A few weeks ago, Karen Forbes Darling and Joe Forbes served their last fried clam dinner of the season, pressure-washed their eighty-year-old restaurant on Wells Beach, and shuttered it for the winter. In the tradition of their parents and grandparents, the siblings had worked their tails off all summer, putting in fourteen-hour days, seven days a week. Now, for the next six months, they'll be immersed in family life. Joe will spend time with his kids; maybe he'll take them skiing. Karen will take the household reins from her husband, whose excavation business ramps up as tourist season winds down.
Not that the vacationers are gone. "The town stays busy," Karen says. "There is always traffic on Route 1." But fall's tourists, who will continue arriving into December, are a different breed than the sunburned Boston-area families who fill Wells' campgrounds and motels and are happy eating off paper plates at Forbes Seafood Restaurant. Autumn brings retirees who browse the antiques shops on Route 1, leaf-peep at Laudholm Farm, and prefer their meals served on china. They may motor along Ocean Avenue for glimpses of frothy blue between the tightly packed cottages, but they're unlikely to curl their toes in the soft white sand. "Try coming down here in November or December," Joe says. "The wind is blowing about thirty miles per hour and it's cold."By Christmas, most of Wells' restaurants and shops will have followed Forbes Seafood's lead and pulled the blinds. Like Karen and Joe, their owners will take advantage of the fallow period to recuperate and plan for the tourists' return, a trickle in April, a human tsunami by late June.
These are the rhythms of a beach town, and they are echoed on the sandy strands that form Wells' eastern border. Winter storms sweep sand off the beaches, shortening the berm and exposing rocks, turning them into places sunbathers might not recognize. Shifting winds and waves begin pushing the sand back onto the beach about the time the first tourists return.
At least, that's the way it's supposed to work. In Wells, thanks in large part to what University of Maine marine geologist Joseph Kelley calls a "terrible" piece of sixties-era federal engineering, the sand piles up along a pair of rock jetties that bracket the mouth of the Webhannet River or else it is funneled between them into Wells Harbor, where a growing sandbar has been squeezing out moorings since 2000. That was the last time the harbor was dredged, its sand pumped onto the beaches.
Now the town says it's time to do it again, not only for the sake of the harbor and the beaches, but for the sake of Wells, whose economy is fueled by those assets. Supported by an environmental study that found the dredging did not harm wildlife habitat, Wells officials believe they will avoid the bitter debates that surrounded the 2000 project. And so a new cycle - dredge the harbor, replenish the beaches - seems destined to join the rhythms of life in Wells.
The ocean has drawn people to Wells for centuries, beginning with the Abenakis who called the area Webhannet, after the "clear stream" that winds from the town's forested interior and joins several other tributaries in the estuary behind Wells and Drakes Island beaches. English settlers arrived in the mid-1600s, making Wells one of Maine's oldest towns. The settlement was frequently raided during the King Phillip's and King William's wars, a period remembered in exhibits at the Historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit, a handsome 1862 meetinghouse that is easy to miss amid the fast-food joints and mini-golf courses on Route 1. There hangs a large oil painting of an Abenaki warrior carrying off screaming and kicking seven-year-old Esther Wheelwright. (The child was later released to a Quebec convent, where she stayed and eventually took her vows.) The violent climax came in 1692 when the town was nearly wiped out by four hundred French and Abenaki attackers, but the settlers prevailed.
In peacetime, Wells grew as a seafaring and farming community. Curiously, it never developed a downtown, at least not in the traditional sense. Ogunquit, which seceded from Wells in 1980, was the village to some, but it was geographically ill-suited to serve the entire town, which sprawls over sixty-two square miles. Instead, commerce stretched along Post Road - Route 1 - which runs parallel to the marshes, once valued for their salt hay, and the barrier beaches beyond, where fishermen repaired their boats.
Today Route 1 and the beaches define a roughly seven-mile long, two-mile wide vacation zone crammed with 2,000 motel and hotel rooms, 3,300 RV and campground spaces, and 2,000 seasonal homes. To travelers, this is "The Friendliest Town in Maine," a place whose spirit falls somewhere between the boutique-y Kennebunks and honky-tonk Old Orchard Beach. Heavily developed, it is nonetheless uniquely, some might say charmingly, Wells. Route 1 offers frequent glimpses of the marshes, now part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and even a few ocean vistas. It is the address for scores of seasonal businesses, but also grocery stores, schools, the public library, and the police and fire departments. The vast majority of commercial enterprises are one-of-a-kind and homegrown - places like Congdon's Doughnuts, Mike's Clam Shack, and, of course, the landmark Maine Diner, a travel guide favorite. National chains are few, in part due to an ordinance prohibiting big-box stores.
The welcome mat on Wells' beaches is a rarity in Maine, whose 3,478-mile shoreline, containing only thirty-five miles of sandy beach, is mostly in private hands. Wells has seven miles of sand from north to south: Laudholm Beach, Drakes Island, Wells, and Moody beaches. All of it is publicly accessible except one-mile Moody - the result of a landmark 1989 state Supreme Judicial Court decision limiting the scope of an historical public easement to the intertidal zone.
Most of Wells' 9,400 year-round residents live west of the Maine Turnpike and know a town that is essentially woodsy in nature (seven thousand acres are in conservation), but the tourists' Wells is their bread and butter. "More than 60 percent of the people in Wells either directly or indirectly gain their income from the beaches," says Bob Foley, a former selectman and founder of Save Our Shores, Maine, which advocates for beach preservation and the interests of coastal property owners. "Many of our kids start their careers in the restaurants or motels. East of Route 1 is 46 percent of Wells' tax base, and just along the beach is 26 percent. The townspeople understand that's a significant amount of revenue for Wells, so protecting the resource is important."
Last April a powerful nor'easter toppled hundreds of trees and utility poles all over southern Maine. Joe Forbes spent part of the storm on the second floor of his restaurant, watching the sea sweep heavy cement benches from atop the seawall into the Casino Square parking lot. "The waves were crashing so hard that the spray was going ten feet above the telephone poles," Forbes says. "I haven't seen my road get flooded that much since the Blizzard of '78. The water was two feet deep."
Over on Drakes Island, where Bob Foley lives, the storm pushed cobble, a beach substrate, against the seawall, creating a hill six feet high and thirty feet deep. Waves rolled over the rocks into yards. "We lost two feet of sand that weekend," Foley says. "It went out to sea." By summer, most of the sand was back, but the exposed rock was a measure of how seriously the beach has eroded. "Our sand layer is getting thinner and thinner," Foley says. "In the mid-nineties, cobble would come up two or three times every winter and we would have heavy equipment come in and move it back to low tide. The Patriot's Day storm was the first time we've seen cobble since sand was brought from the 2000 dredge."
The storm accelerated the relentless shoaling of Wells Harbor in the Webhannet River estuary. In his office there, Harbormaster Chick Falconer has drawn thick red Xs through twenty-two of the 150 squares representing moorings on a chart tacked to the wall. A sandbar that the town placed in conservation as a requirement of the dredge has been circled in red to show how much it has grown. "There's only eight inches of water there at a minus tide," Falconer says. "You can't put a boat in there unless it's a kayak. That's money. That's $13,000 to $14,000 this town has lost. The way the jetties are set up, the waves push the sand right in here."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the jetties at the river's mouth in the early 1960s to stabilize the inlet, which had been used as an anchorage for centuries but was inaccessible to vessels at low tide. The dredge's spoils were dumped on the adjacent marsh (the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge had not yet been established), providing the foundation for Harbor Park, the closest thing Wells has to a town common. But the jetties - one at the southern end of Drakes Island, the other at the northern end of Wells Beach - created serious new problems. They interfered with the natural movements of sand in and out of the inlet, and they prevented waves from returning sand to the beaches, according to Joseph Kelley, the marine geologist.
Kelley has written extensively about the failures of engineered responses to natural erosion and, as the state's marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey for nearly two decades, he helped draft Maine's strict coastal development regulations. In a paper co-authored with his UMaine colleague Walter Anderson, Kelley called Wells' history "disturbingly similar to Camp Ellis (in Saco) at an earlier stage." At Camp Ellis, a pair of 141-year-old jetties has resulted in beach erosion that has claimed many houses and roads, including several during April's nor'easter. Wells, however, has not lost any buildings since 1978, when a Laudholm Farm teahouse was swallowed by the sea. But with sea levels rising by about a foot per century, some worry it is only a matter of time. "The Patriot's Day storm really scared people," says Assistant Road Commissioner Edgar Moore. "It took out some seawalls. We were very lucky we didn't lose some houses. We were very lucky we didn't lose more road than we did. The dunes took a beating. There is one place where I've fixed the dunes five times in the last nineteen years. A bad storm will eat into it wicked. Every inch of sand I find in a place it's not supposed to be, I ship it over there. I'm playing God with Mother Nature, I guess, but Mother Nature's the boss. There's no getting around it."
Wells is now proposing that the Army Corps of Engineers step in and do what nature can't - move about 130,000 cubic yards of sand out of the harbor and onto the beaches - just as it did in 2000, only this time the town wants a ten-year permit to allow periodic maintenance dredges. Little opposition is expected, unlike last time when federal, state, and private environmental organizations feared a dredge would damage the marsh. After more than a decade of tense, often ugly, negotiations, Wells ultimately won approval for that project by giving the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service a conservation easement on a sandbar - that's the one circled in red marker on Falconer's chart - and agreeing to fund a six-year monitoring of the marsh. That data was reviewed by a team of scientists, including Joseph Kelley, earlier this year. "We didn't see any significant erosion," Kelley says. "Nothing changed that we didn't see before. I expect that if they propose to dredge now just as they did last time, there will be no issue at all."
As for "nourishing" beaches with dredged spoils - technically a side benefit, not the focus, of the Wells proposal - Kelley says, "It's better than a rock wall [for slowing erosion]. As a national program, I have problems with it. Here, it is probably an intelligent thing to do, even though it is very expensive and benefits a very few number of private property owners."
Dredge advocates are pleased to have Kelley's approval, but they believe beach nourishment has wider benefits than he allows. "It's good for the wildlife - the piping plovers and the least terns. It creates a healthy beach," says Katy Kelly, Save Our Shores, Maine, president and general manager for Lafayette's Oceanfront Resort, which has properties on Wells Beach. "The economy of this town revolves around the beaches. Honestly, the economy of the state revolves around southern Maine's beaches to a very large degree. There's a reason they call it the Gold Coast."
Beach nourishment is a key element of a proposed state beach management policy aimed at reducing erosion, enhancing habitat, improving public access, and protecting existing commercial and residential development. Kelly and Foley served with some of their former dredging foes on the task force that drafted the proposal for the state Department of Environmental Protection last year. Save Our Shores, Maine, also has worked with Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to develop a highly successful program to protect piping plover habitat, one that engages beach property owners. "One of the best things SOS has accomplished since 2000 is we've opened up dialogue between property owners and state regulators," Foley says. "There was always this distrust because we didn't know each other. You had the state agencies who were charged with managing these resources and doing it in a way that benefits the entire state, and you had the coastal property owners who have a legitimate interest in the properties and are probably the best stewards. We now have a very good relationship, such that I get calls from people at the state level wanting to bounce around ideas. We realize we can rely on each other. After the Patriot's Day storm, we had all the necessary okays to move the cobble off Drakes Island Beach within four or five days."
Foley readily acknowledges that beach nourishment is a Band-Aid approach to the man-made dysfunctional relationship between Wells' harbor and beaches, one that will have to be repeated again and again. Yet a permanent solution is elusive. The most obvious one - removing the jetties and allowing the harbor to return to the tidal inlet it once was - would be costly and controversial. "That's a real tough debate," Foley says. "The harbor is an important resource for all of southern Maine. It is the only public launch facility between Kittery and Biddeford. But clearly it's not as important as the beaches. The sad part of it is, if we knew back in the fifties, when all this was being debated, the long-term effects of the jetties, I don't think we could have gone forward. But hindsight is a perfect science. Man caused the problem. Man needs to find a solution. Will it ever come back to the way it was? No. Can we get it to a more self-sustaining system? I believe we can. It's going to take some dollars. It's going to take a united effort, but I believe we can do it."
For now, though, Wells' shorefront property owners, boaters, and marina operators are keeping their fingers crossed that a dredge is coming soon. "We're at least two years away," says Chick Falconer, who predicts additional moorings will be lost in the meantime. "Those winter storms kill us. They move that sand around something fierce. It's this thing that goes on and on."