Brian Murray, manager of Popham Beach State Park for the past 12 years, faces an unusual task this summer.

He will try to be scientific about an unstable, ever-shifting, totally unpredictable situation-that is, how much space for visitors will be available during high tides at Popham in June, July, August and September.

Murray needs to determine this a month ahead of time so he can inform the public of days when high tides between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. will force him to limit the number of visitors allowed on the beach. Restrictions will apply 1 ½ hours before and after the high tide occurs.

On those days, since water will come in all the way up to the dunes in many sections of the beach, there will be no option for beachgoers to move their paraphernalia to higher ground.

“It’s an unprecedented situation,” Murray says, adding that when he’s talked with managers of southern beaches, their reaction has been “You have to do what?” “They can’t imagine the effects of nine-foot tides,” he says.

 Murray is faced with this new challenge because the Morse River went on a rampage this winter. For more than 10 years, it has taken a course parallel to the western end of Popham, exiting at Fox Island.

This winter, it began to move further and further inland.

The river gobbled beach sand and dunes, snatched some picnic tables and toppled a large section of the rare 100-year-old pitch pine forest that borders the western beach. It moved to within 75 feet of a brand new beach house that was built 250 feet from the original shoreline.

Park officials watched the destruction with dismay.

Some Popham property owners called for intervention, but officials were severely limited by federal and state regulations as to what they could do. They did use the fallen pitch pines to construct a tree wall that helped divert the encroachment to the eastern part of the beach.

State conservation department officials knew this river rampage was part of a natural cycle which had in the past repeated every 15 years or so. They waited anxiously, encouraged by signs that, in some places, the river was filling in. This could force it to return to its alternate course, breaching Seawall Beach at the western end of the park.

In late February and early March, it finally happened. The Morse River cut a channel across the sand spit that connects Seawall Beach with Popham and began to flow out to sea there. According to State Marine Geologist Steve Dickson, the channel was six to eight feet deep by March 6.

Dickson says he believes it will take about two years for the eroded beach and dunes to rebuild. Until then, Murray will have to figure out how to determine the number of people that can be safely accommodated on the beach at certain high tides and how to manage the restrictions.

Murray is still not certain exactly what formula he will use. He plans to display large monthly calendars with “red letter days” at the park toll booth and create a handout. The calendar will be posted on the Popham Beach web site.

His task is made more difficult because the beach will continue to shift during spring storms, and then, will follow a natural cycle of rebuilding as summer approaches. He has no way to predict how much will be lost or gained and in what locations.

Last summer, from June through September, Murray settled on using nine-foot and greater tides, which occurred around the full moon, as the gauge for when beach space had to be rationed. This summer, with even less high tide beach space available, he may have to consider limitations on days when eight-foot or even seven-foot high tides occur between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

He says that because the type of visitor is a factor in the equation, it is difficult to formulate the precise number of people who will be able to use the beach, even when the time is at hand and he knows exactly how much space will be available. On a good summer day, about 3,000 people come to the beach.

School and camp groups use more space than individuals, he notes, because they like to spread out to play volleyball, football or Frisbee. “Fortunately, they usually let us know ahead of time when they are coming, and I do try to limit them to weekdays,” he says.

To plan the calendar, he will sit down with aerial maps of the park, see how much beach is available, factor in the tide height and time of day, and come up with the “red letter days.” On the those days, he will be in constant communication with staff on the beach while he oversees incoming traffic, and will adjust the number of people who can enter as beach space becomes available.

 The good news, Murray says, is that there is absolutely no problem at low tide. “With the river’s new course, we have a huge beach at low tide,” he says. But, he adds, beachgoers will no longer be able to enjoy the long, warm “river rides” when they floated either in or out with the tides on the river’s long run to the sea. Because the new course is shorter, water will be much colder, but to make up for that, there will be large warm tidal pools in the area where it formerly ran.

Changes will continue at Popham, Murray cautions, with dunes rebuilding in one place, further erosion occurring on the Eastern beach, with broader, deeper inlets cutting across into the dune area making it difficult for people wearing shoes to walk the entire beach. 

Last summer, when Murray had to turn people away on days when there was extreme high tides, and he says they were understandably annoyed, and, in some cases, rude about their disappointment. ‘”Whaddayamean?’ they’d say when they saw empty spaces in the parking lot,” he says. “Then we’d get calls saying ‘That guy is wrong. You should fire him.”‘

Murray hopes getting the word out a month ahead of time will alleviate some of the inconvenience, and that beachgoers will be flexible and understanding.

For further information and maps of Popham Beach, see: