Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Nauset Marsh

"With the ending of dinner and the inevitable cleanup afterwards, do-nothing day is about over. A long nap is in order, from which we wake up relaxed and contented. We may take the car to Round Pond to see if it holds any teal, or to catch a glimpse of a deer coming down for a sip of water, or we may drive over to the West Shore to watch the sunset. Afterwards, a small fire in the fireplace feels pleasant. The northwest wind has died out, the air has a distinct Fall tinge, and the stars are very bright and clear." --The House on Nauset Marsh
I first heard of Nauset Marsh years ago in Henry Beston’s 1928 book
The Outermost House, written following his year-long stay in a cabin sited between the marsh and the Great Beach.  I suppose I’m a romantic or at least a sentimentalist; I made a pilgrimage to the site of the long-vanished cabin--thwarted by the new marsh inlet; later, on a 2012 sailing trip around the outside of the Cape, I made a special effort to get close inshore at the place where the cabin met its end in the '78 blizzard.  

Last winter I read Robert Finch’s essay collection The Outer Beach: A thousand-mile walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic shore.  (The distance is Finch's guess at the distance along this shore he has walked.  This sent me, a few weeks ago, to a formative book for Finch: Wyman Richardson’s classic essays, The House on Nauset Marsh.  By the time I reached the much-loved essay, Do Nothing Day, I had formed a plan to visit.

The house, purchased by friends and relatives with Wyman’s father, a successful Boston surgeon, still stands, and is a private home still in the hands of the Wyman family.  Wyman Richardson spent many summers and weekends there with his family beginning in boyhood and extending through his professional life as a Boston physician like his father.  Richardson’s genial essays, written in the 40s and early 50s, were published in book form in 1955.  Nauset Marsh has become a part of the wonderful Cape Cod National Seashore, run by the National Park Service.  

A cool, overcast day that ended a hot, stuffy September week saw the car loaded with bike and kayak, and I headed for Eastham on the Cape.  

A park ranger who doubtless spends much of his day endlessly fielding the same pedestrian questions, was delighted to hear my plan to paddle Nauset Marsh, and gave detailed directions for access.  Later, having paddled out to the inlet and back, another ranger was enthusiastic about my questions about the Richardson “Farmhouse.”  About halfway along the Nauset Marsh Trail, he told me, you reach an overlook.  If you stand on one of the benches there and turn around, you can just see the house on top of the hill.  His eyes went wide.  “Everyone walks that trail, and nobody ever looks back!” 

Salt Pond is a good place to launch, and communicates directly with the Marsh.

 Leaving Salt Pond for Nauset Marsh.  One of the two 
boathouses on the left bank may be Richardson's.

Nauset Marsh features large areas of open water as well as banks of marsh grass up to two miles long.  The tall grass that anchors the marsh is saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), which is almost done flowering.
 Some sort of aquaculture floats made a good perch for gulls and wading birds.

Most of these are herring gulls, I think, but the long-billed bird center right has me puzzled.
Most took wing before I could get very close.

 A moderate headwind and enough space to build up little waves made for a wet ride until I got into the lee of the barrier beach.  Fishing boat moorings also take advantage of this shelter.

Time to stretch my legs and dry out a bit.

 Piping plover and common tern exclosures mean I can't walk straight to the ocean side.  The string and notices will come down when nesting season is well and truly over.  --soon, I should think.


 Gray seals rest at the end of a spit.  I'd encountered gray seals in open water, but didn't know they came into sheltered water in such numbers.  Are they safer from sharks here?  Am I?

The seals didn't let me get too close, but once in the water they made allowance for curiosity.

 A sudden boiling of the shallow water announced the presence of fish.  The gulls pounced at once, but the excitement was over almost too quickly to catch.

 A great black-backed gull among adult and first- and second-year herring gulls.
(The overall dark bird on the right is a first-year, the foreground bird is a second-year.)

 First year herring gulls.

Bits of algae in the current some distance from the inlet.

After less than an hour on the beach, the strength of the current running out the inlet hinted I needed to be on my way very soon.  I figured I'd be alright if I avoided the inlet, but didn't want to be stranded in the shallows I'd paddled over outbound.  It turned out the current was strong over a large part of the outer marsh, and I had to paddle hard to make any progress at all.  I did a bit better when I stayed close to the marsh grasses, since they slowed the current.  The expected tailwind I counted on to help me turned out to be a crosswind of little use.  The marsh is large, and after getting into still water, I began to wish I'd paid more attention to landmarks for getting back into Salt Pond.  A peek at photos in my camera showed that the gray house with green trim stood above the pond entrance.

As at least a dozen seals gathered around my little boat, I reflected
that any one of them could easily have overturned me.

 Sea lavender adds a bit of color to the marsh.  (It is unrelated to the garden lavender.)

This sea lavender (Limonium carolinianum) is growing amid the cordgrass
with the succulent, leafless stems of saltwort (Salicornia).

 Saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in flower.  (The white dangly things contain the pollen.)

The horizontal white line on the plants is salt.  It marks the height of the previous high tide,
since the water washed away the salt it reached.

 The gray hilltop house is the landmark that leads back to Salt Pond,
and the flanking boathouses mark the entrance to it.

The landing/launch place in Salt Pond is comfortably big enough for one or two kayaks or canoes.

Most of my "adventures" are of my own making: when I launched I walked past this sign
at least twice without reading it.  And sure enough, I was out there at least two hours into the ebb.

The Nauset Marsh Trail gives very nice views of the marsh from several places, and links with other trails and bike paths.  Before long I had detoured to the old Coast Guard station that overlooks Coast Guard Beach--a remnant of the time Coast Guardsman walked miles of the great beach each night, on the lookout for shipwrecks.  (Some of them became regular visitors at Henry Beston’s house.)  I also visited the site of the John Doane homestead: in 1644 his was one of seven families that moved from the young Plymouth Bay Colony to Nauset to found what later became Eastham.

 Aquaculture of some kind is going on in the Pond as well.

 Great blue heron.

 Nauset Marsh panorama: It's hard to gauge from a kayak, but from a few meters up
the extent of the marsh becomes more evident.  The "horizon" in the first photo is
actually the barrier beach over a mile away that protects the marsh from the Atlantic.

Zoomed in on the distant anchorage and barrier beach.

 Directly behind the overlook is the Richardson farmhouse.

 The Doane family's markers near the Coast Guard station.

The Coast Guard station peeks above the trees in the first photo of this panorama.  I wanted to know what the blue boxes were about, but the park visitor center was closed by the time I got back.

The bad news: recent research suggests that most salt marshes will not be able to
add height fast enough to keep up with sea level rise.  If true, then these
nurseries of the sea will be eventually all but disappear.

 Tide nears low.

Seaside rose (Rosa rugosa).

The marsh from high ground beside the Coast Guard Station.

Coast Guardsman mainly slept during the day, since a single watchman could command a lot of coastline from the tower.  Each night shifts would take turns walking miles of beach, meeting the opposing teams from the next stations up and down the coast before turning around.  Teams carried signal lanterns that would bring out a rescue team at the run if a wreck were spotted.  Visitors can't go inside the station today, but the equipment they used is on display at the visitor center. 

The station is as good a place as any to remember Henry Beston, and his Outermost House.

From the high beach.

 I found that the thinner gray and brown layers of the cliff face are peat
--probably the remains of salt marshes of past millennia.

 Nauset Light, a mile north of the marsh, sweeps the sea with alternating white and
red beams.  In Thoreau's day a keeper had to refuel and light the lantern, and wind the 
clockwork that turned it.  By Beston's it was likely electric.  Today there is no keeper at all,
and with the advent of GPS I wonder that they are kept lit at all.  I grew up a mile or so from
a lighthouse, have used them for navigation myself, and will miss them when they're gone.
From adjacent to Nauset Light.

 I ended my day with visits to Nauset Light--whose alternating red and white light was meant to prevent wrecks along that dangerous beach--and the site of the Marconi wireless station two miles further north, which inaugurated transatlantic radio communication.

The bluff on which the Marconi wireless station once stood.  From here Guglielmo Marconi
staged the "first official" transatlantic radio communication between the American president
and the king of England in 1902.  A decade later the Marconi station here first received the
news of the Titanic's sinking.  It became obsolete soon after.

 Seaside goldenrod (Solidago maritima) likes sandy soil.

Seeing how little of this enormous marsh I actually paddled, I may well return someday.

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals...  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.  And therein we err, and greatly err.  For  the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."                                                                                                                                      --Henry Beston