The Beach Primeval

Members of my family have spent holidays at the New Jersey shore for at least 70 years, likely longer.

My mother and her siblings traveled with their elders to the boroughs of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, which sit on a strip that locals call “the barrier island.” The Barnegat Peninsula, also known as the Island Beach Peninsula, is a 20-mile-long barrier peninsula that separates Barnegat Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. This region of Ocean County is a magical arm that reaches away from suburban New Jersey into the splendor of the sea, lined with fair sand and swept with salty breezes.

In Jersey, one doesn’t “go to the beach,” one goes “down the shore.” Step onto the shore in Seaside Park or Island Beach State Park and it’s easy to see why so many natives and tourists opt to go down the shore at this particular location.

The barrier peninsula
Island Beach State Park - New Jersey State Park Service
A trail at Island Beach State Park - New Jersey State Park Service

The popular perception of New Jersey in many parts of the country is that of an asphalt wasteland, the spillover of New York City’s unglamorous infrastructure. Some of that reputation is warranted, of course. New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state. Just 47th of 50 in terms of size, things can be quite tight. Yet, for every bit of urban sprawl exists several natural gems, including the Pine Barrens and resplendent coastlines. The southern half of the state might seem as far removed from the City as the middle of Pennsylvania.

On the Barnegat Peninsula, the gorgeous scenery often swells boroughs with permanent populations of 1,500 or 2,500 to between 30,000 and 65,000 during the summer. The photos above from the state park are alluring, but there’s a reason I led with them. This strip can seem the opposite of serene. Especially, in the areas north of the state park, you are unlikely to find much solitude in nature.

As you might expect of a spot that receives such an influx in tourism, industries popped up to take advantage of the dollars that flow. If you’ve never been to Seaside Heights but think it sounds familiar, you’re likely right. The boardwalk there, replete with rollercoasters, arcades, and carnival attractions, is the setting for the infamous MTV program Jersey Shore.

The cast of Jersey Shore
The boardwalk at Seaside Heights - photo by Casino Pier
Even Moby Dick gets in on the boardwalk action - photo by Kyle Stout
The beaches can be crowded - New Jersey State Park Service

Because the barrier peninsula is so narrow, the municipal entities align in a north-south manner. Seaside Heights is the northernmost, followed by Seaside Park, and then the state park stretches to the southern point of the peninsula.

During a recent visit to the shore, I strolled upon the sand of Seaside Park with my family. A thought popped into my head that I have found myself having more often as time moves forward, perhaps because I ponder my children’s future so often. What would this stretch of beach look like 500 years ago? How would the Indigenous Lenape have encountered this location? I watched airplanes pull advertisements past beachgoers and looked at fancy high-rise condominiums. The glitz of the boardwalk at Seaside Heights only heightened this thought.

Some of the most awe-inducing moments I have experienced with nature have transpired in virgin forests. The giant sequoia; the swamps of Congaree National Park; swaths of mammoth pines near Lake Superior. At home in Ohio, sometimes I try to envision the native forests, wetlands, and prairies that existed before we altered the landscape. The lack of old-growth trees in an area can make that exercise difficult. When I inhabit ancient forests, I can see it, but, when they’re gone, my mind has a difficult time populating the highways and residential areas with massive trees.

However, I realized that the Jersey peninsula gave me a perfect spectrum to see the effects of humanity. One can start in Seaside Heights to view the zenith of artificiality. The boardwalk juts into the ocean, a sea of neon lights, fair food, Snooki, and The Situation above the literal sea. Walk south into Seaside Park and one can sample a mixture of nature and commercialism. Gone are the tacky attractions, but residences pack into a grid in sardine fashion. The beaches in Seaside Park are a little more exclusive, a little less crowded, and a little quieter, but the touch of humanity is still everpresent. Then, one can meander south into the state park. Suddenly, the structures vanish. The lifeguards disappear.

At Island Beach State Park, you can become transported to the past to view the beach primeval.

The bridge from mainland New Jersey reveals a strip filled with human structures - photo by James Loesch

The tides roll in from the east, covering the shore with shells and jellyfish. Gulls prowl for tiny crabs. Wind piles a massive dune on the western side of the beach, so big that grasses manage to grow. Alee, trees dot the strip. If one faces south, one can imagine the seascape as native peoples saw it.

Or as close to the original as possible. A road still traverses the center of the peninsula and a residence for the governor sits on a portion of the park. Signs about keeping dogs off the sand punctuate the largely blank slate. The mind’s eye can sweep away these sorts of modern trappings in a way that it cannot on the boardwalk. Just miles from the epitome of tourism, one can experience the beach equivalent of old-growth forests.

It’s an enchanting place.

These places make me thankful for public lands. How many spots like this would exist for my daughters in the future without being protected? How much natural splendor do we miss in the punishing forward march of humanity?

Don’t get me wrong. The boardwalk has its charm. I played the carnival games to win my daughter prizes. I watched her eyes enlarge when she gazed at the lighted Ferris wheel. I ate the frozen custard and snapped a picture of the Moby Dick ride. I thankfully partook of the apartments and condominiums of the area. Yet I felt happiest in the portions without traces of over-humanization.

According to a fantastic article by Smithsonian Magazine and some wonderful scholarship, humans never viewed the beach as a place to go for holiday until the 18th century, when we began to need escapes from the industrialism we created in the cities. Before this period, the ocean was viewed as a scary boundary. There be monsters. Suddenly, it became a place to commune with nature, a cleansing spot away from it all. In three short centuries, these secluded getaways largely transformed into a commercialized locus where everyone gathers. The word “seascape” seems to have originated in 1804. What would the first painters of these works make of Jersey Shore?

It seems a middle ground must exist. Perhaps all these thoughts arrived because of the clustered geography of the Barnegat Peninsula. Something about this place continually draws people. My family has come for nearly a century and will hopefully continue for another.

As we returned to Ohio, I regarded the sun high in the sky. I could look at it with my bare eyes because it was obscured by another round of wildfire smoke from Canada. My throat started to tickle and then burn, as the air itself attacked my body. I thought again of my daughters. Will they have to endure a summer like that of 2023 every year? Has Snooki impeded too far into the ocean? I pray that Island Beach State Park is enough, that we have reserved enough to maintain a possible equilibrium. As I breathe smoke, I worry it’s not enough. I worry that all we can do now is imagine the beach primeval as best we can, enjoying a funnel cake on the way out.

Further Reading and Exploration

Inventing the Beach: The Unnatural History of a Natural Place – Smithsonian Magazine

Island Beach State Park – Official Website

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