I had to yell at him, get his attention. He had his back to the surf when a particularly large wave boomed and exploded 50 yards away. He wasnt paying attention, perched on driftwood, looking up the beach toward North Head.
Dammit, get over here and dont turn your back on the ocean. I wasnt talking to a kid, but to my husband. Like most people raised in the East, he is still fascinated by the power of the Pacific during a winter storm. The topography near the Columbias North Jetty had been changing almost daily. After 24 hours of windy weather, gusting to 60 mph, the surf is wild on a high tide, with 20-foot waves.
His fascination is juxtaposed with my fear, my conservative instincts, my knowledge that people die every year, crushed by wave-tossed logs. I never think, It wont happen to me because I figure that arrogant attitude is usually what gets people in trouble.
Our different reactions mirror our different upbringings and our different experiences. As a male, he was probably raised to be more risk-taking, but the bigger difference is cultural: People on the East Coast dont go to the beach much during winter besides they dont have any driftwood. Walking on the beach is a year round activity in the Northwest, but not on the Jersey shore. Their weather is influenced by the cold continental air mass, while ours is tempered by the Pacific Ocean. Their winter winds are biting cold compared to ours.
People in New Jersey go to the beach for basking, swimming and body surfing in the warm, reliable waves of summer. A person gets tired before he gets cold in that water. So thats their paradigm of ocean. The hurricane season usually happens after families have gone home on Labor Day and no one bothers much with the beach in winter. The towns are buttoned up, businesses closed and cottages shuttered. The boardwalk is empty, the carnie rides a silent sculpture.
Ive walked those boards in winter, bundled up against searing cold and gunmetal skies. It isnt pleasant. It isnt sweater and windbreaker weather. By comparison the beaches are abandoned and there are few witnesses to winters power over the Atlantic, laid flat and angry by steady wind, cold rain or bits of snow. But on a different winter day, here at home, there were a lot of us out marveling at the size of the waves and the mountains of driftwood being swept and sucked back again like proverbial matchsticks. In a few brisk storms, the ocean has swept in on the accumulation just north of the jetty, blasted it loose asphalt, driftwood, sand dunes. What was dry land only a month ago is now submerged at high tide. The ocean is taking back what it has built over decades.
On the East Coast, theres been a tendency to build to the fore dune and then try to protect whats built with sea walls, groynes, and revetments. Theres mounting scientific opinion that these efforts have failed; that the more interventions are tried, the more the beach erodes. Most of the beaches on the eastern seaboard are barrier islands and long sand spits, sometimes barely a quarter-mile wide. The natural process is for the ocean to eat away at the eastern side while flinging and washing sand landward. The islands gradually shift west. The sea walls, in particular, interfere with this process. Millions of federal dollars have been poured into replenishing beaches and rebuilding homes and businesses damaged in storms. Its a losing battle, but one thats hard to give up.
Similar battles have been won and lost on the Oregon coast. Bayocean Spit was planned to be a grand resort in the 19th century tradition; now only a few traces of the concrete and rail lines remain. In the 1950s, houses at Cape Meares one by one slid into the ocean. In the 1970s, homeowners on Salishan Spit appealed to the state to help them riprap the fore dune to save their houses from the oceans incursions. Other people laughed at the foolishness of building ones house on sand, especially sand with water on three sides.
Meanwhile, were entertained by our winter storms, but perhaps were also subtly educated. The unpredictability of a Pacific storm tide makes us more cautious, respectful, and our temperate winters allow us to get out and experience it. Maybe easterners and city folk everywhere should take more walks on a winter beach and see just what a stormy ocean can do. We might build differently.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer; this essay was published in the Observer first in 1998. You can reach her at email@example.com.