Cape Cod

MARK PATTON traces cultural, ecological and personal histories on Cape Cod

I have lived on Cape Cod for 53 years. During much of this time, I served as the Falmouth and Woods Hole area’s director of Natural Resources. My other jobs included helmsman on the research vessel Chain, enforcement officer for the U.S. Fisheries – Fisheries and Marine Mammal Protection and local police officer. My conception of what Cape Cod is, or should be, my starting point so to speak, on this peninsula began in 1967. That was when I moved to Falmouth, Massachusetts from a small town south of Pittsburgh that had a mining and steel mill-based economy.

After leaving behind our slag dump mountain view, and houses that quickly turned orange after painting due to the perpetual smog of the mills, Cape Cod seemed like a seaside paradise. It was simply breathtaking – blue skies – blue seas – sailboats off in the distance cruising along wooded island chains – and of course, for a 15-year-old, cute girl in bikinis. I suspect a similar conceptualization of the area is still why people come here. I also suspect that they haven’t a clue that all of the planning boards on the Cape anticipate that in a few years every available lot on Cape Cod will have a house on it.

Newcomers don’t notice that the water quality of the harbours and coastal ponds has gone sour. They see a blue expanse ready for postcards. They don’t see the shellfish suffocating below as oxygen is stripped from the water column by dense layers of algae that thrive on nitrogen plumes of septic leachate. Nor do the newcomers understand that not long ago the large woodland tracts disappeared, leaving behind scraps of intensely used public open space. The forested lands had been exchanged for pocket parks. They see what I saw in ‘67. Give them a few years, and they too will fret over the changes happening around them.

Gosnold at Smoking Rocks, by William Allen Wall

I’ll start with the first written description of Cape Cod.

The fifteenth day we had again sight of the land, which made ahead, being as we thought an island, by reason of a large sound that appeared westward between it and the main, for coming to the west end thereof, we did perceive a large opening, we called it Shoal Hope. Near this cape we came to fathom anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod. Here we saw sculls of herring, mackerel, and other small fish, in great abundance.

So wrote Gabriel Archer in his 1602 chronicle of the discoveries made by the crew of the bark Dartmouth, captained by the early English explorer, privateer and barrister, Bartholomew Gosnold. The peninsula Gosnold had named after the codfish was a deposit of debris that had been left 15,000 years before by the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet.  It was back then what it is today, about 339 square miles (880 km2) in size, situated in southern New England, and sticking out into the North Atlantic like a giant arm flexing its muscle. Cape Cod is where the tropical waters of the Gulf Stream begin to angle towards the British Isles.

It should be mentioned that five years after this discovery Archer and Gosnold were on their way further south to establish Britain’s first settlement in North America, Jamestown, Virginia. However, their navigating about Cape Cod was not about colonization. It was about sassafras, which at that time it was believed to be a cure for syphilis. Their enterprise was blessed, for sassafras was, and still is, in great abundance on Cape Cod. Soon, the Dartmouth was loaded up with it and other New World exotica, including sealskins that they had traded for with the resident Wampanoag tribe.  

Some 200 years later, Henry David Thoreau made his own discoveries of the area. He wrote a book about it which he named…Cape Cod. This writing concerned Thoreau’s meanderings through the dunes and beaches of Gosnold’s now distant discovery. Starting in 1849, he made a total of four trips to the Cape. I wonder if it was during one of his coach rides to the peninsula that it first occurred to him that,

The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side. At present, it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.

Indeed, this time came and, contrary to Thoreau’s speculations, Cape Cod proved to be very agreeable to the fashionable world. It was all in the works before Thoreau took his near-legendary 30-mile beach walk from his lodgings in Wellfleet up to Provincetown, the very tip of Cape Cod. One year before, the Cape Cod Railroad Company had completed track from Boston to Wareham, Cape Cod. By 1854, the train had moved further into the peninsula to Hyannis Port, where you could catch a ferry to the two large and very posh islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. By 1872, train tracks had joined the fishing port of Woods Hole to this network of rail. If Thoreau had postponed his 1849 trip to the summer of 1873, he could have gone from Wellfleet to Provincetown seated in a first-class compartment.

In 1916, the Cape Cod Canal was constructed, connecting Buzzards Bay with Cape Cod Bay. This created a shorter route for shipping between America’s cities. Even though the town’s folk of Wareham still insist they are part of Cape Cod, the canal effectively cut them off and turned the Cape’s peninsula into an island. The world’s widest sea level canal now made the town of Wareham’s posturing a bit hard to believe.

Then came the automobile, and something had to be done to get all of those cars across the 480 feet of ocean that now separated Wareham from the towns of Bourne and Sagamore on the other side. Two large bridges were erected to span the gap for the motoring public. Ma and Pa could now leave Boston with the kids and be sunning themselves on a beach in less than an hour and a half.

Nobska Light, Woods Hole

By 1957, Patti Page had commemorated this mobility in her hit recording, Old Cape Cod. Is it surprising that it went to number three on the pop charts?

If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air
Quaint little villages here and there
(You’re sure)
You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod
(Cape Cod, that old Cape Cod)

Of course, Patti Page had never set foot on Cape Cod. However, her hit tune did herald in the tourist season, with the Cape’s population doubling between Memorial Day (last Monday in May) and Labor Day (first Monday in September). The current population rises from 250,000 people in the winter to about half a million by mid-summer. Mind you, the population was just shy of 5,000 when Thoreau first engaged upon his speculations.

It was the well-heeled who first took advantage of summering on Cape Cod. They would be met at the stations by local residents who were learning that by driving tourists to their summer homes or seaside inns that they could make more money off of them than by pursuing fishing, whaling, working at the salt works, raising merino sheep, or working in the guano processing plant. They also discovered that by selling off their coastal lands, they could unload what they saw as unbuildable land upon gullible rich people. No sensible Cape Codder would build a home right where the hurricanes and nor’easters made landfall. That was scrap land that could provide a tidy profit if sold. And though the strawberry fields were great sources of revenue, developing them into quarter acre housing projects for summer people would make you rich.

Ever accelerating environmental fragmentation was in full swing. Of course, it had been going on for centuries when the railroads took the gentler routes, laying track upon earthen dikes that cut through the centre of the salt marshes. This had the effect of restricting and choking the natural tidal flow into the marshes.

With the new service-oriented economy, grass lands were abandoned. This started a succession of pioneering species of trees that began to occupy the pasture lands; pin oak, and pitch pine, followed by white oak and white pine and, more recently, beeches. Back in the days of the Pilgrims, the now endangered Atlantic white cedar swamps had been timbered for durable fence posts. Red maple swamps were dug out to make room for the planting of cranberries. By the middle of the 20th century, almost every creek and rivulet on Cape Cod had a succession of cranberry bogs with agricultural earthen dikes to capture and retain the streams’ waters so as to protect the frost-sensitive vines in winter. However, the control over these waterways had always been contentious. River herring, blueback and alewife, are anadromous fish. Like salmon, they are spawned in fresh water and then return to the ocean to mature. As long as there has been a Cape Cod, herring have worked their way up the rivulets to spawn in lakes as far as four miles from the coast. These fish have always been prized as a food, as bait, and for their iridescent scales which were once ground into a paste for the nineteenth century faux pearl industry.

Mills, both grist and woolen, had been constructed along the herring routes well before George III was king of the area. By 1806, the free passage of herring became a cause célèbre in the town of Falmouth. Angry men congregated upon the town green to protest the restriction of herring. To show their collective disapproval, they took hold of one of two cannons stationed there, which had formerly been used on British troops that had attempted a landing in 1779, filled it with gunpowder, loaded it with herring, and then fired to the fuse. Lamentably, the cannon burst, killing one of the gunners. However, by the time of the American Civil War, a by-law was established restricting the times the mills could operate, allowing herring passage during the mill’s down time.

First days of the U. S. Fisheries Commission

Before the railroad had arrived in Woods Hole, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Fullerton Baird, had launched the nation’s first national conservation agency there, the United States Fisheries Commission. This sleepy little fishing village soon featured a large complex of research buildings, research vessels and fish pens for the purpose of studying and replenishing the ocean’s depleted fish stocks. The United States Fisheries Commission eventually would become the National Marine Fisheries Service. Baird’s commission soon was engaged in hatching and distributing over 200 billion commercial fish species, including the illustrious cod. Regrettably, despite these pioneering efforts, cod landed poundage continued to drop, from 300 million pounds to 70 million pounds by 1941. Overfishing and natural predation had taken its toll.

With the arrival of the Fish Commission, marine-based research facilitates established themselves in Woods Hole. In 1888 came the Marine Biological Laboratory, which now boasts 58 Nobel laureates.  In 1930, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was established. Its deep-sea submersible, Alvin, is now world famous.

Aerial view of Woods Hole today

Perhaps the two biggest impacts on Cape Cod’s environment were the establishments of the U.S. Army’s Camp Edwards in 1911, followed by Otis Air Force base in 1938. The joint military reservations still cover 21,000 acres. These bases provided training for troops deployed during World War II, and served as a forward air base on New England’s east coast. They also contained a Bomarc base (guided surface-to-air missiles, in service 1959-1972, named by combining Boeing with Michigan Air Research Center), and a Cold War early warning system, known as PAVE Paws (Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased Array Warning System, in service 1980-1995). In later years, the United States Coast Guard air wing was established there, and used for fisheries surveillance, drug interdiction and search and rescue.

Unfortunately, the military practices on the bases caused extreme environmental degradation: jet fuel fire training for fire departments (pouring jet fuel about and setting it off), onsite burial of discarded military weaponry, and a very large fuel leak that was known about and ignored for decades. The military’s reaction to their pipeline leak was to increase the fuel budget to offset the loss due to leakage. Fuel was received from tankers tied up along the Cape Cod Canal. They pumped their holds full of petrol products into a pipeline that went to the base. Somewhere there was a leak, but who knew where? Around 1989, National Geographic featured a photo illustrating the damage due to these practices. Water from a private well in Falmouth was placed into a cigarette lighter and then set alight. Falmouth’s private wells and municipal water systems were soon discovered to be impacted by dozens of underground rivers carrying toxic plumes. Elevated levels of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and various types of cancer were more prevalent in people who used this water.

Cranberry bogs were impacted. Flooding and irrigating bogs with contaminated water was not good for the marketability of the product. The base and surrounding area were declared a federal superfund site. Since the mid-1990s, 6.7 million gallons of ground water a day from numerous locations have been extracted and filtered through activated charcoal and reinjected into the aquifer.

As fuel was being secreted into the Cape’s soils, its shores were also being assaulted. Fuel spills from wrecked and holed barges in Buzzards Bay, on the west side of Cape Cod, became common. In 1969, the barge Florida disgorged 189,000 gallons of number 2 bunker fuel onto the shores of West Falmouth. It was followed by the barge TB/ST-85, Bouchard 65, the liner Bermuda Star, and finally by the Bouchard 120. In total, about a half million gallons spilled over fifty years. This made West Falmouth’s  140-acre Great Sippewissett Salt Marsh, where so much of this came ashore, the most intensively researched saltmarsh in the world.

At the time of the Florida grounding I had been living in Falmouth for about two years. I could smell the oil on the winds that came off of Buzzards Bay. The Cape was all a-bustle, not with concern over the spill since little was known about such things back then, but because the tourist season was about to end. The locals were looking forward to their well-deserved rest.

Falmouth church, which Quakers were expected to attend (on pain of forfeiting a cow)

There was a time when West Falmouth Quakers were required to attend the Puritan services in the big white church on the village green. If they didn’t they would have to forfeit a cow. However, by the summer of 1969 things had gotten more relaxed. This was the year of the Woodstock Festival, the Summer of Love. Like the farmer’s field in Woodstock, New York, Falmouth was full to capacity. Tourists wearing bellbottom trousers and apple-seed necklaces, with kerchiefs tied about their foreheads, sauntered down the sidewalks to investigate the numerous headshops the town had to offer. There were also tailored Nehru jackets available for those who had left their sports coats and ties back in New York City.

The Vietnam War was in full swing. In the evening hours, servicemen from the bases would be bused in by the hundreds and left outside the discothèques and bars that ran from Main Street Falmouth to the seaside community of Falmouth Heights.

For the year-round resident, selling trinkets to the tourists, feeding them, helping them to get drunk, renting them houses was where the money was at. Cheap summer bungalows were being quickly nailed up and rented out at outrageous prices. The bartenders, waiters and waitresses were mostly college students, who would be crammed into these bungalows, and work the summer to pay their rent, and to afford their parties at night. Partying was what the whole town did. The Falmouth Police Department doubled with part-time police officers, mostly school teachers and college students. Those assigned the evening shift beats would often walk two abreast with long wooden clubs in front of the biker-bars and the rougher saloons.

At one o’clock all came to a close. In Falmouth Heights over a thousand drunks would be ejected onto the neighbouring beaches. There were two vehicles specifically assigned to break up parties. Mass arrests for revelling could reach as high as 300 people. A fleet of school buses would drive the arrestees to the police department’s underground drive-thru, where there would be officials seated to set their bail.

At this time, I was a young man of 17, who was happier cruising about Waquoit Bay, fishing and quahoging (quahogs are hard-shell clams) with my friend whose family owned a large chunk of Seconsett Island.  They were Norwegian merchant mariners and had been living there for three generations. Considering where I had grown up, you can imagine my surprise when they announced that they had purchased a cabin in Alaska and were contemplating moving there. Why would they want to do that? “Too crowded” was their response. “The Cape isn’t what it used to be.” I had no idea what they were talking about, but I soon learned.

On April 12, 1977, I was dockside at the Boston Naval Yard with an excellent view of three impressive ships. One was Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution, which had defeated five British during the War of 1812. The other two were large Soviet fishing vessels, a 270-foot super trawler, Taras Shevchenko, and the 503-foot refrigerator-transport vessel, Antanas Snechkus. At the time, I was working my way through college by doing law enforcement for Spencer Fullerton Baird’s National Marine Fisheries Service. My job was the inspection of fishing boats as they landed in the port of New Bedford, and flying out of Otis Air Force Base to inspect the fishing grounds from the coast of Virginia to the Bay of Fundy. A lot was going on back then. Not only were hundreds of American boats from New Bedford, Gloucester and various Cape Cod ports out there, but also much larger fishing boats from Romania, Cuba, Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Foreign fleets with factory freezing motherships nearly the size of aircraft carriers scoured the ocean for fish that would be immediately turned into meal, and then into bread. It was a mammoth undertaking.

Soviet factory mothership and trawler, photographed by the author

I remember coming upon a fleet such as this at night. It was 1972 and I was a 19-year-old helmsman on the research vessel Chain out of Woods Hole. We were well off New Jersey and I didn’t expect to see city lights. The second mate explained to me that we were going to be passing through the Soviet fleet and to be careful of my helm. Soon, their nets were slowly crisscrossing ahead of our bow. I was amazed by the size of it, well over 100 ships, stacks illuminated with flood lights to show off their large golden hammer and sickles against Bolshevik red fields. The impact that this enormous fleet had had on the fishing stocks would have made Spencer Baird weep. At that time, the United States had a three-mile coastal limit, but by 1976 that limit became a presidential campaign issue. New England fishermen demanded a two-hundred-mile limit and newly elected President Jimmy Carter gave it to them. The United States control over the fishing grounds was extended out 200 miles. This meant international treaties were no longer in effect, and newly crafted U.S. laws would prevail. Within hours of the official extension of U.S. territorial waters, Coast Guard cutters on Georges Bank were getting radio calls from American fishermen about perceived foreign violations. There were careers to be made here, and Coast Guard captains scampered about to be the first to seize a Soviet vessel. Those two Soviet vessels I saw on the dock had just been seized by Coast Guard cutters.

The captain’s log of the Taras Shevchenko indicated that the captain was over his allotted bycatch of river herring by about a ton. The Antanas Snechkus was alleged to have prohibited ocean perch aboard. My job was to go through all of the frozen boxes on the Taras Shevchenko and tabulate the catch of river herring. The ship had a dead weight exceeding 1,000 tons for its boxed fish. It took me and another enforcement officer two days, without a break, to find that the vessel was over by a little more than a ton.

The Antanas Snechkus was released the next day. The alleged ocean perch was red hake, which they were allowed. The vessel left unfurling a large red flag with a hammer and sickle, to the tune of the Communist Internationale – while Taras Shevchenko’s captain sat in his stateroom crying. His boat was being seized, and there would be additional fines. When he returned home he would be charged with larceny from the Soviet Union for the amount of the cost of the boat and the fines. While all of this was going on, three American fishing boats were in the haddock and cod spawning grounds off Provincetown. Unfortunately, all available enforcement units were out chasing Russians. Even with a 200-mile limit, by the 1990s, the U.S. Northeast fisheries had collapsed.

But at the time there was some good news. I was on a Coast Guard Albatross flying a fishing patrol, not very far from the island of Nantucket, when we saw a pod of sperm whales. We sent in our report and it was confirmed by a second sighting. I was later told that this was the first time sperm whales had been seen in the area since the 1840s, when they were all fished out and American whalers from Cape Cod, New Bedford and Nantucket had to go as far as the Pacific to find them.

After I graduated from Northeastern University, I worked for a time as a roughneck in the Texas oil patch. By 1980, I was a police officer in Falmouth. Then, starting in 1990, I became the director of the Falmouth Department of Natural Resources. This was when I began to see in detail the environmental changes going on around me. For the next twenty-one years I was responsible for the management of a 54.5 square mile area of Cape Cod. This included 68 miles of coastline, fourteen coastal ponds, and harbors, numerous streams and inland lakes and forests.

With the 1990’s, there came a new change to the economic character of Falmouth. The discotheques and bars failed. Restaurants became more upscale. The summer rentals started to dry up as an older generation, many of whom had come to party here in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, came back to retire. Small coastal homes, known as saltboxes, started to be knocked down to make room for what became derisively known as McMansions. They were two-and-a-half storey homes which occupied most of their postage stamp size lots and blocked out the ocean views of the smaller homes behind them. Docks went in everywhere, not only to add to the seaside ambience, but also to add significantly to the property retail value.

People coming from an urban or suburban environment normally wanted to replicate their suburban back yards on their new coastal frontage. So, native coastal vegetation had to be replaced with chemically enhanced, vividly green, lawns that extended to the ocean’s edge. Stone armouring was then demanded to prevent the surf from damaging the newly acquired turf. Cape Cod towns had and still have conservation departments charged with mitigating the negative aspects of coastal construction. It was considered axiomatic that if you had enough money to appeal their decisions, and time to go judge shopping, you would eventually get your way. Up until the 1970s, jetties had been a common fixture for oceanfront homes. However, following the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act, their new construction was forbidden. Built out into the ocean to catch the tidal flow of sand, these jetties were constructed to nourish private beaches. They would catch, then funnel, suspended sand back to an exclusive location. Of course, next door neighbours’ private beaches were now being deprived of naturally deposited sand. In defence of their beaches, they built jetties a little further out to catch their fair share. The process would work itself from neighbour to neighbour, becoming an aggregate known as groyne fields.

Among my department’s duties was protecting the ever-controversial herring. Come early spring they would make their way out of the ocean and up the small streams as far as four miles, to interior lakes where they would spawn and then drop back to the ocean. In the fall, the fry would follow their parents into the sea. Sounds simple, but theirs was a torturous route full of hazards that required our constant vigilance and shepherding. Many of the runs had been paved over, requiring the fish to move through culverts, down the storm drains of municipal streets, and under parking lots. Muskrat soon learned to regard the storm drains as excellent habitat for catching herring. Even a ferry employee was discovered fishing at work by lifting a manhole cover and dipping his net into the water.

Once in the open country, they would have to navigate through the numerous cranberry bogs. There they would be subject to pesticide misapplications, or to being chewed up by the thousands as they were sucked into large irrigation pumps and then spat back upon the bogs. Large municipal wells and big volume golf course irrigation systems would draw down on the water table and maroon them in their (now) dried out rivulets.

Just like in 1806, there were competing interests with different commercial and municipal demands. People still fished for herring. Not till the mid-1990s was there an inshore limit on herring. Today, there is a complete ban; a moratorium intended to replenish their stocks has been extended year after year for fifteen years.

The reverse of the anadromous herring is the catadromous Atlantic eel. They spawn out at sea, the Sargasso Sea to be specific. The young eels drift with the currents until they come to the same streams that the adult herring had followed. Working their way up the streams, in a juvenile translucent gooey state known as glass eels, they head to the lakes to mature into elvers. Then, like the herring, they drop back to the harbours, becoming silver sides before heading out into the open ocean as mature eels. The wrinkle within this reproductive equation is that Japanese cuisine prizes glass eels. Their aquaculture grows them in lightless environments to produce translucent sushi and sashimi. The price per kilo for glass eels is a staggering amount, and catching them is illegal. Consequently, monitoring the runs at night, when glass eels are on the move, is imperative. Fishermen from as far away as coastal Maine would come down and set up illegal fyke bag-nets to trap them.

Hunting and freshwater fishing in Falmouth became primarily put and take. The Massachusetts Division of Fish and Game would grow out trout of various species and stock our rivers and ponds monthly. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries had a scheme that still exists today. They dredge up quahogs from coastal waters where there is a high level of contamination and then sell them to Cape communities at bargain prices to be replanted in their coastal ponds.

The idea, in theory, was that in a year’s time the clams would flush out any contaminants. The law enforcement of the various Cape communities could keep an eye on them till they were ready for consumption. New Bedford was the main source for these shell fish. However, New Bedford was and still is a superfund federal clean-up site. It is one of the worst due to its abundance of polychlorinated biphenyl, a carcinogen. Though the state gave its assurances that meat samples would be taken and tested, we opted to grow our own shellfish. Bacteria does depurate, but not heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, once used as insulating materials in electrical and industrial equipment, banned in the US in 1979). Under the state’s plan, shellfish was thrown into closed areas for depuration. Even so, many commercial shell fishermen would sneak in at night and dig them up. Sharing New Bedford’s contaminated quahogs devolved into an aquatic version of an Easter egg hunt. To grow our own quahogs, we started with microscopic seed which we placed in what are called “upwellers” (ocean water is pumped through a series of chambers supplying food and oxygen). Once the quahogs are the size of your little fingernail, they are scattered about viable clam flats.

By far, the most unusual of these put and take operations is the Crane Wildlife Management Area’s upland game season hunt. The Crane Wildlife Management Area is a 2,000-acre state owned and operated hunting preserve. It is maintained much like a golf course for hunters, with multiple fields surrounded by a matrix of forest. There are numerous gates leading into the section dedicated to pheasant as well as a 400-acre area dedicated to quail. For six weeks, three times a week, farm-raised pheasant and quail are brought up from New Jersey. The quail come in boxed coveys, packed much like Christmas tree bulbs. No one knows which fields contain the birds or on what days they would arrive. There is always quite a free-for-all at official sunrise. Everyone wants to be the first hunter to have at them. Some hunters would sneak in early to hide. Hundreds of hunters and their dogs, most of whom had come over the bridges of the Cape Cod Canal, would dash through the gates when official time was called. Generally, by noon, all the birds had been killed as well as much of what was flying about. Often there were heated disputes over who shot the birds, and occasionally hunters were badly injured by birdshot.

On a positive note, there have been some impressive changes to the area’s environment. The deer population has been growing, and is much larger than when Bartholomew Gosnold first visited these shores. In 1698, an official deer season had been enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and by 1718 there was a three-year prohibition on hunting deer. Now that so much of the state has been suburbanized, the network of roads and houses makes deer hunting in densely packed communities difficult. Laws prohibit the discharging of shotguns within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling, or within 150 feet of a road. The broken landscape of lawns and ornamental bushes with nearby woodland cover provides an excellent habitat for deer and many midsize mammals, like raccoons, opossums, skunks and rabbits. Moose and bear have been drifting down from northern New England. In 2012 a bear walked over the Sagamore Bridge and made its way all the way out to the Cape’s tip, before it was captured and sent packing. In 2008 a manatee came nosing into Quissett Harbor. Another one came to the Cape the following year. Otters, which hadn’t been seen in Falmouth since the 1940s, swam the four-mile-wide sound between Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth, and according to some old fur trappers, reoccupied the exact same lakes that they had been trapped in decades before.

The eastern coyote, a cross between the smaller western coyote and the red wolf, began drifting south and appeared in Falmouth in the late 1980s. Within a few short years, the population increased so that mother coyotes were giving birth under garden sheds, crawl spaces of summer homes and beneath pool houses. Falmouth had the dubious distinction of having the first suburban denning coyotes. Unfortunately for the coyote, their omnivorous feeding activities includes free range domestic cats. That created a public demand for their extirpation. Laws were soon put in place to allow the hunting of coyotes up to midnight. Please note that going out into the woods at night on a “shots fired possible hunter” call is a source of dyspepsia for most natural resource officers. In one case, a man who had lost his cat to a coyote, set out to make himself a coyote fur bed throw and had up to twenty-one pelts at last count. The litter size of coyotes is dependent upon the availability of food. If you reduce their numbers that means more food and larger spring litters. About half a million coyotes have been killed yearly in the U.S. This culling project has been going on since 1931 and their numbers have only increased. In 2019, the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department banned coyote hunting competitions offering prizes.

Ospreys have come back in great abundance. The Falmouth Department of Natural Resources erected its first osprey nesting platform in the late 1980s. It soon had a nesting pair. In less than a decade, Falmouth had over fifty nesting pairs. Soon it became fashionable for seaside residences to erect their own. Today, ospreys nest on scores of platforms, athletic field light stands, telephone poles and harbour spindles. Bald eagles, not to be outdone by their osprey cousins, just nested in the neighbouring town of Mashpee. It is the first eagle’s nest on Cape Cod in a century.

The author (left) shopping on Main Street, Falmouth

Wild turkeys were reestablished by Fisheries and Wildlife at Camp Edwards in 1985. Absent since 1851, they quickly fanned throughout Falmouth. Now habituated to suburbia, our turkeys chase postal officials on their appointed rounds, or block traffic to a standstill in the centre of town. Mink and marten, not seen in recent memory, are now showing up as roadkill. In the area of the Cape Cod Bay, the 842-square mile Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, has been up and running for decades, preserving and enhancing the once depleted whale populations.

Laws have been enacted requiring double hulled oil barges in Buzzards Bay. Most of the railroad tracks have been paved over and converted to municipal bike paths. The National Marine Life Center in Bourne now provides medical treatment for our local sea turtles and injured or sick marine mammals. Before their creation, seals and whales were carted into a special marine mammal ambulance, then whisked away to the New England Aquarium in Boston. On a similar note, the Humane Society of the United States has a wildlife treatment centre in the town of Barnstable, where they routinely receive, treat and release injured wildlife.

Grampus whale being rescued, Quissett Harbor

The governmental body, the Cape Cod Commission, has been able to secure a 1% sales tax on real estate transactions, much of which is dedicated to acquiring woodland. The town of Falmouth has met its goal of 25% of the town to be held in public open space. Through the work of private land protection charities, more land is being acquired.

Waquoit Bay has become a protected National Estuarine Research Reserve. The 1972 prohibition on killing marine mammals created a dramatic increase in seals throughout the Cape. With an abundance of seal meat, great white sharks have returned and now cruise along the beaches populated by beachgoers. Falmouth Natural Resources had the distinction of being involved in the relocation of the area’s first great white, trapped in an estuary just off Woods Hole.

In an attempt to improve coastal water quality, the town of Falmouth has started a pilot project in Little Pond, Falmouth. It was once described by a shellfish constable as a coastal pond that might be better off filled in. Today a successful operation, using aquaculture to remove nitrogen from the water, has dramatically improved the health of the pond. Last year, 750,000 oysters, suspended in bags, were raised there, and later relayed to other waters. In addition, 1.7 million quahogs were grown in upwellers and field planted, as well as 150,000 bay scallops.

Oysters in Little Pond

Still, as I read that the two bridges spanning Cape Cod are to be replaced because they cannot support the level of seasonal traffic, and as I look out my back door where there used to be a woodland and see seven new homes, I wonder what my newcomer neighbours will be thinking about Cape Cod 53 years from now.

I weep for you,” the Walrus said: 
“I deeply sympathize.” 
With sobs and tears he sorted out 
Those of the largest size, 
Holding his pocket-handkerchief 
Before his streaming eyes. 
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, 
“You've had a pleasant run! 
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none— 
And this was scarcely odd, because 
 They’d eaten every one”. (Lewis Carroll)

2 thoughts on “When gentlemen adventurers step ashore

  1. What an interesting article, Mark. I live on the Cape and I learned a lot about it reading this. It is good to know that people like you serve in Falmouth’s Department of Natural Resources, looking out for the public interest.

  2. Olivann Hobbie, October 23, 2020
    You have some fascinating material here, Mark, both the historical background and the natural history information. Your love of the Cape and of living systems comes across clearly. We need to do still more to protect our land and waters.

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