Imagine peering out from a single vantage point and being able to see the entire coast of Massachusetts Bay! You’ve observed our state’s coastline on maps. Those same contours are visible to the naked eye from the foot of Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. I would guess that the view from the top of the 252-foot tower is even more impressive!
I was in P-town for work recently, and was fortunate to have some time to explore. I’ve always loved the drive out Route 6 to the very end of Cape Cod – the shallow lake on one side, the cottages on the other, the gigantic rolling dunes that stand in stark contrast to the water and the sky. The eastern-most tip of the state is home to the Cape Cod National Seashore, with its many outposts. Spanning sections of Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown, this National Park is comprised of 44,600 acres. Much of it is sandy beach and dunes, but there are also forests, ponds, swamps and marshes, and plenty of well-marked trails.
I was in the mood for a walk, so I made my way to the Province Lands and Race Point, which are clustered together in the northern part of P-town. It’s an appealing destination for walking, jogging, or biking — a 5.45 mile paved loop trail traverses ponds, wooded areas and dunes, connecting the Province Lands Visitor Center and the area known as Beech Forest. In addition, there are shorter spur trails to Herring Cove Beach and to Race Point. There are large parking areas at all four stops, each free of charge except for Herring Cove (where in season, there is a fee).
As I was traveling on foot, I didn’t have time to see it all before sunset. Wishing I’d brought my bike, I settled for a 3-mile, out-and-back route from the Province Lands to Race Point, along with a plan to return the next day to walk a different section.
What I wanted to see most was the Province Lands dunes, which vary in height from 30 to over 100 feet. There are two types of sand dunes in the National Seashore. Linear dunes — or foredunes – form just behind the beach, and serve as barriers to protect the more fragile ecosystems behind them from the force of the ocean and its winds. Parabolic dunes sit farther inland, and are much more extensive. Hollowed out by the wind, they create a succession of horseshoe shapes – waves of sand, some bare, some vegetated.
I was drawn to the dunes because I am intrigued by their variability. They are constantly in flux. While many of the sand dunes in the Province Lands are now relatively stable, some move as much as ten feet per year.
In his book Cape Cod, Thoreau likened the Cape to an upraised arm, bent at the elbow, with Provincetown as its fist. The formation of lands that comprise P-town is relatively recent in geologic terms. They developed about 5,000 years ago, as wind and currents along the shore moved sand and gravel northward. While the outer beach “arm” was reduced to nearly half its width, the area inside the “fist” grew and even developed “fingers.”
It’s hard to imagine, but accounts from the Pilgrims indicate that 97% of the land at Provincetown was once covered by dense vegetation and mature forest. So even though the coastal sands were shifting at a relatively rapid pace, they were anchored at center by trees and shrubs. However by the time Thoreau completed his long walk to the tip of Cape Cod (1850), P-town was almost barren. Thoreau likened it to a desert.
Why the change? When European settlers arrived in the 1600s, they used a lot of wood – for homes and other buildings, plus fences, watercraft, carts. They used wood for fuel as well, and grazed their livestock on grasses and other low-lying vegetation. They removed trees, shrubs and grasses at a furious pace — faster than they could regenerate, and thus in time, P-town was laid bare. With nothing left to anchor it, the sand blew everywhere, threatening at times to bury the town.
Eventually the settlers saw the benefits of limiting the removal of vegetation, and also learned that planting grass and shrubs would help to curb erosion. Such conservation efforts have been in practice now for well over 100 years, so quite a bit of the area is now stabilized. The National Park Service continues to plant beach grass, and promote the long-term growth of hardy bushes and trees.
I find this sort of history fascinating. It’s a common-enough story. People arrive at a place, mark their mark on it, and eventually do some damage. If the damage is extensive enough that it impacts their world to a negative degree, they may see fit to find a solution. Better still, a way to undo the damage. If they’re smart and forward-thinking, they even take measures to prevent or at least delay further damage.
A visit to the Province Lands and Race Point is well worth the trip to the outer reaches of the Cape. You can learn more by visiting the National Parks website for the Cape Cod National Seashore at https://www.nps.gov/caco/index.htm
Note to cyclists: Because of the terrain – steep hills, sharp curves, low tunnels and the likelihood of sand, water, or other hazards on the trail, the speed limit in this section of the National Seashore is 10mph. That’s plenty fast for sightseers and for families with young children, but probably not a good fit for a cyclist in search of a workout.
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 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com