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Popham Beach
Bath, Maine

 
                 
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Popham Beach:
Where Rivers Meet the Sea

By

Sherry Ballou Hanson
© 2004

It lies fourteen miles south of Bath, Maine, down Route 209, on a peninsula, Popham Beach, and old Fort Popham, built in 1861 on Hunnewell Point, near the 1607 site of the Popham Colony. I’ve been on this beach at every time of the day and night, from red and gold-shot sunrises across the sea to clear ebony nights with stars falling down around my shoulders. And I will say to anyone that Popham is the most beautiful beach in the world, but this is only the beginning.

As soon as I cross the parking lot and head down the winding path through loose white sand, deep between banks of sea roses and dunes rolling in sea grass I am in another world. The diversity along this beach is startling, from man made relics like the old granite fort, to the dangerous currents and whirlpools at the mouth of the Kennebec River, to the rushing Morse River sent by God to scare the pants off of many a beach lover. As if that weren’t enough, I often time my visits to walk out across the sand bar at low tide to Fox Island and sit on the rocks, scope out tide pools, eat lunch or just gaze out to sea. Dog lovers can bring Fido as far as the portion of beach that belongs to the state of Maine. I love to watch the labs and retrievers run to fetch sticks and leap into the cold blue water at the mouth of the Kennebec.

Any day of the week fishermen and women are lined up along the shore at the end of the Kennebec fishing for striped bass. Harbor seals gather off shore to feast as well. “Come the tide, comes the fish,” I like to say as I pad along barefoot past the fishing folk, past the old lifesaving station that is now a B&B, along that long stretch beyond the summer cottages and on to the state beach area.

How long is this walk? That depends on the tide, but at its lowest point I can cross the Morse River where the water is still running out to sea and walk on to Small Point and keep right on going, so the question is moot really. If I park at land’s end near Fort Popham, where the Kennebec empties into the Atlantic and walk to the parking lots at the state beach, off limits to dogs, I have covered over two miles. On the way is House Island, and I’ve walked out there at extreme low tide to poke around the tide pools and wonder what it must be like to own an island and have a home on it. When the tide begins breaking on that sand bar I know I can get out there, though each year there are subtle and not so subtle changes in the sand bars after the chaos of winter storm surf.

This is a beach with few sea shells intact, other than the perennially tough clam and oyster shells that survive the pounding surf. Every year I bring home a huge white clam shell for my grandson in Portland, Oregon. One of the great mysteries here is the other species that survives nicely: the sand dollars, tiny delicate ones left behind among particles of broken shells and bits of seaweed. I collect a few each summer to add to my collection in a pale green glass bottle.

One of my favorite things to do on a hot day is walk beyond the state beach to the bed of the Morse River where it snakes out to sea. If I plan it right I can wade in and float down around the bend with the current out to the low tide mark. On a hot day this water is warmed by the sun and the experience is one of the most relaxing things I have ever done. Time it wrong, however, and one can get in big trouble, fodder for another essay. A day at Popham is therapy, excitement and spirituality all rolled into one. No matter what my mood when I arrive, I shuck off my cares with the fragrance of those wild roses and the murmur of the sea.

Summer is not the only season at the beach. After Labor Day when most of the tourists have gone home, a day on this beach is peaceful beyond imagining. The sea, the tides and the rivers are still there. A good hike, a good book and my lunch and I’m good to go. Late autumn brings the first of the ocean storms – high rolling combers breaking on the bars and the salt smell of the sea everywhere.

I’ve driven down in early winter, too, but the beach is a very different place, with storm tides tunneling into the dunes and washing the sand out to sea. Not many people are there, but always a photographer or two, and someone with a dog. The wind is cold and cutting and sometimes we cannot go beyond the boardwalk. This is Maine in winter – dark afternoons, long nights and late sunrises. But when the winter sun sets red and orange we look for a clear day to follow. There is an old saying, “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.

One day in April we’ll get an unseasonable gift of warmth and sunshine and I’ll take that drive down to the beach to see what the winter storms have done. The sand bars change every year, sometimes a lot, and the walk out to Fox Island may follow a different path. I visit the old fort and marvel again at the massive granite blocks quarried on nearby Dix and Fox Islands, climb the winding stairwell and look out over the eddies and whirlpools at the mouth of the Kennebec. Winter is ending and the cycle begins again.

Sherry Ballou Hanson

 

 

 

   

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