By Emily J Weitz Any excuse to drive down the Napeague Stretch and hike through the Walking Dunes is a good one. But as Thanksgiving draws near and the menu begs for something special this year, freshly-picked local cranberries might be just the motivation you need to head East. The thriving cranberry bog that resides in between two of the Walking Dunes is in full fruit-bearing mode, and this weekend, Lee Dion of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society (EHTPS) will lead a free hike of the dunes and give everyone an opportunity to fill their baskets to the brim. Cranberries are hearty berries that come out after most plants have died off. In fact, “The best time to pick cranberries is after the first frost,” says Dion, a retired science teacher who was also the first president of EHTPS, back in 1980. “That’s when they release more sugar, and you’ll get a sweeter berry.” That’s why cranberry sauce is such a staple on the Thanksgiving table in late November. Not only is it a seasonal dish, but it’s also distinctly American, as is the Thanksgiving holiday. “Cranberries are unique to America [and Canada],” says Dion. “Two states – Wisconsin and Massachusetts – still produce a lot commercially. New York and New Jersey still produce some as well.” When English settlers first came to America, they quickly looked for ways to utilize the cranberry, which is one of the few fruits that can last so late in the year. “Cranberries float,” says Dion. “Early settlers created a scoop with teeth and the cranberries would be gathered right from the water.” Dion explains that the cranberry was an integral part of the Native Americans’ diet long before settlers arrived. “They used to pound cranberries, corn, and venison together to make pemmison,” he says. “It was kind of like an early meal on the go… They didn’t have refrigeration, so pemmison was dried food they could bring with them as lunch on the road.” When the English settlers arrived, they brought with them flour, and started incorporating cranberries into breads, pies, and cakes. “ The word cranberry comes from ‘crane berry’,” says Dion, “because when the settlers first arrived here, they thought the plant’s flower looked like the head of a crane.” The plant is actually very small compared to the fruit, which is large relative to other berries. Cranberries need unique conditions to grow. They require acidic vegetation and sand or peat, all of which they find in the dunes out in Montauk. They also need a lot of moisture. When walking through a cranberry bog, you better be wearing boots, because some areas will be fully submerged. The ideal setting that the dunes provide has resulted in not just one bog. “The one we’ll hike to is the most productive,” says Dion, “but there are [at least] four more bogs in the Walking Dunes.” While for some, the object of the hike may be gathering cranberries, Dion plans to incorporate his extensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna as well. “We’ll be taking a loop,” he says, “and I’ll introduce people to the local ecosystem and the history of the dunes… It’s a fascinating place.” Contrary to popular belief, it’s not called the Walking Dunes because it’s a nice place to walk. Rather, it’s so called because the dunes themselves are actually walking. “The dunes are moving about three to five feet every year,” Dion says. “The wind scours out a wetland, then fills it in, then scours it out again. That’s where the water is that’s needed for cranberries.” The effect of the wind on the sand doesn’t just provide optimal conditions for cranberries. It provides for a spectacularly beautiful setting for an afternoon hike, the bright white dunes contrasting against the blue of Napeague Harbor, with Goff Point and Gardiner’s Island in the distance. “Last year we had about 60 people from all over Long Island, including lots of families,” says Dion. And this year should be even more popular. “The secret’s out,” he says. “There’s something romantic about picking cranberries just before Thanksgiving to have on your table.” Dion’s favorite recipe for his fresh picked cranberries is super-simple and super-sweet, and he was kind enough to share it: Lee’s Cranberry Compote: Place one quart of cranberries in a deep oven-safe dish. Cover with sugar. Add one shot of Grand Marnier. (If you’re opposed to Grand Marnier, Lee says you can use orange zest, but “it isn’t as good”.) Optionally, you can add crushed walnuts. Place the dish in the oven at 350, bake for 50 minutes, and serve it hot. The East Hampton Trails Preservation Society leads free hikes every Wednesday and Saturday. This Saturday, November 20 at 10 am, join Lee for the 11th anniversary of this 1.5 mile hike. Bring a bag to collect your cranberries and wear low boots for walking in the bog. Meet at the end of Napeague Harbor Road in Napeague. Call Lee for more information at 375-2339, or check out the EHTPS web site at www.ehtps.org.