Exploring Cape Cod for the first time was like a pilgrimage. Yet for many Americans, it’s a quintessential summer sojourn.
The waterfront vistas on the Cape are stunning, but it was the sand dunes that made me swoon. You see, my love for these coastal dunes actually started years before my trip. I first saw them when Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway went for their dune buggy jaunts in The Thomas Crown Affair.
Dedicated and witty National Parks volunteer Sharon Keniston took my friend and me on a guided hike in the Province Lands at Cape Cod National Seashore, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in August 2011. There, heaths and heathers piqued my interest. Sharon told us how grass is being reintroduced to help create topsoil and how heath land plants like heather, or poverty grass, are coming back on their own. These low-lying plants are quite lovely, and they’re critical for the succession (restoration) of the Cape’s signature dunes.
On our hike, we also saw earthstars, whose unique spores burst open on the ground; bayberry, whose wax is used for candles; and beach rose, an introduced plant that is now ubiquitous on the Cape. I chuckled to think of the years I’ve spent purchasing goldenrod for flower arrangements, while here they grew wild.
The Pilgrims’ desire to begin paying off their passage with lumber led them to raze the dense forests that once existed on the Cape, resulting in the barren, shifting sand dunes. In the ensuing centuries, multiple restoration projects have been attempted.
Now the Province Lands are painstakingly being planted with grasses, while the native heaths and heathers are coming back on their own. Sharon told us that the succession period to take this fragile habitat from pine (conifer) to the original hardwood (deciduous) trees may take as long as 300 years.
The ecology of the entire Cape depends on these ethereal dunes and the surrounding bogs that host hundreds of species of migratory birds, fox, deer and rabbits. On our morning hike, we saw all these animals or their tracks.
The deep love that Sharon and other Cape Codders have for the area’s unique habitat has lingered in my thoughts. Their commitment to the Cape is one of the most significant memories I brought home with me to Florida.
If you go:
Province Lands Dunes and Bogs meets at Province Lands Visitor Center, off Race Point Road in Provincetown, at 10 a.m. Wear shoes appropriate for walking in soft sand for this one hour hike. Bring water, sunscreen and insect repellant. Leave only tracks.