I like to go to the shore from time to time, albeit a different one than encircles the island where I live. After a summer of relative peace, I long for the rough and unpredictable weather of the extreme west coast of Vancouver Island, with its waves that shoulder their way along rocks, or crash headlong into others that dare to stand their ground. I like to stare into wind that has picked up strength and salt along its thousand mile fetch and tries to force me to turn away. The roar of breaking waves and a gale howling through the bending foreshore trees is an anodyne to my usual existence -and yet the turbulence is, like everything else out there, unpredictable.
Sometimes though, no matter the season, the sea is relatively calm. Sunlight strokes the surface of the waves and sparkles off the jagged surface of the massive, dark igneous rocks that bulge like warts from the sandy shore, or squat like castle walls to guard the line of anxious, hunchbacked trees that watch kyphotically from a safe distance inland.
On days like that, I pretend to scramble effortlessly over the craggy rocks, very aware that I am no longer in my salad days, and that my balance, adequate for mainland forest roots and level trails perhaps, is sometimes hesitant and disoriented with the constant motion of the nearby roiling tide. And the tidal pools embedded in their stone enclosures, each with miniature versions of marine life safe from pounding seas, distract me enough that I misjudge the distance to nearby footholds and teeter on the brink of trauma.
Of course, I seldom seek the safety of my hands, because that’s not how a younger me moved along the rocks; some things -like age, and pride- do not allow for compromise, so injury is always just a step away.
I imagine that’s why I remember a trip there last year so well. The day was flawless, and the waves merely licked the shore-chained rocks like puppies in a kennel greeting visitors. Usually damp and foreboding, the outcrop beckoned me from the storm-tossed log redoubt along the shore and I scrambled up the nearest crag without a thought. It had been a year since I had last attempted a run along them -a year further away from youth, a year to forget my waning judgement.
Of course I fell, but at least I made it further along them than last year before I scraped my knee and twisted my ankle. And, as I lay writhing on the sand, I decided I had fulfilled my pilgrimage for another year, and limped painfully back to the logs.
The beach was remarkably empty for a sunny November day; there was only a mother watching her child run along the sandy beach, and an elderly couple strolling, shoes in hand, through the wave-wet sand from an incoming tide. I decided to sit and read in the still, warm sun.
I suppose I must have dosed briefly but I was awakened by a pair of eyes watching me from a nearby log.
“Is your ankle better?” asked a little voice when its eyes noticed mine were open.
I looked up to see the little boy, walking along a driftwood log towards me, his balance not at all in question. He couldn’t have been much more than 6 or 7 years old, and was dressed in baggy blue shorts, a dirty white tee shirt, and black running shoes. His rumpled auburn hair danced lightly in the onshore breeze.
“We saw you fall,” he explained when he was closer still, and jumped nimbly off the log to stand in front of me. “My mom wondered if you needed any help.”
I moved my ankle back and forth and it seemed to be all right. My knee was stiff, but I doubted it would be a problem, so I smiled and thanked him for asking.
He shrugged, but didn’t turn away. “You should use your hands when you climb those rocks, mister,” he said, after staring at me for a moment. “My dad taught me how to do it,” he added, in case I was puzzled how he knew.
I broadened my smile. “Does your family live here?” I asked, wondering if his mother had decided to come to the beach on her day off, or maybe just to wile away a morning while her husband was at work.
He nodded, but I could see his face change. “My dad is in the hospital in Vancouver, though…”
I waited for him to continue, but the subject seemed a painful one for him, and I could see him fighting back tears.
“Want me to show you how to do it?” he added, but more to change the subject than anything else, I think.
I nodded and watched him run across the sand towards the rocks, all the while waving at his mother. But then, just before he started to climb, he turned and signalled for me to join him.
“You have to look for hand-holds to grab,” he said as soon as I was at his side. “That way, if your foot slips, you won’t fall…” He glanced at me, very much the teacher in a class. “There,” he said, spying a perfect place on the rough surface for his fingers. “Try it.”
I obliged and he followed behind, pointing out new handles for me to grab. We only stopped when we reached a little tidal pool in a recess on the ocean side of the rock.
“Have a look in here,” he said, kneeling down beside the pool. “See those dark things on the edge of the rock?” He reached down and touched one of them. “Those are mussels, and those little ones are barnacles,” he added, pointing to a cluster of small warty creatures.
“And look in the little pool.” He reached down into the crystal water, and attempted to touch some little fish, clearly delighted when they were too fast for him to catch.
“Come on,” he shouted, as he darted excitedly away and down the sea side of the rock. “I’ll show you the sea stars stuck to the edge…”
But before I could reach him, his mother appeared behind us, climbing nimbly up towards us from the sand. “I hope Chess is not bothering you,” she said, smiling like a proud mother. “He gets so excited on the beach.” She stared out to sea for a moment before continuing. “His father is a marine biologist,” she explained in a voice barely audible above the soft murmur of the wind and the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocky ramparts. “He always gets excited down here, so I think it rubbed off on Chester…”
She settled her eyes on my face for a moment and then sent them out to search the sea again. “His dad would be proud to think his son was so much like him…” And her voice trailed off as if it had been whisked away by the ocean breeze.
I thought of them when I came across an article in the Conversation that pointed out the value of the beach as a learning experience for children: https://theconversation.com/a-day-at-the-beach-deep-learning-for-a-child-121785
It was written by Lotje Hives, a Research Collaborator and Tara-Lynn Scheffel, an Associate Professor, both at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. But, you know, I didn’t really have to read the essay -I didn’t need much convincing about the educational value a beach affords for parent and child alike.
I can still see Chester and his mother on that massive rock on Long Beach -the one scampering over the crags and gullies, poking his fingers into crevasses, and pointing excitedly at what he’d found, while the other, as still as an outcrop, watched him with undisguised pride.