For all your worldly treasures. For your battles lost and won. Nothing left to measure. Just you and me and the colour of the sun. Jimmy Buffett
My father was a navy man. My father is an early riser and has an internal alarm clock. My father used to wake my brother and I every morning at the crack of dawn singing the following to the tune of “First Call/Reveille”. You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up in the morning. You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up right now. My father passed his internal alarm clock of 5:00a.m. to me. My father passed the song along to me. My father passed the torch to me. Sarah, like most teenagers I know could sleep until noon if we let her. Low tide was 6:25 a.m., sunrise was 6:34 a.m. I sang the song and Sarah was up at 6:00a.m. Please understand, the huge amount of pleasure I derived by waking my daughter in the same manner as my dad woke me for years. Up and at ’em, ready to go except that Sarah refused to wear the booties to the beach. Instead she opted for my sneakers as her kicks were still sodden. This time I paid attention to where she walked and how much time we were on the beach.
Our first stop of the day was a short five minute drive south of our location to Cape Neddick and Nubble Lighthouse. Somewhere in that drive Chris’ car was dubbed the Mermaid Mobile, we laughed with abandon as we contemplated applying the mermaid sticker we had purchased at the front desk. I silently congratulated myself on the drive as within 24 hours all the teenage angst and edge had left my daughter. Sarah’s eyes grew wide with delight as we pulled into the parking lot of the lighthouse. While she joyfully limbered up and down rock pilings my knees knocked in fear. One wrong move and the swirling, heaving, violent inky water pounding the rocks misting us with icy spray and spume would be unforgiving. It was hypnotic, mesmerizing, wild, rough and I had to look away. I found Sarah a short distance away on the calmer, gentler bay side. She was industrious on a rocky outcropping, stomping/wailing away on an icy rock pool she had found. The look of surprise then sheepishness when she finally broke through the ice and soaked yet another pair of shoes was worth the cost of the whole trip.
Our next stop was Ogunquit which means beautiful place by the sea in the indigenous Abenaki language. I fell head over heels in love with this little village. Many little boutiques were open here. Most of the New Englanders, the die hards who were open, were just exactly that…die hards. Kindred spirits who know and take pleasure in the raw beauty of a winter beach.
The beach was barren and the tide was rising, our only company were the beached surf clams, picked clean by the gulls. Families of six to eight intact clams, on the high tide wrack lines had appearance that they were laughing and in conversation with each other. A mile or so down the beach from us we encountered four older adults with eight Labrador Retrievers, yellow, chocolate, black and one Irish Wolfhound. The pack was unleashed and they barrelled down the beach, each carrying surf clams in their mouths to Sarah and I. The owners tried so hard to control the jolly pack, but their efforts were futile against the gregarious happy nature of a beach bum dog. Our mesh loot bags full of surf clams were impossible for the pack of sniffy, snorty, drooly doggy faces to ignore. They tugged, pulled and tried desperately to help themselves to our score of shells even though they had their own. It was like what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too. We laughed in spite of ourselves as the old timer of the pack simply sat of Sarah’s feet and stayed there for a good scratch. Once their owners caught up we spent twenty minutes chatting and exchanging tips on where to find sand dollars. We went our separate ways when the dogs noticed new people had appeared and bounded pell-mell down the beach.
After a couple of hours, it was time to move on to our last stop of the day, Old Orchard Beach roughly an hour north from where we were. We chose to take the road less travelled and used Hwy 1. An exciting drive for people who like to drive, enjoy switch backs, hairpin curves and psycho circles. We enjoyed the ride immensely commenting how cool it would be with the wind in our face driving a motorcycle.
There was a palpable change in the differences between the coastal villages we had visited this far and Old Orchard Beach. It didn’t sit well and I am not sure I can articulate why. Everything was boarded up and closed. The aura of the place screamed a mixture of carny meets Bates motel. I had chosen to stay at the Edgewater Motel as it was on the beach. A gorgeous spot and perhaps one of the best hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. Well appointed in traditional New England style with bay window seating areas, a lovely dining room, kitchen and bedroom. Sarah and I both felt the change, shrugged and chalked it up to fatigue. We hit the beach as the tide was falling. I had remembered a family trip years ago where we had visited Old Orchard Beach. The trip was unique as a sand bar had developed a short walk offshore and you could scoop up handfuls of dead sand dollars. So far we had found moon snails, periwinkles, dog winkles, whelks, sea glass, crabs and surprisingly jingle shells but we were really looking for sand dollars and devils purses. Disappointingly everyone we had talked to said the same thing…a one in a million chance we would find one whole.
We cruised the beach and Sarah amused herself by trying to save all the beached, living surf clams that the gulls were feasting on. I laughed myself silly as she ran into their groups chasing and shooing them away, grab the clams, then run to the waters edge with the gulls hot in pursuit flying just above her head crying “mine, mine, mine”. When she reached the waters edge she would shot-put the massive bi-valves as far as she could throw them into the surf. The gulls sulked and cried mournful dirges, lamenting the loss of their seaside snacks.
The landscape of every beach is different. Shorelines change daily. This happens for many reasons, the changing of the tides, wind speeds, the season, and storms. I like winter beaches, lonely beaches, beaches that invite, no demand reflection and communing with my Maker, beaches whose Easterlies are keen and winnow the mind and soul from stuff that matters and stuff that doesn’t. For me, that transition is lightening quick. Summer beaches for the most part don’t make the cut simply because of the throngs of people stinking of Coppertone and sounding a cacophony of language and music. Out of time, out of sync, and out of place. Summers endless wave of beach seekers also equals fierce competition to find the cast offs/spoils from Mother Natures bounty. I suppose that makes me a scavenger, a looter, perhaps even a pirate.
Beaches are a harmonious mixture of life and death. Whales, dolphins and seals beach themselves. Most humans that have a bleeding heart beating in their chest do their best to help these stranded, dying denizens of the deep. Empty homes made by periwinkles, moon snails and waved whelks become upscaled homes for hermit crabs. Wave and storm surges shift and reposition sands so that long hidden layers of fossilized shark teeth and shells surface that in turn become manipulatives for little hands in a science lab. Horseshoe crab carapaces posited as if in agonizing death throes lay hidden in sandy knolls of beach grass high above the wrack lines. Their tank-like battle armor with spines and spikes becomes the ideal place to hide for softer, smaller more vulnerable creatures on the shore. Horseshoe crabs fascinate me, arthropods that have been around from the Permian Period, 300 million years ago. Their modern cousins we see today survived the largest mass extinction in the history of our planet. I am certain my spirit animal is a crab and this makes me as happy as this crabby crab can get.
On Old Orchard Beach we found so many crab carapaces and tons of small bits of driftwood. We even lucked into a small bit of red beach glass. Perhaps I derived the most joy from the clam spits. You all haven’t lived until you are spit on by a clam while it dives in wet sand to escape your footfalls. I tried to explain this to Sarah in the car on the drive down, but she thought I was telling a big whopper. That is, until it happened on the beach, where a small colony of pisser clams a.k.a soft shell clams or razor clams still hadn’t dug deep for the winter. I grinned like a Cheshire Cat as she squawked in surprise while she walked, then danced on the low tide flats trying to escape as the pocket of clams spit their water up her calves. Sarah is a spirited girl and dug like mad to try to find one, but clams are fast and slippery little devils and she is ultimately a landlocked city girl…the clams had the upper hand rather foot in the battle. This is good stuff, the stuff memories are made of, the kind of stuff she will sketch and doodle and then share one day with her own family. Since the clam experience she is doodling clam faces and earned extra marks on her biology test for giving her teacher something interesting to look at as she marked. Hungry we abandoned the beach in search of our own meal.
After a repast of lobster risotto and steak, the moon was full and high, the skies were clear and the tide was low. It was a marvellous night for a moon dance. We weren’t the only ones to be dancing in the moonlight. A group of maybe 30-50 sandpipers murmurated along the shore. We couldn’t help but marvel as the group all waltzed together in one giant body, looking for worms, crustaceans and tiny bi-valves along the shore bobbing and weaving away from the creeping fingers of white water and spume that petered out as it lazily rolled ashore. We marvelled at the very beautiful, special gift that God had given us and finally just sat high above the wrack lines in dry sand to take it all in and offer prayers of thanksgiving. As fellow rovers we chatted about the special moments and how we each were feeling. Surprisingly or perhaps not we both admitted that we had burnt the candle at both ends, while filling our buckets. We had ticked all but one of our boxes, we still hadn’t found a sand dollar. Colder, violent weather and seas was the forecast so we both decided we would head home early. Sarah asked me to check my step monitor on my phone just to see if we were roughly in the same ball park and to my surprise we had walked 15.59 km of beach in one day.
At First Call/Reveille we packed ourselves and the car then headed to the beach, just before sunrise. Only one other lonely pirate was on the beach with his metal detector a half mile away. Bundled in our down parkas our upper bodies were toasty, Our legs dressed in Adidas leggings froze. On the Beaufort Wind Force Scale the wind blew between a strong breeze and a near gale. Windchill was -15. A small plug for Adidas, the only thing that could make their leggings better for a beach comber pirate is the addition of a second deep pocket on the left leg. Sarah and I agreed we would only walk as far as the pier before calling it a day and hitting the road. Checking the fresh wrack line left from high tide the night before, Sarah used half a broken surf clam as her shovel and a piece of weathered drift wood as a stick to poke at things in the sand and frigid water she wasn’t sure about. We were both quiet on the return to the car, there was nothing left to be said as we scanned the sand for evidence of sand dollars, that is until I screamed at her to stop moving. Startled, she jumped away and looking alarmed stared as I dug where she would have placed her foot next. Eureka, we dug out one whole sand dollar! A grin split her face in two as I gave her the echinoid as a remembrance of our special time together. Hearts happy, faces bright and rosy from the cold we both raised our faces in prayer and gratitude as God ticked all the boxes we prayed for.