Winter Beach Walks

Winter is the time of year when my wife and I take back Cape Cod, the only time of year when we can visit the corners of the peninsula that are over-run in the summer months. Traffic is sparse, parking is abundant, and the parking lots at the various town beaches aren’t closed to all but the town’s residents. Spring and fall may find me on the ocean beaches surfcasting for striped bass, but that takes place in the dark, on beaches deserted by everyone but the skunks and foxes rooting in the spindrift for dead fish, and the occasional fellow surf fishermen standing stolidly in the wash, waiting for a tug on the other end of their line. Winter is for beach walking.

The beneficial effects of a stroll on the ocean beach are well known, and have been described as far back as the 1850s by Cape Cod’s first literary tourist, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Cape Cod:

“The white breakers were rushing to the shore; the foam ran up the sand, and then ran back as far as we could see (and we imagined how much farther along the Atlantic coast, before and behind us), as regularly, to compare great things with small, as the master of a choir beats time with his white wand; and ever and anon a higher wave caused us hastily to deviate from our path, and we looked back on our tracks filled with water and foam. The breakers looked like droves of a thousand wild horses of Neptune,
rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when, at length, the sun shone for a moment, their manes were rainbow-tinted. Also, the long kelp-weed was tossed up from time to time, like the tails of sea-cows
sporting in the brine. ”

Thoreau’s beach is just as he left it, but at the same time it is completely changed. The dynamics of littoral drift, storm driven waves, erosion, and the absence of any man-made impediments like groins, jetties or seawalls means the outer Cape is a single uninterrupted strand from the southern tip of Monomoy Island (Malabar, to the first explorers) to Race Point, 40 miles north, in Provincetown. Thanks to the protection of the Cape’s forearm by the massive eminent domain creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore during the Kennedy administration, the outer Cape is essentially frozen in terms of development, with no foolish condos or towers daring the Atlantic to wash them away. This is a place of great endings and beginnings. This is the first place in America to see the new day, but also the end of the road. It’s a wild shore, unfriendly and treacherous, and it has its moods – from clement coconut oil scented afternoons in July to terrifying nighttime fogs filled with apparitions, imagined monsters, and auditory hallucinations than can send a spooked surfcaster like me running for his car.

Beach walking exemplifies the verb “to trudge” and the art is finding that exact latitude of berm where the going is firm and movement isn’t wasted sinking into soft sand. The footing of a winter beach walking, especially on bitterly cold days, can be relieved by a band of frozen sand, but for the most part the firm going can be found either at the edge of the wash (where wet footware is always a risk) to the driest reaches above the high tide line near the base of the bluffs and dunes. The beach is not a place for speed walking, a Harry Trumanish pace of 120 paces per minute. It can aggravate and build some sour psychic resentment as the walker bogs down and mires, perpetually slanted by the angle of the sand and shingle and that makes one wish for a shorter leg on the “up-beach” side, or a longer limb towards the sea. Walking backwards from time to time will even out the discrepancy.

Beachcombing is part of the art of the beachwalk, and provides some diversion from the monotony of the trudging. With the wind in one’s face, stolid trudging follows, a head down posture that makes one feel a little abject and pentinent. Walk on the right strip of sand and keep an eye open for nests of monofilament, and sometimes a fishing lure can be unearthed. I see old men with treasure finders sweeping the sand for change or lost jewelry, but they never seem to shout “Eureka!” For me, filling an empty garbage bag is reward in itself, and I can annoy my wife to no end as I roam in the beachgrass looking for plastic water bottles, Mylar birthday balloons, and shreds of commercial fishing flotsam. Grim must have been the findings in the days when shipwrecks cast unidentifiable bodies onto the sand. The graveyards of the Outer Cape bear anonymous testimony on headstones for “Infant – Girl” and “Sailor – Unknown.” Legend has it that body parts washed ashore during the torpedoing of World War II; femurs and such poked up out of the dunes.

A shipwreck will occasionally surface from the sands, lazarus-like, and draw a crowd as one did last winter at Cahoon’s Hollow in Wellfleet. I tried to visit the ribs, but so did about 400 other rubbernecking victims of winter cabin fever. The British revolutionary warship, the Somerset, has been known to emerge from the sands of Race Point, and the wreck count, on the Peaked Hill Bars is huge – this beach being the place where the Lifesaving Service was formed in the 19th century which lead to the formation of the modern US Coast Guard. Those early surfmen – with last names like Snow, Cahoon, and Mayo – were the consummate beach walkers – patrolling the sands every night with an eye to the outer bars for a ship unlucky enough to ground on the lee shore. Thoreau writes of meeting “wreckers,” the legendary mooncussers who salvaged wrecks for their cargoes and timbers, eking out a marginal life on the margins of the country in the 1850s, the days before the railroad joined the remotest ends of the Cape with the rest of the state.

While I am not a birdwatcher, but the winter duck population is amazing and I understand, from my reading, that the Outer Cape is one of the best places in the world to observe warblers, sea birds, and the occasional “erratic” blown off course from Europe and the Arctic. Winter walks are also good for dogs – as there aren’t any nesting birds in the grass who would be badly disturbed – as long as I remember to bring some plastic bags so I can get really up close and personal with their contributions to the shifting sands and leave nothing behind but footprints (dog poo contributes to nitrogen loading in estuaries and is a bad thing aside from being unneighborly).

Here’s a reading list for the inveterate Cape Cod beach walker. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

  • The House on Nauset Marsh, I discovered this collection of essays written in the 40s and 50s by Harvard Medical School professor Wyman Richardson and ordered a used copy. The essays were originally published in the Atlantic Monthly and are a great series of glimpses into life in Eastham during the 1930s through the 50s in an old farm house near the present day site of the Nzational Seashore headquarters. Richardson was a duck hunter, bass fisherman, crabber and clammer. So his point of view is a lot like my hunter-gatherer ethos. He also knows his birds, weather, and natural hstory. Reprinted in the 90s by one of my favorite publishers, Countryman in Woodstock, VT.
  • The Outermost House, Harvard graduate Henry Beston, wrote a beloved account of a year living in a dune shack on Coast Guard Beach, the north spit that protects Nauset Marsh. That shack and his account of life on the booming shore is a beloved Cape Cod classic but the shack washed away in the Blizzard of ’78
  • Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau. The great Transcendalist wrote the classic work of Cape walks, and while not as spiritual as Walden, it is widely regarded as one of his best works. I need to re-read it soon.
  • A Guide to the Common Birds of Cape Cod¸by Peter Trull, is a nice slim volume with good sketches of the birds one is likely to spy on a winter beach walk. I can’t tell a sand piper from a piping plover, a grebe from a loon, but I could if I spent more time with Trull.
  • In His Garden, this is a super creepy true story of a Outer Cape serial killer,  Tony Costa, who killed and buried four women in the dunes of Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet in the late 1960s. Read this and those woods walks start to take on some very bad vibes.
  • Mourt’s Relation: this is a first-hand account of the Pilgrims’ experiences on the outer Cape in December 1620 when they first made landfall on the backside beach and pulled into Provincetown Harbor. After marching up and down the forearm for a week, stealing the Nauset tribe’s cache of winter corn and robbing the graves, the Pilgrims under military leader Miles Standish fired on the Nauset’s at Eastham’s First Encounter Beach.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “Winter Beach Walks”

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