In Maryland along the Chesapeake there are several towns with beaches that are off-limits to the public. I thought there was something called the Public Trust Doctrine that ensures our coasts are available to everyone. What is the law in Maryland? Do these towns have the right to keep the public off their beaches?

Frank Sheehan, Washington

Answer Man is going to be honest. He likes easy, noncontroversial questions. Black-and-white issues. Open-and-shut cases. Is that so wrong? His world is complex enough without having to open veritable cans of worms.

Of course, he knows that readers turn to him precisely because he is unafraid of tackling thorny issues. But the problem with thorny issues is the thorns.

And so it is with the innocuous-sounding matter of "beach access." This issue gets people in a dither, not to mention a tizzy. It is rumored there have even been hissy fits.

The law is actually pretty clear. What the Public Trust Doctrine says, and has said since before this country was a country, is that the water -- the sea, the bay, the river -- must be available for public use. So, too, the shores of the sea, the bay, the river.

As for what that shore actually is, that's where it starts to get complicated.

The law varies from state to state. In most states, the public is entitled access to the shore from the water up to the "mean high water line." That's the average place to which the water extends. When there's a high tide, there's no place for the public to walk -- at least no dry place. But when the tide goes out, it may reveal a swath of beach that members of the public may fish from (if they have the proper license), walk on, sun on, practice goofy tai chi moves on, etc.

The reader is wrong in suggesting that "towns" on the Chesapeake have "private" beaches. Rather, it's a few housing developments. And they don't have private beaches. They have private property that abuts the water. Outsiders may not stride across private property to get to that water. It'd be sort of like walking through your back yard to get to an alley.

And even if the public rappelled from a helicopter to the beach, or zipped up in a Zodiac inflatable boat, there probably wouldn't be much there to play with. Maryland is a mean high water line state, but the Chesapeake and its tributaries aren't affected much by tides.

That doesn't stop people from descending on beaches or pleasant patches of grass near the bay on which they unfurl a towel and stake their claim. It's a battle property owners and homeowners associations are constantly fighting.

Part of the problem is that there are relatively few public places on the bay. Only 2 percent of the 12,000 miles that make up the shoreline of the bay and its tributaries is publicly owned and accessible, said the Chesapeake Bay Program's Christopher Conner. (That's from the land side; it's all accessible from the water side, remember, but only up to the high water line.)

His outfit hopes to expand that number by about 30 percent by 2010.

"Let's get people out there and experience the Chesapeake," said Chris. "Once they do, they're going to want to have it for their kids."

This issue was recently addressed in "Doonesbury." Zonker jetted out to California to celebrate a beach-access victory over mogul David Geffen. That drawn-out case involved the mansion-lined beach at Malibu. Up to the mean high water line, those beaches are open to the public. Geffen would not open a gate and path on his property that led to the beach. He eventually capitulated.

Virginia is different from Maryland in one respect. In its inland waters -- the Chesapeake, Cape Henry, Cape Charles -- it's a low mean water line state, not high. Its ocean beaches are high water line.

We'll let Virginia's secretary of natural resources, Tayloe Murphy, have the last word: "There's a lot of misunderstanding. The public generally regards beaches as public, which they really are not."

Some Enchanted Forest

Late last month, in an item about the storybook-themed Enchanted Forest near Ellicott City, Answer Man said the park had no rides. Several readers pointed out that while it might not have had rides on the scale of Disneyland's, there were more attractions than just a fiberglass Goldilocks.

"While there were no roller coasters or Ferris wheels at the Enchanted Forest, I do remember there was a track that had small powered cars that kids could drive," wrote Don Higgins of Herndon. "Thinking back, I can't remember clearly if the cars were gasoline powered or battery powered. I am leaning toward gasoline powered. At any rate the cars were not very fast. They sort of putted along. I remember the track was lined with wooden railings on both sides to keep the cars from escaping."

Ken Folse of Oxon Hill remembers the car, too. "I seem to remember a train ride as well," he wrote.

Rita Phelps said she used to enjoy "bobbing around the park in the Mother Goose ride when I was in grade school and then again when my children were small."

Oh, to bob around in a Mother Goose ride once again. . . .

Julia Feldmeier helped research this column. Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your name and the town you live in.