truck-campers. It's a far cry from the days when the association packed in the point, two rows deep. Departures of all sorts -- from Long Island, from the group and passings -- have dwindled the core group, although the association boasts more than 1,300 families among its members.

Annie Gerbe, 83, and her husband, Richard, 85, of Massapequa, remember when cows roamed the beach from Deep Hollow, the then-active cattle ranch. "Our son is 59," Annie said. "He was three when we started. He met his first girlfriend out here; his father taught him to fish here."

Lomnicki's four-wheel-drive truck is fitted with a small camper, strapped with gear, and it pulls a 16-foot aluminum boat; fishing buffs like Lomnicki refer to their skiffs as "tin boats."

At Shagwong Point, he and the other beach buggy members stake out their places, about a mile from where the traditional campers are lined up shoulder to shoulder, facing the waters of Block Island Sound. The five families in Lomnicki's group, mostly retired or semiretired couples, drive all-in-ones or slide-off campers that sit atop the beds of their trucks -- the only type of campers allowed overnight this far up the beach.

A pristine site

The setting is bucolic. To the west, the white sand beach and green beachgrass meadow give way to views of Gin Beach and the rocky jetty at Montauk Harbor, where fishing boats come and go in steady convoys. To the east and south, a cove of smooth green water is edged by gentle bluffs inhabited by bank swallows -- a view that extends for miles and is capped by Montauk Point Lighthouse.

Despite the diminishing core group of veteran campers, Suffolk County Parks spokeswoman Emily Lauri said the number of outer beach permits issued has increased steadily: 11,090 passes were sold last year, up from 9,572 in 2009.

The association has been working with the county for more than 25 years. "In addition to cleanups, they do beach grass planting, snow fence installation, and they help educate the public about proper use of vehicles on the outer beach," Lauri said.

State permit numbers have decreased from a high of 12,325 in 2009 to 10,600 this year and last year. All the state beaches that allow four-wheel driving are in Suffolk County -- from Gilgo Beach in Babylon to Montauk. New York State Parks spokesman George Gorman said Gilgo driving has been closed this year because of erosion.

Gorman commended the beach buggy group for their work. "They've been very helpful," he said. "They can bring out a lot of volunteers."

Lobbying efforts can keep association members busy, too. The group "unofficially" adopted the outer beach at the park in Montauk after persuading the county not to limit truck access there.

Earlier this year, state regulators ordered a Memorial Day weekend closure of the outer beach at Democrat Point, part of Robert Moses State Park, because of piping plover nesting. To keep it open, the group organized round-the-clock monitors to guard roped-off nesting areas and direct traffic, and assured rangers the birds wouldn't be harmed. That was critical, because plovers like to nest in depressions in the sand, like tire ruts.

But more than the work, the association is a generations-old social group, where good times have been shared for decades, and geological, mechanical and social difficulties have been met and conquered.

"This is as much a family to me as my own family," said Lomnicki, who turned to members of the association for support when he lost a son 11 years ago. "If it wasn't for these guys, I don't know what I would have done."

From sand to sea

Lomnicki's wife, Nancy, 66, developed an expertise for driving the truck to water's edge to drop off and pick up her husband's boat, the Iron Horse -- no easy task in the sometimes-strong currents of the point. She spends less time at the beach since contracting lupus, but, Lomnicki says, "She's glad to get rid of me weekends."

While the work of getting his camper onto the beach in sometimes-loose sand is not a problem, Lomnicki no longer goes surf-casting in a wet suit in the waters off Montauk Point, where daredevils tempt fate by climbing rocks in the pounding surf in the hopes of a landing striped bass. He had a knee replaced a few years ago, so fishing from his boat is enough.

The task of getting a 5,000- pound plus rig onto the beach can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but those who have done it long enough no longer see it as the tough part. "It gets easier," said Willie Young, 73, of Massapequa, who travels with his wife, Mary Ann, 69, especially compared to the pioneering days. "We've been doing this for 55 years," he said.

Before the group had four-wheel-drive campers, most drove two-wheel-drive Volkswagen wagons onto the sand. Things have changed since then, including charges for overnight stays and annual permits.

The worst part about camping here, according to those who've sweated out some long weekends: "It gets hot," Gerbe said. And the hardest part is sleeping when it's hot, added Stephanie Hachadoorian, 65, of Aquebogue, a veteran camper with her husband, John, 64.

This is "self-contained" camping, so there's no place to plug in an air-conditioner, though most have them for times when electricity is available. Most units have been outfitted with solar panels to charge their batteries for lights, a small refrigerator and a water pump, which feeds a shower, sink and toilet. Not exactly five-star accommodations.

"We come to cook and slave for them," joked Mary Ann Young, pointing to her husband, an avid fisherman and president of the Montauk Surfcasters Association.

Fishing and Scrabble-ing

One thing most members have in common is fishing for bluefish, striped bass and fluke, mostly. Not all the women fish, but most play a mean game of Scrabble. "We girls usually play Scrabble three or four hours a day, eat a lot, and 4 p.m. is cocktail hour," Gerbe said.

Scrabble queen Stephanie Hachadoorian hears the approaching growl of her husband's boat. She gets up from beneath the awning of their camper and eases the boat trailer into the water. John hops off, hooks the line onto the bow, and starts an electric winch to haul in the boat. He's caught a keeper bass and two bluefish -- the evening meal.

"We camp here until Labor Day," Willie Young says. "Then, everyone shifts over to Montauk Point," to areas of the state park where campers can settle for night fishing along the outer beach.

For many, beach camping stretches from April to November, and those who love it most extend it to its furthest limits. They know the schedules of migrating fish, the changing seasons and how to mitigate the effects of heat and cold.

For the beach buggy group, the extremes of weather are a small concession to make for a cheap front-row seat to some of the most striking views on Long Island.

As Young observed, "What's not to like?"

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