A friend of mine has been posting gorgeous images of Bar Harbor, ME, on Facebook. They strongly draw my soul to New England. I grew up near Boston, so all of the region resonates with me. It is still my home, even if I last resided there in 1961. But in the summertime I think specifically of northern New England, where I spent so many formative years in summer camp. And I think of the ocean, because at home or at camp, so many of the best summer moments were spent at ocean beaches, from Nauset to Wingaersheek to Sand Beach at Bar Harbor. And I think of swimming, because whether at the ubiquitous natural ponds and lakes that dot New England, or in the roiling open-ocean surf of the outer Cape, where the nearest land to the east is Europe, being in the water is why I went to the beach. Not the tanning, not the cooling “sea breeze,” not even the legendary fried onion rings at Philbrick’s on Nauset Beach. Being in the water was always the point of going to the beach.
These days I get my “beach fix” once a year only. I live in Virginia, a state with only two natural lakes, one created by a landslide hundreds of years ago. The ocean is three hours away, and it is as warm as bathwater in the summer, while the beaches are all backed by boardwalks and “beach towns.” But near and dear relatives have a beach place in Old Saybrook on Long Island Sound. We do an annual summer pilgrimage up I-95 to their “Sea Turtle” cottage, where they generously lavish us with excellent seafood, relaxing drinks, and beach time.
Last week I was there, in water over my head. (I remember Laurel Lake, in Fitzwilliam Depot, NH, where I first swam in deep water at age 8.) The air was hot and hazy, so you could see Long Island across the sound only if you knew it was there. The water was especially refreshing because of the heat and humidity. Near the shore I felt pockets of warmth here and there, with cold currents interspersed. The cold was more persistent at the depth of my feet. Tidal currents gently pulled in and out, while the water current paralleled the waterline, nudging me in the direction of the breakwater. The water itself was a bit seaweedy because the day before had been windy, and had both churned up the weeds near the waterline and dislodged many from rocky outcroppings such as the nearby breakwater. I was fully supported by a hat on my head to keep the sun off, and a float which let me hang on and drift when I chose not to swim.
Downstream lay the breakwater, on which kids sometimes try to catch small crabs with raw chicken on a string. It is mainly the perch of gulls and cormorants, who rest and socialize between their fishing forays. Some distance offshore it terminates in a cone-shaped rock, painted white by centuries of bird droppings, on top of which cormorants regularly spread their wings to dry. At low tide it’s fun to swim around, because there are more large rocks nearer the surface.
Upstream was the human apparatus of the beach: a rather short pier, beyond which floated a raft, the meeting place for the clan of young local recreational swimmers. It was a weekday, and not many folks were taking advantage of their free beach access. There were at most two or three others in the water in “our” section of beach.
Out over the open water there were a few sailboats, the most beautiful evidence of the human love of the sea. White quasi-angelic sails whisk them silently along here and there across the Sound. They are all recreational, I think, and sometimes mass in great armadas from their piers on Long Island and the nearby mouth of the Connecticut River. There are also occasional jet skis, a reminder that there is nothing that humankind cannot worsen by its perverse ingenuity, and “cigarette boats,” whose origin in criminal activity makes their deafening speediness all the worse.
Behind me, on the beach, my loved ones chat under beach umbrella as I squeeze the maximum from my one chance to swim in the waters of the grey North Atlantic. They are not literally grey this day, but blue and sparkling, with thousands of instantaneous points of blinding white sun reflections twinkling like the flash bulbs of an army of paparazzi. If you’re looking for evidence of divine presence in the created Earth, there they are, every (sunny) day!
I was caught by surprise on this day by the compelling symbiosis of the rhythms of the ever-moving sea and my own literal and figurative rhythms of body and consciousness. Much as I love swimming anyway, I suddenly was far more aware of my need for it, my dependence on it. Swayed and pulled by the tide and currents, I felt compellingly at one with all things. Let me never forget the power of this experience, or pass up a chance literally to be inundated in the flux of life itself.
Arnold J. Bradford ©2022