“Last Legs” A Runners’ Blog
By: Jim Burnett
Week 4 — Beach Hopping on the Coast of Maine to “See the Light”
We were the first ones to hit the trail and after just shy of a mile hiking over rocks and roots and an occasional boulder, then scooting over slick planks through scattered wetlands, Mookie and I emerged at the shoreline greeted by two mustard-yellow Adirondack chairs perched on a slab of pink granite and overlooking the crescent beach that arced around a cove filled with rounded stones of all sizes and braids of seaweed marking the high water mark of recent tides. On the ocean horizon about a mile out from the sliver of land two miles up the shore, stood the Petit Manan Lighthouse, the proud beacon that every passing vessel kept on its LORAN as the helmsman navigated her way Downeast toward the St. John River and Canadian Maritimes beyond.
Mookie, hot and panting, bolted to the foamy surf hoping to cool off. I followed while carefully avoiding loose rocks as I tiptoed down the short steep bank to the sandy strand recently uncovered by the ebbing tide. It was nearly dead low tide. Mookie snapped at white caps as I sought out the smooth and firm middle lane on the beach - not too wet and sloppy, not too dry and crumbly. Our visage wasn’t quite as elegant as the opening scene from the movie, “Chariots of Fire” - team of white-clad olympians whizzing past in tight formation, smiling, with the cathedral at Edinburgh in the background, but it was runners’ heaven for us nonetheless.
But how to run on this stuff? I only have two ankles to break! So, I watched Mookie. Ah, it’s the four-legged advantage, spread out the impact…1, 2, 3, 4. I tried to light-foot my way along the angled slope of loose ball bearings. Time and again the incoming tide had been thrust violently forward by huge open-ocean swells and had in turn pushed even the biggest rocks on the beach up its steep slope only to have them clatter back down as each spent wave receded. The steepness of the grade of the slope that was formed when the tide had withdrawn, it’s angle of repose, was determined by the size, shape and coarseness of the rocks’ surfaces. Because these rocks were large, they came to rest sooner and farther up the slope than if they had been smaller and only able to find purchase between and on top of their peers at the toe of the slope. But, the resulting slope would have been even steeper still if they had been younger, less worn and less spherical with jagged protuberances that would hang up more quickly despite the violent cascading power of each retreating wave.
To run on this stony slope was damn nigh impossible, but I wanted to try. Could I find some technique, some sort of rhythm, like Mookie, that would get me airborne by at least a millimeter for at least a millisecond? My initial attempts were not encouraging. In an attempt to protect my ankles, my footfalls were tense and rigid and my feet crunched downward as the stones gave way. Looking ahead, I sought out benches on the slope of the beach formed by earlier high tides. These offered some stability on a somewhat level narrow path on which to run, or, more accurately, hop from foothold to foothold, like stepping stones across a stream. Gradually, I relaxed and found rhythm on this crazy path. Yes, I was beach hopping… 1,2… 1… 1,2… 1… 1,2,3… If running is poetry, I was composing…no iambic pentameter, no haiku, no…it was pure free verse…O Captain, My Captain! Whitman would approve.
Low tide reveals clumps, clusters and bunches of seaweed, yellow-green-brown, anchored to the rocks - the ocean garden. Seaweed is slippery, it’s difficult to run on. But, with patience it can be done. So, the beach hopping continued until we reached the end of the line, the closest we could get to the light. We had run nearly three miles to get to this point and now squinting to see “the light,” to watch the sun’s rays tickle the waves and dance a jig on their backs, the tide was coming back in to cover the seaweed, to fill up the coves and to replenish the bay once more. As we too retreated back to the trailhead where the mustard-yellow chairs waited, the beach path narrowed. Promontories along the way were the last to be inundated, the rising swell of water filling in around them creating mini-islands until finally succumbing to the irrepressible mounting flow. It was possible to get marooned if we waited too long, to be captured. This thought quickened our footsteps as we headed back. The immense power of the ocean making its presence known once more and in no uncertain terms.