Thoreau Walks The Cape

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The tableland is broken by small valleys, known on the Cape as hollows. They were formed by rivers running down from the face of the retreating glacier. These partial breaks in the sandy cliffs were used by wreckers and stranded seamen, as they are used by beachgoers today. At dusk on the first day of their walk, Thoreau and Channing turned into Newcomb Hollow and knocked on a door to ask for lodging. Had he been traveling alone, Thoreau might have chosen to sleep under the sky, but Channing liked a roof over his head. At the house they were welcomed by a garrulous old man who kept them up until late at night, telling them about his youth (he had heard the guns of Bunker Hill across Massachusetts Bay) and about his life as a Wellfleet oysterman. The next morning, while waiting for breakfast, the old man resumed his stories, pausing to aim streams of tobacco juice at the fireplace, where cakes, doughnuts, applesauce, and eels were warming. In describing the scene Thoreau tells how he and Channing tried to pick out the dishes farthest removed from the oysterman’s line of fire.

That day Thoreau and Channing crossed the Cape to have a look at the bay side. Instead of a wild beach, they found a settled shore with fishermen’s houses and fields. Though the water is often warmer in the bay, its fish include more northern species brought down by the Labrador Current, whereas the ocean side has more southern species swept up by the Gulf Stream. On the bay side, as on the ocean side, the shoals are full of surprises. Old maps show Billingsgate Island, then an apparently solid piece of land outside Wellfleet Harbor, with houses, a church, a school, and a lighthouse. Early in this century the island disappeared beneath the sea. At low tide you can still see the tumbled foundation blocks of this small Atlantis.

Forage was too poor on the outer Cape, Thoreau noted, to support cows or sheep, and for that reason there were no fences running down into the water. Today he would not walk far along any private shorefront in Massachusetts without seeing fences, put up not to keep cows from roving but to keep people from trespassing. In Massachusetts, as in five other Atlantic coastal states, property rights run down to the low-water mark, thus making the beach private at all tides. The rights, originally granted by the colonial legislature, were reaffirmed in 1814 by a Massachusetts court in these words: “The owner of the adjoining land may, whenever he pleases, inclose, build, and obstruct to low-water mark, and exclude all mankind.”

On most shores of the Cape the walls of privilege are not as daunting as they are, say, north of Boston, but if you drive across the causeway to Oyster Harbors, you will be stopped by a guard who will step out of his gatehouse to ask which of the du Ponts or Mêlions or other residents you wish to see. In some other places the No Trespassing signs are more wishful than threatening. Indeed, on the bay side around Brewster the tide goes out so far that any pretense of private property disappears. It is not practical to claim ownership of the tidal zone when the tidal zone extends half a mile from shore.

Just before sunset Thoreau and Channing walked back across the Cape, which is only two miles wide at Truro, to spend the night with the keeper of Highland Light. This famous lighthouse stands on the highest and wildest stretch of the shore. Here the coastal cliff takes the brunt of gales so fierce that Thoreau, who knew both places, compared them with the famous winds on the top of Mount Washington. The storms that blow against the Cape have combined with the shoals around it to make these waters a deathtrap for ships—more than three thousand of them by some counts.

The highlands have always been a vantage point from which to sight any ships approaching land. If the Wampanoag Indians were watching at the right times in the early years of the seventeenth century, they very likely saw the ships of Samuel de Champlain, down from Canada, and of Capt. John Smith, up from Virginia, and of the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who in 1602 named the Cape for its most abundant fish. On a morning in early November 1620, they could hardly have missed the Mayflower , for Capt. Christopher Jones sailed directly toward the highlands and then, finding shallow water, turned south along the shore, only to end up in the swirling currents of Pollock Rip, off Chatham. Champlain, by some combination of good seamanship and good luck, had got through the rip and dropped anchor in Stage Harbor, where he landed, planted a cross, and claimed the country for the king of France. But Captain Jones prudently turned back, anchored for the night, and the next day sailed around the end of the Cape to Provincetown Harbor.

From Highland Light, Thoreau saw the mackerel fleet come around the Cape “in countless numbers, schooner after schooner, until they made a city on the water.” Treacherous though the shoals might be, they afforded one of the world’s great fishing grounds. Cape Cod was a place where a boy went to sea so young that, as Thoreau remarked, he “leaps from his leading-strings into the shrouds. …”