By Anna Roche Clark
Chances are you fully appreciate the meditative and therapeutic benefits of beachcombing. But beachcombing, while not usually considered an extreme sport, still has its inherent dangers. I’ve been curating a list of “lessons learned” from both personal experience and the experiences of fellow combers. Since the thrill of the hunt sometimes hijacks our otherwise better judgement, these stories may help you anticipate and prepare to stay safe, and lessen the likelihood that your beachcombing days get sidelined by accidents, injury, unsafe personal situations, or other safety hazards.
ACCIDENTS AND INJURY
A very unscientific survey of beachcombing enthusiasts reveals one of the most common accidents, and resulting injury, comes from falls. Coastlines naturally consist of shifting, unstable material, often changing due to tides and climate conditions. Sand, gravel, and rocks are hazardous when steep, uneven, or wet with organic matter.
While it sometimes takes longer to traverse a shoreline, Christine M. Solorio from Chicago suggests a process of “toe testing” a surface before shifting your weight with each step. Mud flats require you to shuffle your feet rather than take deep steps, and some combers carry a wooden board to step on if needed. Karin Roberson of Wisconsin employs another strategy that involves walking with a long stick, shovel, rake, cane, or pole—such as the Sand Dipper, a scooper attached to an extendable pole—to use as support with each step. A walking stick also comes in handy when testing the depth of water and the strength of a sandy surface. Doing so can prevent twists and sprains, particularly on your first time exploring a new area.
The correct footwear is also key. Early in my combing days I foolishly followed a young man up a path around a freshly eroding, muddy Lake Michigan clay cliff side, wearing my husband’s too-big-for-me heavy, rubber, steel-shanked rain boots. Waterproof: yes. Good for beachcombing: no! Near the crest of the cliff, my feet sank into clay mud beyond the top of the boots and above my knees and I was stuck, unable to pull my feet out of the clay and hanging sideways off the cliff. To a bystander, I may have resembled a cartoon character, as I struggled in panic to pull free. Ultimately I pulled my feet out of the boots and sank into the muddy clay in bare feet, and dug each boot out of the mud with my hands. I crawled on hands and knees down the cliff where I took a “beach bath” in the surf. I was lucky: the biggest injury that day was my pride. Those mud-caked boots sat in the garage for over a year as I went online to find neoprene boundary boots in my size.
“Selecting footwear that has slip-resistant tread and offers protection from sharp objects including jagged glass, metal, and splintered wood is essential,” says Lauri Allen from California. “I also need something in California that protects against rocks that bash my ankles in the surf.”
Jodie Greene from New Jersey will never again go out combing on a windy day without her eye goggles after sand scratched her cornea on a windy afternoon. She was barely able to drive to seek medical care that day as her eyes watered and stung.
Combing with a buddy is safer, and it’s more fun to share the excitement of one’s finds in real time. Even so, some folks prefer solitude on the beach. Because Mary McCarthy from Maryland often beachcombs alone, she doesn’t post the locations of the beaches she regularly visits. When I travel for beachcombing, I spend a lot of time alone and often explore unfamiliar coastlines. When that’s the case, essential strategies for personal safety include sharing your location and plans with someone back home, securely carrying a phone with full power and working cell service, and being vigilant about your surroundings. “I’m never without my phone” says Sandi Thomas in California. “It’s my lifeline.”
One of the best and simple personal safety tips I’ve gotten is from Tarah Nicole Hoffmann in Illinois: “Make it a habit to look up every few minutes.” Prior to this, I could spend a dangerous length of time daydreaming, lost in the hunt, looking down, and totally unaware of the movement of others nearby.
OTHER POTENTIAL DANGERS
Cautions regarding the outdoors also apply to beachcombing. Among the most common of these are sunburn, sunstroke, and dehydration. Apply waterproof (and ideally reef-safe) sunblock before you go out, find shade to take breaks, and carry water.
In addition, animals we share the beach and water with should always be approached with caution, including jellyfish, crustaceans, snakes, sea urchins, stinging insects, birds protecting nests, octopus, sharks, and even cute but unfamiliar dogs. Combing in new or unfamiliar areas means you may not even know how to spot local critters to avoid.
“We are quite unlucky with many creatures here that can kill you” says Suzanne Casement of Australia. “One day while picking up a pottery piece I touched a blue ring octopus before I realized what it was. I was alone on my home beach and could not be seen from the road. I knew if I’d been stung, I would not have enough time to get help. The sting is painless but immediately and very deadly.” Luckily for Suzanne, she had not been stung but the minutes of terror before the crisis had passed is time she will never forget.
I saw an Instagram post by a beachcomber who’d been impaled by a horseshoe crab’s tail, straight through her foot, requiring removal by a doctor and stitches. I think of it with each and every horseshoe crab I encounter since seeing that post.
Plants hidden along beach paths and among beach grasses, including poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak also present common risks to beachcombers. An anonymous beachcomber I spoke to will never forget slipping into a private beach dune to relieve herself only to find she’d squatted among poison ivy. Best to learn how to identify those plants ahead of time.
Rising tides, high waves, rip currents, and sharp underwater drop-offs lead to risk of drowning or becoming stranded. “I was once combing alone along the very steep California cliff sides when I lost track of time with a dead phone battery,” recalled Sage Harmon from California. “The tide had been out when I began, so I was able to walk into a cove, lured by the prospect of Victorian dump treasures. But while there, the tide had risen, trapping me in the cove. With the water already up to my waist, my only choice was scaling the 60-foot vertical cliff made of crumbling sediment, knowing that one wrong foot placement and I could fall.” When I acknowledged that Sage would not even be able to phone for help in that situation he responded, “Worse than that, I would have lost all the glass I’d just collected.” And we both laughed, realizing how this might sound to anyone who can’t appreciate the lengths we go for this pastime. Since low tide reveals more real estate to hunt for treasures, that makes another very good reason to calculate the six hours between the low and highest water lines when you plan your hunt.
While each of us, has likely heard of or experienced a “close call,” the dedicated combers in Davenport, California, have a unique appreciation for the dangerous forces of nature that polish and shape their most-prized pieces of sea glass. “People die here in the pursuit of this sought-after beautiful art sea glass,” an experienced surfer and Davenport sea glass hunter nonchalantly told me. “People turn their back on the water and are busy looking down when they get eclipsed by the 15-foot, wall-of-water waves. We surfers can tell how big the wave will be just by sound, and yet we still never turn our back to oncoming waves,” he added. As I hiked back to my car, I wondered just how much might be cautionary exaggeration to discourage visiting combers. Yet, that same night, as I watched the news in my hotel room, a clip of the Coast Guard airlifting a lifeless body from the beach I had just visited that morning made the hair on my neck stand on end.
Many of the beachcombers I’ve met have at least one safety lesson learned, even on their “home beach.” But as one said after hearing of an accident at the steep cliffs of Shippersea, England, “No sea glass is worth life and limb.” Watch your step, observe your surroundings, and have a way to get help if needed. Enjoy the healing powers of the coastline, with a few good safety habits in mind.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2020 issue.