EAST BOOTHBAY, Maine — At Ocean Point, the Atlantic Ocean coils like a fighter preparing a roundhouse punch, then pummels the gargantuan slate shore with thunderous waves. Tourists who flock to this scenic coastal walkway at the southern tip of East Boothbay focus their mobile phones and cameras on the smashing surf. The scene encapsulates the quintessential ‶rocky coast of Maine.″
But when the sea relents and the tide withdraws, the pools left behind in the rock hollows teem with life. Rachel Carson, perhaps the mid-20th century’s most articulate advocate for the environment, was drawn more to these tidepools than to the dramatic bluster of the surf. The intertidal oases contain a universe in a teacup. They are full of periwinkles, marine worms, tiny green crabs, Irish moss, and even darting minnows.
At the edge of the sea, she wrote, “the drama of life played its first scene on earth and perhaps even its prelude; where the forces of evolution are at work today, as they have been since the appearance of what we know as life.”
Rachel Carson was one of Maine’s most perceptive ‶summer people.″ She began visiting the state just after World War II and in 1953 built a cottage in Southport, an island community just south of Boothbay Harbor. From this base, she researched and wrote her 1955 book “The Edge of the Sea” and later worked on “Silent Spring” near the end of her life.
Carson’s cottage is not open to the public, but many of the spots where she followed the rhythm of the tides and cycles of life are. The tide pool microcosms that so fascinated Carson remain accessible, in some part thanks to the environmental protections that are her legacy. Searching them out is an adventure in looking closely, and in realizing how much more you see when you narrow your focus. Three of her favorite spots are all close together as the gull flies or the seal swims, but reaching them by car requires driving up and down a hank of peninsulas and islands that hang off midcoast Maine like the fingers of gardener’s gloves dangling on a clothesline.
In addition to the ledges of Ocean Point (where she and her illustrator gathered samples for “The Edge of the Sea”), Carson spent many hours at the pocket cove Southport public beach at Hendricks Head, where the Sheepscot River enters the Gulf of Maine. Defined by a massive boulder that shelters the rockweed-covered beach cobbles from prevailing currents, the scene appears almost digitally constructed for a Maine coast postcard. It even has a squat white lighthouse tower with a red-roofed keeper’s house grafted to the inland side.
That boulder divides Hendricks Head Beach in two. The sandy strand on the left is a fine spot for catching some rays and the shallow incline makes it great for ankle-deep wading. The kelp-strewn rocks on the lighthouse side catch hundreds of pools when the tide goes out. Photographers sometimes set up tripods here on the slippery weeds to photograph starfish, dogwinkles, and all the colorful intertidal life.
Carson helped found the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy in 1956, and the group honored her by designating the striking salt pond on Muscongus Bay a few miles north of Pemaquid Point as the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve. The peculiar formation is as magical now as in the mid-1950s when Carson was a habitué. The pond is nearly invisible from the road and the marker sign is partially obscured by trees. Parking on the Route 32 shoulder is limited, but a few stone steps lead to the rocky beach that becomes a true salt pond at low tide.
As the Nature Conservancy so poetically puts it, ‶A little bit of the sea is left behind in this salt pond every time the tide recedes.″ Even when the ocean engulfs the salt pond’s encircling wall of boulders, the waters remain tranquil, making the shore a perfect spot for nesting sea birds and for the accumulation of intertidal zone seaweeds. Fanciers of wild edibles can find them here in abundance, from frilly Irish moss to crunchy gracilaria to intensely flavored dulse. (A field guide can help you differentiate one from another.) As with all foraging, it’s good form not to be greedy. A little goes a long way with these intensely flavored algae. (For details, including state regulations, see seaweedcouncil.org.)
Carson didn’t spend all her time crouching over tide pools. A prolific and hard-working writer, she frequented the Newagen Seaside Inn, originally established in 1816 and rebuilt after a 1943 fire. Carson would sit on the porch to write and often enjoyed lunch or wandering the grounds with Dorothy Freeman, a summer neighbor who became her closest companion. Weather permitting, the outdoor tables at the inn’s pub are a great place to dine on salads and sandwiches while gazing across expansive lawns to the sea.
The hotel displays copies of Carson’s books and a Sept. 10, 1963, letter she wrote to Freeman expressing her delight at the migrating monarch butterflies they observed at the inn. As usual, she described her careful observations of nature’s wonders in precise but evocative prose, noting the “unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force.”
It seems fitting that she took such delight in natural beauty. After all, we owe much of what gives joy to summer — the bumblebees and butterflies, the birdsong and the sight of soaring raptors in the sky — to Rachel Carson. Her 1962 book “Silent Spring” rang the alarm on the poisons we were pouring into the environment and became a rallying cry for human stewardship of the natural world.
After Carson’s death on April 14, 1964, Freeman returned to the Newagen Seaside Inn to spread her friend’s ashes along the rocky shore. The plaque attached to a boulder reads in part: Here at last returned to the sea — ‶to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”
IF YOU GO . . .
Most spots in this story are best visited at or near low tide. For tide charts to the region, visit tideking.com/United-States/Maine/Lincoln-County and scroll down for specific locations.
Ocean Point, Point Road, East Boothbay, Maine.
Hendricks Head Beach, Salt Pond Road, Southport, Maine.
Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve, 150 Route 32, New Harbor, Maine; nature.org.
Newagen Seaside Inn 60 Newagen Colony Road, Southport; 800-654-5242; newagenseasideinn.com; open through Oct. 11; Pub open Sunday-Friday, closed Saturdays, also closed Mondays after Sept. 7.