Beachcombing Hands

Chesapeake Bay beaches offer a free family activity year-round--even when the weather turns cold. Beachcombing is a way to explore and learn in the outdoors. Nature slowly alerts us that winter is on the way. The temperatures drop to 40, then 30 degrees. Tree limbs become bare. Ground hardens. 

Afternoons climb earlier and earlier into darkness; cold, damp days of leaden gray skies become increasingly commonplace. By Thanksgiving, the housebound troops begin to get restless, claustrophobic and cranky. 

How to beat the winter blues, especially if budgets are tight? Get outside and hit the beach! That’s right. Bundle up and head out to explore the shore. With fewer crowds and more extreme weather patterns, beachcombing from fall through spring is actually the best time to hunt for treasures in the sand. Winter beachcombing on the Chesapeake Bay is not only fun, healthful and affordable but can also be extremely productive. Like other inland bodies of water historically located near population centers, bay beaches can be exciting places to beachcomb — that is, once you move past the notion that beachcombing is only about ocean shorelines, shells and sea glass collecting.

While bay beaches also offer up shells and some lovely, luminous fragments of glass, the range of other artifacts, both natural and man-made, is far more interesting than you might think. Along with silvery smooth driftwood and soothing orbs of quartz stones in rose, amber and white, you can also find American Indian arrowheads, old glass buttons, marbles, bottles and bottle stoppers, antique ceramic shards and fossilized sand dollars more than 15 million years old!

I have been a beachcomber my entire life but I didn’t discover the beauty and bounty of winter beachcombing in this region until Christmas Day 12 years ago. I’d just relocated home to Annapolis after twenty-five years living in Hawaii and the South Pacific. The colder climate and long, dark days proved an unhappy adjustment not only for me but also my Polynesian husband and young children. We were accustomed to tropical Christmases spent body-surfing, boogie boarding and beachcombing in the warm Pacific surf.

But Christmas in Annapolis proved quite different. The chilly, snow-less morning arrived with a thick, heavy, gray cloud cover. By seven, presents were unwrapped. By eight, breakfast was eaten. By ten, toys had been discarded and squabbles began. By 12, we were at each others’ throats. Exasperated, my husband and I looked at each other, pondered the cold, bitter day and decided, Why not? Anything is better than this. So we packed the car with a small tent and blankets, a sack of sandwiches, thermoses of cocoa, and children wrapped in layers of warm clothes, and headed off on a beach expedition.

We chose Brownie Beach, near Chesapeake Beach in northern Calvert County, which is renowned for the fossilized shark teeth found on its shores. When we arrived, my husband and oldest son secured the tent in the hardened sand as my daughter, my toddler and I moved to the water’s edge to comb through piles of shells searching for shark teeth. Other people were also out that day, getting exercise, tossing balls to their dogs or beachcombing. Those who passed us wished us a cheery “Merry Christmas.” Some even stopped to show us the teeth they’d found. These teeth, we learned, were from seven to 20 million years old. We learned the difference between ridge-like skate, sharply-pointed shark and smooth-domed dolphin teeth.

We wandered the shoreline for the next few hours, looking for fossils. When cold, we climbed into the tent to sip hot chocolate and compare finds. The toddler, tucked snuggly in a layer of blankets, even took a nap. By the time we returned home later that afternoon, our pockets bulged with shark and skate teeth, fossilized bone, some clam shells and even a few colorful carnival glass beads reputedly from a mid-20th century shipwreck. All of us were red-cheeked, satisfied, sleepy and ready for a healthy supper and bed. The next day, we sorted and traded our finds then pulled out maps to identify another beach to explore. From then on, winter beachcombing expeditions became a favorite in our repertoire of family activities.

Beachcombing is a far more expansive activity in terms of locale and artifact selection that you might think. Lakes, riverbeds, sounds and bays can have an incredible range of treasures that might not otherwise turn up on turbulent ocean shorelines. Shorelines historically located near population centers will probably yield beach glass, pottery shards and perhaps even clay pipes or square nails. If you want fossils, head to Calvert Cliffs, which boast 30 miles of the most productive coastal fossil grounds in the entire United States. And every artifact has an interesting story to tell. You may be surprised to learn that certain pieces of broken rock, for instance, may in fact be flakes of stone chipped from the forging of arrowheads and spear tips by American Indians thousands of years ago. Or that the plain, chalky white shells found on some beaches are actually 10 million year old fossils.

As autumn is in full swing and winter hovers on the horizon, beachcombing season beings in earnest. Time to pull on your slickers, slip on your boots and head to a coastline for a day of beachcombing magic. Such magic does great things for minds, spirits, health, family and sense of wonder.

BEACHES TO VISIT

You can always head over to the Delaware and Maryland Atlantic coast for a day of ocean beachcombing, but for those of you who wish to stay closer to home, try these inland shores:

WESTERN SHORE

Anne Arundel County

Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis, MD
For directions call 410-974-2149
Open year round.
Winter rates: Weekends:$5 per person.
Week days:$3 per vehicle

Calvert County

Bay Front Park (“Brownie Beach”),
Chesapeake Beach
For directions call 410-257-2230
Open year round. Free

Breezy Point Public Beach,
Chesapeake Beach
For directions call 410-535-1600 x 4
Open year round. Free

Calvert Cliffs State Park, Lusby
For directions call 301-743-7613
Open year round. $2 per person

Flag Pond, Lusby
For directions,call 410-535-5327
Weekends fall to spring from 9-5. $6 per vehicle

St. Mary’s County

Point Lookout State Park, Point Lookout     
For directions call 301-872-5688
Open year round. $3 per vehicle

EASTERN SHORE

Queen Anne’s County

Terrapin State Nature Park, Stevensville    
For directions call 410-758-0835 x 2
Open year round. Free

Kent County

Betterton Beach, Betterton     
For directions call 410-778-1948
Open year round. Free

TIPS  & SITES

First and foremost: Tread lightly. Be kind to nature. Seasoned beachcombers don’t kill mollusks for their shells, dig holes in the sand or gauge cliff sides for fossils (actually, if you have to dig for something, it’s not really “beachcombing.”) They also don’t leave behind a trail of debris, but instead, many bring along an extra bag to collect trash.

Go during daylight hours, rain or shine (though it is often better to find sea glass when it’s sunny because the glass shows up better in the sand.) Time your excursions a few hours before low tide to a few hours after low tide. Check tides before you go at saltwatertides.com. Beachcombing can be especially productive after a good storm, a heavy rain or during times of the full moon when the tides are more extreme.

Take your time. Move slowly. Meander to different areas on the beach. Sometimes the best treasures are not at the wave break but further up along the strandline — that place where waves roll in at high tide and dump things before rolling back out to sea.

Save your back. Don’t bend too often to pick up treasures. Squat or use “grippers” or long-handled scoops to retrieve things of interest in the sand. Also, if you have open wounds and are beachcombing on polluted waterways, avoid getting the wound in the water and be sure to wash off with soap when you return home to avoid infection.

Dress comfortably. (The beach doesn’t care if you are fashionable or not.) I like to keep my hands free so I always wear old, loose clothing or jackets with large pockets. Some people prefer to carry bags or waist packs in which to drop treasures. Cold weather beachcombing calls for both different dress and equipment than the lazy-style summer beachcomb strolls in bathing suits and straw hats. So bundle up with a hat, gloves and a scarf or neck warmer (to pull up over your mouth and nose to protect against the cold when necessary). Take tissue for runny noses. If there is ice on the beach, bring along a thermos of hot water to dislodge objects in ice. If you plan on “water dipping” — picking up objects in clear, shallow water-wear a pair of “wellies” or even thigh high fishing boots and put latex hospital gloves on your hands to give them an extra layer of protection in the frigid water.

Be careful of frostbite, especially for children. And on cold days, it’s a good idea to limit your ‘combing for a half hour or so then warm up in a tent, a car, a cabin, etc. before going back outside for more.

Deacon Ritterbush, known as "Dr. Beachcomb," offers Archaeology at the Beach workshops. Her book, A Beachcomber's Odyssey: Treasures from a Collected Past, is due in December. For more information, visit drbeachcomb.com

Chesapeake Family serves parents and families in Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Bowie, Calvert and Prince George’s County and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

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