TARPON SPRINGS — They came to swim.
With the beach at Fred Howard Park about to close for a year because of bridge reconstruction, regulars and first-timers alike on Monday packed up the kids and the coolers, the dogs and the sunscreen and headed for Pinellas' northernmost beach.
They came to bike.
The locals call it "our beach." They came on Sunday mornings with their newspapers and coffee. They brought the kids after school to snorkel and swim. It was the first place they brought out-of-town relatives, the reason they bought a house nearby.
They came to fish.
The closing is a necessary evil. The regulars want the bridges to be safe and the beach to be accessible for their children, and grandchildren. But it's hard to imagine life without their beach for a year.
They came for one last sunset.
Jenna Williams, all of 2 feet tall, let go of her dad's hand and flopped softly, face first, into the warm, shallow water.
The towheaded 2-year-old scanned the sea floor for shells, emerging empty-handed — this time.
She's known to bring home hermit crabs. Last week, she found a scallop.
"She's diver girl," said her mom, Tina Williams, 44. "This is where she learned to swim."
Williams said her daughter is going to be confused when they tell her they can't go to their favorite beach.
"She knows if we make the turn from our house onto Florida Avenue that she's going to the beach. … She's jumping for joy," said Williams, of Tarpon Springs. "She's going to be sad, because she just loves it here."
The Basta boys of Palm Harbor hatched a Labor Day plan Monday morning.
"We were begging to come here today. We were, like, freaking out because this is the best beach for skim boarding," said Alex Basta, 12, an eighth-grader at Carwise Middle School.
It didn't take long to persuade their parents.
"It's a slice of heaven," said dad Sherif Basta, 40.
Alex and his brothers, Ameer, 11, and Blayne, 9, spent the afternoon climbing rocks, scaling a man-made sand dune and sliding across the calm water on their boards.
They picnicked on turkey sandwiches, peaches and bananas before making a beeline back to the water.
And for the next year? "We'll probably buy a Slip 'n Slide …," said Ameer.
"But that's not as good," Alex said.
Hector Rodriguez had already caught — and released — a starfish, but he was looking for crabs.
The 10-year-old put on a live shrimp and threw his handheld fishing line into the water off the causeway.
The sixth-grader and his family from Port Richey had never visited Fred Howard Park before their Labor Day fishing expedition.
"It's lovely that I chose this place today," said dad, Joel Hernandez, 29.
Sitting next to his battery-powered bait saver, Hernandez said they planned to stay until closing time.
Just then, Hector came over, hand outstretched to reveal a 3-inch stone crab with one missing claw.
"I caught one!" he said.
Rosalie Leone had to get in one last jog.
Listening to Eric Clapton on her iPod, Leone did a loop on the causeway before heading back to the beach for the last sunset.
The Tarpon Springs resident said she runs a few miles at the park five days a week.
"I understand they're doing it because of the bridges and I'd rather have it closed than see something happen, but I'll miss it because it's very peaceful and serene," said Leone, 52.
Next week, she'll start spending more time at the YMCA in Trinity, where she has a membership.
But it won't be the same, she said, gesturing toward the water.
"You watch a sunset like this and you're geared up and re-energized for the week," she said.
Larry and Ellen Floriani sat in beach chairs under a sabal palm, next to a small cooler filled with fried chicken and potato salad. They had started their day at the beach, took a break, then came back for one more sunset.
"They'll have to throw people out tonight. They're not going to want to leave," said Ellen, 58. "I think they'll have to throw us out."
Ellen said she would miss their "spur-of-the-moment beach."
"I'd say it's perfect," she said.
As the last rays of light faded from the sky, only the couple's silhouette was left behind.
Fred Howard Park supervisor Bob Zakrzewski sat on a bench and surveyed the scene.
It was after 8:30 p.m., and at least 30 people were still on the beach.
"People, they just don't want to leave. I don't want them to leave, either," he said, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. "But looking to the future, it will be bigger and badder than ever."
The steward of Pinellas' northernmost beach, Zakrzewski has seen the beach's metamorphosis from a barren, sandy stretch of shoreline to a seaside oasis visited by thousands each day.
"I remember when there was nothing here," he said, pointing out the palm trees and sea oats that were added over the years. In front of him stood the huge sand pile he created for kids to play "king of the hill" just like he did as a boy.
"We push it back up in a big pile and let them tear it down again," he said.
The man known to most as Bob Z. won't be on the job next fall when the beach reopens. After 20 years with the Parks and Recreation Department, retirement beckons.
"It's a sad moment," Zakrzewski said. "But I'll be back."
The beach barely lit by a sliver of a moon and a beacon flashing at the Anclote Key lighthouse, Inna Bakhchevnikova wasn't ready to go.
"It's the first time I've seen the ocean in my entire life,'' she said. "It's beautiful!"
The 18-year-old, on vacation from Russia, had no idea the beach was closing for a year. She and her friends would be among the last tourists for some time to see the sun fade into streaks of pink and purple and orange.
Bakhchevnikova said she felt terrible for the people who wouldn't get to see the sun set there tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
"It's awful," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.