A World Away, Down the Shore

Billboard near Atlantic City, New Jersey

The back of a billboard faces traffic entering Atlantic City, NJ

I am not really what you’d call an “outdoor person,” and yet, I’m increasingly defined by others of my love of outdoor things.

I love cycling. The Tour de France kind, just without the sponsorships, major miles, and pain. But coworkers hear of me doing a 25 mile loop, and they wax on about how they could never do that. I love my motorcycle, and am fiercely proud of the ooohs and ahhs she engenders simply because she’s a Ducati. Never mind the fact that she’s not a Ducati that most Ducati owners would want to have; she has over 37 thousand miles on her, she’s not a superbike, and she’s 15 years old. I am beginning, at the age of 45, to discover the subtle complexities of that ancient outdoor pastime, fishing. I absolutely suck at it; I rush, I don’t understand the behaviors of the different sought-after species, I am a bit bug-phobic and as a related consequence resort to plastic lures over live bait. And you should see me swatting at the slightest hint of a mosquito in my ear. I am, after all, one of those people who has such wonderful “oxygen transmission” that they attract swarms of the damnable nibblers, while you’re there, blithely sipping your gimlet and talking about the latest episode of Mad Men.

All of these kinds of dichotomies came home to roost in my spirit this past long weekend. Or rather, it was a long weekend for me.

From last Thursday through Sunday afternoon, I was at Bass River State Park, in the southern part of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. A forest famous for frequent fires, pig iron bogs, and the “jersey devil.”

I brought my tackle box, hoodie, favorite floppy camping hat, and three cameras: a Nikon D90 with an 18-105mm zoom, and an 85mm prime, plus a Canon Elph to slip into the pocket, and yes…my trusty but sluggish, first-generation iPhone. (I capture shots with the Darkroom Pro app, and make contrast, exposure, brightness, and sharpening tweaks with Photoshop Mobile on the iPhone. Makes good shots more polished, but I’d prefer if PhotoForge worked: it also allows curves adjustment for color and contrast, but crashes every time you try to save your work!)

I Tweeted 20 of the iPhone images while on the trip, but you can see them all right here.

I also had my tripod, but left flashes, bounces, and other more “busy” photo goods at home. It was existing light, period; a good discipline to force yourself into now and then.

The weekend was spent in and out of one of their little “lean-to’s,” as a home base; a sturdy brick and beam structure complete with a wood-burning stove. It was a nearly perfect little place from which to launch my numerous fruitless cast-from-shore attempts at the reported chain pickerel in the park’s lake, and car forays into nearby Atlantic City and Long Beach Island.

Igor at Little Egg Harbor

The remnants of hurricane Igor churn at the edge of Little Egg Harbor, NJ

And, speaking of dichotomies…

The contrast between the Tilt-a-Whirl, rent-a-boardwalk-bike summer tourism of Long Beach Island’s strung-together communities, the long-forgotten baymen and lighthouse manning heritage of Barnegat Bay, and the seedy, Vanity Fair (think “Pilgrim’s Progress,” not the magazine) kitsch of Atlantic City is enough to make a life-long sunbather squint. So much genuinely unbelievable diversity crammed together in the nation’s second smallest state. (Sorry, Rhode Island: you may be first in tiny, but you’re also first in banal.)

Although New Jersey’s native culture has long since worn transparently thin on this midwesterner’s sensibilities, I have to hand it to the place: every individual culture has stalwartly dug itself in and dared the others to “out-genuine” themselves. (For me, screw “Snookie” and “The Situation;” you want the real Jersey Shore? Go to Beach Haven, New Jersey and enjoy a killer “chowdah,” at the Chowda Hut, or walk the long pier over the salt marshes to the Rutgers University Marine Field Station and learn about the movements of fluke from bright, pragmatic students.)

I don’t think I could have enjoyed my constantly meandering weekend, taking in so many disparate energies, if it wasn’t for the relative silence of the state park. It was calming, and balancing after say, a lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe and a walk through the retiree-infested Trump Taj Mahal during blazing midday sun. Sing it, Deano:

You can sit in the sun and camp / I get my color from a sun ray lamp. / When I’m in Las Vegas

OK. AC isn’t LV. And I’ve never been to Vegas. But if it’s anything as faux as Atlantic City, you’ll have to enjoy it for me.

Thursday and Friday were nearly deserted, and that…was nearly perfect. Despite the nearness of the serpentine Garden State Parkway, the sounds of tree frogs drowned out cars and trucks. The small but pristine Lake Absegami didn’t tolerate boats with motors or swimmers, which meant its surface was mirror-perfect except for the ripples of a light breeze, or the gentle stir of an infrequent canoe.

Fishing on Lake Absegami

A lone fisherman casts from a canoe on the silent surface of Lake Absegami

Then came Saturday and Sunday, with its requisite teens packed posturing into too-small cars, spilling into poorly pitched and equally too-small tents, and children stuffed kvetching into double-wide strollers, set loose on previously quiet paths strewn with pine needles.

That’s OK. I drove into little Tuckerton to take in Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen’s Museum where I learned about clamming, oyster harvests, and the difference between pirates and privateers during the Revolution. Native New Jerseyans have a lot to be proud of. This state is brimming with history, and chances are, if you want to learn something about a time or a culture not your own, or if you’re simply curious, you don’t have to go very far to experience a little amazement.

It’s late on a Monday evening as I type this, meaning Lean-To number 9 at Bass River is most likely black as pitch and silent as the lake that sits a 2 minute walk away. No fish are jumping, but the moon is reflecting full and silver on the motionless water. The air is cool, and doesn’t smell of campfires.

Wish I was there.

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