September 7, 2023

Aug 30, 2023

Image:Barbara Ryther

Barbara Ryther


Those of us who make a practice of walking on beaches generally choose a particular path. Much as with life, we have our reasons for our choices, based on personality, circumstances or mood of the day, or perhaps habit. Sometimes we switch from one path to another.

Choices abound at low tide.

Walking knee deep in water at the edge of the surf is for those who want to be soothed by the cool water in the summer or early fall, or to enjoy the extra workout provided by the force of both the waves and the undertow – one driving you toward the sand, one driving you toward the water. On this path you have to fight to stay in a more or less straight line, a test for both leg muscles and balance. In the spring or late fall we refer to this path as ‘invigorating.’ In the winter we don’t refer to it at all.

Just above the breaking surf is smooth, packed sand with a little springiness from the water that still saturates the lower layers, perfect for those who are going for speed. If your goal is to get from one end of the beach to the other as quickly as possible, this is the path for you. With most obstacles recently washed away it’s also the easiest path to walk in a straight line.

Up closer to the high tide mark is the path for those willing to be distracted every few steps by treasures – shells, driftwood and seaweed temporarily left behind by the receding waves, or the occasional sand crab unwisely exposing itself to hungry gulls. There is much to be discovered and photographed here, but it requires you to tread slowly and use your eyes.

Occasionally there’s a path above that which has been raked free of large, unwanted piles of kelp or other seaweed beds washed up and stranded there up by distant or nearby storms. We rarely see the machines that do this but we never fail to recognize the unique sand left behind – heavenly soft and as relaxing on bare feet as walking in talcum powder.

At the top of the beach near the seawall, is the hardest path to walk. Deep, dry, uneven sand that seems to pull you back with every step. Old, leftover remnants of seaweed dried by time and the sun into crunchy assaults on the soles of your feet. Holes dug by toddlers or dogs lying in wait. Your pace seems slow, but your heart is pumping and your leg muscles are working hard. While this is not a path for the faint hearted, persisting builds strength with every step.

But as with life, sometimes our choices are taken away from us.

Every day as the tide rises, the surf walkers are driven higher on the beach, and have to either keep a wary eye out for the less even surface that now lies beneath those breaking waves, or move up out of the water onto the wet sand. Soon even that easy path is gone, as the water relentlessly moves toward the seaweed and shells it left behind hours ago. Inevitably that is reclaimed too. Now those left on the beach have only one choice – the hard slog through deep, dry, uneven sand. Sometimes we struggle through, sometimes we retreat.

Then there are the times – brought on by seasons or storms – when the tide rises so much that seawater meets seawall, obliterating even that one last path. The only thing we can do then is climb up on the seawall and find a rock to sit on, to wait until the powers beyond our control once again reveal different paths and once again we have choices.

As we sit there on a rock without seeing a good path forward, we may be impatient or frustrated. We may even be sad, angry or afraid.

But we are safe.

On this rock.


Barbara Ryther

– March 27, 2016