Take it E-Z!
|The Outermost Place
Sports Afield Magazine
Legs pumping, heart pounding, chest heaving with each explosive breath, I struggled to maintain balance and forward momentum up the steep, narrow trail. We
had been riding for hours on lonely, unmarked single-track and deserted overgrown fire roads, winding around the cool freshwater ponds and through the tinder
dry oak and pitch pine forest of the Outer Cape. As the warm sun approached its mid-day zenith, one last hill barred us from our goal.
I pedaled rapidly to a rhythmic cadence pounding like a kettle drum in my head, a simple mantra that matched each quick stroke of the crank and went "Push.
Push. Push." Meanwhile, somewhere in the background a familiar chorus urged me on, chanting "Don't stop. Don't walk." With arm and leg muscles burning
from the strain, I began to reel in the last painful yards to the top of the hill, following my wife, Mary and our dog Tasha, who had already topped out.
The grade steepened, and the rear tire started to lose traction, slipping badly. I downshifted to my lowest, last-chance gear a second too late, straining the
derailleur with a merciless high-powered torque "Crunch" yet maintaining just enough headway to churn over the rise. Blowing hard and lathered like a quarter
horse, I coasted out of the forest shade and into the blinding white sunshine.
Ahead, a sandy path led through the swaying emerald beach grasses towards lofty dunes. Moments later, atop the escarpment, we sucked greedily on our
water bottles and looked out at the limitless Atlantic, watched the waves roll in with a thunderous roar more than a hundred feet below. The breakers crashed
down upon the Great Beach, an unbroken strand lying between the dunes and the sea and stretching to the horizon for miles in both directions. And in all that
vast sandy, salty distance, there was no one else in sight.
The notion of Cape Cod as wilderness may strike some as oxymoronic, and with good reason. After all, the Cape lies within a day's drive of one-quarter of the
nation's population, and ever Since Bartholomew Gosnold sailed past in 1602 and noted that the waters were rich in codfish, Cape Cod has hardly qualified as
undiscovered country. Any veteran of weekend traffic combat on Route 6, or anyone else who has spent an afternoon trying to extricate himself from the
ticky-tacky tangle of cheap development --"Ye Olde Mini Golf and Clam Shoppe"-- that blights so much of the roadside environment here might well believe
the Cape is among the very last places Americans would go to find solitude and replenish their souls.
But get off the highway, get out of the car, and you'll discover a very different Cape Cod than the one seen through the tinted glass windshield. Here on the
Outer Cape, far from the roar of traffic and the neon come-ons of Falmouth and Hyannis, is a realm of striking solitude and surprising diversity. Saved from
development by the National Park Service in 1961, this is a captivating wild of pounding surf, towering dunes, and fertile marshes; of solitary stands of
Atlantic white cedar, of upland fields and pastures. Here too are hundreds of glacially-formed kettle ponds and lakes fringed by oak and pitch pine forests.
And then, of course, there's the Great Beach. For some thirty miles, all the way from Eastham to Provincetown, it stretches unbroken and undeveloped along
the ocean wilderness.
This is brand-new territory, geologically speaking, for it was only some 15,000 years ago that bulldozing glaciers piled up this great ridge of sand, silt, and
rubble -a giant dumping ground geologists call a terminal moraine. As the glaciers melted, the sea rose, nearly drowning the newly created mound of debris. But
once free of its heavy ice burden the moraine rebounded, gradually rising hundreds of feet above the waves.
And yet it is an old place, this Cape Cod, having been settled by Europeans for nearly 400 years and inhabited prior to then by Native Americans for untold
millennia. Early European settlers encountered the Wampanoag Indians, from whom they learned to scratch a living from the sandy soil and ply the cold
waters for lobster, cod, scallops, clams, bluefish, and migrating whales.
To supplement their hardscrabble lives, some settlers became adept at salvaging small fortunes from the nearly 3,000 ships that wrecked on the Cape's
treacherous shoals. Until the opening of the Cape Cod canal in 1914, the Outer Cape was considered the most dangerous passage in all of North America, a
place mariners called "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."
Like a great sharp hook, Cape Cod thrusts east and then north for some 70 miles, farther into the Atlantic than any other portion of the continental United
States. Standing atop the windswept dunes of Wellfleet in 1855, gazing out to the storm-tossed Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau reflected "A man may stand
here and put all America behind him." For a few precious days, as summer green alchemized into autumn gold, I set out to see if he still could.
Captain Tony Biski was running a couple of hours late, so my friend Dan Berns and I amused ourselves by looking at pictures of what we were missing on
this perfect late summer morning: record stripers caught on the fly on the ivory sand flats off Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, a string of long sandbars
dangling from the elbow of the Cape near Chatham.
"Here, look at this one," said Peter Alves, manager of Fishing the Cape, the center for fly fishing on Cape Cod in East Harwich. He flipped down the snapshot
of the happy angler with his thirty-something pound lunker cradled like a sack of potatoes in his straining arms.
"I didn't know they made 'em that big," I said lamely, putting the picture down while glancing at my watch. What gives! Time's a wasting! Alves read my
mind. It wasn't hard to do.
"Tony'll be here soon," he said apologetically. "Here, check this out." He flopped another monster onto the counter.
Captain Tony showed up just in time --Peter was getting down to the last few frames. A big, burly, jocular fellow, he came bustling in, somehow filling the
two-thousand square foot store with his hale and hearty presence. Red-faced and a little out of breath, he apologized for being late, apologized for forgetting to
bring the fishing gear, and apologized for failing to gas up the boat last night.
"We'll take care of all that at the dock and then head right out," he boomed. "It'll only take fifteen minutes or so." There was one more little thing, he told us.
He had mistakenly double-booked himself for the afternoon turn of the tide, so we only had the morning to fish. Sorry. He'd get the gear and the boat and be
"I'm going to put you boys onto some fish!" He bellowed as he dashed out the door. "It's going to be a great day!"
Fueled, outfitted, and finally under way, we cruised the shallows off Monomoy. With anticipation we peered down through a couple of feet of transparent
water with polarized sunglasses, watching for shadows flitting across the bottom, revealing the presence of fish. Within minutes we began to see not just
shadows but actual striped bass, and lots of them. Singly and in small squadrons, the big fish floated just above the white sand like so many zeppelins at an air
show. But as soon as they saw the boat's shadow, they flicked their powerful tails and darted across the flats, gone in an instant.
This was clearly the place, so we went over the gunwales in our chest waders, spread out, and began to stalk. The surface flashed, the sun blazed in a perfect
sky, and the crystalline shallows stretched taught like cellophane over the flats. Off in the distance, in a scene straight out of Key West, I watched a guide
stealthily poling a skiff. Up on the casting deck the client was throwing out graceful 60 foot arcs of line. Suddenly the angler struck, the rod doubled over, and I
saw the surface churn white before him.
I couldn't shake the notion that we had somehow been magically transported to the Caribbean. This was just too damn pleasant to be New England, a place
where, as I've been advised by friends from "away" (a Yankee term meaning the rest of the world), "even when it's warm, it's cold." True enough. Warm sunny
days are fleeting at best, and even at the height of summer the water is generally described as "a bit chilly" by locals, and as "frigging freezing" by everyone
else. The hardiest swimmers can barely wet their toes before turning blue, shrieking, and running for their beach towels.
So it was with visions of tropical paradise found that I watched the water ahead, looking for the telltale signs of hungry, feeding fish. But there was nothing
there, certainly no big stripers. The only thing I could see was this big ugly mass under the surface about twenty yards ahead. It looked like a black,
shape-shifting mat of seaweed stretched all across my front.
"Look at them all!" shouted Dan from about forty yards off to my right as he laid down a perfect cast. I looked. "Where? Where are they?" I didn't see any
"Can you believe it?" bellowed Tony from about forty yards to my left. "I told you I'd put you boys on to some fish!" His line went taut. "I'm on to one!" he
announced, setting the hook. A moment later Dan yelled "Me too!"
"Tony, where are they?" I pleaded. "All I've got in front of me is a big mess of seaweed!"
"That's not seaweed, my friend," Tony shouted over his shoulder. The fish had turned him and was streaking out across the flat, headed for the Azores at
warp speed. "That's a whole mess of stripers! Hundreds of them! Thousands!"
Tony's busy schedule meant Dan and I had the rest of the afternoon to catch more fish on our own, so after we parted with Tony, we headed down-Cape back
to Truro, the narrowest part of the peninsula, where we were staying in a cabin on a bluff overlooking the meandering Pamet River. We took a right turn at the
center of the little crossroads town, followed a winding country lane through the pitch pine uplands for a couple of miles, then parked the rig where a little
unmarked trail poked out of the woods. We slung our waders over our shoulders and walked through the quiet forest for about a half-mile until we emerged
through a gap in the dunes onto the Great Beach.
The late afternoon sun bathed us in rich, golden light, and the sifted sand glistened like a field of diamonds as the moistening tide receded. Gleaming Jellyfish
lay scattered about where they washed up, and a gentle surf rolled in. There were no boats out on the water. There was no one on the beach. The only prints
in the wet sand were our own.
With our backs to the sheltering wall of sand, we tossed loops of line into the rips. We let the flies dead-drift with the current into the holes where gamefish
waited, watching for their stunned and disoriented prey to come rolling in over the bars with the surf.
It wasn't long before we were into fish, this time blues. The tough, brawny fighters made strong hits and powerful runs that kept us moving up and down the
beach for a couple of hours. Finally, at sunset we'd had enough. As we packed up our gear we looked out to sea and finally saw someone. A mile offshore a
tall, three-masted schooner --a ghostly ship with lanterns blazing-- sailed quietly past on soft evening breezes, bound to and from points unknown.
There is a mystery, a legend, about the Cape that refuses to die, and on a day like this, I can believe in almost anything. As Mary and I launch our sea kayaks
into the flat calm seas of Cape Cod Bay in Wellfleet, there isn't a breath of wind, and an eerie fog lies over the water.
We point the kayaks at the dunes of Great Island looming on the horizon, and the sharp bows slice the slate gray sea. The sound of the water chuckling along
the hull, the brooding fog, and the long, wild shoreline of Great Island all conspire to remind me of the legend of Leif Erikkson and the Vikings, who may have
settled here briefly some 1,000 years ago.
The Norse sagas describe Vinland as a place of forests, islands, and lakes remarkable for its abundance of wild grapes. The crude map depicts it as an
attenuated peninsula that looks, in fact, very much like Cape Cod, where wild grapes grow in profusion, and where there is no shortage of forests, islands, and
An hour later we make landfall amid a swarm of horseshoe crabs looking like so many antique bronze helmets strewn across the sand. There's a dead dolphin
washed up at the high tide line. We secure the boats, then hike through the dripping pine forest. The soft, sandy trail passes the site of the Great Island
Tavern, where 250 years ago whalers and fishermen spent their wages on food, drink, and bawdy female companionship. Today the tavern is gone, swallowed
by the forest and the dunes and the tide. But the ghosts are surely here, for it is wilder now than it was then, and this is still a fine place for carousing.
We hike out to the very tip of the island at Jeremy Point, where the narrow spit dwindles away to nothing and which will be completely submerged by the
tide in a few moments. Like Thoreau, I stand at the edge of America and watch the rising sea flow over my toes, then over my feet. Soon the point is awash,
utterly gone. Knee deep, we splash the last hundred yards back to the kayaks.
Was this Vinland? Who knows. Things have a way of disappearing here, and it's still possible to get lost in the wilds of Cape Cod.