By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman
Winter is absolutely my favorite time of year to go beach glass collecting. I live in Buffalo, NY and abhor the cold, but it somehow never seems to bother me when I’m at the beach in the winter. The stillness and quietness of a winter beach, almost eerily bleak at times, draws me like the sun and warmth of the summer hunt never can. It could be as simple as having the beach to myself, with the summer pickers (fair-weather beachcombers, I think of them) nowhere to be found; it could be the silence—when ice and snow cover Lake Erie, there is no lapping of waves, either soft or harsh, no sound at all save the crunch of your boots on crusty snow. A snow-covered beach and lake is a desolate thing to behold; yet while there is a beguiling beauty to the harshness, there usually is no beach glass to be readily found on a beach blanketed in snow.
It’s a bit of a quandary—loving that white-shrouded and silent beach, but knowing the pickings will be slim. Over the winter of 2014-2015, the beaches near me were carpeted in snow for almost 4 months. Snow volcanoes—made when waves push ice up upon the shore, growing taller and taller, but hollow inside as the water underneath might yet be warmer and still sloshing—reached as high as 20 or so feet and turned the flat shoreline into a mountain range. They were awe-inspiring and dangerous. The landscape was both fascinating, and at times mesmerizing; but for all those months, I brought home no beach glass. There wasbeach glass under the hardened snow, I knew, but only investigated minimally and to no avail. When finally the thaw began, the race was on with the returning fair-weather beachcombers to gather up all the revealed treasure. The bounty was plentiful, but the quiet was gone for another year.
Happily, luckily, the beach is not always or completely snow-covered every winter. Lake Erie particularly and many other locales can offer up some pretty fierce wind and waves and storms. Since winds blow primarily west–to–east along the main axis of the lake, wind is a true friend of the beachcomber at the right end of the lake. These winds might create some slick roads near these shores and have you thanking Grandma for the thickly knitted winter hat she gifted you with at Christmas, but most exciting is the bounty those winter winds will throw at your feet. During the stormy winter months, storm waves carry much energy to the beach (beachcombers may read: storm waves carry muchsea glassto the beach).My best finds have always been during the winter months—crested olive bottle stopper and (egads!) drug paraphernalia in the form of a perfectly be-speckled blue and white hollow pipe, the picture-perfect cornflower shard, perfect pottery and even a my best-ever yellow find. And because you’re not fighting the summer throngs of seasonal beachcombers, they’re all yours!
But there’s more to the winter hunt than just the sea glass. No, really. First, there’s that view. Sure, we all love our summer sunrises and sunsets, but the vista of a winter beach cannot be ignored. Gone is the technicolor vigor of the summer; in its place, a subdued, sometimes monochromatic beach that at times can feel like it belongs solely to you.
The wildlife. In summer, animals and critters adapt to the regular presence of humans and mostly steer clear, but in the winter, when the beaches are relatively silent places, wildlife is much less wary. Deer and fox and so many beautiful ducks abound—and in very later winter, turkey vultures may be regular co-habitants at the early morning shoreline (turkey vultures look exactly as their name suggests: the head of a turkey on the body of a vulture, though in fact the ‘vulture’ part of their name is more of a reference to their feeding habits. Take care with how you approach these buzzards—their first line of defense is projectile vomiting to deter any predators).
From my position, I can look north, towards the city and am likely to see a kite-surfer or kite-boarder, or maybe a few on a clear, windy day. Yes, even in winter, they play. There is something substantially more intriguing about the sight of a man or woman who will brave not only the cold (average Buffalo temperature in January 24*) but also the wind-chill factor, which can drop the feel of the actual temp significantly, to fly like the wind across the surface of the lake. And yet, there they are, riding the very waves that are bringing me beach glass, maybe spying me on the shore and contemplating my winter parka and snow goggles while they’re clad in not much more than a second-skin wet suit.
Turn my gaze even further, and there’s the Small Boat Harbor, whose waters freeze much sooner than the general lake, dotted with dark little huts on the solid white ice, filled with fishermen who’ve drilled a cartoon-perfect circular hole into the ice, hoping to snag some tasty walleye or perch. They sit inside, wind-protected and tell tall tales of their last best-catch while hunting the next, akin to beachcombers' stories of their most recent favorite find.
Like anything, taking the time to appreciate your surroundings is key to the experience. For beachcombers—easier said than done; head down is usually where it’s at. But every once in a while, look up. Look around. Even in the depths of winter, the beach has so much to offer.
Make sure you're prepared for a winter hunt with our list of winter beachcombing gear ›
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine January/February 2018 issue.