With the wind chill hovering in the mid-20s and patches of ice covering the ground, it may not seem like the best of days to venture outside for a little beachcombing.
But here at the end of a sandy path in Hampton's Grandview Nature Preserve, Dan Summers and Betsy Wolin can hardly contain their glee as they look out over the debris-laden winter beach, anticipating the discovery of such treasures as dead man's fingers and mermaid's toenails.
Bright blue skies add to the Virginia Living Museum naturalists' cheer as they skirt the edge of the retreating maritime forest and get their first full view of the frigid shoreline. In the clear winter air, the mid-morning sunlight glistens off every sea shell — not to mention the eerie mounds of beached rope weed heaped up like frozen sheepdogs on the water's edge.
"This is gorgeous — a gorgeous, perfect day for beachcombing — and this is a classic winter beach," Summers says.
"What a difference the wave energy makes this time of year! What a different feeling! It's almost like you've walked out to the edge of the world."
In a region that teems with river, bay and ocean beaches, it's hard to pick a beachcomber's favorite. Certainly, you'll have better luck with the bluffs along the James and York rivers if you're looking for fossilized scallop shells and shark's teeth, Summers says.
When it comes to the widest array and the most material, however, it's hard to beat the strategically located stretch of sand at Grandview, where the tides, waves and longshore currents make deposits from both the ocean and the bay as well as the nearby Back and York rivers.
Factor in its relative inaccessibility and its wild, untouched character, moreover, and you get what Summers and Wolin call a "real gem" in terms of reflecting nature. Toss in its exposure to the northeast wind and the winter's storms and you get an experience that's even richer this time of year.
"It takes a little bit of determination to walk all the way out to Grandview. So there are simply fewer people out here to compete with," Summers says. "But those who make the trek are rewarded with one of the most natural and beautiful beach faces on the bay. And right now you're seeing what nature intended to throw up on this kind of beach during the winter."
Battered by storm-driven waves, much of the sand on the beach has been scoured away, leaving an eroded escarpment of long-buried soil, root masses and tree stumps exposed along the shoreline. Another scarp forms in the remaining sand a few yards inland, testifying to the relentless energy of the moving water.
Even farther inland lies the wrack line formed by the highest of the high tides, which recently left an armada of redbeard sponges and vast expanses of eel grass and sea lettuce littered with driftwood and shells.
"Part of the lesson of the winter beach is that you don't limit your beachcombing to the water's edge," Summers says. "The wrack line is where you'll discover the best and rarest finds — because that's where the highest and most powerful tides deposit what they bring in."
Deep-burrowing razor, angel wing and jackknife clams appear in abundance here, confirming the season's scouring power. Ditto for the big, relatively heavy surf and quahog clam shells as well as the surprising number of plump oysters
Many of the shells remain hinged together, providing a sure sign of their freshness. Others have been cast up so recently that they still contain bits of dried soft tissue.
"That's the thing about a summer beach. Everything's old and left over," Summers says. "It's really the winter that remakes everything and gives you fresh shells."
Freshly washed-up whelks, slipper shells and blood ark shells aren't the only finds that command the naturalists' attention.
Purple whip corals pop up along the wrack line frequently this time of year, ending their long, wave-swept journey from the saltier waters at the mouth of the bay and the ocean.
Then there are the dense skolithos cobbles, which wash up here from the upper reaches of the James with their fossilized worm burrows after trips of some 400 miles and hundreds of millions of years.
Other visitors hail from distant sources, too, including a lump of pure white quartz that glows brightly in the winter sun. Though unusually large now, it was even larger when it started to wander.
"That's a big hunk of quartz!" Wolin says, admiring the find. "And it came all the way down here from up in the Blue Ridge Mountains."