It’s been a couple of months since I wrote my first beach odyssey post. Check it out here.

In the second installment, I want to focus on Cape Cod, where I lived from January to June of this year. I got to know Cape Cod in the winter, which I think made it even more sweet when I got to experience the spring and early summer. I visited 16 beaches around the Cape during my six-month stint in Woods Hole, and found Cape Cod beaches are completely unlike the Michigan beaches I grew up with. Nevertheless, I love them almost as much – probably for similar reasons.

What makes Cape Cod so special?

Quissett Beach, Woods Hole, MA

Aside from the whole quaint New England thing – beaches, seafood, biking, lighthouses, etc. – Cape Cod has a pretty interesting geological history. The Cape was formed by the retreat of continental glaciers during the the last Ice Age. When the last ice sheet was at its most advanced, it was characterized by lobes that mark the distinct lobes of the Cape Cod map we see today.

As the last ice sheet retreated – only around 20,000 years ago – drifting rock debris formed specific areas of the Cape, including the moraines (masses of rocks and sediment) that formed today’s regions of Buzzards Bay and Sandwich. As sea level rose after the ice sheet melted away, the land and water continued to shift, eventually resulting in the coastal communities that exist today. The influence of glacial retreat is still visible on Cape Cod today, perhaps most notably the valleys that were formed by meltwater rushing out as the glacier retreated, which are also referred to as outwash plains.

This complex, and surprisingly recent, glacial formation of Cape Cod is described in more detail in this report from the United States Geological Survey. Cape Cod is an amazing example of the interactions that constantly occur between water and land, and how these interactions can play out in coastal communities.

Those communities are also an important part of what makes the Cape so unique. Across the board, Cape Cod is described as embodying the ultimate “sense of place,” something I definitely experienced when I was there. Whether Cape Cod citizens reside in Wellfleet, Nantucket, or Provincetown, Cape Cod is the kind of place you go and stay, and this is true for  everyone from the earliest settlers in the 17th century to today’s residents. Even though Cape Cod is known as a tourist area, there’s a strong sense of historical identity, which is reflected in some of the Cape’s well known museums that tell stories of whaling, seagoing, and exploration.

Many well known literary figures have visited Cape Cod, including Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a walking tour of Cape Cod in 1865, and Rachel Carson, who spent time in Woods Hole as a biology student and for whom a statue is dedicated in Woods Hole. Here’s a great quote from Thoreau, taken from this excerpt of his book Cape Cod, about how Cape Cod looked when it was still untouched:

What are springs and waterfalls? Here is the spring of springs, the waterfall of waterfalls. A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a lighthouse or a fisherman’s hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him.

What does the future hold? 

MBL Beach, Woods Hole, MA

Like Boston and like all coastal areas, the geographical and weather conditions of the Cape are now being affected not only by natural activity, but by human activity. As the sea level continues to rise over the next 50-100 years, the Cape will be affected in a multitude of ways, including changes in shoreline, local ecosystems, and biodiversity. Another USGS report from the Cape Coastal Conference, which is held every year to address the the future environmental and economic success of Cape Cod, describes some of these future impacts.

The Cape will also be highly impacted by warming ocean and atmospheric temperatures, which then affect fish farming and other key components of the Cape Cod infrastructure across the peninsula. Fortunately, Cape Cod is home to many scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens that have a heavy stake in promoting a successful coastal future – and not just because their own future homes depend on it.

“As a culture that depends on natural systems for all facets of our economy and way of life, it is important that we strive to understand the ways in which these systems are changing over time,” said this briefing from the Cape Cod National Seashore. There are a number of ways to do that, including monitoring how the ecosystems – from organisms in the deep ocean to the movement of the water along the coast – are changing over time. Since it will be highly affected by changing tides and rising temperatures, there’s room for the Cape to become a symbol for action on climate change.

“We might turn out to be a world hot spot,” said Rich Delaney, President and CEO for the Center of Coastal Studies in Provincetown, in one article from the local paper.

One additional note


What I learned from living on Cape Cod is that there’s just something about living near the ocean. During the time I spent in Woods Hole, I made a habit of walking down to the beach almost every day, partly just because I could and also because it feels so amazing to be so close to the water. Of course, the reality of what that means is changing as sea levels are rising, but the specialness of Cape Cod lies within its proximity to the ocean. This excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver, who The New York Times referred to as “the Bard of Provincetown,” located at the Northern tip of Cape Cod, seems to capture that unique sense of place.

All my life
I have been restless –
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss –
than wholeness –
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.
But every morning on the wide shore
I pass what is perfect and shining…..Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

Nobska Beach, Woods Hole, MA

All photos by Gwendolyn Schanker.