When autumn arrives, I lament the loss of one of my favorite warm weather pursuits, swimming. So each year I seek out one final opportunity before the chill becomes too much to bear.
On Oct. 7, the conditions seemed just right for one last plunge at East Beach in Port Jefferson Village. The bluffs sheltered the shore from a stiff southerly breeze. The water was calm, with only a slight ripple, for my evening swim.
The Sound, like a desert, was all mine. The tracks of gulls and white-tailed deer etched into the pebbly sand were the only signs of life. Not a boat nor beachgoer to be found thanks to the overcast conditions and drop in temperature.
As I waded into the remarkably clear water, its briskness confirmed that this swim would likely be my last of the year. I plunged beneath the surface and felt exhilarated. I savored the moment.
Swimming freestyle parallel to the shore, I was overwhelmed by the serenity. In one of the most densely populated regions on the East Coast, I was alone. Or so I thought. Lifting my head to take a breath, I spied a common loon plying the surface. I’ve encountered loons on many occasions while paddling the North Woods of the Adirondacks and Maine. After spending the summer on secluded lakes and ponds, loons often migrate to the coastal waters of the Northeast to spend the winter hunting fish and crustaceans.
Loons are symbolic of wilderness and pristine places like this idyllic stretch of Long Island beach at this very moment. Wary birds, they usually distance themselves from humans. But this loon swam straight for me!
In its watery element, we interacted on its terms, eye to eye. Approaching within 20 feet, it began a series of eerie cries. Its dagger-like bill quavered up and down as its tremolo calls reverberated across the surface. The loon and I shared the solitude of wilderness.
After bellowing its fifth sequence of calls, the loon dove, resurfacing far away while I swam for shore.
As I stood enveloped in my towel, I was awed but the rawness of it all, the vast expanse of open water, the sheer silence, the refreshing lack of human influence.
A chatty kingfisher shattered the silence, alighting atop a glacial erratic at the water’s edge. True to its name, it proudly clutched a minnow in its oversized beak while its crown of unruly head feathers stretched skyward. Cruising in on its 6-foot wingspan, a great blue heron landed perhaps 100 feet down the beach. Together we gazed across the Sound to Connecticut while flocks of gulls flew in spiraling funnels from east to west.
As darkness crept in and I walked to my car, I knew that amid the maddening rush of my suburban existence, I had experienced something truly extraordinary.