Rambling Through Riverhead’s Newest Preserve
by Glenn Jochum
“When you think of all of the things that could have happened here and didn’t, it’s amazing.”
That was naturalist John Turner talking to a group of roughly 30 hikers who responded to an invitation to tour a new 225-acre state park, the Hallock State Park Preserve, in late September.
Mr. Turner was joined by local guide Richard Wines, and between the two of them the group was treated to an encyclopedic overview of the property, adjacent to Hallockville Museum Farm on Sound Avenue, enriched by the history of its previous owners. They were also witness to some of the property’s current inhabitants.
The park had been christened with a low-key, soft opening in July, but the hike coincided with National Public Lands Day.
En route, we would pass numerous reminders of the many fates the park nearly suffered, from sand-mining operations to a nuclear power plant proposal.
From the outset, Mr. Turner said that the tour would focus on native and invasive flora and sightings of resident and migratory birds.
He pointed out the difference in seasonal migrations, saying, “Birds take very different routes in the spring and fall. In the spring they have sex on their minds.”
A blue jay made a scolding sound, acorn in its beak. Mr. Turner used its appearance to explain the absence of acorns due to a scarcity of oak trees, as the land had been totally cleared in the 1800s and the wood sold to New York City.
The jay’s appearance prompted Mr. Turner to embark on a discourse about crows, who occupy different branches in the same family tree as jays.
“They have remarkable memories, which is good because they depend upon caching their food. Studies show that they possess the intelligence of 3- or 4-year-old human children,” he said.
The first part of the trail was a glimpse of early succession woods, which come in not long after land is cleared, featuring black locusts, black cherries and red cedar and a variety of invasive species of weeds.
Mr. Turner and Mr. Wines alerted us to sprawling patches of mile-a-minute weed, identified by their trademark arrow-shaped leaves.
One species of invasive weeds quickly gave way to another. We passed stands of Japanese knotweed, Ailanthus (also known as Tree of Heaven), and mugwort.
When a universally despised shiny three-leafed invasive vine made its appearance, Mr. Turner joked, “Don’t pet the poison ivy.” But he also pointed out that this is a native plant and an important source of food for many birds.
Roughly 20 minutes into the walk, we came upon a beautiful sight, Hallock Pond, “the park’s gem,” as Wines called it. Its reputation as the “cleanest pond” in the New York State park system is due to its distance from houses and septic systems, we learned.
As we walked westward through the woodlands, we eventually came upon a clearing, where we gazed out upon a huge expanse of grapevines. Mr. Wines informed us that the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) sold the roughly 20-acre property to New York State, which set up a lottery system for farmers to purchase agricultural rights. But the farmers needed to meet certain criteria. The Massoud family, who operate Paumanok Vineyard in Aquebogue, qualified for that distinction.
He then pointed out a tower in the distance, erected by LILCO to measure the upper wind direction of radioactive material, in the event there was a nuclear plant disaster.
Mr. Wines said then-Governor Hugh Carey had a summer home on Shelter Island and when it was learned that the radioactivity would be windborne there, his state board appointees didn’t approve the license.
We passed some native plants as well, such as bayberries (ideal for warblers), asters and smartweed.
An hour into the sojourn, we heard rumbles of thunder just as we came upon a sweeping vista stretching to the Long Island Sound. A fast-approaching storm that later spawned a waterspout didn’t look that distant, but our guides were unfazed, even when our cell phones began giving us alerts of an impending flash flood.
Mr. Turner instead calmly informed us that the giant expanse is an active (but already harvested) potato field owned by the Kujawski family of Jamesport.
Mr. Wines told us that before LILCO purchased the property, it was owned by the William Carey Camp, where hundreds of youngsters from New York City were able to enjoy the wide open spaces of the North Fork during the summer. In the 1960s, the property was sold to a company who planned to build a marine industrial park and millions of cubic yards of sand were removed. Luckily, the plan fell through until LILCO purchased the property with the hope of building an atomic plant there.
As we reached the summit of our hike, overlooking the Sound, Mr. Wines launched into a story about a hotly fought three-day engagement below us between the American militia, many of whom were deer hunters, and a British warship, which attacked and captured the American revenue cutter Eagle.
As we passed a stand of winterberries, Mr. Wines said, “They’ll all be gone by December. Robins and waxwings will have eaten them.”
Viburnums, tupelo, red maples, sumac and blackberries dotted the path.
We learned that the Hallocks harvested ice from Hallock Pond in the winter, and a pair of ice skaters had drowned there. The Hallocks also used the pond to water their livestock and the Cichanowicz family used it for irrigation and fishing.
The sand-mining and power companies who abandoned their plans for the land gave way briefly to hunters and ATVs after New York State bought the property in the 1990s, and it lay fallow through these years.
But those groups no longer leave their casings or many tracks on the trails and sandy areas, and the result is this jewel, where the public can enjoy the solace of nature’s beauty and the more than 125 species of birds who call it home.