As all hell broke loose that Friday in Boston, the beach at Morris Island stretched for miles, empty and unpeopled, like the city in lockdown. Instead of fear, the beach inspired tranquility and an almost medically-induced sense of relief at being here, away from the events we had watched unfold on the morning news. The sand stretched for a couple of miles around the spit as a stiff breeze blew in from the Atlantic. Although he was speaking of a different outer beach, the scene called to mind Henry Thoreau’s observation about the Cape, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
My mother, my son and I had come to Morris Island at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham on this April morning to look for signs of the hundreds of seals that gather on Monomoy Island, but the seals remained out of sight, on the Atlantic-facing side of the Island.
But I was not disappointed by the lack of seals, even if seals are the #1 animal on my son’s “top ten” list of animals. The sky was vast and beach rolled out in an endless carpet of sand. We could see footprints in the sandy trail we followed, but didn’t see any people until we had circled around to where the mile-plus Morris Island trail reaches the steep set of stairs which visitors descend to reach the beach.
In Salt Marsh Pond, a not-so-common common eider duck, visiting from the Arctic, rested on the surface. April’s lack of foliage, combined with the ocean and the sand, made the sky bigger.
These sands on Morris Island, at the sharpest edge of Cape Cod’s elbow, are my discovery on this spring visit. I’m sure the beach is much busier in the summer, but today this wildlife refuge feels a world apart, especially on this day of infamy.
On the bluffs above the beach, houses that could be mistaken for large hotels look out over the same view that we see. As we walk along the beach below the bluffs, we notice the fresh erosion from storms this past winter, especially the February’s Nor’easter that arrived almost exactly 35 years to the day of the Blizzard of 1978, a storm that divided Monomoy Island into the North and South Islands.
This February, the surging ocean breached Chatham’s South Beach, creating new currents that will impact this area over time. Monomoy Island once had been a peninsula, but a storm washed out the isthmus back in the 50s, and the island has been inaccessible (except by boat) since the 1950s. I tell my son that one day, when he comes back to Morris Island, those homes will be gone. Not next year, or the year after, but some day in his lifetime, the ocean is going to carve new landscapes in these shifting sands and bluffs.
In the summer months, visitors can take a small ferry 0ver to the now-unpopulated Monomoy Islands to hike the dunes and bask in the sand and try to spot the great white sharks that now appear every summer seeking their seal prey. Maybe we’ll come back on a summer day to make that trip and see those seals. I seldom visit Cape Cod during the crowds of summer, but for the seals, I might consider it.
Few visitors understand that the primary purpose of federal wildlife refuges is to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. National parks exist for people to enjoy and to protect, but refuges exist for animals. Under the refuge law, at Morris Island, the needs of wildlife trump human recreation. Hiking trails here are a privilege granted rather than a right guaranteed. On this gray day packed with ugly news bulletins created by the actions of other humans, I am grateful for the privilege of sharing this refuge with the birds and the seals.
Resources and information
For more on the history of Monomoy Island, especially the lighthouse at Monomoy Point, see Monomoy Point Lighthouse. Apparently you can arrange to stay at the Lighthouse through the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, MA.
For more on Chatham, see MyChatham.Com, with links to information about Chatham, its beaches, its history and the Monomoy Island Wildlife Refuge.