Stone Eggs and Red Dye
The weekend was frustratingly productive in a Monday morning regret sort of way. Saturday was full of chores – cleaning, pruning, weeding and such. Sunday began the same way, but I felt the stir of restlessness mid-morning and started plotting concentric circles outward for places we’d never been before. When you’ve lived in a place for most of your life that’s challenging, but also surprisingly fruitful. Interesting walk with water views within an hour of home? Not hard when you live near the sea. Place you’ve never been to within that circle? Bit more challenging, but it turns out, not impossible.
Kittery, Maine is one of those places I drive through on my way to someplace else. Sure, they have all those outlet stores, but shopping makes my brain ache. So does the Sunday traffic trying to bridge the Piscataqua River. Bridges are chokepoints, and being on the wrong side of one on the last weekend before all those kids go back to school is a recipe for gridlock. But the call of new trumped logic and we made our way to Fort Foster for a Sunday afternoon walk.
Fort Foster sits on the northern point of the Mouth of the Piscataqua River. Historically this river has always marked the boundary between New Hampshire and what was first the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and eventually Maine. The strategic merits of the river and the natural reluctance of the Native American population and the territorial turf war with the French created the need for forts. That need was served by Fort McClary, just a few miles inland and visible from Fort Foster. So why another fort?
In 1885 the United States determined a need to bolster coastal fortifications for modern warfare. At the time, this included concrete bunkers, disappearing gun artillery designed to combat the new steel-plated modern ships, and most interestingly, anti-submarine measures like mining and guns designed to fire on submarines. These forts dotted the east and west coasts of the United States. Fort Foster was completed in 1901, and was active until just after World War II, when the realities of modern warfare had made coastal forts obsolete.
Fort Foster today offers glimpses of that past. You can still climb up into the concrete bunker and see the bolts that once secured the disappearing artillery. But the real reason to visit Fort Foster is to walk on the unique beaches at the Mouth of the Piscataqua River, walk out on the pier to get a closer look at Wood Island with it’s lifesaving station, and Whaleback Light. There’s been a lighthouse on this spot since 1820, and the one you see now was built in 1872. The lighthouse keepers surely had a lonely job on that pile of rocks.
The beach along the river is hard-pack sand cemented with silt, with granite cropping out wherever it may. We visited at low tide and the beach extended out 50 to 100 yards in spots. But there was a funk in the air that betrayed bacteria, and we moved on from the river beaches to those facing the ocean. The City of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just on the other side of the Mouth, poured a red dye into the river last month to analyze sewage flow. There’s a red tint on the seaweed and beaches at low tide, and I wasn’t sure whether it was the red dye or the pervasive Red Tide that has closed shellfish sites in Maine for most of the summer. Either way, it’s not a beach I would sunbath on, let alone swim in. Damned shame, because it is a beautiful spot.
Rounding the corner the funk disappears as the ocean breezes refresh the air. We walked along the beach at Sewards Cove. The beach is a fascinating jumble of worn stones, granite outcroppings and stone dust. Picking up the stone dust, it radiated heat that lingered longer than typical beach sand might. The beach was dominated by the rounded stones, like river rock you might put in a potted plant, of varying sizes. One imagines the surf churning these rocks together, round and round, wearing the sharp edges down to smoothness. The result is lovely, with all manner of shapes and sizes, all eventually becoming that stone dust that makes up the rest of the beach. I rescued a half dozen egg shaped stones from that fate, instead subjecting them to the fate of eye candy in a beer glass on a shelf at home. If stones had feelings they might rejoice or resent this fate, but they’ll never tell me.
We walked as far as we could before we reached a sign that said private property, and turned back towards the river. We opted for the path instead of the beach on the walk back, and passed groups of families and friends picnicking in nooks and crannies of the park all the way back. It’s a million dollar view out to the Isle of Shoals and beyond to the east, and over to Portsmouth an Odiorne Point on the opposite shore of the Mouth looking south. The park charges $20 per car, or $5 per person. Many people simply park outside the gate and walk in, but anything more than three people and the math stops working for you. We gave the $20 bucks and called it a donation. Public space on the ocean is a blessing, and that private property sign reminded me that not every shore is accessible. Andrew Jackson for a Sunday afternoon walk somewhere new? A good trade in my opinion.