Beach: As the season ebbs, lifeguards reluctantly prepare to leave behind the jobs that keep them awash day and night in the phenomena of Assateague Island.


August 17, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Va. -- Josh Morin knows that when the waves break into white foam far from shore, then flatten out in blues and grays, there's a trough of deep water out there that could mean trouble for a poor swimmer. He knows that quicksilver glints just off shore mean the mullet are feeding. That when the brown pelicans fly single-file, they're taking advantage of the draft created by the bird ahead, like racing cyclists.

He isn't looking for these things. He is watching for a swimmer in trouble. A surfer who could lose control of his board and endanger a child. A toddler on the beach who seems lost. Behind his sunglasses, he squints against the white sun and his gaze sweeps from south to north, from beach to berm, breakers, ocean. Then back. From his lifeguard stand Josh can see almost a mile down the beach and several miles into the Atlantic.

After nearly three months, eight hours a day, of lifeguarding at Assateague Island National Seashore, the beach routine has settled in as though it will never end.

It will, of course.

It's already mid-August. But for now, the days stretch behind and ahead for Josh and the other four lifeguards here with a sameness that seems as regular as the waves. "It just goes on and on," Josh says. "It becomes your whole life."

Assateague Island runs 37 miles along the coast, like a long, slender mermaid lying in the breakers. Her head rests near Ocean City, and her body extends to Chincoteague, Va., where her tail forms a sandy hook curving west. The National Park Service operates two districts on the island: One in Maryland, and this one, in Virginia. But like a living creature, the island is never really still.

It is the first thing hit when the ocean sends angry winds and strong waves landward. Sand is continually swept away from the island's northernmost tip and deposited at its southernmost. In recent years, Assateague literally has moved annually a few feet south and rolled a little to the west.

"Each year we wait to see what nature does next," says district Ranger Mel Olsen. In the 27 years since he came here from Utah, he has seen phone lines swept away, buildings tumble, roads vanish, dunes melt. "It's hard to predict."

Each year, the national park searches for lifeguards, men or women, 18 or older, who want summer work. There are architecture, biology, phys-ed majors, or post-graduates pondering career choices. Some lifeguards have worked the beaches for years; others come directly from urban swimming pools. In the fall, they head back to college, to grad school, internships, real life. A few guard year-round, following the warm weather like migratory birds.

When the lifeguards arrive in June, they seem to have little in common beyond physical prowess -- and first-aid training. But under the glare of the sun and the rigors of workouts, they become blonder, tanner, leaner until they begin to resemble each other. By summer's end, even those with the least beach experience understand, as does every other living thing here, that life on the island ebbs and flows according to nature's rhythms.

Home alone

A rambling white house sits on the southern end of the island where it hooks westward. Built in 1922 for the Coast Guard, it has belonged for 30 years to the park service. To the west, a salt marsh bristling with razor-edged sea grass slopes toward a cove. To the east, stretching forever, is the ocean. No road leads here, and there is no phone. Residents arrive by boat or by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

This is where Josh and two other lifeguards, a park ranger and three naturalists live, sandwiched between sky and water.

"You're sitting out here and all of a sudden you remember the magic of it," says Josh, a 19-year-old forestry major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "The ocean is 70 percent of the earth's surface and it meets the land right here. There's a lot of energy here."

At night, when the rangers shoo swimmers and fishermen out of the park and permanent employees close up the visitor center and go home to Chincoteague Island or the mainland, they're all alone.

That is, alone except for the shaggy wild horses with fat, round stomachs, bloated from eating salty grass. Or the sika deer, white-tailed deer, red foxes, little brown bats, opossum, jumping meadow mice, Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels, egrets, laughing gulls, hawks, black rat snakes, green flies, ticks and millions, billions, maybe trillions of mosquitoes.

"Isolated?" Josh, 19, asks in response to a question. "Here?"

Once, when Josh was surfing on his day off, a baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin swam beside his board. "He was on his back. I could see his belly. It was cool."

When the lifeguards are in the water, they know when the dolphins are near: They can feel vibrations when the mammals "echo-locate," or send out sound waves that bounce back and enable them to form mental pictures of fish or rocks or people.

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