The coastal landscape changes at this time of year — not just the colors of the leaves and salt marsh grasses, but the structures that are along the waterfront as well. Rather than the array of docks and floats, there are now just lonely piers jutting out into the air that are no longer connected to the water. They look more like diving platforms than docks, though the rocks below make them better suited for the lit-up Christmas trees that will adorn some in the coming holiday season.

Aside from the abruptness of these pier structures, they are also all remarkably similar: a fixed platform with rails on both sides and posts going down into the rocks or mud beneath. Their similarities end, however, at their ends. The ramps and floats that comprise the other parts of the operation come in infinite variations. These key components that make them functional are now laying in fields on the shore where they are safe from winter storms and ice. They have to be taken out, along with boats and moorings, so that they aren’t damaged by these elements.

During the season that they are in the water, however, they also have to be quite adaptable to the elements. While on a lake or a river where the water level stays somewhat constant, a dock can be a simple one-piece structure, on Maine’s coast with its tides rising and falling somewhere between 8 and 10 feet on average two times a day, things get more complicated. You have to have parts of the whole package that move in response to these changes. When I first came to Maine for college, I remember asking the embarrassing question, “Why is the ramp so flat today?” when going out on a marine biology field trip. We didn’t have tides on the Mississippi River where I grew up. Major flooding at times, but not tides.

What impresses me is how well these systems are designed to respond to tidal changes. The pier portion of the setup can be fixed, while the ramp has a roller of some kind at the bottom to move back and forth on the float. And the float goes up and down with the water. That means that the two lower components are nearly constantly in motion as they adjust to the water level. Within this basic design, there can be different materials like metal versus wood; different lengths and sizes of the ramp and float, and different textures of the surface. That doesn’t even get at things like racks, ladders and cleats that are particular to each one.

As with all structures along the coast, there are many rules and regulations that govern where a pier or a dock can be built and how it is built. These take into account impacts on habitat including where the pilings might directly go into the ground and also what is underneath the structure. They also consider how it will affect the flow of water and what is living beneath the water. There are countless factors taken into account by multiple agencies and authorities to make sure that things are done correctly to minimize impacts along the shoreline. The Department of Environmental Protection, Army Corps of Engineers, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and town authorities may have input depending on the design and location.

Putting a new structure in is complicated, but for a good reason: to ensure the continued health of the coastal ecosystem. For now, these lonely platforms are a reminder of a season that has passed, but also an example of adaptability to our ever-changing marine environment.

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