A crescent of sand edging a body of water can be fertile ground for rumination, a place of ease in which you can take a good, clear look. Tide changes and shore breakers and gliding boat hulls free land-locked thoughts, or at least they do for me. But the beach also has become an area where you truly have to watch your step for what floats in.

For years I'd wanted to go to Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis. But summer after summer piled up without a visit--I knew it was nearby, I missed the beach and still I did not go. As yet another September began flipping past, I made a point to get out there on a recent afternoon.

It was an impulse shared by Vicki Stairn, who had gathered her parents and her daughter, 3-year-old Caitlynn ("It's the Welsh spelling," Vicki said), for the 45-minute drive from Arbutus, Md., to the state park that sits on the Chesapeake just above the Bay Bridge. Stairn, a Baltimore native and a Navy veteran, has gone to the beach hundreds of times in the 16 years she has lived on Long Island with her husband, Robert. They're trying to buy a house there, and until they find one, Vicki and her daughter are staying with her parents, William and Margaret Gregory.

One of the things Vicki and Caitlynn enjoy most is wandering the shore looking for shells. After asking around, Vicki came upon the state park.

Her daughter "misses going" to the beach, Vicki said of their temporary relocation. "There's really no day-trip beach [from her parents' home], until I found Sandy Point."

They'd been settled in at the swimming area--the splash of waves mixing with the hum of traffic curving over the bay--for 10 minutes or so before Vicki and Caitlynn went looking for shells. On their first visit to the park, Sept. 9, Caitlynn ("She's got eyes like a hawk," Vicki said) reached down and grabbed a discarded pen. On this day, Caitlynn reached down and lifted a capped syringe off the sand.

Vicki took the syringe from her and laid it by a blanket. She could not find a trash can to put it in. It was late in the season and the tall lookout chairs had been set down flat against the sand. A "No Lifeguard on Duty, Swim at Your Own Risk" sign had been attached to the perpendicular chair seats. Eventually, Stairn put the syringe on the arm of a lifeguard chair, which is where it rested until a park ranger, wearing protective gloves, disposed of it.

The needle "looked like it had just come [ashore] in just the last couple hours," Stairn said. "I felt uncomfortable. I was concerned that my daughter found it. We came to a Maryland beach and she got quite an education going up and down the shoreline."

It was incongruous. I'd walked along that stretch of beach, which had lured anglers and sun-seekers and photographers, including one who had positioned two miniature Ionic columns near the waterline. On top sat the plaster busts of Apollo and Aphrodite--the goddess who took shape from water's foam.

Sandy Point's beauty drew together beaches I had not seen in years--Old Orchard and Crane's in New England and a pebbly stretch in what used to be Yugoslavia. In the near distance, cabin cruisers and a tanker slid past Kent Island and moved under the Bay Bridge. The wind kicked up a little. I'd arrived at the swimming area ready for a head-first plunge. That is, until Vicki Stairn held out her beachcombing daughter's find.

If you go to the shore, you have to accept the unlikely but specific risk of stepping on or swimming into a needle that floated in or was left behind. The beach is an essential place for the Stairns, and Vicki said she will revisit Sandy Point with her family. But they'll all be wearing protective sand shoes and Caitlynn won't be allowed to wander.

Stairn has had firsthand experience with potentially dangerous materials. Two years ago, Caitlynn dug out a needle covered by sand in a playground in East Northport, N.Y. That one was uncapped. She took it from her daughter and threw it into a garbage can, which is something she could not find at Sandy Point State Park.

"You've got to keep your eyes open and protect your kids as best you can," Stairn said with resignation. "She's the only one I have. . . . [The beach] is something that she loves. I would be more cautious . . . especially at that beach."

Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at mullenj@washpost.com.


From the Capital Beltway, take Route 50 east and turn at Exit 32, just before the Bay Bridge. Go left and cross over Route 50. The entrance to the park, which is open year-round, is on the right.

The park's beaches are monitored by lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You swim at your own risk thereafter. Fall fees: $3 on weekends, $1 per car during the week through October. From November to April, the fee is $1 per car at all times. Except for special festivals, Maryland state parks do not supply trash cans.