Carol Pesiri, seen here at Ballston Beach in Truro, is one of the year-round residents of Cape Cod, where she rents out a holiday cottage to visitors. With a population of 220,000, the area sees some six million visitors annually – mainly during a season which lasts from Memorial Day (late May) through Labor Day (early September).
Cape Cod – Long Read

Waters teeming with life, and not just cod

Photo by Wendy Maeda

Cape Cod – Long Read Waters teeming with life, and not just cod

Hello Cape Cod, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by waters teeming with life, and not just cod. Having welcomed everyone from the Pilgrims to John F. Kennedy, parts of this popular holiday spot – as well as the nearby islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket – still look as they did decades before visitors began arriving in droves.

Michael Schuman
Michael Schuman

Whenever I cross one of the bridges from the mainland onto Cape Cod, I always feel like I am taking off a pair of too tight shoes. Arriving on the Cape is about instantaneous exhaling and gradual unwinding. And one of the first places I usually stop to clear my head is Cape Cod National Seashore. It is a national park in all but name, and my first order of business is to drop a beach blanket by the ocean’s edge and do nothing more strenuous than turn every half hour to avoid sunburn. But when I really want to see Cape Cod at its most basic, I walk one of the footpaths that snake their way around beaches and forests.

Here, I can smell the sea and feel the fresh air on my face, cleansed by the vast Atlantic that stretches to the horizon. As the dirt and sand morph into an elevated boardwalk, the oaks and tall pines give way to strands of Atlantic white cedar and the mossy, brackish water of the swamp, once a glacial depression filled with fresh water about 1,800 years ago.

Change here is nothing new – and not always measured in thousands of years. “Cape Cod is a very dynamic place that is always changing, geologically speaking,” says Jason J. Taylor. “This can be seen daily, seasonally, and from year-to-year. Over the last hundred years, Cape Cod’s Atlantic Ocean shoreline has eroded, on average, three feet [one meter] per year. Some years the change is less, some years more, although more than average erosion can be expected in coming decades with sea-level rise, increased storm intensity and increased storm frequency – all effects of climate change.”

Sea-level rise is already flooding park coastal marshes

Jason is chief of natural resources management and science at Cape Cod National Seashore. To everyone who lives and visits here, climate change is real and dangerous. “Increased erosion could have a direct impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat, cultural resources, visitor access and park operations,” he says. “For example, by needing to replace or move infrastructure like stairs, buildings and parking lots more frequently. Sea-level rise is already flooding park coastal marshes, leading to losses of marsh vegetation. In turn, habitat is lost, erosion potential increases, coastal resiliency decreases, and so on. Temperature changes on both land and water are also impacting species, both those we like to watch, and those we like to harvest.”

It is a strange – and worrying – thought in a place whose appeal to many visitors is its lack of change. Filled with early American period town greens, antique shops, sand dunes, forests, lighthouses, marshes, and beaches, beaches, beaches, Cape Cod is one last vestige of a long ago New England. Its commercial center, Hyannis, does boast a few frills such as miniature golf courses, but for the most part it is refreshingly free of the tackiness found in so many other American beach havens. And people come. A lot, and especially in summer.

However, today’s visitors form just one thread in the continuous weaving of Cape Cod’s history. Native Americans have been here for centuries. Then the Pilgrims came, followed by fishermen and millers, Henry David Thoreau, sea captains, artists and writers, Guglielmo Marconi, John F. Kennedy, and those who “got sand in their shoes,” the people who arrived for the summer and decided never to leave. The early 21st century tourist is just one more in the long list of people who have left their mark on the Cape.

Memories of those days of Camelot a half-century ago

Jim Gould, official historian of the village of Cotuit, knows who is the most famous of those visitors. “Kennedy,” he says. Jim, a 90-year old professor with a head full of grey, tousled hair, sits behind a computer in an office bulging with an eclectic collection of books, many about Cape Cod. “The most common misconception of Cape history is to focus exclusively on the Kennedy heritage. But JFK is still the major tourist attraction.”

That said, it is surprising there is not a lot for those visitors who want to delve deep into the Kennedy Cape Cod legacy. The only attraction open to the public directly associated with the political dynasty is downtown Hyannis’s John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. About 80 vintage photographs make up the gist of the displays and as I study them they all up memories of those days of Camelot a half-century ago.

I ask visitors what are their favorite photos. Despite many images showing the president at work, most favor family-oriented ones: John and Jackie relaxing on the expansive Kennedy Compound lawn; the president and his son, John Jr., leaving a Hyannisport candy store; the extended family sailing on Cape Cod Bay; and a shot of JFK’s daughter, Caroline, about age six, mugging for the camera alongside first cousin Maria Shriver, future newscaster and (now former) wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I walk the 2.5km Kennedy Legacy Trail past ten sites directly or indirectly related to events in the president’s life, including the Hyannis Armory where JFK gave his victory speech following his 1960 election, and white-pillared St. Francis Xavier Church where the Kennedys worshipped (and some still do.) I listen to an audio commentary on my cell phone, offering insight at each stop. Standing in front of St. Francis Xavier Church, I hear that when JFK was president his family always sat in the second pew from the front. Secret Service agents occupied the pews in front of and behind the First Family.

JFK's family always sat in the second pew from the front

The legendary Kennedy Compound is still owned by the family and the only way to see it is from the water, either by private boat or a harbor tour with Hy-Line Cruises. Not far away is Hyannis’s John F. Kennedy Memorial, an imposing brick wall bearing an image of JFK’s profile on a medallion. A pool and fountain give the place a park-like atmosphere; I sit on the ground and reflect, enjoying the same placid and refreshing ocean view that Kennedy did.

The Kennedys, however, are just some of the illustrious names who lived or visited here. The Pilgrims docked in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, in 1620, before sailing on to Plymouth. And it was in P’town (call it “Provincetown” and people will know you’re a visitor), not in Plymouth, where the noteworthy Mayflower Compact, the first written agreement of self-government in the New World, was written and signed. The document established the rule of law for the new land, stating that the colonists would follow just laws passed by a majority.

The occasion is memorialized by the towering Pilgrim Monument, sitting atop High Pole Hill and poking its head into the salt-laden air. I climb the 116 steps to the top, to enjoy a view of wharves and water to the south and the rambling dunes to the east. Fog slow dances in now and then but I understand why Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 1860s: “Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts: the shoulder is at Buzzard’s Bay; the elbow, or crazy-bone, at Cape Mallebarre [the present-day town of Chatham]; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown…”

One early 20th century visitor, Guglielmo Marconi, became a household name after transmitting the first wireless trans-Atlantic message from South Wellfleet in 1903. A small scale model of Marconi’s wireless station with displays about the radio pioneer and his feat mark the spot, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Dismantled and abandoned after World War I

Do not expect to see Marconi’s original station. Some insignificant ruins of it spill out from the sand but most of the station was dismantled and abandoned after being deemed obsolete following World War I. And as I read about Marconi’s excitement on witnessing the initial success of his machine, I cannot help but think of him sitting here and beaming like a proud father.

Standing on the beach, I watch the wind blow grains of sand to smooth out my footprints, just as it has smoothed the traces of Marconi’s presence. The beaches here fall into three categories based on location: Atlantic Ocean side, Cape Cod Bay side and Nantucket Sound side. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Nantucket Sound beaches boast the warmest waters, while Cape Cod Bay beaches have some of the longest tidal flats. The Atlantic Ocean beaches, most part of Cape Cod National Seashore, boast the biggest surf but only someone part polar bear will enjoy a swim.

There is more to the sand than beaches, as I discover on a tour with Rob Costa, driver, proprietor and guide for Art’s Dune Tours. As I bump up and down on the sand dunes outside Provincetown in an enclosed Suburban, he lists the wildlife living here: “White-tail deer, non-poisonous snakes, turtles, coyotes and bear. One time a passenger got out of the vehicle and was chased by a bear. But we wouldn’t let him back in, since we won’t take anyone with a bear behind.”

Actually there are no bears on the dunes, nor does one have to bear a barrage of puns, for better or worse. Rob sheds light on the natural and human history of the dunes, identifying beach plums and rose hips as well as isolated dune shacks – and without electricity or running water they are shacks and not cottages – where the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac took vacations from the world to let the sand and sea air be their muses.

The flatness of the landscape is inviting for cyclists

The sandy expanse of dunes is dotted with patches of grass and brush, a fragile landscape. Rob stresses the environmentally-friendly nature of the tours. “We drive very slowly on marked trails that the national seashore provides for us, so as not to trample the dunes,” he says.

Historic sites, nature walks and even a day at the beach hold little appeal for some visitors. Others come for the 27 public golf courses and the many tennis courts. The flatness of the landscape is inviting for cyclists and among the most welcoming bike trails are the Shining Sea Bike Path connecting North Falmouth with Woods Hole, and the 40-km-long Cape Cod Rail Trail.

The most natural outdoor activities here are water-related, including kayaking, windsurfing, canoeing and boating. Harbor cruises, sailboat excursions and whale-watching trips are also popular and fishing is in the blood of many residents. Ryan Collins, 29, went fishing for the first time when he was five. “By age ten it was an obsession,” the dark-haired, bearded fisherman says. “Now it’s a passion and a lifestyle.”

There is much more than cod on the Cape and you will not see much of it in Ryan’s kayak or 6.5-meter Hydra sport boat. “I usually fish within five miles [8km] of shore, where striped bass and bluefish are more common. I’ve been fortunate to catch tuna from 30 to 700lbs [13-300kg] off Cape Cod. There are tons of cool fish living off Cape Cod and unusual species show up each season. During 2013 there was a sailfish caught from shore in the Cape Cod Canal.

We have great white sharks all over the place

“Despite fishing pressure, the ocean around Cape Cod is bursting at the seams with life. One day growing up, I caught a 35lb [16kg] striped bass before rescuing two stranded pilot whales. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Anyone who’s fished here for any amount of time has a story like that.

“Now we have great white sharks all over the place. If you go to a beach in Chatham you have a good chance of seeing a 16ft [5m] great white devour a 300lb [135kg] seal just off the beach. Undeveloped oceanfront on Cape Cod exists throughout Cape Cod National Seashore. Hike out a few miles and you may be the only person on the beach. In some spots, 100ft [30m]-high cliffs loom at your back, as waves which began off Europe crash onshore.”

Year-round residents like Ryan experience a very different Cape Cod than summer visitors. Author Christopher Setterlund is a 12th generation Cape Codder whose ninth great-grandfather, Deacon John Doane, helped establish the town of Eastham. Setterlund, an avid veteran of Cape Cod road races, boasts a lean runner’s build, and he loves being here all year long. “The best part has to be getting to enjoy the scenery of Cape Cod through all of the seasons,” he says. “Those who come only in summer get to see some amazing sights but watching the flowers bloom in spring or the leaves change color in the fall is spectacular.”

He too worries about climate change. “Just in my lifetime I have seen erosion cause a major breach in Chatham’s Lighthouse Beach, with so many beach cottages being destroyed because of it,” he says. “I have also seen Highland Light and Nauset Light moved due to the shore eroding.”

There’s little rain and lots of blue sky

Jim Gould is another full-time resident and there is no debate regarding the best time of year for him. “Everyone’s favorite season is fall’s Indian Summer, a long stretch of warm weather from September, October until Thanksgiving [the fourth Thursday in November],” he says. “The leaves turn into a glorious display of scarlet, orange and gold. There’s little rain and lots of blue sky. The cranberry harvest produces great pools of bright, red berries. Most of the summer crowd has gone home. The roads open up. The beaches are free. It’s a great time to visit the grand sea captains’ homes and the fascinating museums of Cape history.”

But there is also a downside to living in a place with a year-round population of 216,000 that swells to a million and a half in the summer. “The worst part of living here year-round,” says Christopher, “might be the fact that so many businesses are seasonal and cater to tourists, so when they leave, the businesses close. We tend to get the shaft a bit as far as that goes.”

Certainly, no one will be lonely here in July and August. “I suppose it is possible to get a bit claustrophobic during the heights of summer when it seems as though every inch of the Cape is filled,” he says. “I use that as an opportunity to go deeper and try to find that unoccupied space. You know that tourists like it here and are not going to stop coming, so you sort of have to adapt. There is no real solution, another bridge at the Cape Cod canal won’t change anything. Since the Cape is a finite space, you would almost have to add land to accommodate everyone and that is not possible.”

A contest every spring, with awards for the best baskets

Not every year-rounder’s favorite season is fall. In early May I walk through the village of Falmouth which, with its clapboard and brick buildings and slanted roofs, would easily fit on the Universal Studios backlot as quintessential New England. I admire the variety in home-made May baskets hanging in front of the town’s businesses, inns and shops. Flowers and ribbons form all sorts of vibrant combinations, many themed to each business. The village runs a contest every spring, with awards for the best baskets.

Jason agrees. “Spring is when the trees and flowers begin to bud, the temperatures are starting to warm and favorite restaurants emerge from their winter dormancy,” he says. “It is also a good time to see North Atlantic right whales that begin surfacing off some of the national seashore’s beaches, such as those at Herring Cove and Race Point.

“You can go for a very quiet, isolated walk on the beach without battling a nor’easter. Yet you can still feel winter’s energy in the thundering waves crashing against the backshore. It can be truly awesome.”

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