Beach walk, January 5, 2020

A peek at the ferry through a North Cape May jetty

The Christmas crowds are almost gone now; the big display on Town Bank Road was not lit up Friday night. The warm holiday lights give way to the wintry darkness. The beach belongs, again, to those who need it.

A few herring gulls, a lone sand piper too busy to worry about me. If there were any scoters or loons, I did not see them in the frothy waves.

Delaware Bay, Jersey side, January 5, 2020

A nice blow from the northwest built up foam on the edge of the bay. Small pieces break off and scamper up the beach like scalded squirrels, quickly dissipating into nothingness.

If you kick along the waves’ edges, you can kick up a storm of beach foam balls, skittering up the beach. Child’s play, but my birthday is closer to the 1800s than to the new year, and anyway, no one else was on the beach to see my foolishness.

I found a small knobbed whelk shell and a large quahog shell, a piece of muscle still attached, at least a few decades old. This part of the bay was once flush with clams, and may be again someday, but not today.

Among the scattered oyster shells lay a moon snail shell.

Today the sun was as close as it’s going to get until next January rolls in, but not close enough to make much difference in the chill. I wore 4 layers, should have gone with five.

In just a few months, the laughing gulls will be back, stealing from children squealing under a June sun.

Ferry terminal phragmites

But today, I’m the only one on the beach, from Scott Avenue down to the ferry jetty, kept company by the few birds facing into the stiff breeze.

New Year’s Day in NCM

A couple of year’s ago on New Year’s eve.
Closest thing I come to resolutions these days.

I watched the sun as it set yesterday.
I watched the sun as it rose again this morning.

I don’t do this often enough, few of us do.

Just a few minutes after the sun broke through this morning, a twitchy squirrel sat on top of a fence post, still, facing the sun, then resumed his twitchiness.

A vulture flew within 20 feet of me, its under feathers reflecting the sunlight as it banked.

I just watched.
It would have happened anyway.
And it’s happening anyway.

And it will keep on happening….

Clamming in late autumn 2019

They’re alive, just an hour or two after leaving the bay, and will be until they are cooked an hour or two later.

The air is chilly in the shadows, but the water is still warm enough for sandals.

In a generation or two, different clams will fill the same basket, different hands will hold the same rake.

Comb jellies, lightning bugs of the sea

It was just past dusk, a warm September evening welcoming us to the beach. And there it was.

An impossibly blue flash of light at the edge of the bay, just inside the curl of a gentle bay wave.

Then another. And then yet another. Brief flashes of blue from the bay, another surprise from our beach. We had never seen them before.

Comb jelly, taken at Monterey Aquarium by Bastique, CC

Comb jellies are not the same as jellyfish, despite their similar names (and similarly gelatinous bodies). They do not sting.

Sometimes in late summer they can overwhelm the bay–you feel them slip through your fingers with each stroke as you swim, at first a bit unnerving, but can be soothing once you get used to them.

Hundreds sometimes wash up on our beach, little glass globules sitting on the wet sand. I sometimes put a few back. We can all use a hand now and again.

If you watch one and the sun catches it just right, you will see a beautiful rippling iridescent wave along its edges, a living kaleidoscope. You can do this easily at high tide when you’re chest deep in water. It’s worth the effort.

And a few, it turns out, will erupt into light when disturbed. Our bay continues to surprise us.

Jetty jumping

Jetty at Scott Avenue beach, early July evening

I grew up jumping on rock jetties along the Atlantic. We’d run along the top of these jagged walls, leaping off one rock, planning our landing as we launched. We were younger, made fewer mistakes, and healed faster when we did.

The jetties call, especially at sunset. The outcrop of rocks sitting at the end of a short walk along the wooden wall calling like a Siren, alluring and dangerous.

If the rock is green, it’s slippery. If it’s green and wet, it’s dangerously slick. God gave us four limbs–use all of them.

Barnacles are sharp–oyster shells hones by the tides are razor sharp. I once managed to slice my big toe to near the bone by the ferry jetty, hobbled back to my bicycle, then dripped a bloody trail all the way back home. Cleaning the sand out was, well, unpleasant, but had to be done. I have a deep scar to remind me.

Be aware of the tide–the bay swings up to 6 feet in 6 hours, and a few of the groins along the North Cape May beach are underwater. You can wait or get wet.

Worth the small risk

Each jetty along the beach has its own characteristic wooden walkway and rock formation. Over the years you get to know them. If you’re just down here for vacation, though, you might want to stick to the ferry jetty–it’s level and (usually) dry, though you do need to watch when larger boats push water in the canal.

Ecstasy at dusk

Our edge of the Delaware Bay is much like the edge of any bay, littered with life and its leftovers. High tide smells alive, and low tide carries the pungent sweet smell of decay.

The tide rises, the tide falls, twice a day, every day, as it has for millenia.

North Cape May, June 15, 2019.

And for millenia, horseshoe crabs have ambled up to the edge of the bay in late spring to mate and lay eggs, thousands on our beaches laying millions upon millions upon millions of tiny green eggs.

The youngest are already nine years old, surviving against incredible odd; the eldest have been coming here for 30 years.

Many do not survive the orgy, and a whiff of their stinking carcasses in the afternoon light remind us, should we care to be reminded, of what awaits all of us.

But here, now, the beach seemingly emanating light as the sun settles below the bay’s edge, an early evening high tide coinciding with a rising plump moon, you smell the life churning in the waves as these ancient creatures rise up again, as they have long before the first humans walked along this bay, and likely will long after we have passed on.

Clamming in late winter

First clams of the year.

The late winter sun glows warmly on the back bay in the late afternoon. My feet are still numbed by the cold March bay, and I stay in too long, lulled by the sun massaging my shoulders.

I stumble a tiny bit–I blame the numb feet, but age may play a role. No matter, time to drag my rake back to shore, warm my feet, empty my pockets of the critters I collected before I stumbled.

I see a small fish scramble at the very edge of the bay, trapped between beach and my numb feet. I hold still long enough for it to figure it out, then step back on the flat.

I put my clams in a basket possibly older than me, a basket I hope is still used someday by the newest child in our clan. Not my decision, but it’s hers if she wants it.

Clamming is not technically difficult, but clammers older than me can collect a lot more than I do with half the work. Reading the flats gets easier with the passing years, even if I don’t see quite as well as I did when I started.

When the tine of the rake hits a live clam, you can feel it. The rake rings in your hand. That doesn’t happen with rocks, or even empty shells. I do not know what the clam feels, but I know it feels something.

Some of the shells bear the streak of my rake–pulling them from the mud is an act of violence. Now and again I find one that has healed from a prior rake, maybe mine, maybe not.

Kale and rosemary both love North Cape May–plant some, you will not regret it.

Back home I have a few leaves of kale from the garden waiting for me; the kale survived a tough winter, and is all the sweeter for it. I have a few sprigs cut from the sprawling rosemary bush that threatens to take over the driveway. The rosemary was started by “special” kids who run a greenhouse at the local high school.

I heat some olive oil, add some onions, then some celery and kale, toss on some butter–each ingredient has its own, untold story. I only know the story of the clams, the kale, and the rosemary.

I drop the clams a few at a time into the boiling water, saying a prayer for each, or maybe just praying for myself. Slaughtering any animal, even a clam, leaves me confused.

Foraging in late winter,feasting on organisms that survived the days of bitter cold and little sun, seems unfair. And it is.

But I do it anyway.

Winter dandelion

The edges of the petals have been cauterized by the recent frigid nights. There are no bees around. Even if the flower should go to seed, the ground is too hard to accept them.

And yet there it is, bright yellow, still living, still growing, still being.

A January dandelion flower

Early in spring I will rip a leaf here and there, to nibble during the weeks when there is little to nibble, a week or two after the peas have been planted, months before we’ll see beans and tomatoes.

Its persistence seems to annoy most. Few folks forage, and no one makes dandelion wine anymore. Perhaps the dandelion’s reminder of who we once were, of what we once valued, is why its abundance angers us. I do not know.

A few weeks after flowering, the yellow gives way to a white soft globe, soft as baby hair, each tuft carrying a seed. Make a wish and blow the pods away.

The dandelion’s roots delve deep into the earth, snorting in water, sniffing out trace elements we have no idea we need (but we do), feasting on the feces left by an earthworm.

Some of the dandelions on our yard have been here over a decade, gathering sunlight, feeding the bees, feeding me.

I spent a wasted lifetime killing them.

On Beerworld and bald eagles

Last week we weathered a polar vortex, tucked inside our homes, cussing the anticipated heating bills, keeping the water in the pipes moving, getting a little stir crazy.

A bald eagle off Beach Avenue–it was within a few feet before we got a camera out. Photo by Leslie Doyle.

Outside near the bay a bald eagle did what it could to survive. The bay was crusting over with ice, and this animal, like most who opted to stick around here for the winter, was in trouble.

Yesterday we decided to take a walk in Beerworld (or Ponderlodge or the Villas WMA–whatever you call it, a wonderful place to walk in the dead of winter). We usually come in from the Delview Avenue entrance, and we took a short detour to peek at the bay.

As we crept up Beach Drive on our way to Beerworld, marveling at the waves pushed by the stiff northwest breeze, a large bird slowly rose up from behind the dune, hanging at our eye level, no more than 10 yards away.

I thought it was the largest black-back gull I’d ever seen. I was wrong.

It was a bald eagle riding the wind as it was deflected upward by the dunes. By the time we got our phones out, well, it did what animals do, and we were left shooting shots of its backside.

Schmidt’s pool frog pond, via ACP

Beerworld used to be a golf course owned by Billy Plaumer, a man who made a fortune distributing beer, ultimately owning Schmidt’s. One of his pools had the Schmidt’s logo engraved on the bottom. The last time I saw the pool it had been taken over by large bullfrogs and a few turtles.

Plaumer made a lot of money, but should have made a little less–the Feds caught him, and Beerworld eventually went belly-up.

The greens have gone to cedar, but the ponds are still there. The main pond, the site of a recent rescue, held three swans and multiple ducks. The reeds along its edge wore crystal ice collars, just forming as the sun dropped lower in the sky. A fisherman in full camouflage sat at the edge. A large snapping turtle poked its baseball-sized head out of the water, took a peek at us, then headed back under, an unexpected treat in February.

Photo by Leslie Doyle, February 9, 2019

Winter is lovely–the ticks, the mosquitoes, and (for those among us who mind these kind of things) the black snakes hanging from the trees were all either hibernating or dead.

February 9, 2019, Lincoln Avenue–apparently the cold makes me hold a camera cock-eyed.

We went home, gobbled down dinner, then headed back out again, this time to catch the sunset. We do not venture out every time it’s a clear evening, but we’re never disappointed when we do. The sun has been setting on the bay a long, long time, and people on the Jersey side have been watching it a long, long time.