Inquire Within

Inquire Within

Fort Nathan Hale Park, occupying a stretch of Morris Cove’s coastline, is a curious place, and a place where curiosity pays.

Nathan Hale, Connecticut’s official state hero since 1985, is the American Revolutionary War captain who uttered this famous line, or something close to it: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The precocious Yale grad—he enrolled at age 14 and graduated at 18—spoke the words in September 1776, just before the British hanged him for spying at the tender age of 21. In 1807, a military installation, Fort Nathan Hale, was christened in memoriam on the Morris Cove site.

Like its namesake’s namesake, Fort Hale Park punches well above its weight class, accomplishing a lot in a little. Among the city’s 100+ parks, this one’s 20 acres—less than 0.15% of the citywide total—have got to rank near the very top in terms of sheer variety, and also oddity, per square foot. It’s got grassy fields and rocky beaches; rolling wooded hills and craggy seaside bluffs; three covered pavilions, including one that looks directly out over the ocean, with grills and picnic tables; a stylish playground for the kids, with a swing set that’s as much a piece of art as a plaything; a bocce court enclosed by chain link fence and a canopy of arched metal rods; two big dog runs, one for the smaller pooches and one for the bigger; a large wooden bridge crossing a marshy brook; a well-kept path winding up and over those bluffs; war and history monuments, plus biosphere placards to identify critters; and a long, dilapidated, closed-off dock that looks nice from a distance and compelling up-close.

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But you can easily miss a bunch of those things if you aren’t in an exploring mood. This is partly because the park is split into two very distinctive sides, a north and a south, such that a visitor to one could easily fail to realize the other even exists. Between street and beach, the break in continuity comes courtesy of an Armed Forces Reserve Center with barbed-wire fencing. (In another sense, the center adds continuity: it’s the latest in a succession of military stations to inhabit the site since 1657.) And between beach and tide, extending off the barbed-wire fence is a roadblock with a big ‘stop’ sign, right where the aforementioned dock hits shore. You could get around the block easily enough, but the ground does look a bit dangerous there, which can rationalize obeying the sign even when no one’s around to scold you.

This is also because, particularly on the south side of the park, the topography is just wacky. The driveway leads you right to the beach, where the playground and bocce court stand in plain sight. But the dog runs are invisible, perched at the top of a tall hill next to the beach, and the seaside pavilion is on the other side of that tall hill, and the path along the edge of the bluffs is on the other side of that. Meanwhile, there’s walkable terra firma at sea level below the bluffs, but it takes some sharp-eyed noticing to see and some special effort to walk given how rocky it is.

Like I said, it’s a curious place, and sometimes its curiosities are fleeting. Yesterday afternoon, a flock of about 150 seagulls stood eerily still, staring into the face of a razor-sharp wind whipping off the harbor. The flock stood in three groups: one near benches at the top of the beach, where someone had dropped a load of seed, and the gulls had responded with loads of droppings; another one closer to the water, at the sandier end of the beach; and a third on the rockier end toward the bluffs, spilling onto an outcropping.

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Though keeping very still, they weren’t catatonic; you could see the occasional shiver, maybe a quick peck at the sand. You could also take matters into your own hands by walking within about 20 feet of them. Calm but wary, they’d flap up and forward into the air, then hold their wings to catch the wind—hovering, waiting for intrusive mammalian bipeds to scoot along. If the hint wasn’t taken within 10 or 15 seconds, suspended gulls would flap over to one of the other two groups, then return when the coast was clear. Tiptoeing around like I was, or running and screaming like a little boy was, seemed to make little difference to the birds.

Hours later, around 5 p.m., human groupings in cars pulled into the beachfront parking spots in Fort Hale’s southern lot, sitting as still as those gulls and facing the same direction. They came in search of a sunset, and what they saw—yellow, orange, pink, red and purple swirls soon thinning into a more unified band, then a haze, then passing forever below the curvature of the planet—didn’t disappoint.

See? At Fort Hale Park, curiosity pays.

Fort Nathan Hale Park
Along Woodward Ave and Fort Nathan Hale Park Rd, New Haven (map)
Open sunrise to sunset
Dogs allowed on leashes

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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