If you walked the entire 130 miles of the Paumanok Path you’d be spending the majority of your time in the company of Pitch Pines – the definitive species of the pine barrens. But in East Hampton, the honors are shared with White Pines, where they represent a forest type so rare that it’s the only such example on Long Island. On the Paumanok Path the transition begins in the vicinity of route 114 south of Sag Harbor. It’s here that White Pines begin appearing in increasing numbers growing side by side with their Pitch Pine cousins. Over the next mile the forest changes quickly. Between Two Holes of Water Road and Bull Path the dominant tree becomes the White Pine. A little further east at Wilson’s Grove, the trail descends into a kettle hole adorned with an unbroken forest of hundreds of White Pines. Nearby, there are other similar hollows filled with their straight-limbed timber. In the spacious shade below them it’s easy to imagine you’ve somehow wandered into the Adirondack wilderness.
Some theorize that the White Pines in East Hampton are a relict woods – a southern remnant of vast forests that grew in the wake of the last ice age. Colonial records indicate that the trees were already present when the South Fork was colonized by Europeans in the 17th century. Other pockets of White Pine found elsewhere in the county are the result of plantations, or are escapees from nearby development. The nearest place where the trees naturally occur is across the Sound in Connecticut where they become common as one travels north of New London. At one time East Hampton’s forest in the Northwest Woods region of the township was proposed as a 10,000 acre County Park. The park was never created, but the forest survives in various parcels thanks to the efforts of Town, County and State governments and also the Peconic Land Trust.
Winter is a good time to experience this forest. The woods will likely reward you with a sense of remoteness more exhilarating than you might’ve thought possible. For that matter, visiting any of Long Island’s diverse habitats after a snowfall – whether in boots, skis or snowshoes – you’re likely to encounter much of what Bill McKibben has aptly described as missing information. The splendid wildness of winter here on our fish-shaped home has been embarrasingly underrated. Both our island and the waters which surround it are replete with much of that information.
Above – two recent images of East Hampton’s White Pines shot in snowy light.