Winter at Higbee Beach 2017

Cape May, NJ – January runs hot and cold in Cape May. One day you’re shoveling snow, three days later you’re planting flower bulbs.

On one of those in between days, a winter-spring kind of day, we took an afternoon walk along the soft, sandy trails in the dune forest at Higbee Beach.

 The tangled forest grows right up to the edge of the water. Once the summer canopy has faded and fallen, Higbee reveals itself in winter to those who look.

Few are around to see.  It’s much too early for spring birders and summer sunbathers. As solitary walkers, we get the luxury of seeing Higbee unadorned, without foliage, migrating birds and people.

Winter brings its own version of beauty. 

Look up and there’s an American holly tree. The classic, cone shaped holly slowly has given up its shape to the wild winds coming off the bay.  The few remaining branches show you which way the winds blow.

Yet,  if you look closely, the holly tree is not dead. The evergreen is very much alive. Despite the barrage of wind and waves, the tree is standing its ground and sprouting new leaves.

Look down, along the ground, and what appears to be snow covers branches both dead and alive. The “snow” is actually lichens.

These delicate lichens also are survivors. They know a thing or two about how to live together peacefully in a long term relationship. The lichen is a combination of two other forms of life – algae and fungi. How they got together is a mystery. Why they stay together is clear – they need each other to survive. It’s been this way for millions of years.

You wouldn’t notice this strange life form as readily in the summer.

And you wouldn’t see the magnificent architecture of the tall stand of Sassafras trees. It’s almost impossible to tell where one tree ends and the next one begins. Their strong but graceful limbs seem to wrap around each other.

In the summer, all you notice are the unusual mitten shaped leaves on the trees. In the fall, you see the striking shades of oranges and gold.  In the winter, the Sassafras trees reveal what their leaves were hiding all along.

Against the blue January sky, the eccentric, wavy branches beckon and stretch out to each other like agile dancers on stage. Eventually, almost reluctantly, they get around to reaching up to the sun. They have their priorities.

Our walk takes us to the beach and back to our old favorite path.  It’s been months since we’ve been here. We almost miss the path because of how the sands have changed.

As much as the small, untouched tract of the Higbee Beach dune forest protects life from the bulldozers of the world, it can’t stop change. A look at the shoreline tells us that we were lucky to come at low tide. The beach is getting smaller.

The beauty of Higbee is that it is one place where we can take a winter walk and watch Nature progress, just as she wishes. You just have to look.

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About Jane Kashlak

Jane Kashlak - a journalist, gardener and Cape Island resident - is writing a book.