Back to the Beach
A day at the shore is always an occasion for introspection and delight.
- By: Kim Ridley
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee
A short walk takes me through spruce woods to the beach. My brain buzzes with anticipation as I swat mosquitoes and walk down the muddy path. The first glimpse of the shore through the trees blasts the chatter from my mind.
The long curve of beach beckons into the distance. Waves slam onto the shore, and granite tosses back salty mist. A herring gull shrieks. Goldenrod blazes from a chink in the ledge. Everything utters the same refrain: “Now.”
Nowhere does time feel shorter and more precious than on a beach in Maine on a clear summer day. The light is audacious. The sea holds winter’s chill, a reminder of what’s to come. Fog could roll in any minute, and often does.
The tide is still going out, but will soon return, making the crossing impossible. I slip off my sandals and wade across the knee-deep tidal river, pushing hard against the current. Something small and slippery wriggles under my toes. I lift my foot as a sand lance, a silvery, eel-like fish, burrows into the riverbed.
Though the channel is narrow, it marks the boundary of another world. The beach is a place of paradox. It smacks of eternity, yet is a landscape in flux.
I walk northwest up the shore, following the wavering wrack line left by the last high tide. Sand fleas ping against my ankles as I search the tangle of rockweed and eelgrass for the sea’s leavings. Clam and mussel shells lie scattered about, along with bottles and other plastic detritus, which I collect in a bag. Reaching for a bottle cap, I spot the empty egg case of a skate. Blackish and about three inches long, these leathery, rectangular pouches taper into slender horns at the corners and are commonly called “mermaid’s purses.”
A flash of motion farther up the beach catches my eye. I lift my binoculars and at first see nothing but small rocks. Then one of them moves. Two. Three, four, five. Six, seven semipalmated plovers scurry among the clumps of washed-up seaweed, searching for insects and other invertebrates. With brown backs, pale bellies, and black “necklaces,” they resemble small killdeer and are among the many small shorebirds whose plumage helps them blend into their surroundings even on a bright, exposed beach.
The air is hot near the dunes, so I return to the sea to walk in the water. A small flock of sanderlings flies low over the waves, revealing pale undersides as they turn in unison, flashing against the dark water like an animated constellation. They land farther down the beach, running along the tide’s advance and retreat as they probe the wet sand for small invertebrates.
Tiny flecks of mica, washed down eons ago from ancient mountains, trace rippling patterns on the sand as the tide recedes. The patterns swirl around my feet in wet sand that reflects towering clouds. I feel as though I’m walking on sky.
By the time I reach the far end of the beach, my limbs are loose and my skin salty. I stand at the edge of another tidal river and consider wading across to walk the beach beyond, but if I misjudge the tide it would be a long and treacherous swim home.
Instead, I linger a few minutes on this spit of sand, this temporary terra firma, and poke around a tide pool. I lift a fringe of rockweed and startle a green crab, which scrabbles for cover. Underwater, a hermit crab trundles along the bottom in its periwinkle shell, crossing a backdrop of rocks splotched with pink, green, and orange algae.
Common terns cry overhead. I stand to watch them hover over the river’s mouth. White with black caps and brilliant orange beaks, they fold their bodies into arrows of hunger and plunge into the water. Every so often, one rises into the air with a small, silver fish. My mind rises and dives with the birds.
A gaggle of fellow beach walkers laugh and splash in the waves. In this elemental place of water and sand, perhaps we become less encumbered. We shed something as we brush up against the living world and rest our eyes on a horizon unmarred by human will. We begin to remember who we really are: not stockbrokers and writers and electricians, but animals who revel on our backs in the sun, the tug and sway of the sea, the cooling breeze.
We smile and wave. Something shifts. I feel strangely buoyant, even though the tide is rising and it’s time to go.
More than vacation spots for humans, beaches serve as snack bars and rest stops, nurseries and homes for a host of plants and animals, from migratory shorebirds to interstitial fauna, tiny organisms that inhabit the spaces between grains of sand. All are survivors in a harsh environment. Here are a few of the strange and resilient lives you’re likely to encounter as you comb a Maine beach.
American beachgrass grows where most other plants would perish. Sharp-bladed and deep-rooted, Ammophila breviligulata helps stabilize sand dunes. It spreads up to ten feet a year and can sprout more than one hundred blades in a single season. Also growing in the dunes are seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), which attracts monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus), which bloom lavender and pink in early summer. Although the peas are edible, they contain a toxic compound that can damage the nervous system in large doses, so it’s best to leave them be.
It’s important to keep off the dunes, where endangered piping plovers and least terns nest on bare sand. They are among the twenty-five or so species of shorebirds that rely on our beaches for rest and food during round-trip migrations of 15,000 miles or more. Late summer offers great opportunities for seeing migratory shorebirds on our beaches, including big flocks of peeps, small, drab-colored sandpipers; striking black-bellied plovers; grayish-brown whimbrels with long, thin down-curving beaks; and ruddy turnstones, which flip over shells and pebbles with their beaks in search of tasty morsels.
Shorebirds feed in the intertidal zone mostly on insects and marine invertebrates, a wriggling throng of worms, mollusks, and crustaceans, including sand fleas. Reddish brown and soft-bodied, they aren’t really fleas at all, but amphipods, tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that help clean the beach by scavenging organic matter. Drama unfolds under the damp sand, where moon snails bore holes in clams with their sandpapery tongues and suck out the insides. All manner of clams live under the sand, including long, skinny razor clams and northern quahogs, named by the Algonquians and a favorite at clambakes for centuries.
Clams and a host of other creatures feast on plankton — myriad, minute floating plants and animals collectively named for the Latin word for “wanderers.” Some of them are bioluminescent. The best way to see them is to walk to the edge of the shore on a warm summer night and swirl your hands or feet in the sea. If conditions are right, the water will sparkle.
- By: Kim Ridley
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee