Plenty of people surf and fish in winter. I admire them for that, but I prefer to go to the beach with no expectations or agenda beyond watching the changes in ocean and clouds.
By winter beach, I do not mean Aruba or Key West during resortwear season. That’s too easy. I mean chilly, probably wet, mostly gray Mid-Atlantic beaches, like those along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a thin 189-mile strip of barrier islands where my family spent two socially distanced weeks in December and January.
A winter beach around these parts is quiet. The rain and cold pretty much guarantee that you’ll have the place to yourself. The waves sound louder and more constant. The heavier winds intensify the smell of salt and sea grasses and blow a salty mist into your face as you near the surf. In weather that might otherwise keep me locked inside, the draw of the ocean lures me outdoors.
I have been a beach person all my life. While I’m happy to spend time at lakes or in the mountains, salt and sand seem to trigger a different humor in my body. I breathe more deeply, I sleep better, I am more active and I probably even eat better.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be a beach person in all seasons. There is still nothing that beats cool saltwater lapping over you on a hot summer day, sand clinging to the bottom of a cold beer can, or the smell of bluefish hitting the charcoal grill as that day stretches out into a golden, breezy evening. I miss those days when they are gone, but I’ve come to appreciate a whole different set of joys that winter brings to the beach and the areas around it.
During summer, for example, I have a tough time committing to any activity that doesn’t offer the promise of a swim. But I love historical sites, scenic drives and nature walks, too, and winter is the best time to do these things. There are no crowds or traffic. On our recent trip to the Outer Banks, we had Jockey’s Ridge State Park nearly to ourselves. Here, the tallest active sand dunes on the East Coast offer perfect views of the ocean, sound and Roanoke Island to the west. The driving winds made patterns across the sand and drove off the other visitors.
Farther south, the grounds of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which are swarmed with visitors in summer, were nearly empty. Here, the barrier islands make an abrupt turn and bring wider, flatter beaches with better surf. The hour-plus drive from the nearest bridge to the mainland makes it even quieter than the northern parts of the Banks. From the lighthouse we ventured south, past the tiny British World War II cemetery, toward Cape Point. A lonely egret patrolled the wide marsh with the black-and-white spiraled beacon a stark contrast in the distance.
I worried about entertaining my 5-year-old son at the beach in the winter. But in his eyes, the short days and early sunsets were just more opportunity for headlamp beach walks and seeing the stars before dinnertime. I would carry our newborn strapped into her carrier on my chest, and my wife would lead our son on epic, but frosty, beachcombing expeditions. With no competition to speak of, they filled bucket after bucket.
Best of all, he paid little attention to any bad weather. Instead, he sprinted through wide open spaces, swung a furled umbrella around like a lightsaber and embraced the thrill of evading the icy waves as they rolled on shore. On our last nighttime walk, he got a little too close and soaked his shoes and pants. But as we turned back home, he asked if he could splash through one more time. It was no more than 35 degrees outside, and yet it was impossible to deny him that simple, silly delight.
How many times during the pandemic have you sought to take a quiet walk in the woods only to spend most of your time stepping off the path so others can pass in socially distant safety? Go near a beach in winter, and the trails and boardwalks along the sound and marsh are all yours. In our region, it is the best time to see birds and waterfowl. I have been to the Outer Banks several times a year for most of my life, but I had never spied tundra swans there until my trip in January, even though North Carolina sees more wintering swans than any other state on the East Coast. My son and I spent a morning watching pied-billed grebes dive deep for food, trying to guess when and where they would finally emerge. I had to look them up because this was my first time I’d seen, or at least noticed, them. The fuzzy, short-nosed birds are common to coastal North Carolina, but in winter they come out on the sounds and bays in big groups.
In peak summer, traffic is terrible and deters us from driving anywhere, while the heat keeps us near water and shade and air-conditioning. None of these things are much of a concern in winter. I ventured into the little town of Duck and, even though it was during the pandemic, started to feel a true sense of place. Locals hit the coffee shops and bakeries on their way to work — just as they would in summer — but now I had the time to notice, to ask questions and to listen in. The fishmonger had a few more minutes to tell me how to cook the locally caught sea mullet and speckled trout, and to explain that the shrimp boats I see every evening just offshore come down from New England and never sell their catch locally.
On those somewhat rare days when the sun shines and the temperatures creep into the 50s or beyond, the deep blue of the sky and the reflections off the water are more brilliant than any other time. I tried not to miss a sunset, whether over the bay or by the ocean, where the glow behind us from the west turned the horizon a rainbow of pastel pinks and purples. The winter sky at night, minus much of the light pollution from high summer occupancies, explodes with constellations. We spotted Mars first, then Uranus, and then Orion’s belt as we scrambled to find answers for our son’s questions about every single cluster or pattern of stars that came into view.
Joan Didion said that the appeal of the ocean for her was the constancy of the horizon, “always there, flat.” That perfect parallel line complements both the tumult of rough waves and the gentle swells of calm seas. One day, after hours of downpour finally let up, we took one of our regular evening walks down to the beach and peered out over the water. I thought about how often I look at the sky but how infrequently I actually see the horizon. Everything was gray, sea and sky, but in between I could just make out that thin band separating the two.
Cornwell is a writer based in D.C. Find him on Twitter: @ghcornwell