There’s a beach not far from me that is a tiny beach, but it separates a bay and harbor from Nantucket Sound. One side is quiet, almost pastoral, if a beach could be pastoral. The other side can be quite wild, even on the same day the other is calm and peaceful. It is pretty much the literal and physical definition of a barrier beach and as such, it is under constant stress.
I grew up on this beach. I took swimming lessons there, learned to sail just down the way and have walked it daily every winter with whatever dog we’ve had at the time. My own kids grew up playing, swimming and sailing there and my grandchildren began their own swimming and sailing adventures there as well.
When I was young there was a huge colony of least terns that nested at the end of the beach. We couldn’t walk down to the point in July without causing a huge ruckus. Terns are not shy about expressing their outrage and it didn’t take more than one trespassing incident for them to make their point. Not only do they swoop and stab at your head, but they aim their gooey poop at your face. No kid wants that, and they didn’t have to tell us twice. This was long before signs or management of any kind. We just learned to stay away and leave them be the old-fashioned way.
The middle part of the barrier beach was a large set of dunes with an old sandy truck path through the center. Dune grasses, beach roses, poison ivy and goldenrod all grew there in profusion. Sparrows, horned larks, marsh hawks and even quail were known to nest there each summer. In winter there were snow buntings. It was a lovely, peaceful place to walk.
Until it wasn’t. The tides and weather ate away at the beach from both sides each winter and one year the inner harbor and boat channel were dredged so that the island ferries could continue to pass through without grounding. The spoils of the dredge were unceremoniously dumped on the beach, completely covering the dunes and salt meadow that had been there for decades. My heart was broken. I stopped going there for about a year.
It was many, many years before the dumping began to resemble anything close to a sand dune. The dredged sand from the harbor bottom was dark and coarse. No grass grew for many seasons. The terns continued to nest but the other birds sought other places to call home. Most didn’t have to go far. There’s a large private, mostly undeveloped island across the way and many seemed to simply move over there.
Ospreys came to nest at the end of the parking lot and Cooper’s hawks moved into the small wooded picnic area. Rosa rugosa was slowly re-established on one end and over a period of 20-odd years a few shrubs and hardy dune plants have sprung up. There are two stunted red cedars and now the area is visited regularly by coyotes and deer that seem to go back and forth from the island across the way. The quail are long gone but the larks and buntings have returned.
There are less than a few dozen terns that nest there anymore and only one or two pairs of piping plovers as the sand continues to erode from both sides of the beaches. The large pile of dredge sand sits high above the water line, at least most of the time, but huge chunks of dune are torn out and pulled into the water with each windy storm we have. At high tide, much of the beach is now under water and the channel jetty is breached with every big moon tide.
I’ve lived near this beach for most of my life. Beaches are always changing. That’s simply part of what they are and why they exist. A visit to other area beaches after a recent storm made me feel quite dizzy and ill, in spite of my knowledge of this simple fact. None of our recent storms have been “big” ones and yet the damage done so far is already shocking.
I’ve heard rumors of different plans for the beach down the road from me. It is too valuable as a channel boundary to let it slip away, but what will come next?
I stood alone on the remaining hill looking out over the sound the other day, letting the wind scream its warnings to me as I watched some brant and buffleheads bob around in the waves. I wondered what would happen to my beloved spot. Would this spit of sand that had already survived so much be altered beyond recognition? I closed my eyes as if to hold the day’s image so tightly I’d always have it near me. Change is constant. I know that. But sometimes it really hurts. I turned into the wind and walked back along the wild side, letting the stinging sand