by Judie Betz

When I was shown my first shark egg on Big Lagoon beach, I couldn't resist holding the fist-sized leathery gray pouch up to the sky for a glimpse of Jaws Jr. Someone else might have exhibited more restraint, but where I was raised in the Midwest we routinely held eggs up to candles to see if a little chick had formed yet. And there was also the influence of Beachcombers' Unrelenting Compulsion to Know Stuff-- or, BUCKS, for short.

For years, Bill and I fished the ocean, rivers and lagoons of the North Coast. I wrote an article for the Journal in l993 about not catching any fish because we were too busy gawking at nature to tend our tackle. When we finally realized what we truly wanted to do was rubberneck, investigate the great outdoors and play explorers, our focus shifted to hiking and eventually to beachcombing. It's just like fishing used to be. But now we don't worry about some pesky fish tugging away our costly gear while we wander around lollygagging.

We discovered a covert society of competitive agate pickers who roam Agate Beach, Big Lagoon, Dry Lagoon and Stone Lagoon searching for those veiled, often buried sparklers that polish up into semi-precious gems. We joined their ranks as sort of loose associate members. That means when they see us coming, they mumble, "Not those two again." Today we have a giant fish bowl full of beach agates for which we labored 250,000 hours. Net value: $l8.75. But as long as no one else asks us what we're going to do with them, I'll get over it.

Those same locales yield wonderfully useless twists of driftwood that can be dragged along the sand for long distances to one's car. Perhaps we will need the services of a chiropractor now and then, but our reward is a yard full of dried-out distorted logs that neighborhood pets love to pee on.

Beachcombing is stimulating any time of the year. Perhaps warmer weather attracts more folks to our rugged shores, but winter storms bring such interesting booty. We've found glass floats from oriental fishing nets, and more conventional wood or foam buoyants still attached to mysteriously frayed ropes, probably lost by local fishermen.

But just possibly, they were jettisoned way across the Pacific, from Australia or Borneo, during an awesome typhoon. I'm always looking for a message in a bottle sent by some desert islander, alone and literarily inclined. Or maybe I'll stumble across that most special bottleful: a genie, who can help me pay my estimated taxes.

People leave objects on the sands you would think they'd need. Such as keys. How'd they get home? How about pants, shoes, socks. Socks and shoes maybe, but pants? We've seen scarves, jackets, gloves, swimsuits, jars of whatever, pencils and pens, kite parts, lighters, coins, earrings, a watch, toys, shoppings lists and other indecipherable documents crumpled up and caught on ice plant. And, unhappily, there are often empty shotgun casings. I don't like to think about those.

Lots of folks take their dogs to the seashore to supervise gulls and other people's dogs.

There's a lot of fetching and digging and sneaking up on unwary beachcombers. Actually, I love doggies. When I'm bent over examining a scrap of wood or a bit of jasper, it is an invigorating surprise to have somebody's wet hound thrust a nose where it's not wanted. But this aside -- please -- I like to see the animals run and enjoy the freedom. It's getting harder to find running room.

We've caught sight of gray whales blowing plumes of mist at our eye level. We've chatted with curious sea lions who pop sleek heads through the foamy surf. We've disturbed and been rebuked by countless jealous birds who wonder about the treasures we stuff in our backpacks.

The sound of the sea is magical, and some waves crash on the shore so violently we can feel the beach jolt beneath our feet.

That brings us to the sea shells. King Salmon has one of the few beaches inside Humboldt Bay where the powerful surf hasn't blasted them all to pieces. If you're like me, you thought a shell was a shell. But then, like me, your husband laughed at you in the indulgent manner of the informed and began specifying the casually collected horde in your sweaty palms. Like this:

"Oh, man, you have some good limpets there -- a true and a keyhole -- that one's a volcano limpet. This is a Chinese hat and here's an Oregon triton. Bet you love these purple dwarf olives, almost like jewelry, huh? That, my dear, is a mini- sand dollar. Whoa, this is a wentletrap, see how delicate. Wait, I don't believe it! -- a rare periwinkle. I haven't seen a peri since I was a Scout in Southern California."

Big woopty do.

The crab claws I can recognize all by my dumb self, and they're everywhere, every size. Often you'll find an entire crab the birds haven't yet discovered. DO NOT PICK THOSE UP. Some stink, and your fingers absorb the odor, and then you have to hang your hand out the window all the way home.

Like a careless child.

Who thought, along with other misconceptions, that a shell was just a shell.

Judie Betz is a retired advertising copywriter who, along with her husband, escaped to Humboldt County in 1987 from Los Angeles.

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