A beachcomber’s love letter
Story & Photograph by Virginia Holman
Fourteen years ago, my son and I found ourselves on the shores of Carolina Beach. We’d driven down from our home in Durham one August day to tour the battleship in Wilmington. Afterward, on a whim, we drove to the shore to kill the afternoon. The water was glassy and opaque, and as the tide ebbed, we walked the wrack line, gathering bits of shell and polished pebbles. Sometimes we’d find a coin-size piece of smooth, translucent sea glass. The brittle, coiled interior of a whelk looked like a spiral staircase sans house. Was a wedge of sea-foam green glass the remnant of a beer bottle or an old fishing float? Who could tell? The sea transformed everything it touched, sometimes softening it until it became a shadowy approximation of its former self, sometimes shattering it until it was just an eggshell-thin bit of glint that refracted the unchanging sun.
Beautiful abstractions, shards from another day in what we imagined was another world, lay scattered around us. What were we to make of them? We arranged our findings on the sand, repurposing them for a sandcastle’s windows and the scales of a mermaid’s tail.
Another parent struck up a conversation and pointed out to the water where a series of large seaweed-covered bumps emerged from the water. Old pier footings, I guessed. My son said the humps looked like the Loch Ness monster. “That’s a blockade runner!” the man said, and there on the beach, we had our first Cape Fear Civil War history lesson. Guess what we found while beachcombing? our son asked my husband when we returned home. Not much, he shrugged, then grinned with glee — just an entire blockade runner.
A year later, my husband changed careers, and we too were claimed by the sea, or at least the seashore. Serendipitously, we moved not far from the beached blockade runner and our family spent many days at the shoreline, gathering bits and pieces that intrigued us. Out son collected so many small black sharks’ teeth that he thought of starting his own sharks’ tooth jewelry business on the boardwalk.
One summer, while getting my truck inspected, I noticed a row of large fossils on the shop owner’s desk. Ancient fossilized whale bones, he said. He picked up one and handed it to me. The “earbone” of an ancient whale, he said. Then he handed me a vertebra fossil the size of a quart paint can. He also had a megalodon tooth nearly as big as my hand. I’d heard of people diving the murky offshore wrecks of the Cape Fear to gather the teeth of these ancient sharks. Did he dive? I asked. No, he just walked the beaches and spoil islands. After storms was best, he said. All sorts of stuff churns up after a storm. For the bones and teeth, he recommended walking the waterline on the rising tide and wriggling a foot through the loose sand.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that winter is the best time for beachcombing. A Nor’easter will come through and the waves grow thick and heavy for days. Then, a day or two in the calm that follows, I collect artifacts. The lost, buried and forgotten reveal themselves. Monklike figures with metal detectors bow their heads and solemnly walk a patch of sand, hoping for a glimpse of things unseen. Casual collectors often come in pairs; beachcombing for them appears to be a long, slow walk spent chatting and looking for the occasional intact sand dollar or a treasured “sea bean.” Some beans are glossy heart-shaped tropical seeds from the Amazon and elsewhere; others look like small “hamburgers” when viewed from the side. They float and bob atop the water like corks. Little children run along and gather mollusk shells with perfect snail-drilled radula holes and offer them to grandparents, who thread these offerings on a bit of twine knotted at the bottom.
Occasionally larger items wash ashore. Reports this year included unexploded ordnance from World War II on the Outer Banks and a centuries-old dugout canoe that emerged in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Most beachcombers are happy to collect a piece of coral or a sea urchin.
The winds and seas and shifting sands of the Cape Fear region never fail to make me feel more alive through the long gray days of winter. I love to stroll Masonboro Island, and watch — as if it is a long, slow-motion movie — a lone, long-beached sailboat vanish and emerge from the sand. What an aching beauty there is in this dance of sand and sea and wind and time. No matter what washes ashore, what better place to find yourself than down by the sea?
Author Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.