On a sunny afternoon in mid-December the woods at South Whidbey State Park – where huge, old growth firs allow only filtered light to reach the forest floor – were chilly and damp. But beyond the trees I could see that the beach, on this almost Christmas day, was merry and bright.
By the time I finally made it down the bluff to the weather beaten stairs there wasn’t much beach left. But what there was made me want to sing Gloria! In Excelsis!
The sun was warm, the air still, the sea calm. But the tide was coming in, and getting around the bulkhead without wading required fast footwork. Perching on one of several long, sinewy trunks of a downed madrone, I shed my coat, turned my face to the source of Vitamin D and took up my pen.
Why is it that a person in search of a little quiet, thinking time is a social magnet? No sooner had I scrawled the first word than, down the strip of sand, a small blond person detached herself from her family unit and came running. I knew in a twinkling that this was not going to be my moment for literary nirvana. My new friend climbed up and sat silently beside me. Eventually we exchanged a few words. I commented on her bare feet. She assured me they weren’t cold.
Then she climbed out to where the the end of the tree dipped toward the water, draped herself across the bleached wood and began bouncing and singing Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. At the bottom of each bounce the trunk hit another, submerged trunk with a reverberating thunk. At the same time, the wake from a container ship sailing out of Elliott Bay rushed the shore. Though I was sitting still, my new friend had me rockin’ out to Rudolf, a big timber bass drum and the brush-on-snare sound of breaking waves.
Before long a brother showed up, then a dad, then a mom and little sister. We shared goodwill and sunshine until the tide chased us back up the hill into the trees.
Meeting this young family was like watching a film taken of my own family when the kids were little. The beach was our get away year round, and regardless of the season the kids always managed to get out of their shoes, fall in the water and otherwise immerse themselves in nature. All our kids grew up to love and respect the natural world, and only one moved away from the sea.
On Whidbey right now there’s a bit of a fracas over public beach access at non-park sites. Public access points are narrow strips of land, dotted here and there around the island, usually at road ends, where the public can get down to the beach. In a few cases the neighboring land owners would prefer that the rowdy public, with their loud voices and careless ways, never find the access. Some have extended walls or fences onto public land to bar the way, others have put up signs that in one way or another say KEEP OUT.
I’ve never understood that point of view.
In all my years of walking beaches, I’ve often come across signs that say “Private Beach, No Trespassing.” Never once have I seen a single person enjoying the beach that lay protected behind one of those signs.
This holiday weekend, during this season devoted to giving and sharing, I hope all waterfront property owners get a chance to enjoy their beach. While you’re there consider how important it is for kids, families, teenagers, everybody, to get to the water once in a while. Sharing means more than buying a few plastic toys.
The problem of encroachment into public space is by no means unique to the waterfront, but in states such as Washington, where some beaches are in private hands, there are complications. The sea is famously restless. It endlessly shifts, changes and moves. Every few years a new set of stairs has to be built at South Whidbey State Park. As the climate warms – for WHATEVER reason – the sea is changing even more dramatically, forcing shore side communities and states to re-think, re-plan, re-build and sometimes, abandon the beach front. Beach access is going to become ever more precious and, given human nature, probably ever more contentious.