“I wonder if I can get down there.” It’s a question I ask myself a lot when I’m out on the shore. Especially when visiting unfamiliar regions, or locations where I haven’t done the best of research before arriving on site. Sometimes the barriers are imposed by ourselves, onto ourselves and onto others - “private property”, “No Trespassing”, “Government Facility: You’ve been warned!” come to mind fairly frequently. These are the barriers that are certainly the most frustrating, to be sure.
The physical barriers on the other hand are more likely to be embraced as a challenge. More likely than not, the physicality of the situations are not overly imposing, just merely a barrier of attrition. ”Alright, the phragmites is getting a little too thick.” “The Mud is getting a little too deep, and I’m in flip flops.” There are also immediate red flags- most notably, the sight of poison ivy sends me immediately back to the truck to put an x on the map.
Occasionally, the barriers are a combination. A recent trip to Calvert Cliffs being the perfect example. I’d visited Calvert Cliffs when I was a kid. For years, you were free to climb up and down the scree as much as you want. Shovels and buckets were almost encouraged for digging away at the cliffside in search of ancient treasure. When a tragic accident in the 90’s led to the closure of the cliffs and the shoreline beneath, it was understood that it was necessary to protect public safety. Even if it meant no more fossil hunting in the cliffs.
Signs on the shore now clearly zone off the dangerous sections of the cliffs when you reach the Bay, leaving visitors with a much narrower section of beach. I take no umbrage with public safety of course, and I made it a point since the beginning of One Hundred Shores to stay within both written and unwritten rules. I’ve been to Calvert Cliffs a few times this year, and each time there’s always a few people straying down the shore past the signs. If only I was a bit less lawful good in my alignment.
The middle-aged safety conscious part of me also kept me planted on the right side of the signs. Sure, the chances are slim, but freak accidents are freak accidents. If I was 15 years younger, well, those signs be damned. At this point though, no need to push the boundaries for an overinflated pet project to make t-shirts.
But signs always come as a bit of a letdown if you ask me, and especially after a 2 mile hike to get there. Which is when the thought occurred to me that if I just swam in the water, swam parallel to the shoreline and stayed in the water, well then I wasn’t breaking any rules, and I wasn’t actively contributing to any sort of environmental collapse. Plus, I’d stay safely out of range of any potential landslide (right??!). I could get a quick glimpse of what I don’t remember on the other side of the cliff and be done with it. You only live once, I told myself and waded in.
Flash forward a few weeks later, and again cliffs and signs are now staring me in the face. This time at Turkey Point lighthouse on the Elk Neck Peninsula, in northeast Maryland. What originally drew me to Elk Neck and Turkey Point was its similarity to Point Lookout. They seemed to exist as almost opposite polarities of the same Chesapeake magnetism. Point Lookout stands on the map as the southernmost marker of Maryland shorelines, Turkey Point as one of the northern most. But approaching from the water, the Point Lookout shore slowly creeps out of the water in a low-lying tidal wetland, while Turkey Point beams from atop a 100 ft bluff.
The topographical difference caught me by surprise when I made my way to the parking lot to hike to Turkey Point Light. I was expecting the trail, I wasn’t expecting the height. Turkey Point had been on my list since the inception of the project, but this was a bit of a last minute side-trip, so my research wasn’t very thorough. To top it off, I only had a few hours in the morning, so I showed up early and alone- the only car in the parking lot, in fact.
It should be noted at this point that I’m much more likely to attempt stupid acts of bravery when I know no one is watching. Or, when I think I’m doing something so immensely clever that everyone will just be in complete awe of my approach and follow behind me. The confused onlookers at Calvert Cliffs watching me single-arm breaststroke with my camera phone overhead can attest to that.
As I made my way down the path towards the Turkey Point light, I started to realize that this peninsula wasn’t going to slope down to the water’s edge. And as the only person on the trail, I started to get the impression that acts of bravery (read: stupidity) might be in order this morning. Poking further and further towards the cliff edges, I kept my eye out for preexisting billygoat trails that could help me down to the water. Descent proved difficult over a few brief attempts but I pushed on, fingers crossed that the lighthouse itself would present itself differently.
Of course, it didn’t. In fact, the bluffs overlooking from the lighthouse proved to be the most imposing of all. But time was limited, so I started to poke again. Alone on the hilltop, I started coming to terms that this might be my only chance for a while to get water from the shore here. It just seemed risky.
“Is it worth it?” I asked myself as I sat down for a spell to weigh the scenario in my mind. 15 years ago and I’d already be at the bottom. Whether through a controlled descent or not. Plus, the signs here didn’t exactly prohibit climbing. They just let you know it was dangerous.
Locked in indecision, time ticked on. Hoping for a sign. Or a phone call saying I needed to get on the road. Or a little voice on my shoulder telling me why I should start back. As luck turned out- voices in my ear were just what I needed. It just so happened that the voices were coming from back down the trail.
I sheepishly waved at the approaching hikers who caught site of me and registered with being second at the lighthouse this morning. “He must have gotten here to watch the sunrise” they were surely thinking. Which is exactly the angle I played. Secretly thankful that I couldn’t possibly disappear now- going over the bluff in what would surely be interpreted as a suicide attempt by the new onlookers- I gathered my bag and my water container- still empty- and headed back towards the trailhead. Turkey Point would have to wait for a later date.