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  • The horseshoe crab is a living fossil. It has barely changed in 450 million years. Over the eons dinosaurs walked the earth and then they didn’t. Horseshoe crabs persisted despite the cataclysms that killed off the dinosaurs. You’ve got to respect horseshoe crabs. Which brings me to Fire Island.

    Every summer my wife and I like to take a few day trips to get away from the City. Two summers ago we took the LIRR from the City to Sayville, one of the Long Island towns opposite Fire Island. In Sayville, we took the ferry across the Great South Bay to Sailors Haven, a location on Fire Island known for its magnificent maritime forest. Fire Island is a 32-mile long pipe-cleaner shaped barrier island that takes some of the force out of the nor’easters that bear down on the south shore of Long Island. But on a sunny summer day, there is hardly a better place in which to take a break from the City.

    We walked along the mile-and-a-half boardwalk that winds through what is known as the Sunken Forest, the heart of Sailors Haven. The forest impressed my wife, who formerly lived in Washington State, because there is so much holly growing in Sailors Haven. Compared to the Pacific Northwest, we don’t see much holly growing in the eastern U.S. Except, that is, in the Sunken Forest. The forest also contains freshwater ponds and there is wildlife, for example, mud turtles, Fowler’s toads, cottontail rabbits, that depend on fresh water. Some years we visited Sailors Haven in September in order to witness the thousands of monarch butterflies that stop in the Sunken Forest to rest and get nourishment in their end-of-summer flight from New England and points north to the warmth of Mexico.

    After our walk we took a dip in the ocean to cool off, and then acknowledged that we were hungry. There is one limited concession in Sailors Haven. We weren’t interested in burgers and fries. There is a path that meanders between the swale and the Great South Bay that takes a walker from Sailors Haven to a community a mile or so to the east, a place named Cherry Grove, a mostly gay community where there are abundant restaurants and a well-stocked grocery.

    As the path we took neared the bay we observed a stretch of beach. There we saw at least 50 horseshoe crabs that had washed up on the shore fronting the Great South Bay. They were on their backs, their legs moving helplessly in the air. They could not get back to the water. A couple of horseshoe crabs were already dead. We were hungry, and continued to walk toward Cherry Grove. I hadn’t walked ten yards, when I stopped.

    “Let’s rescue them.”

    “Rescue who?”

    “The horseshoe crabs.”

    “You go ahead. I don’t want to touch them. I’ll watch.”

    “I’ll start here by the reeds, and toss them back in the bay.”

    I moved about the small patch of beach. One at a time, I tossed the horseshoe crabs back into the drink. I was pretty tired when I finished.

    “My hero!”

    “You did a good job watching.”

    “Come on. In recognition of your meritorious service to the ancient order of the horseshoe crab, I’ll buy you a beer and a great big sandwich. We’ll sit on the dock and watch the seagulls fly.”

    “Actually, it’s the order of Xiphosurida, but I’m not a stickler. I accept the offer.”

    (Image credit: Mary Hollinger, NESDIS-NODC biologist, NOAA, public domain)
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