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Life on the Edge

Shorecombing Made Easy On the Edge

By Tamia Nelson

August 13, 2013

To an ecologist they're ecotones. To me, they're edges — places where two worlds meet. Forest and field. Moor and mountain. Sea and shore. Ecotone or edge? Does it matter? By either name, they're busy places. There's always something going on. And it's the chance to book a front‑row seat for this never‑ending show that makes paddling such a fascinating business. Don't get me wrong. It's fun to strike out across a big lake or broad bay by paddle or sail, to see one horizon dwindle in the distance astern as the next looms ever nearer ahead. That goes without saying. But I find it infinitely more engaging to ghost along close inshore, watching and waiting to see what's going to happen next. Will a mink emerge to scamper along the cobbles? Will I surprise a raccoon dabbling in the shallows? Or is this the day when I'll chance upon a moose, browsing placidly, knee‑deep in a watery field of lilies? Any of these things is possible.

Of course, this isn't a game that only paddlers can play. I like exploring edges of all sorts. The ever‑changing panorama of the verge along rural highways is one of the attractions of cycling. But as alluring as the call of the open road can be, the places where water meets land remain my favorites. And I spend as much time as I can hanging out around them — so much time, in fact, that I've coined a word for my obsession:


Perhaps you think this neologism is unnecessary. After all, "beachcomber" is a perfectly respectable title, with an illustrious parentage. (Wikipedia suggests that it made its first appearance in print in Herman Melville's Polynesian romance Omoo, back in 1847.) But beachcombing is scavenging by another name, combing the sands and shallows for items of immediate use or value in trade. As a shorecomber, my goals are different. I'm looking to see what I can see. Nothing more. And in the newly minted traditions of low‑impact exploration, I take only pictures, while leaving only footprints behind in the sand as evidence of my passage. In fact — shorecombing is quintessentially amphibious, after all — I often leave nothing but the ripples created by my wake.

That said, shorecombing and beachcombing do indeed have much in common, and there's no doubt that beachcombing has by far the longer history. You need a full belly — and some reason to believe that your next meal won't be too long delayed — before you can afford to indulge in exploration for its own sake. And early beachcombers certainly left their mark. Back in my stones‑and‑bones days, I was often called on to make more or less educated guesses as to what the land looked like hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And when I came upon a haystack‑sized heap of mussel or clam shells buried in an ancient beach, I didn't need to exercise my imagination to envision the scene, despite the lapping waters having long since retreated. Clambakes have been a part of the human story since we first kindled fire. Which is why, in places where beachcombers once foraged for food and feasted on the sea's bounty, I now shorecombed for tiny pieces from history's great jigsaw puzzle, albeit at many centuries' remove.

But I don't want to dig too deeply into the past. Today, I'm concerned with the here and now. And whether you're standing in the mud at the edge of a beaver pond or gazing out across the North Atlantic, there's a lot to be discovered right at your feet. So …

Let's Go Shorecombing!

Perhaps you think you've seen all there is to see in the places where you paddle. Well, it's a pretty safe bet that you're wrong. I've been revisiting the same stretches of shoreline for more than three decades, and I never fail to find something new. Land and water are old adversaries, and their meeting places are always disputed territory. In the spring of the year, as snowmelt swells the mountain rills into torrents, the realm of the waters claims new ground, inundating the margins of stream and lake alike. But later on, as the summer sun dries the hills, the land once again regains the upper hand, while the waters retreat before it. And what if the water in question happens to be salt? Then there are the tides to take into account, advancing and retreating twice each day, in response to the elaborately choreographed dance of moon and sun.

In short, no matter how often you return to a favorite shore, you'll never find it exactly as you left it on your last visit, and if you keep notes of your explorations — journal, sketchpad, or camera will all serve — you'll soon have ample evidence of this. Before you head out, though, you should understand that shorecombing isn't without its risks, which is why I suggest the following …

Rules to Live By.  They warrant careful consideration. Whenever you step out of your boat to explore a remote shoreline on foot, it pays to move carefully. Better yet, invite a friend along when you go shorecombing. Moss‑ and seaweed‑covered rocks are slippery, quicksand will slow you down in a hurry, coral and shells are sharp, jellyfish sting, and beaver‑gnawn stubs can stab through the sturdiest footwear. That said, the likelihood that you'll find yourself in difficulty is small. There are fewer dangers in the backcountry than those dreamt of in the lurid imaginations of tabloid headline writers. Still, it's good to know that help is at hand if you ever need it. So think twice before you solo. And speaking of helping hands, I find that a trekking pole or walking stick is useful when scrambling along the shore. I've even pressed mine into service to retrieve dropped items — a hat, say, or the ziplock bag with my sandwiches in it — before they could float away. It also pays to keep your PFD on, even when you're not paddling. Sometimes the shallows are deeper than they look.

And while we're on the subject of equipment, here a few suggestions about …

Things to Bring.  The Ten Essentials are always a good place to start, and a long‑sleeved shirt and wide‑brimmed hat provide protection from both sun and biting flies. (If you pair the hat with a headnet, that is.) A bandanna is useful to bridge the gap between headnet and collar, too.

Moving to your other extremity, it makes good sense to don thick‑soled sandals for your shorecombing ventures, and you'll want to be sure they're the sort of sandals that withstand repeated wettings. Wellies or overshoes make passable wading wear when the water's cold — as it often is, even in summer — but both can be sucked right off your feet if you get mired in muck, and you're almost certain to go in over the top at least once. The best attire for cold‑water shorecombing is probably the combination of stocking‑foot waders and wading shoes, but that's a bulky load to carry along in your boat if you're not an inveterate angler. (Warning! Nonslip felt soles were once the industry standard for high‑end wading shoes, but they're now illegal in many places. It seems that felt is also an ideal medium for transporting invasive species like "rock snot" from one watershed to another. Sic transit and all that.)

Other items you may want to add to your shorecombing kit include …

Your choices will be informed by your own interests, of course. If you're an amateur botanist, for example, your needs will be different than those of an inveterate twitcher.

So much for the "must‑haves." Now a few words about …

What Not to Take.  When he wasn't giving speeches, Abraham Lincoln was a plain‑spoken, down‑to‑earth man, whose language and imagery reflected his frontier childhood. On one memorable occasion, he's said to have been so angered by the seemingly endless stream of candidates for patronage appointments that he sent a particularly determined place‑seeker packing with the briefest of excuses: "There's too many pigs for the teats!"

It's not the Gettysburg Address, I admit, but it certainly got the point across. And much the same thing could be said about our public lands. There are more of us hoping to "get away from it all" every year, yet agriculture and industry are also slaking their ever‑growing appetites on the globe's remaining enclaves of backcountry. Even "protected" reserves suffer the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of tireless trail‑builders and numberless chambers of commerce, all of whom are looking for new ways to make the scenery pay. The upshot? There's less backcountry every day. Which also means there's very little place in today's world for collectors. Instead of picking up tangible souvenirs to take home, therefore, why not content yourself with looking and photographing? Leave the rocks, flowers, insects, and amphibians where you find them. In many parks this is now the law, and though these laws are seldom enforced — or even enforceable — they deserve our respect. Thoughtful paddlers will carry the same attitude over into places not yet enjoying statutory protection.

OK. The throat‑clearing is over. It's time to ask yourself, …

Where Do I Want to Go?  The answer is easy: anyplace where water meets land. Some shorecombers are happy just to wander along the wrack line, the "bathtub ring" of debris that collects at the high‑water mark. But others will range further, with many paddlers undertaking "amphibious assaults" involving both waterborne and land operations. To each his own, in other words, though prudent explorers will take pains to avoid trespassing on private property during the land legs of their campaigns.

In any case, very few canoeists or kayakers will be hard‑pressed to think of places they'd like to get to know better. The difficult bit is usually narrowing the field within the compass of a season. And now the critical question is …

What Am I Looking For?  As you might expect, there are almost as many answers as there are paddlers. But here are a few possibilities:

  • Relics of the Past.  Remnants of old mills and ancient piers. Shell middens. Potsherds. Projectile points. The bones of long‑dead animals or — it sometimes happens — ancient men. Needless to say, the admonition to leave what you find where you found it goes double when you've discovered something of possible archaeological (or forensic) import. Take pictures, by all means. Make notes and log the location, too. Then notify the proper authorities without delay.

  • Today's Trash — and (Sometimes) Treasure.  Pretty near everything we buy is disposable nowadays. A lot of it is also nearly indestructible, and much of it ends up in the world's waters. (A whole swathe of the Pacific Ocean is already carpeted in our garbage, to give one notorious example.) And sooner or later, much of this flotsam washes up on the shore. So even a dilettante shorecomber is bound to strike lucky. I've found backpacks and paddles floating in shallows, glimpsed waterlogged cars in plunge pools, and seen long‑dead cows hanging from riverbank trees. Some of this stuff — drowned cars and cows excepted — will be salvageable, and at that point many shorecombers will be tempted to become beachcombers. But most of what you find will just be junk. Here you can safely ignore the "take nothing but pictures" mantra. Removing tangles of monofilament, rusty treble hooks, plastic oil containers, and jagged shards of broken beer bottle from your favorite waterway or beach is never a sin. It's an act of charity. "Leave no trace" doesn't mean "leave the garbage in place," after all.

    Oh, yes… If you ever find an untenanted boat drifting Moses‑like in the reeds in some secluded backwater, do your best to reunite it with its owner. You can do no greater favor for a fellow (or sister) paddler.

  • Wildlife Sign.  It's all around you. Muskrat or otter scat on logs or rocks. The remains of recent meals (empty mussel shells, poplar logs neatly sectioned and stripped of bark, scattered fragments of turtle eggs). The lodges and dams of the industrious beaver. And countless tracks in the sand and mud. Always tracks.

  • Other Natural Wonders.  Sun‑bleached driftwood sculptures. Colorful stones in all sizes, polished by decades (or centuries) of flowing water. Fossils freed from their riverbank tombs by spring floods. The empty exoskeletons of aquatic insects, still clinging to emerging vegetation. Ambergris, the improbable stuff that was once employed as a fixative in the costliest perfumes. Not to mention the shape and swirl of the shore itself — sculpture on the grand scale.

And that, really, is the shorecomber's ultimate reward: the opportunity to see at first hand what (in W. H. Auden's memorable words) …

The leaping light for your delight discovers,

while …

[T]hrough the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

What more could any shorecombing paddler want?


Canoeists and kayakers spend much of their time on the water within easy reach of shore. Why not make the most of this opportunity? The wild frontier where water meets land is a place of infinite variety and endless wonder, a country of shifting boundaries and fluid contrasts. Join me in combing the nearest shore today!


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