Atlantic white cedar is the perfect wood for boat building and is difficult to find these days with the price to prove it. I have four enourmous planks in the old sail loft behind my bedroom, leftover from the days when my grandfather Chat built Cotuit Skiffs in the boat shop. The wood is all but rot-proof.
On Sunday I took my son and the dogs for a walk around one of the best examples of a cedar swamp on Cape Cod, the Almy Cedar Swamp in Cotuit off of Old Post Road. There aren’t many left and winter is the best time to explore. Here’s a link to a site with some good background information. Interestingly, they aren’t technically “cedar” but cypress swamps.
Cedar swamps are unique biotropes found along the east coast from Maine to Georgia. They are true swamps that support a species of tree that is more related to the cypress than the cedar. Chamaecyparis thyoides is a pretty tree, a definite break for the eye after the typical scrub oak and pines that carpet Cape Cod. The habitat and growing conditions are so unique that I went most of my life without ever seeing a cedar swamp. A few years ago the Barnstable Land Trust and some local conservationists pulled out the stops to preserve a big tract of open space in Cotuit around Cordwood Landing. Included in the parcel was the Almy Cedar Swamp. This is what it looks like from the air — note the definite difference in the foliage.
The swamp isn’t easy to find. One walks north on a dirt road across from the Cordwood Landing way to water, across Old Post Road, and north towards Eagle Pond. A half mile in, on the right, is a hidden path down to the swamp. Winter is the best time to explore because the swamp is frozen and one can actually poke around among the trees. In the barreness of winter it is is strange to step into such a green and verdant space. The silence is amazing and the woods are cathedral-like.
The trees are very tall and seem, gauging from their girth, to be a few hundred years old. According to one scholarly paper, the Cape’s cedar swamps are less than 4,000 years old.
Walking around the swamp is very cool. The ice makes it easy to poke around the frozen peat and see the moss knobs around each trunk.
These were valuable trees back in the day, but some have survived because they are so difficult to extract from the swamps. It goes without saying the swamps are endangered, filled in, converted to cranberry bogs, or just dammed up and drowned. The largest is on the outer Cape near the Marconi station — it is 11.8 acres. I have no idea how big the Almy Cedar Swamp is — but know of at least two other smaller ones hidden around Cotuit.
While it’s tempting to wonder if anyone would care if I dragged a piece of deadfall out of the swamp to turn into a new skiff, I guess I should first check the condition of the planks in the sailloft. Cool to think the boat that defines Cotuit is made from wood logged from Cotuit’s swamps.