We took our first good, long hike of the 2012 beachwalking season the other day. We've visited the Atlantic shore that lies just across from our North Carolina place almost daily since we returned just over a week ago, but we hadn't made the time to get much further than the immediate beachfront we consider "ours." Partly, that's been because of the bunches of errands and happy visits that always await us when we first come back to Topsail Island, plus we seem to have managed to drag some semi-wintery conditions with us that have briefly interrupted the early spring that had already produced a few blooming trees and small dots of blossoming flowers.
So we were glad to finally get a warmish, not-too-breezy day that would allow us to work our way down the shoreline, past the thousand-foot fishing pier that lies a mile south and beyond.
"It's changed," she said. "It's changed again."
I think that's the way of Atlantic beaches any time of year, especially during the times when seasons change, when breezes switch and swirl, and waves and tides wash higher and higher along the shore. It's especially that way on barrier islands like this one, which are, after all, nothing more than narrow spits of sand attempting to stand up, year after year, to the relentless action of the wind and sea. More than a thousand miles of the southeastern and Gulf of Mexico state coasts are lined with offshore barrier systems similar to Topsail, where a ridge of dunes and beach is separated from the mainland by wide expanses of shallow marshes, waterways and inlets. When storms slam ashore, the sand and wetlands act as natural shock absorbers. Dunes blunt the energy of tidal surges pushed by high winds. Grassy marshes and their spongy soils then soak up floodwater and slow down storm-waves before they hit the mainland.
But despite knowing all that, It's still a bit of a surprise every time I realize that the solid-seeming land that holds houses, condos, hotels, businesses, streets and playgrounds is actually a fluid strip of sand that only exists because the ocean built it and allows it to stay.
Sometimes not, as when the big storms in the 90s swept the north end of the island nearly clean. Bridges were buried, some houses and roads had to be rebuilt repeatedly and others were put permanently under water. In fact, the homes right across our street were actually in the second row of cottages, bungalows and other beachfront dwellings fronting the seashore. Nowadays, there's just one road serving our end of Topsail, but at one time, there were three, including one that now rests under the waves yards offshore, appearing only on certain low-tide days as a wet, black, slick-looking mass of shiny macadam that my grandsons love to play on. Other white-lined sections of old road pop up through the sand on parts of the island from time to time, reminding me a little of the post-apocalyptic scene in the original "Planet of the Apes," when Charlton Heston discovers the arm of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand. Further up the beach, commercial fishermen still steer clear of the upper reaches and wreckage of once-fancy beach homes that lined the very edge of that shore before they paid the price of getting a little too close. Even a "minor" storm, like last fall's Hurricane Irene, caused serious damage to some property near the water on the northernmost end of the island, and destroyed property and closed roads further up the coast.
But most of the changes we saw that day were not caused by hurricanes and other major events, but simply by the passing of time and circumstance.
The beach seems a little narrower in sections, with dark waves lapping and crashing at high tide against the beach stairways that top the eco-fragile sand dunes. Bulldozers have been at work, rebuilding the dunes in some places, while talks are taking place about the need to "replenish" areas of beach with sand trucked in from other spots.
Even the view offshore has changed.
The fleets of shimpers that plied the cooling end-of-year waters last time we were here have been replaced by the magnificent sight of massive naval vessels on the near horizon, as the Camp Lejeune area celebrates the return of members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit after a 10-month deployment at sea. The ocean itself has a deep green cast, shifting to lighter shades of green and blue as the warming sun hits and and the process of growth and renewal begins again.
The sea birds that fish our coast are gathering once more and feathered strangers make a brief appearance on their way to springtime grounds. Out back in the inlet, the herons and egrets swoop to protect their nesting sites. Soon, the season will start in earnest, with the sounds, smells and sights brimming with life and death.
Yes, it's changing around here.
Count on it. It happens all the time.