|A view of the North River mouth from Fourth Cliff.
I once preferred solitude to company. I had plenty of friends and a close-knit family, but most of the time I just wanted to be by myself. I was fortunate to be able to have that solitude when I needed it.
I spent a winter living alone in a cottage on Humarock Beach, and the better part of the next two years house sitting when any opportunity arose. The houses I stayed in were all located in quiet and beautiful places where I could bask in the magnificence of my surroundings. The world outside was the only company I desired.
I was lonely back then, but I didn’t mind it. I was intent on self-discovery. I wrote prolifically in my journals, and those long conversations with myself helped to make sense of my thoughts and feelings and the world around me.
A lot has changed in the years since then. I don’t get back to my old solitary haunts very often. But a few weeks ago, I had occasion to visit one of them — the mouth of the North River at Fourth Cliff — just a short walk up the beach from a little house I have stayed in numerous times, and where, coincidentally, my sister has been living this past year.
It was a birthday party for my sister, and at her request, a few of us accompanied her for a walk down the three steep flights of stairs from her house on the cliff to the beach below. Some of us barefoot, we picked our way among the rocks, around the corner to the river mouth.
The mouth of the North River is a turbulent place, where boats are known to capsize and somebody drowns nearly every year. The channel itself is narrow, but the mouth of the river is wide, especially at high tide, when water obscures sand bars and boulders, making it a challenge to navigate. It is never a serene place. Even at the lowest tide, you can see how unpredictable the cross currents and shifting sands can be. In my days of self-prescribed solitude, I found places such as these especially comforting — as if the tumult of nature could match and somehow assuage the turbulence I felt inside.
The first time I walked out around the cliff was Thanksgiving weekend 1991, just after the No-Name storm. A month had passed, but the cliff’s rocky shores were still strewn with debris from that devastating Nor’easter. The surf was characteristically tempestuous, and I remember concluding that the mouth of the river was always this way — passionate, almost violent. I’ve seen calmer days out there since then, dazzlingly sunny low tides when the inlet seems deceptively calm, as if you could wade across to Third Cliff.
But most of the time, even on the fairest days, there’s a restlessness to the river mouth. I often wonder what it would be like in a storm.
My sister, who has always been more adventuresome than me, has gone for walks along the beach that runs the perimeter of the cliff on winter nights, and in moderately stormy weather, stepping among the boulders that crowd the gravely shore. One night she was startled by a great noise and the sudden presence of another being in that desolate landscape. She doubled her pace toward home, but realized not long after that she must have disturbed one of the harbor seals who are known to rest on the rocks at low tide. There was no reason to be afraid. But in the darkness, or even the gloom of an overcast day, the cliff has a haunted quality.
You don’t have to feel lonely or pensive in order to appreciate Fourth Cliff. The sheer magnitude of the river mouth is a site unto itself, and you’ll very likely be impressed by how far across it is to Scituate, considering that just over a hundred years ago, all that water was dry land.
If You Go: There is really no convenient way to drive directly to Fourth Cliff, so unless you know someone in northern Humarock, be prepared for a long but pleasant walk: it’s about a mile and a half up the beach from Humarock Village. You’ll see a lookout tower on the cliff, and a cluster of small buildings that make up the Air Force Recreation Area. Even at high tide, as long as it’s not stormy, you’ll be able to make you way on foot all the way around.
From there, you can continue to trace the shoreline, which will bring you around the Fourth Cliff sand spit for a great view of Trouants Island and the South River marshes. A narrow path through a marshy meadow leads you out to Central Avenue, just south of the base. From there you can walk the road back to Humarock Village, and see some fabulous South River vistas along the way.
It’s a long walk around Fourth Cliff, and often a chilly one, but you won’t see anything quite like it around here. I highly recommend it.
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.