ON THE LBI CAUSEWAY — As Shore landmarks go, the Long Beach Island shack always delivered.
More insider cool than a surf-shop billboard, not quite as weird as Lucy the Elephant, a handy topic for soulful philosophizing, a reliable evoker of a cry from the backseat. "There's the shack!"
Until it was totaled by Hurricane Sandy, the Shack was the instant you knew you'd arrived, when the Route 72 Causeway rises and suddenly, thrillingly, your view is all water and the green carpet of Bonnet Island and, for so many years, what remained of the LBI Shack.
Since 2012, it's been a mournful "Where's the shack?"
Now, a curious resurrection of the beloved old landmark has captivated the imagination of locals and visitors to Long Beach Island alike.
Behold the LBI Igloo.
Or call it, as local wildlife volunteer and writer Jim Verhagen did on his Exit 63 blog, the "Falcon love shack."
It's a peregrine falcon nesting platform, literally a dog-igloo or a dogloo, in almost the exact spot just off the Causeway.
And unexpectedly, the igloo is beginning to take its place as a nascent Jersey Shore landmark, making a play for the hearts of people on their way to LBI.
"Calling it a 'shack' is completely appropriate," writes Verhagen. "Why? Because it is essentially going to be erected on the site of the old 'Shack': that legendary LBI landmark which brought us so much joy as we crossed the Causeway from its first appearance in 1920 until its final demise during Hurricane Sandy."
"There's the shack!" has started to be replaced by "What's that igloo?"
As in "Igloo Gawking," which local artist Leslee Ganss placed in a cartoon titled "waze lbi" documenting traffic along the Route 72 causeway, right after a "Where's the shack" bubble and just before an "Is that a Seagull" slowdown (all culminating at flooding at Ron Jon's).
"The shack was always like that iconic structure," said Ben Wurst, a field biologist with Conserve Wildlife who constructed the 16-foot Falcon platform (and purchased the dogloo from Pet Smart for $229.99) in concert with the state Department of Transportation and the Endangered and Nongame Species program. "And then it was all over the ground."
"Now it's this iconic structure, the igloo, but it's alive."
People would decorate the shack for holidays, reminisce about the days when it was a place to drink beer, note its fragile endurance year after year, not unlike another causeway landmark, the old metal beams that lay like a leaning cross on the road leading into Margate, always seeming on the verge of collapse.
Wurst, more than most, experienced the death of the Shack firsthand. After Sandy, he remembers, "I went over with my dad. A ton of the wood, all the shingles, by the side of the road."
Wurst is also a wood reclaimer who salvaged much of what was left of the shack, fashioning some into 200 keepsakes in the shape of the state of New Jersey. A piece of the side of the Shack that had nails with pieces of fabric, where someone had attached an American Flag, hangs on the wall of the Ship Bottom Brewery, which brews a Shack IPA.
The state DOT, in the thick of its bridge reconstruction project, wanted to move the falcons from the bridge, where a couple had taken up residence, including one known as Jo Durt, a female born in a flowerpot in Wildwood Crest four years ago who Verhagen says had been hanging around the Surf City water tower waiting to reach sexual maturity.
The DOT has used the platform and dogloo in other places near bridge construction, including one on Drag Island visible from Garden State Parkway's northbound lanes just south of Exit 29, where a new bridge spans the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
The LBI igloo is located on a platform on Bonnet Island (or BOIS, pronounced Bo-eye, by the locals), just off the eastbound lanes of the bridge, just before the place where the old shack was, where there is now a billboard and the Shack's wooden foundation.
The location of the tower, its visibility from the bridge, immediately gelled into one thought, especially for Verhagen and Wurst and other LBI shack-and-peregrine obsessives.
"It was like, 'Oh my God, that's the shack,' " Verhagen said. "It was just a coincidence that they picked that spot. It wasn't exactly the same spot. But it's still the same experience of coming over the bridge, I think. It's one of those welcoming icons."
Verhagen thinks Wurst will eventually work in some wood from the shack, completing the resurrection.
"Some people were asking, if you're a woodworker, why didn't you just build a nest box?" Wurst said. "I just followed the plan. It said igloo."
Jo Durt took to the platform, as did her mate, a Peregrine known as Bridge Boy. A short time later, three foster falcons, including two from the 2400 Chestnut Street apartment building in Philadelphia, were relocated down the Shore and took to the Igloo.
In June, an egg hatched, and a fledgling was born, dubbed Blue Bonnet. Bridge construction continued. Traffic increased.
There was rejoicing when Blue Bonnet was born, but as Wurst points out, keeping track of peregrine falcons and the survival of their fledglings is "not for the faint of heart." The fledglings born when the nest was under the bridge all likely plunged to their deaths into the water.
Earlier this month, Blue Bonnet too was found dead on the bridge, most likely run over by a vehicle. She had been taken to the bridge almost immediately because the falcons, though recognizing the igloo as a favorable nesting spot, still prefer the bridge's wide open expanses.
Lots of people called to report sightings of Blue Bonnet's remains. They also called when Verhagen had gone out there with a camouflage tent to shoot pictures.
That, in and of itself, heartened people like Wurst and Verhagen and Kathy Clark, who oversees endangered species program for the state. People noticed. People cared. There is renewed hope for the foster falcons, who were doused with water to keep them from flying off right away and placed on the tower, where they seemed to acclimate.
"Ben got calls within a few hours: `Some jerk is out there harassing the tower.' " said Verhagen. "That was so exciting. People were driving over the bridge. They were noticing; they were caring. And the same when Bonnie died — a lot of people were reporting it. That's the experience. People get bonded to it."
One day last week, Bridge Boy could be seen hanging out by the bridge's northern edges, a spot Wurst calls his "bachelor pad."
"It's a symbol of life, not of decay," Wurst said.
Verhagen says he hopes the LBI Igloo, and the saga of the falcons, especially the fosters from Center City Philadelphia, will help connect people to the shore in its most fragile, and wild, state.
He is still upset that recent beach replenishment turned the LBI coastline from a wild, fragile shoreline into a uniformly engineered "sandbox."
The area off the causeway has been reanimated in other ways. Near the igloo is a new dog-friendly walking trail installed by the state, with parking just off the Causeway. Bridge walkways will be completed along with the reconstruction.
For Verhagen and others, the LBI Igloo, even with its close encounter with the perilous life and death cycles of peregrine falcons, has filled the void left by the Shack's demise.
"I knew people would drive over the bridge and see the tower and it would become a part of island mythology," Verhagen said. "Those landmarks are a critical part of the experience. My joke is, 20 years from now, it'll be: 'Kids, you better behave, Jo Durt is going to murder you!' She owns that tower."