8: Dune Beach

Dune Beach, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15

Dune Beach, watercolor, 11″x15

ON OUR LAST FULL DAY in Euphoria, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to be on the beach to watch the 5:08 sunrise. From the warmth of our narrow, bottom bunk bed we see that the day will begin with clear visibility and little wind. Despite our early rise, though, from our north-facing window we already spot a broad patch of salmon sky sweeping the horizon.

We scramble down the path in our bare feet, which make a sound like soft chewing as they tickle the cool, sugary sand. The gradual sunrise is partially obscured by cloud cover, but the light grows steadily and the sun eventually breaks through not far above the skyline. Our attention toggles between the micro-environment of the beach and the vast ocean, mirroring the spatial relationship between the shack and the dunes.

Atlantic Dawn, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x20"

Atlantic Dawn, oil on canvas, 24″x20″

I take photographs, we scour the beach. The sand here is relatively free of ocean debris, but we collect a dozen or so crab shells, bleached pink or white by the sun. We examine a hollowed-out sea urchin, a barely alive crab (tossed back in), and countless compositions of pebble and seaweed, patterns of webbed seagull feet, fragments of pale, pungent sponges, and slick skate egg cases, looking like black raviolis with short tendrils extending from each corner.

There is plenty of bird life at this hour: gulls standing idly near the surf as if waiting for a bus, terns diving, plovers striding, and water fowl too distant to discern. The beach is relatively clean here, but still we pick up stray rubber gloves, plastic bags, beer cans, Styrofoam and other flotsam washed in from the sea.

We linger, watching southeast-bound fishing boats pass by at regular intervals. Gray seals bob up again and again near the beach singly or in pairs, sometimes for an instant, arching their long, smooth torsos as they disappear, other times staring at us through round, curious eyes as we wave our arms in greeting.

The walk provides a good example of how time slows down here: it feels as if we have been out for hours, but we are back in the shack eating breakfast before 7:30 a.m., a full day ahead of us.

It has been windy much of the week, and foggy at times, with patches of rain, or sunny and hot — often all in a single day. Today is no exception, turning out to be the hottest, most summer-like yet, but dissolving into breezy mist by evening (it is not exactly rain, but your skin gets damp even on the short walk to and from the privy).

I have been swimming  in the Atlantic most days. The water is cold but not icy, allowing me to more than simply run in, run out — I manage a couple of dives and float on my back before emerging. The decision to go in rests more on the strength of the wind and air, rather than water, temperature.

More than most beaches, I have an awareness that the ocean is teeming with life here. It is not just the seals or the terns dipping for sand eels; as I stand knee deep in water a good-sized fish, perhaps 18 inches long, approaches my ankles before quickly darting away.

A fisherman who walks the beach most days says he is “sight fishing” for striped bass — spotting their presence just below the water’s surface from shore, then casting in their midst. He pulls in a small one directly in front of where we sit. At 12 or 13 pounds, he says, it is about half as large as what he considers good size. He promptly throws it back in.

But this human presence is the rarity, and this is our sole conversation. Around the clock each day with few exceptions, the beach is ours alone as far as we can see in either direction, to read, walk, talk, or eat sandwiches beneath a mesh sun tent. In a moment of supreme relaxation, I lie splayed like a starfish on the wet sand.

But we, too, are insignificant specks here, where the animal life still dominates. We are of little consequence to the steady air traffic of terns above us, for example. After a lengthy sequence of squawking by two males fighting for the attention of a female, she promptly nests in the sand just outside the roped area arranged by humans to protect her.

No matter; when the park naturalists arrive, they merely pull up the fence posts on either side of her and arrange them closer to the ocean to accommodate her nest.

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