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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Long Islanders flock to natural spaces

A hiking trail in Quogue Wildlife Refuge in

A hiking trail in Quogue Wildlife Refuge in Quogue. Credit: Cathy Dobie

We were a good 90 minutes into the hike and now were on the backside of Stump Pond at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown. Typically, when hikers reach the backside — of a lake or a mountain or whatever — they experience a measure of relative solitude.

But this was last August, in the midst of the pandemic, and on that backside in Blydenburgh we crossed paths with a group of hikers coming in the other direction, and then a family of four hanging out just off the trail by the water's edge, and then a solo hiker, and then a group of boys careening around on bicycles.

And it was OK.

Rather than rue a lost reverie, we were comforted to know that other people were seeking the same solace and pursuing the same peace, or at least exercising their recreation muscle.

There was a lot of that going around in the year of the coronavirus.

Over the past year, we Long Islanders sought out our parks like never before. Good for us. And that's saying something because we love our parks even during normal years. Long Island's state parks had more than 32 million visitors in 2020, a 5 million-plus jump from 2019, with big increases posted in flagships like Jones Beach, Robert Moses and Sunken Meadow as well as lesser-known gems like Napeague, Trailview and Hallock State Park Preserve.

The same phenomenon seemed to occur at county, town and village parks, too. Nassau County's Nickerson Beach saw attendance jump from 11,477 in 2019 to 23,586 in 2020. For those of you scoring at home, that's more than a 100% increase even as the park was capped at 50% capacity.

When your travel plans are crushed, when you crave a change in scenery, when you need to be in touch with something because there's so much with which you can no longer be in touch, parks are a balm. You don't have to love nature or even the outdoors, but you just might learn to.

We walked the Babylon Town beaches at Overlook and Gilgo in the summer, and hiked in the Quogue Wildlife Refuge in the fall. We strolled the grounds at Bayard Cutting Arboretum, except for the time we were turned away because we got there too late and it was at capacity — at noon.

There's a flip side: All that park-love took a toll. There was more littering, more people leaving more pet droppings on trails, more hikers taking more shortcuts off marked trails which leaves channels for erosion and just doesn't look good. There were many reports of people not following masking and distancing guidelines, and of park personnel serving as ambassadors for obeisance and common sense.

As good as they are, our parks on all levels need more money and personnel to maintain and upgrade them, and more help from us in terms of courtesy to our fellow parkgoers. Some parks bustle with noisy energy, others celebrate silence; it's not hard to know which is which and respect the difference.

As the world continues to open up, even if in fits and starts, it would be easy to imagine newbie park patrons slipping back into old habits. The assumption also might be wrong. In the first two months of 2021, despite a stretch of nasty weather, Long Island's state parks saw 400,000 more visitors compared to January and February last year.

So we're still in the outdoors, still seeking peace and recreation. And we might keep coming, even as the malls and movie theaters have reopened their doors.

See ya out there.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.