“The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.” – Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod
Between the massive dunes and the crashing Atlantic Ocean in Wellfleet is a strip of sandy beach bearing the brunt of the relentless assault from wind and sea. The surf in warmer months is a feeding ground for Great White Sharks, who have modified their hunting style to chase grey seals right into the churning shallows that swimming humans like to frolic in during the warmer months. Great Whites don’t hunt humans, but sometimes they mistake humans for seals.
In April you don’t see many seals bobbing in the surf on Cape Cod. So the sharks move on to other hunting grounds and leave this stretch of wild ocean to the occasional surfer and the beach walkers. A walk on the Cape Cod National Seashore can happen just about anywhere with an access path down the 100-foot dunes. Sand is dangerous stuff that can bury a reckless trespasser in no time at all. Sticking to the access paths preserves the dunes and just might preserve you too. The access paths themselves inform in their soft give. This is not a place for the meek. If you can’t handle the access path don’t walk this beach.
For an off-season walk, we chose to park at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet and walk a stretch of soft sand known as Cahoon Hollow Beach. The Beachcomber is a trendy cool place at the height of summer. In mid-April it’s a convenient parking spot for easy access to the beach. A sign of the times is a shark warning with a handmade sign added to the bottom sharply suggesting “No kooks, no exceptions”. Wellfleet has had just about enough of the worst representatives of shark tourism.
The National Seashore has a 40 mile stretch of beach that would test the strongest of walkers. When you say you’ll walk just to the bend you soon realize that bend keeps disappearing ahead of you. We walked about a mile, following the curve of the dunes around the forearm of Cape Cod. Walkers tend to gravitate towards the surf line where shells and smooth rocks offer themselves up for consideration. Soon your pockets are full and you recognize the folly of treasure hunting when every receding wave reveals another treasure.
Thoreau walked the entire length from Chatham to Provincetown in the mid-1850’s and wrote about it for lectures that would end too soon in his abbreviated life. It would be published after his death in 1865 – the same year the Civil War ended. I think often about Thoreau, dying at 45 with so much left to do and see and write about. And here I was following him again, walking the beach between dune and sea, thinking it might just go on forever. Knowing it won’t.