Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dunes of Sand and Ice


I plan to take a Sunday morning stroll and found myself on Crane's Beach, on one of Massachusetts long, sandy beaches framed by dunes and estuaries. It turned into a four hour hike along the ocean shore and  miles of trails that wound through richly adorned bank of coastal dunes.


Not many visit the beach in winter. Drifts of hard, crusty snow from the last nor'easter adorned the beach along the tidemark, where one normally finds shells and seaweed. On this early March day, I only saw a handful of people jogging and walking their dogs along the wet and icy sand. I felt that sense of freedom as one can only experience listening to the rich sounds of the ocean. After a mile or two I began to jog for a while in order to warm up.


Piping Plover by Glenn Tepke

From time to time, I would stop and walk, particularly when I ran into small flocks of tiny seabirds called piping plovers. The beautiful creatures nearly became extinct in the 19th century, prized for their eggs and feathers across Europe. Today they remain endangered, and Crane's Beach is one of the world's most important protected nesting sites. Each time, I approached them softly, keenly aware of the need not to frighten them as they foraged for food.


After a few miles or so, I finally rounded the southern end of Castle Neck Peninsula and found myself alone in the tall, marsh grasses of the Essex River estuary. There was a well-marked trail that entered the landscape of tufted dunes I remembered as a child.  I rounded a hill and looked back at the ocean one last time.  Braced against the cold, northeast wind I could still hear the surf smashing against the sand. Somehow it seemed as loud as when I felt spray in the air, my feet inches from the water.




As I got deeper within the landscape of shrubby dunes, the ocean sounds faded away, and there was nothing left to hear.  Even the wind stopped speaking.  Sheltered behind a tall dune, I sat and closed my eyes, reveling in the silence. A sense of peace washed over me as if a wave, and I wondered if these dunes were any different than the lapping waves.  They come and go as well, I thought, only in a different scale of time.  





I felt myself as ephemeral, and I wondered what of nature isn't a wave that rises, crests and falls? In my travels along the dune trails I lost my way a time or two, once finding myself back on the shore on the estuary side. The tide had risen and the bank of ice that once rested by the water's edge had turned to tiny icebergs drifting to and fro. 


I sat, rested, and took out my phone to determine where I was; I had taken a picture of one of the posted trail maps. I walked back along the marsh, avoiding the high waters, traversed the top of a particularly tall dune, and headed up Wigwam Hill, where the vegetation began to thicken.





After a few hours of hiking along trails of crusted snow, ice and sand, the landscape held a final surprise; I found myself in the middle the largest pitch pine forest on the north shore of Boston. The texture and smells of the pine grove could not have provided a more pleasing way to end my small adventure.






I don't have to tell you, I plan to be back, and next time perhaps I'll bring some friends.