Saturday, June 25, 2011


It has to be a pretty hot day for a Mainer to think of swimming. Yesterday was one such, and we went to the beach. Our beach is a crescent of rough sand along the causeway facing south to the islands and beyond. To the left and in the center are barbarous canes lifting the most sweetly fragrant rugosas, to the right are piles of granite and sea-rounded rock.

Parents and children were putting tentative toes into the water, wading in the shallows and a few of the braver ones, swimming. I noticed how pale were these northern beach goers. Nowhere here the broiled coconut scent redolent of the seashore where I grew up.

Along that Jersey shore, summer is one long warm sunny day of nicely baked ease, softness, drinks from coolers, glittering jellyfish, snatches of music from the boardwalk, sleek seagulls and sleeker lifeguards. There is a rule-straight horizon where the beach meets water and water meets sky. Speedboats and jet skis plume along heedless of swimmers who venture too far out. Chubby toddlers pat the sand or nap in the shade of gently flapping beach umbrellas. Mothers read and doze, fathers run into the water and belly flop like ten-year-olds, teenagers and college kids preen and roast or sleep off the previous night in the shade of the ticket booth. A build up of bundled cloud over the water allows plenty of time to gather beach chairs, towels and sand toys and get home ahead of a thunderstorm. In the evening, the warmth of afternoon sun is still trapped beneath the wide blue sands and the scent of the hushing surf mingles with the taffy-cotton-candy-ice-cream-warm creosote smell of the boards.

Here in Maine beach-going is all tang and spice – no sugar sand, no Tiki bars, no cotton candy – just flinty stones and beach glass, blue-purple mussel shells, and cold wavelets lapping seaweed.

On wide, mid-Atlantic beaches there is ample room for retreat when the tide turns landward. Here the tide will not only catch you out but cut you off. Firm-appearing sands become quagmires, invitingly soft sand hides nail-studded timbers, remnants of lobster crates, driftwood splinters, dried crab claws and other sea-wrack.

Our beaches are small and hard, coves mostly, like crooks of elbows surrounded by a scrim of soil-on-rock where wildflowers bob. Often our only companions are deer flies, snakelike coils of kelp and the unearthly and amorphous inhabitants of tide pools.

You can’t laze the day away on these sandy outcrops. Even on the warmest days the breeze raises goosebumps on unprotected skin and sweatshirts and blanketed legs are the preferred beach cover ups. After midday we’re grateful for a rough blanket around our shoulders. Here, there’s an atmosphere of alertness; the air is charged with ozone, breezes shift and bite, and crisp white sails slice the space between the saw-tooth profiles of the islands. Instead of calliope music there is birdsong and the crying of gulls.

It's hard to describe the sensation of swimming in our deep blue. It isn't hard to imagine ice crystals forming on the raised arm of the swimmer who attempts even a brief crawl along the shore. Standing in the shallows, where little silvery fish and transparent lobster fry dart around toes, can produce an aching numbness that reaches high above submerged ankles. Maine swimmers go forth, breathless and wary, respectful and slightly overwhelmed by beauty, strangeness, cold, more likely to return home wind burnt than sun burnt and grateful for the fireplace. After a plunge from an island ledge I pop up gasping for breath, skin prickling, heart racing. Diving into ice-cold champagne might have the same effect.

When the sun breaks through the clouds it’s like a blessing.