There’s serenity in Bill Schab’s beach walks

July 1, 2021

Apologies to Ernest Hemingway, but a literary character modeled on Bill Schab with a bit of license would be “the wise man and the sea.”  For the past 14 years, he’s been walking the beach at sunrise - one year not missing a single day.  Dire weather is his preference; it makes for a deserted scene.  Winter’s his favorite season, no insects and few people. 

A longtime Lewes attorney, his approach to the beach is in keeping with his profession.  A kind of eleemosynary stewardship.   

We’re starting our walk from the Navy Road just below Herring Point, a less-traveled path of several hundred yards to the beach through scruffy dune foliage.  Nor’easters have sculpted the trees along the path into twisted ghouls. The heat of summer has kicked in; on such days the breeze blows in off-shore making for biting sand fleas and ‘no-see-ums.’ 

Bill’s pace is steadfast and determined, interrupted only when he breaks stride to pick up the odd piece of litter.  He’s hawk-eyed in spotting debris, carrying a bag to stash refuse.  Mostly stuff left behind by visitors, accidentally forgotten or indifferently discarded without concern for the consequences. Even soiled baby diapers. Social flotsam. The worst kind of litter is the environmental degradation of plastic water bottles and Styrofoam packaging that never breaks down. “I draw the line at dog poop.”

He doesn’t make a big deal out of this daily policing of the area, but after one walks with him a few times, it’s clear he’s offended by these insults to the pristine purity of the setting.

“There’s no telling what you’ll find,” he observes. Lots of towels. Umbrellas. He’s been known to keep especially good stuff like a nice pair of sunglasses or a stylish shirt.  Then there have been bottles containing notes, a half-dozen over the years.  Nothing romantic, though. “You find ‘em where they were just put in, or vice-versa, because the water wraps around the Cape.” One said ‘contact us to learn where we put it in the water’ but failed to attach an email address.

Our northward trek halts at the no-entry area set aside for endangered birds to nest. Black Skimmers, Least Terns, Piping Plovers. The seasonal barrier blocks his favorite route up the beach. Not averse to making his opinion known, every year he petitions the state to lift the ban for people on foot, arguing that pedestrians would tread cautiously. But the state refuses. “They say if you allow walk-ons, fishermen would want to drive on, too, and they’re a powerful lobby in Delaware. Nobody wants a political fight.”

I ask about his encounters with wildlife.  He’s seen seals, sprawled in the sand sunning themselves. Recently he spotted the year’s first oyster catchers, distinctive with their long orange beaks and pink legs, come south to breed in the marsh. “I saw one pecking away at a mollusk.”  Although not officially endangered, its numbers are declining due to habitat loss from coastal development.  There’s been a buzz the last few days about a whale close to shore, cruising between Rehoboth and the Point; people had taken to chasing down the beach following a trail of bursting spouts.  Bill hasn’t seen this one but he recalls how a friend in a small boat off Lewes Beach “once saw a whole pod.”

Our conversation shifts to climate change and the advancing ocean.  These days he regularly sees tides that wash up to the dunes, the kind once associated only with big storms and called ‘hurricane tides.’ Now they’re no big deal. He muses that the Point is going to be cut off by water in not too many years.  I voice concern for the houses fronting Lewes Beach. Are they destined to slip into the sea? “What most people don’t know is that bad flooding isn’t from the ocean but from the canal. The tide keeps pouring in and can’t get out. The banks overflow. That’s what makes for the high water.” 

Despite his brisk stride, there’s a serenity to Bill Schab’s beach walks. The nuances and habits of the beach are so familiar to him, so ingrained, that he moves with a calm composure akin to a Zen master. Undistracted.  Yet wholly present. Sensitive to both the constancy and endless variation of this remarkable sweep of nature.

That’s why I think of him as the wise man and the sea.  

  • Neil Shister, a lifelong journalist who has reported for national publications, has lived part time in Lewes since 2009. He is the author of “Living Lewes,” “Revealing Rehoboth” and most recently, “Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World.” 

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