A long hike in Wellfleet on a frigid late fall day on the verge of the winter solstice yielded some surprises, mostly deceased.
Great Island is a long series of dunes, marshes, scrub pine forests and ocean vistas that is probably best explored in the cold because of its long distances relative to most other Cape Cod hikes. The combination of bayside, woodland, and ocean beaches makes it one of the most varied hikes I’ve done on the Cape, with three varying distances depending on one’s destination. My daughter and I did the middle distance segment — not making the full trek out to Jeremy Point because of the short afternoon and waning sunlight.
The hike is all within the National Seashore and begins in a parking lot near the end of Chequessett Neck Road at a three way intersection with Griffins Island Road. Trail maps are available at the trail head near the port-a-potties. The trail is well marked in the early going, down a set of steps to the beach inside of the Gut, or head of Wellfleet harbor. Across the hard packed sand to the the southwest is a wide trail that passes by the controversial Blasch House — appropriately labeled the “Abominable House” by one architecture critic. This project caused a furor in Wellfleet as the town tried to stop the construction of the starter castle on such a prominent view. Others hailed it as a triumph of property owner rights.
As the trail curved east towards the old whaler’s taven we noticed a lot of dead eiders, sea ducks that had expired for some mysterious reason in the wrack above the high water line. I guessed some form of red tide did them in, but a quick bit of research revealed they had died from a parasite called a “thorny-headed worm” which they pick up when their normal diet of mussels isn’t sufficient and they turn to crabs and shoreside berries. (update: it appears that source is unreliable and the mystery of the eider die-off continues) I was surprised to find three dead porpoises — big mummified corpses that looked very eerie with their exposed rib cages and cadaverous grins.
Less morbidly, we did discover a huge expanse of wild oysters sitting on the bottom exposed by the low tide. All instincts to scavenge like paleolithic aborigines kicked in, but were thwarted by thoughts of getting busted by both the Wellfleet clam cops and the federal rangers for a combined felony-rap of clamming without a clue.
Leaving the beach we worked through the woods to the site of the tavern that served the coastal whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Aside from a cellar hole in the woods, there was little to see, so we kept ducking under pine cones and branches until the trail widened and this memorial to the last private owner of the island — Priscilla Alden Bartlett — emerged.
We emerged from the woods over another salt marsh strewn with dead elders, walked inside the dune along Cape Cod Bay until we found an acceptable point of passage that wasn’t marked with skull and crossbone warnings against erosion and crossed over to the bay side beach. The arctic wind coming down from the northwest was exhilarating and did a number on our sinuses, but the view of Provincetown to the north, and the blue hill of Plymouth to the west reminded me that early December was when the Mayflower first sailed into these waters and the men of the party cruised the coast in their shallop for their first encounter with the Nauset indians.
The beach walk was easy going and I kept an eye open for cold-stunned turtles, but found none. We crossed back into the gut-side of the trail before the Abominable House and made it back to the parking lot in under two hours. Great Island is definitely my new favorite Cape Cod trek. Bring water and provisions as this is a true hike and not a brief stroll.