If suburban Long Island had a frontier it would be here, on the bay marshes reachable only by boat that stretch along the South Shore from Lawrence to Seaford, where until three weeks ago about 30 roughly built houses perched on timber driven deep into the muck.
Baymen first built houses out here generations ago, not as primary residences but as bases of operation to harvest salt hay and shellfish. Their descendants battled the insults of nature, municipal ill will and even a spate of arson to keep them. Some were still used by working baymen; some were weekend retreats for families who no longer made a living on the water.
But superstorm Sandy did worse in a matter of hours than had been done in the past century, destroying at least 18 houses, seriously damaging two and leaving 10 intact, according to folklorist Nancy Solomon, who has written about the houses and surveyed them last week aboard a Carolina skiff piloted by Al Pidherney, one of the homeowners.
"It's what I feared could happen," she said. "This storm broke all the records and it came at the worst possible time" -- high tide. The surge floated houses off their platforms. The wind did the rest, pushing a few far back into the marshes, splintering more into flotsam that littered the bay.
The place Grace Remsen, 77, helped build 52 years ago and could always see from the end of Woodcleft Avenue in Freeport is no longer there: "We cannot find it," she said.
Missing amid the marshes
A house near where Eddie Maday's place should have been in Woodmere Bay looked like an old tin can crushed in on itself. The house on Neds Creek that Paul Carson inherited from his grandfather, Joseph Koelbel, a commercial fisherman who built it in the 1920s, appeared to have vanished. The Neds Creek house that Thomas Seaman, president of the South Shore Bay House Owners Association, owned with his brother and brother-in-law was gone too.
From a distance, Pidherney's Reynolds Channel place looked smart in its new red paint coat; up close, it was missing part of its new roof, and its dock rested at a severe angle.
Pidherney, 67, took over his house in 1987 from his wife's uncle, Merv Bedell, a commercial fisherman and boatbuilder. Pidherney retired after driving a garbage truck for the Town of Hempstead for 37 years and a school bus for another 12.
Some of the bay houses are little more than shacks, but Pidherney said he'd put $50,000 into his over the past few years, insulating the walls and installing hurricane clips, solar panels and a propane heater.
He did the work himself, hauling the materials out at high tide. During winters, he'd come out by himself. "We got this nice big leather couch and I'd look out at the water," he said. Summers, the place was full of children and grandchildren and their friends. The kids paddled around and fished.
"This place ties our family together," he said. "Hopefully my grandkids' kids will use this place."
But things will be different after Sandy, he said. After the sewage leak at the Bay Park plant, there'll be no more fishing, at least for a while: "I wouldn't eat a thing from here now," he said.
Tradition of community
He didn't know how many of his neighbors would be back. "It was such a strange feeling being out here -- we were a community of our own," he said. "We grew up together. You'd help with projects, repairing something. There was always something. You'd drink beers and barbecue."
Now, he said, "Most of us are getting older. Everything gets a lot harder to do."
For Solomon, who wrote a book on the bay houses, "On the Bay," and directs Long Island Traditions, a group that works to preserve the region's maritime and farming cultures, the homes are one of the last tangible reminders of a disappearing way of life.
"For the fishermen and baymen who still work on the bay," she said, "these houses were used to store traps, tools and pots; the descendants of the families who did that work continue those traditions."
The sometimes makeshift style of the houses -- one was built chiefly of doors taken from demolished mainland houses -- is also an example of what she calls "traditional vernacular architecture." They "seem to be very simple but have a direct connection to occupational culture, to what Long Island has been," she said.
Many of the houses are built on land owned by the Town of Hempstead.
Laws passed in the 1960s -- when, Pidherney said, many of the bay houses had fallen into disrepair -- mandated their eventual demolition, but in 2003 the town offered 20-year leases to homeowners and their caretakers.
Now, says Supervisor Kate Murray, "We are looking to do whatever we can" for the houses and their owners, referring to flexibility in permitting and code. "We have a soft feeling for these houses because they lend a unique aspect to our history."
He spoke by phone Friday morning from his flooded home in Freeport, where he was waiting for FEMA representatives and an insurance adjuster.
His place, out by Big Crow Island, had given him good memories. His father-in-law had taught him carpentry and they did most of the work on it together. His three boys had made the bunk beds with their grandfather and clammed and piloted their little garveys there, but they are busy now with their own lives.
He felt about as low as he'd ever been, he said. "I spent my whole life trying to get a house on the water. I should have stayed where the hell I was," he said. Right now he can't face rebuilding, he said. "Maybe I'll feel better in the spring."