It may or may not be an urban myth that the Eskimos have a huge number of words for snow. After a week walking the sands of the Dyfi estuary in mid Wales, I am sure that the Welsh should have at least as many words for sand. Fine sand, medium sand, coarse sand – this doesn’t do justice to the wide expanses of the stuff that fill this beautiful estuary. We stood on the dunes at the estuary entrance on Day 1, looked across the flats towards the far distant head and gulped at the prospect of visiting tens of grid points between here and there over the next few days.
There were small ripples that were hard underfoot, soft underfoot, dry, wet. Mega-ripples where we went up one side, down the other, splash through the pool, up and down the next, through the next pool for what seemed like thousands of metres. Soft sand that was like walking through snow; we would sink to our calves on every step and kick more up in front. Sand that liquefied if you stayed still for more than a moment. Scary quicksands where one step was enough to force a change of route. Hard compacted sand used as a carpark. Sand for lounging or for playing ball. Sand that masqueraded as mud and mud that might have been sand but sucked the wellies off instead. Sand full of bivalves making star patterns on the surface and sand with nothing more than an amphipod or two. Slippy, slidy sand, shingle and sand, seaweed and sand, sand stained green by minute algae. Sand that went through the sieve in moments and sand that was hiding a deeper layer of clay which refused the sieve.
We kept our noses to the GPS to find the shortest route but there have been enormous changes in the sinuous path of the river in the 8 or 10 years since the last survey. We would stride out confidently across the flats to find ourselves having to double back to avoid a channel; to achieve 250m we might have to walk 1000m and many of our potential sample stations turned out to be underwater. We slithered up and down the banks of saltmarsh creeks, watched out for those potentially leg-breaking holes in the marshes, climbed stiles and fences, waded through channels hoping the wellies were long enough. We detoured round flocks of Canada geese, saw the steam train heading for Machynlleth and explained to those on holiday why we were peering at a sievefull of sand. And the weather was kind, very kind, almost summery in fact which was most definitely A Good Thing as we doubted we would have coped in the rain and wind.
As it was, we did cope, walked for miles, sampled our target of 90 stations and a few rocky shores and enjoyed the privilege of being out on this beautiful estuary.