By Maryann Wadiak
My husband Mark and I have been married since 1981. We recently retired to the Phoenix Valley in Arizona, but we were both born and raised in New Jersey. From my childhood to my young adulthood, the Jersey Shore was all about getting a suntan, meeting friends, and strutting around the boardwalk. I may have picked up the occasional seashell, but I didn’t have the concept of beachcombing, nor was I aware of sea glass. I cringe when I think of the time I lost by not beachcombing in my own backyard. It wasn’t until I visited Sanibel Island, Florida, in the late 1980s, that I discovered the thrill of collecting seashells.
I was always interested in anything vintage, and I have a collection of old tins, kitchen utensils, glassware, and more. I started collecting bottles when I was a preteen after finding some very old pharmacy bottles near a lake in New Jersey. As an adult, I discovered a vintage land dump in a neighboring town, and it was the treasures from there that sparked the idea of displaying my finds.
I’ve also always been interested in gathering anything I could find in nature; rocks, acorns, chestnuts, pine cones, and even leaves. These collections are displayed throughout our house. Bringing nature indoors is magical.
My passion for beachcombing began in the mid 2000s. I don’t remember how I even started to pursue this interest, but I do remember desperately seeking out as much information as I could about sea glass on the Internet. When I saw the book Pure Sea Glass by Richard LaMotte, as well as posts and groups on social media, I soon discovered that I was not alone in my obsession.
Although the hobby was becoming less obscure, it was still difficult to find beaches that yielded treasures. Mark and I found some beaches on our own by doing research and by exploring. The turning point for us was when Mark and I attended The International Beachcombing Conference in 2011. After the conference, we began to plan all of our vacations around beachcombing. We traveled up and down the eastern coast of the United States, and we visited Puerto Rico, Canada, Bermuda, and California. We’ve collected Cape May diamonds, quartz, shark’s teeth, driftwood, beach stones, sea beans, sand dollars, fossils, sea pottery, seashells, sea marbles, artifacts, bottles, and of course, sea glass.
We have had some interesting and wild adventures, some of which we could definitely categorize as extreme beachcombing. I love that each beach is vastly different and yields its own unique treasures. We have many, many treasures from all of the places listed above, but the bulk of our collection comes from one particular area on the East Coast and one particular area on the West Coast, opposite sides of the country and opposite beachcombing experiences, yet equally divine.
In one of the boroughs in the city of New York is a land dump that was established in the 1950s; I affectionately refer to it as “trash beach.” As the top soil that capped the trash erodes away, the contents erode onto the beach and into the bay. The amount of trash is massive and ranges from large debris such as automobile parts to glass beads the size of a pinhead. Finding those tiny beads in the midst of all the debris never ceases to delight me. There are many broken pieces of pottery and glass strewn about, but there are also many fully intact bottles, glass, and ceramic items with stamps from the U.S., Italy, Germany, and Japan.
When Mark and I first started exploring this beach in 2011, it was not well-known to the beachcombing community. The treasures were not considered “true” sea glass. For several years, with the exception of a few local treasure hunters, we would share the beach with bird watchers, artists, students, photographers, and curious onlookers. There were many times when Mark and I were the only ones on the beach. We have since met many interesting people who understand and appreciate this unique beachcombing adventure.
After a few years of exploring this beach, we learned the technique of hunting for vintage marbles. We also developed a friendly competition between us to see who could find the first marble, the last marble, the most marbles, and the most unique marble. (I even created a spreadsheet to record our finds.) Over the years, between the two of us, we have amassed thousands of vintage marbles, including handmade, clay, German, and Benningtons. No matter how plain or damaged, I never leave a marble behind (yes, I am a marble hoarder).
I absolutely cannot name a single favorite item I have found, because each treasure elicits its own thrill. I do recall gasping when I found my first glass strawberry charm and my first tiny red glass die, as well as some unique bottles and stoppers, glass beads, buttons, gems, frozen Charlotte dolls, and other bisque figures.
While on the beach, I’ve often been asked what I do with all the things I find. One day someone asked me if I make art, and after a little pause, I jokingly said, “No, but I artfully display them.” Along with the thrill and challenge of the hunt, I also enjoy giving a new home to items long discarded which would otherwise be left to fade away.
We have made numerous trips to California, extending from San Diego County to Mendocino County, and it is on the West Coast where we have experienced our most extreme and memorable beachcombing adventures—and where we have met our dearest beachcombing friends. We have collected sand dollars the size of dimes, stones smooth and colorful, Davenport glass, abalone shells of all sizes, driftwood, shells, and of course pure sea glass from Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg.
At that time, there was not any legal land access to one of the coves with the most plentiful and rarest sea glass. We didn’t want to trespass and we were not too confident about navigating a kayak in the Pacific Ocean, so we purchased wetsuits and equipment to transport our treasures. The excursion was planned around the tides, with a very low tide in the early morning and early evening allowing us to “wade” to and from the cove. For several days, we woke up before sunrise to begin the day, stayed several hours at the cove, and waded back in the early evening. We had some close calls such as falls, tears in my wetsuit, and almost being swept out to sea. Yet this didn’t deter us from repeating this process a few years later. The third time we returned, we were able to access the cove by land. These trips provided us with wonderful memories and beautiful treasures; my favorites are displayed on our large coffee table and on our shelves, with the rest being dispersed throughout our home.
Hunting for Davenport glass was also quite an experience, from navigating the descent down to the cove to fighting the Pacific Ocean in the hopes of scooping up a treasure. This was our first experience of collecting sea glass in the water as opposed to on the beach. It was here that we met beachcombers who welcomed us on their local beaches. One of these was Marylou Forrest, and although our encounter was brief, we shared an instant connection. Years later we invited her to our home so that she could have the experience of exploring trash beach.
We’ve had numerous mishaps on our other beachcombing trips, including busted suitcases, stolen suitcases, not enough suitcases to house our treasures, and many peculiar instances on our flights. Oh, the things we do for beach treasures!
I always admired people who had a passion and a “happy place,” and for many years I didn’t think I would discover either. Although they didn’t come to me until my later adult years, I am extremely grateful that I have found both. One of my former coworkers told me that my eyes light up when I talk about beachcombing. For it is on the beach where my body, mind, and soul are both invigorated and at peace. It is when I am beachcombing that I can meditate in motion, be in the moment, and lose all sense of time.
I hope that we will be fortunate enough to explore more beaches, collect more treasures, and meet more fantastic people from this community. And if for some reason we are unable to do so, I will always be grateful for my treasures and my memories.
I am also grateful that I have the opportunity to display my treasures. One of the conditions of moving was that we purchase a house that could accommodate our collection. Mark’s mother lives with us, and although she never beachcombed or had any type of collections, she is in awe of our collection and displays. She often visits the front room to admire the collection, and her face lights up when she does so. At 95 years old, she gets it and repeatedly remarks that my treasures are meant to be shared with others. It was she who encouraged me to share my story. It is our hope that this article and these photos have spread some joy to each of you.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2023 issue.
Your Mother-in-law was right! Thank you for taking the time to share your stunning beachcombing treasures and stories. You really made my day.
Safe travels, Katie