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Whether walking a secluded crescent of a fine gravel beach or a sandy stretch that seems to go on forever, you're just a step away from found treasure.

I remember walking with my father down a snaking dirt road that led to our small community's "back shore" in southwestern Nova Scotia. The road split around a large field that had wild strawberries in June and blueberries in July. Edged along the road rested boulders big enough to lean against if the Atlantic wind came up and stole your breath.

Loosely referred to as a beach, the back shore was really a long stretch of bedrock and boulder, with limbs of driftwood scattered here and there and trailing fingers of seaweed clutching stones. It was a place of mystique-treasure could be just a step away, maybe a pretty stone or shell. But most often, treasure came in the form of humble sea glass.

I imagined the white pieces were unfinished diamonds, the green ones were emeralds. Being the imaginative sort, I created a world of brave pirates and swooning ladies on ships that had to dump their treasures to save themselves from sinking.

As an adult, I'm still intrigued by mermaid's tears, as they're sometimes called. Folklore has it that mermaids yearn for company below the water and lure men to join them-for eternity. One mermaid so loved a ship's captain that she didn't want to see him end his days in the sea. When the captain lost his footing aboard the ship during a storm and fell overboard, rather than call him to her the mermaid calmed the sea to save him. This was a tragic mistake for her: although mermaids have all the powers of the sea within their grasp they are forbidden by Neptune to use them to interfere in human affairs. As punishment, she was banned to the bottom of the ocean, never again to swim to the surface-or see her beloved captain. Her tears are said to come to us as beautiful pieces of glass in stunning, crystallized colours.

It's a romantic tale, poignant and resonant to a people whose lives are intertwined with the sea. We seek out these bits of glass and turn them in our hands, feeling their texture and weight, imagining their histories.

Ginny Boudreau, a poet and teacher from Yarmouth, NS, has spent many a lazy summer afternoon beachcombing for glass with her two children, Aislin and Alex. "We started beachcombing when the kids were about three and five," she says. "Once, Aislin found a piece of green glass worn smooth, and she called it her special rock. When I explained what it was, Alex got really interested and we just started looking [for glass] on our regular trips to the beach."

Ginny's eye is always trained for the next gem. "It became a real obsession for awhile and it was always a special celebration when we found a piece of blue glass, which seemed especially rare."

She has used their collection to create a striped lamp base of blue, green and white, and to adorn picture frames and mirrors. Old bottles sit on the windowsill of her cottage as reminders of days spent together at the beach. "It seems to be the ultimate form of recycling," she says. "What was once discarded as garbage has been turned into something unique and jewel-like by nature."

Besides the notions of romance and recycling, the untold tale of each piece may also be what tempts collectors. What bottles did each piece come from? Surely the brown bits came from beer bottles, perhaps dropped during a party on one of the Tusket Islands or from Isle aux Morts, NL, whose perilous offshore waters have taken their fair share of ships.

It's easy to think the shards come from somewhere near, but in fact the tide has a way of shifting reality-of moving things far away relatively quickly or burying them close at hand for decades. Some of the glass can be hundreds of years old, and finding a rare colour can be as exciting for some as discovering remnants of an ancient city. So exciting, in fact, that sea glass is sometimes fabricated-everyday glass is dropped into a rock tumbler to get a weathered look.

A piece of red the size of a quarter recently sold on EBay for $60 US. The inherent allure that commands such a price has many combing beaches for that elusive glint; once the glass is scrounged and rescued from its nest of sand or where it lies snuggled next to a piece of driftwood, we display it in shadow boxes, light it from behind and cushion it on velvet. We pile pieces in clear bottles or vases, use them in mosaics and picture frames. We wrap wire around them to create suncatchers and jewelry.

Rae Morrison, a Newfoundlander now living in Cape Breton, is one of those folks who uses sea glass for creative endeavours-the cottage industry that helps put her through university, and feeds her artistic spirit. "Glass may look the same colour in the sand," she says, "but once you wash it off and hold it up to the light there are so many different shades to work with."

Rae beachcombs at many locations, but her favourite is Indian Beach. The long strip of sand is fairly flat, with low waves and a view of the ferries coming and going from North Sydney to Port Aux Basques, NL. In summer, bands play at a nearby park, and strains of music lilt across the breeze as Rae picks her way along the sand. "While the glass there tends to be medium to small in size, it is very finished, maybe because of the churning caused by the ferries," she says.

It sounds idyllic, as do walks on many Atlantic beaches. Prince Edward Island-with its abundant red-sand beaches and fiercely blue heavens-makes an especially beautiful spot for beachcombing. And perhaps that's the allure of sea glass for many collectors: the tranquil thrill of the chase. "I probably enjoy looking for the glass as much as I enjoy making jewelry out of it," Rae says. "Being there, hearing the ocean, tasting the salt air… it has a calming effect on me. No matter whatever else is happening around me, for those few hours it all just disappears."

Sea glass at Cap Lumière, NB

There are hardly any clouds to interfere with the late summer sun as our vacation in New Brunswick nears its conclusion. It's hot, but not agonizingly so. A slight breeze provides the hint of a season at its end. We load up the truck, striking out for the beach and eager to explore.

We pass through Richibucto Village, browse lazily at an antique shop just outside of town, make a purchase and continue on our way. The air turns slightly cooler as we approach the ocean. We know we're close, but can't locate our destination. We look all around until a small sign indicates the possibility of a beach.

The road more closely resembles a farmer's field-grass worn with tire tracks. We stop to ask the only people we see and get a friendly response. We follow their directions.

The path ends at a makeshift parking lot that's equally obscure. It's a patch of grass roped off, and one other vehicle claims occupancy.

"Judging by all the people here no one'll care if I drink a few beers on the beach," I say.

Sylvie and the dog, Gage, take off, leaving me to unpack the truck.

A cooler. Folding chairs. Towels. Food. The backpack. Trudging through the sand, I see signs of life ahead of me: four older women, presumably from the other car in the parking lot, gather themselves before heading out along the beach.

They cackle and tee hee, and I can imagine the nature of their conversation even if I'm not close enough to hear. Each one has a bucket, whether for picking something up or dropping it off, I'm not sure. I've no doubt they're here for a good time; convinced they have their own contraband.

"Good on ya," I say, and I nod as I pass them, standing and talking. I arbitrarily choose a spot on the beach, and Sylvie and Gage walk back as the ladies pass by. Hearing their French, Sylvie, ever the ambassador, greets them. The ladies approach. I pick a few words out of their animated conversation but don't understand until Sylvie translates.

"They're picking sea glass," Sylvie says. Hearing English, the ladies convert for my benefit.

"At the lighthouse in Richibucto Village, she'll pay by the pound."

"The pound!" we reply.

The ladies nod their heads.

"She's just up the road. She makes jewelry and stuff out of it. It's beautiful."

Giggling like schoolgirls, the four leave. We see them stooping here and there, filling their buckets.

Sylvie is inspired-she trods off and when she returns, her pockets are filled with sea glass, white, green and brown being the most common colours. She has the occasional porcelain, the odd blue, a red. Smoothed and polished. If they're too jagged they're cast back to the sea for more seasoning.

"OK, but what're you gonna do with 'em now?"

Ideas are volleyed back and forth. The afternoon passes and we start to pack up. Trekking back to the truck, Sylvie is philosophical. "Where does it come from?"

"What, the sea glass? The ocean," I say. Sylvie responds with a sigh.

"I don't know, beer bottles maybe?"

"But when? How long ago? How did it get there? And how long has it been in the ocean?"

"Let's see…." I take the pieces from her hands and look them over, noting the textures, colours and shapes. I, too, am caught up in their mystery.

The stories flow. Our imaginations create a history for each that is somehow as crucial as the facts. Only now, enraptured as we are in the dialogue we are creating, do we notice others walking along the water's edge.

Solitary searchers; a couple with a bucket between them, pausing to stoop and gather. No beachgoers eager to worship the sun; the people on this beautiful secluded beach are sea-glass pickers, scouring along the sand.

The contact of the glass is magic: somehow the questions don't arise until a piece is in your hands, bringing you wonder at the mysteries it holds. No possibility can be proved or discounted-the only boundaries for truth are the ones created by your imagination.

A trip to the beach will never be the same!
~Jason Hamilton

How to determine the pedigree of your prized pieces

From the most common brown to the rarest red, each piece of glass holds a bit of mystery. In a raw state, glass tends to have a greenish hue. Historically, as folks wanted a more clear or a coloured glass, makers used chemicals to either decolourize it, or to change the colour. Genuine sea glass has a crystallized appearance that's uneven; if light is passed through it just right, it shines. Fabricated sea glass has a uniformly frosted look that comes from being tumbled or being placed in an acid bath. Here are guidelines to size up your sea glass.

Brown: This was a common colour for glass in the 1800s, but it's also a common colour today-which means it's not as valuable as some of the more rare colours like red or orange. If it's aged to amber and fairly weathered and worn down, there's a good chance it used to be a Clorox bleach bottle (the company had switched to plastic as of 1962). Contemporary bottled beer is most often the source, though, especially if the hue is dark.

Clear: Old cola bottles are the most common source if it's old glass, but today, so many items are made with clear glass that it's hard to discover the true nature of this mermaid's tear. A general guideline is that if it has bubbles, extreme wear and weathering, it is hand-blown and predates the age of moulds-about 1900 on; if it's very clear, has some wear and is angular, it's probably from window glass.

Amber: Usually this yellowish-brown shard comes from old medicine bottles, but it could also come from broken amber Depression Glass-available in pink, cobalt blue and green from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

Purple or Lavender: Sometimes clear glass, after exposure to sun, changes to reveal this shade because the manganese from Germany used to decolourize iron oxide became unavailable during the First World War. A substitute had to be used during this period; over time, this replacement turned purple.

Dark Blue: Noxzema, invented in 1914 by George Bunting, first came in blue glass jars and bottles, as did Phillips' Milk of Magnesia and Vick's VapoRub, all companies that have switched to plastic containers.

Red: Called Riptide Rubies by some, these are one of the rarest colours to find-gold or copper was used in the glass to give it the ruby shade. Sources of these shards may be stained glass windows, boat lights, buoys or beer bottles-the 1950s Schlitz beer bottle made by Anchor Hocking was red.

Yellow: Another rare find because of the selenium, silver and uranium dioxide used to turn the glass this shade.

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