Remembering Cotuit Bay the Way it Was and Why We Need to Clean it Up

I’ve been thinking about this post for months. The idea came to me while listening to the local NPR affiliate — WCAI in Woods Hole — when a local environmentalist said something to the effect that the biggest risk to saving the coastal environment was the passing of the last generation to remember what was and what has been lost.

I guess I am the youngest of that generation — people who knew Cape Cod in the early sixties and have memories of what it was like to have harbors with clear water, eelgrass, and a much richer set of shellfish and fish. Pardon the jeremiad, but this is an issue that’s bothered me since my teens, when the Rape of the Cape was underway. It makes me resent the town planners who let it happen, the developers and real estate people who did it for the money, the oblivious newcomers who tear down old houses, drive jetskis, and have no clue what was once here. Beefing about it seems futile, but I’m tired of feeling pissed off and want to do something.

Here’s a start for what it’s worth.

I was six years old in 1964 when I caught my first fish. Somewhere there is a black and white picture of me holding it up like a trophy, a skinny little kid in a baggy bathing suit with goosebumps and pruned fingertips.

I’d spent every one of my six summers here in Cotuit. My grandfather, Henry, owned a lapstrake Lyman runabout with a Johnson outboard motor that was prone to popping its shear pin if the prop was run in shallow water. He’d drive the family to the island at the bottom of the harbor for picnics and swims. My grandmother, Nellie, collected shells, prizing the orange scallop shells she would arrange over the winter into shell wreaths and sailor’s valentines.

I’d play in the sand while a driftwood fire burned down in a sand pit above the high water line. My father and grandfather would grill Maple Leaf hot dogs from the Coop and drink Carling Black Label. I was given a bottle of Orange Crush that wasn’t orange, but white and opaque. I hated Moxie then, but love it today. Sunscreen hadn’t been invented yet. Suntan lotion made you tan, not keep you white. The beach used to smell of gasoline and Coppertone.

After lunch we men would leave my mother and grandmother on the beach and motor to the flats by Grand Island near the opening of the Seapuit River and fish for scup with drop lines baited with quahogs.  I’d sit with my chin on the Lyman’s gunwale while my father and grandfather talked about business and politics. I’d look down through the water at waving fronds of eel grass and patches of yellow sand, waiting for something to bite the hook. Horseshoe crabs would cruise like tanks through the grass, along with hermit crabs, shoals of mummichog minnows and shiners, and sometimes even baby sand sharks.

Once I caught a puffer fish (the only one I’ve ever seen on the Cape and which I doubt I’ll ever see again) which my grandfather tickled to puff up before unhooking and tossing it back overboard. Sea Robins frightened me, as did eels.

My favorite photograph from those days was the one of me,  holding that first fish — a six-inch silver shiner — one I always suspected my grandfather put on the hook while swimming silently under the motorboat. He had a neat trick of being able to smoke while swimming, and submerging with the cigarette reversed inside of his mouth, surfacing and then flipping it back out, still lit.

We would clam at low tide for steamers, moving into the deeper water for quahogs in the mud. I hated quahogging. We did it barefoot, with our toes, popping under to dig out the clams when our feet found something hard. I was very phobic about anything touching my feet, and if a crab nipped me I’d fly thrashing and splashing out of the water back to the beach. My father would tease me and I would feel horrible and even cry. I was fine when the water was clear and I could see the bottom, but the rooting around always made it cloud up and it was what I couldn’t see that terrified me.

Scallops would dart along, fast swimmers, with rows of neon blue pinpoint eyes, dozens of them, along their soft mantle.

The scup were everywhere inside of the bay in iridescent schools that roamed the channels and taught most little kids how to fish. A little more advanced were the flounder — the summer fluke — that lay flat in the sand off of Codman’s and Handy’s point.

Inside, along the edges of the channels, I recall rows of dead saplings set in the mud to mark the limits of the Cotuit Oyster Company’s shellfish grants. The incongruity of those trees were explained to my gullible self as “water trees” by my constantly teasing father and grandfather who also had me believing that oyster crackers were used to catch oysters. The channel markers were wooden casks painted red or green and I was taught the mnemonic “Red Right Returning” and “BPOE” or “Best People On Earth” or “Black to Port On Entering” to learn which side was which.  I was taught to find the direction of the wind by turning until I heard the same rushing noise in both ears and by the direction the boats pointed at their moorings. Only Landlubbers wet their fingers and held them aloft.

If another boat passed everyone would wave.

There were  no more than two or three dozen boats moored in the entire Bay at the peak of the summer season. Some classic wooden Crosby Stripers owned by the townies, a few wooden Mackenzie bass boats with stern tillers for navigating the rips, Wianno Seniors, some massive antique Crosby Catboats, and the fleet of Cotuit Skiffs. Fiberglas was just making its first appearance and I remember it being dismissed by my father and grandfather as treasonous.

The bluffs were covered with tall pine trees. A few shingled summer mansions — some dating back to the Civil War like Colonel Codman’s and Mark de Wolfe’s — gleamed out of reach behind green lawns along the shore. In the evening, the staffs of those mansions would come down to the piers and fish in their black and white maids and butlers uniforms. Riley’s Beach in Cotuit was reserved for servants.  It remained that way only for a few more years, and then Riley’s was filled with white people and the servants didn’t fish from the docks any longer.

I remember when John F. Kennedy and Jackie came to the island one afternoon in the presidential yacht, The Black Pearl.  He wore Wayfarers and took his shirt off and smoked a cigar while lounging and smiling in a chair on the stern. My father and grandfather were Republicans and said mean things about him while I listened, very offended because I had bought into the entire Camelot myth  and had a secret crush on Caroline whom I intended to marry.

A man kept a pet Arctic Tern on a string and brought it to sailing lessons. That bird was more amazing to me than the lunar landing that summer.

At home, tap water was talked about as being very sweet and different from what we knew from the Boston suburbs.  There were no houses between Santuit and the Cape Cod Canal — a distance of ten miles. Just scrub pines and kettleponds.

Now there are thousands of little rundown houses in developments with names like Landsdown, Holly Acres, and BayView Shores. No one remembers the old lost place names like Farmersville anymore.

I indulge in this reminiscence to point out that I am indeed probably the last generation with a sense of what has been lost on Cape Cod.  Time erases memories, and just as I may be the last of a generation to remember Cotuit Bay when it was healthy and pristine, there was doubtlessly an even more pristine version in the 1930s before the Army paved the beaches in North Bay at Camp Candoit and began the ruination of the oyster beds. My grandparents knew a Cotuit with unpaved roads. I knew a Cotuit with eelgrass, pufferfish, and scup.

The harbor is dead now. The eel grass is gone, the bottom is barren, lifeless, populated only by spider crabs and worms. Some fish still swim into the harbor from time to time — a few menhaden late in the summer, some striped bass and bluefish, and a few remaining herring on their way up to the ponds to spawn, but not much else. The steamers are harder to find. The quahogs are farmed and transplanted from fouled areas to cleaner ones. The beaches have been closed because of fecal coliform pollution — a polite way of saying “shit.”

What killed it all? I guess the cause and effect begins with the Kennedy’s attracting a horde of tourism to the area in the early 60s. The locals, sitting on acres of “useless” scrub pine forest, seized their chance and sold off the interior of the Cape — in South Sandwich, Marston’s Mills and Mashpee — and by 1975 the Rape of the Cape was underway, with subdivisions going in all over. The old topography of miles of forests dotted with pristine fresh water ponds, linked together by lonely roads connecting old villages like Waquoit, Cotuit, Osterville and Centerville was transformed into quarter-acre lots and little identical houses, each with their own cesspool.

Those cesspools leach into the glacial sand which sits atop a big common lens of fresh water. All the feces, all the urine, all the lawn fertilizer, dog poo, old crankcase oil, flushed pills, road runoff and god-knows-what began a slow journey towards the sea. My cesspool was doing the same. I am as guilty as anyone every time I flush.

Now the bill is due. The eel grass died a decade ago and there’s no escaping the death of the bays. Each May sees big noxious mats of algae and slime bubble up from the bottom. Red tide and fecal coliform alerts close shellfish beds and beaches.  The warnings that Cape Cod was going to become the next Florida, Chesapeake Bay or Long Island have come true.

The solution is to stop flushing nitrogen into the estuaries.  The Conservation Law Foundation is suing the Federal Environmental Protection Agency for not enforcing the the Clean Water Act. The CLF sued the City of Boston and successfully cleaned up Boston Harbor, once home to flounder with tumors. That means the old model of flushing our pee and poop into the ground is going to come to an end. What replaces it will be some sort of sewage treatment system. The question is whether that system will be massive and cross town lines, or be more localized. But it will happen and it will cost billions of dollars.

There are a lot of people upset about the prospect of paying that money to connect their homes to what will be the biggest infrastructure project in the history of the Cape. Some of these people dispute the science and like to blame atmospheric nitrogen or indulge in some other form of denial. Others are making the issue a political one and want the solutions defined locally and not regionally.

Most of Cape Cod’s residents have no memory of what once was;  no memory of those lost years of a Cape Cod with clear water and lively beds of eel grass harboring a wide array of species and life. If you want to experience the Cape of the 1960s, then get to Menemsha Pond or Cape Pogue on Martha’s Vineyard before it is too late. It reminded me of what has been lost when I fished there a few years ago, and made me all the more determined to see it return for my grandchildren.

The Rape of the Cape happened under our very noses over the last thirty years, and now the bill is due. We were warned and we ignored it.  The sad part is I suspect most people now here have no basis for comparison and the bay they know today is the only bay they’ve known.

Here’s some links. If you want to do something, get involved. Don’t use fertilizer on your lawn. Get pissed off when you see a ChemLawn truck. Think about what price is paid for a green golf course. Pick up your dog’s poop from the sand. Take your hazardous waste and old pills to the special collection days at the landfill. Support the Conservation Law Foundation. Study t and don’t let the science denial wingnuts and gadflies dominate the public discussion. Tell your local town councilors how you feel. Read up on nitrogen. And get yourself to Menemsha Pond to take a long hard look at the condition of the water there. That’s what we’ve lost and what we need to regain.


  • Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative


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