In 1999 Sandy Island Beach became the property of Oswego County, which, by all reports, did a marvelous job of cleaning and combing the beach to create a 13-acre county park that opened in 2000 to great reviews. However, it soon became apparent the county did not have the financial resources to maintain the park, much less make the further improvements that were needed, such as construction of a bath house. After the 2003 summer season, it looked as though Sandy Island Beach might be closed.
But on Oct. 30, 2003, the state came to the rescue. In making the announcement, New York Governor George E. Pataki said, "By opening Sandy Island Beach as a state park, we can provide increased public access to a spectacular shoreline property and expanded recreational opportunities. With this acquisition, we can continue to protect New York's magnificent outdoor heritage for generations of visitors to enjoy. We are committed to further enhancing the park and its facilities for patrons of all ages."
Toward that end the state announced plans to build a $500,000 bath house and concession stand. In the meantime, Sandy Island Beach looked pretty much like it did as an Oswego County park, which is to say that anyone who hasn't visited Sandy Pond in 20 years or so might have difficulty recognizing the place.
IN 2004 I finally returned for a brief visit. It wasn't a happy occasion, though I could appreciate the efforts being made to preserve what remains of a once wild and wonderful beach that was severely damaged by people who couldn't leave well enough alone and by high winds and cruel winters.
Gone is the signature sandhill that stood like beacon at the southern end of the pond, luring visitors to the wide open beach that awaited on the lake side of that hill. As inviting as it was, the hill remained relatively untouched until Sandy Island Beach opened in the early 1950s. After that, traffic on the hill increased significantly, killing many of the plants. After the privately owned Sandy Island Beach closed, the area became fair game for people on dune buggies that tore up the last remaining plants. This made the hill vulnerable to lake winds that within a few years shoved tons of sand into the pond. The state took over that piece of property several years ago, dredged the pond, re-built and re-planted the hill, but this man-made hill is a small version of what attracted visitors 30 years ago. When I drove to the beach in 2004, the hill was all but invisible.
Also gone is the valley that ran between the dunes from the top of the sandhill to the beach. That valley has been filled in with sand which is heavy with protective vegetation. This change, undoubtedly necessary to preserve a barrier between the lake and the pond, has greatly reduced the size of the beach. There is a walkway along the eastern edge of the beach where visitors can view the various plants that were placed there by the state and by Sandy Pond Association members determined to conserve the area. However, visitors are not allowed to stroll the dunes.
ANOTHER PROBLEM is one of nature's making: rocks. During the 40 years that I visited Sandy Pond, the three-plus miles of beach from the parking lot north to the channel was relatively rock free. South of the parking lot? That was another matter. In that direction there was no beach, only millions of smooth, round rocks as far as the eye could see. These rocks (photo, below) come in several colors and sizes and are quite beautiful. Walking on them wasn't fun, but we always made it a point to do just that in order to collect a selection of rocks that we'd take home at the end of each vacation. That was then. Now is another matter. According to the Sandy Island Beach State Park pamphlet, it is illegal to collect anything on state lands – including these rocks. That's a shame because a small pailful of those rocks is the ultimate Sandy Pond souvenir.
Starting in the 1980s, the rocks began piling up more and more to the north, on Sandy Island Beach. Several factors contributed, including the usual suspects – high water and high winds. There were so many rocks on the beach in 2002 that the county had to hustle to haul away several tons of them in order to open the park on time.
During our 2004 visit we noticed the rocks have been pushed a considerable distance to the north, infringing upon a long stretch of beach that 20 years ago was rock free, thanks to the efforts of those who collected and moved them each spring. Apparently that was one of the pre-season duties assigned to those who were hired as lifeguards at Sandy Island Beach in the 1950s and later.
SANDY ISLAND BEACH remains important because it is part of the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetland Area, a 17-mile stretch of shoreline. The area is considered the only significant freshwater dune site in the northeastern United States. At least three rare or endangered plant species are native to the dunes, while the wetlands support 14 more rare plants. The system supports eight rare animals and eleven significant habitat types.
Visitors are still permitted to walk from the beach to the channel – provided they do it along the waterline and not attempt to climb the sandhills where even more cottages have been built. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
Most Sandy Pond summer residents don't have to walk to the channel. They visit by boat and do their swimming at what is widely (and obviously) known as Boaters Beach, though the official name seems to be Sandy Pond Beach. This beach remained relatively unscathed during the rise and fall of Sandy Island Beach in the 1950s and '60s. However, much of the area between the beach and the pond is now owned by the state and is off limits to visitors. For more information, check out nysgdunes.org