I was so excited to see the Cape Cod National Seashore‘s beautiful Province Lands featured on the cover of the travel section of last Sunday’s New York Times. And, even better, the wonderfully written article was not about the known treasures of that 3,500 acre thick slice of heaven curling around the tippity-top of the Cape, but was about a place that I had never visited – namely, the many glorious ponds found amongst the Province Land’s Beech Forest Trail. I vowed to check it out for myself the very next day. So, yesterday I set out on my journey with little preparation and only a copy of the Times article as my guide. And what I found was, as per usual, not exactly what I had expected.
The obvious must-do activities for a trip to Province Lands are the awe-inspiring beach at Race Point (last time I went I spotted a group of seals swimming parallel to the shoreline and there are many, somewhat distant, whale spottings that take place on the beach) and the amazing bike trail, which takes you through dunes, woods, and to the sea. But I was excited to do something a little off the beaten path, to explore what the article stated was “a two-mile-long smattering of a dozen or so freshwater ponds on the northwest tip of Cape Cod.” The vision of a swim in a fresh water pond was the real draw. Now, although I love swimming in the ocean more than anything, there is something truly exquisite about pond swimming on Cape Cod. For me, the ideal Cape day involves a long, salty afternoon at the ocean and ends with a refreshing, gentle swim in one of our many local ponds. So with my bathing suit on, the Grey Lady stuffed in my bag, and a song in my heart, I set out.
The Beech Forest Trail can be found off Race Point Road, just a half mile or so from Route 6. When I arrived, there were very few cars parked in the ample parking lot. And it was easy to figure why. Yesterday was a perfect weather day – a bright blue, cloudless sky, a slight breeze, warm, no humidity, intensely ideal – and everyone who could figure out a way would be at the beach. But not me! I would choose this Platonic ideal of a beach day to go to the woods. But what I learned is that sometimes, as John McCain can testify, being a maverick isn’t always the best plan.
The ponds that I found on the Beech Forest Trail were divine, midnight blue colored, lily-pad covered spectacles and though they were beautiful, my heart sank when I saw them because these are not swimming spots. Oh, well, I thought, I can still enjoy a nice walk in the woods. But I quickly realized that the mosquitos would make that impossible. The bugs were many in number and hungry for my flesh. I soldiered on, fortified by how amazing the New York Times article made this piece of land out to be. And it is truly glorious. The path changes from soft sand, to pine needle, to wooden walkway, and back again. The walk is full of beech trees – along with birch, white oak, juniper, and sassafras. (Though it seems that generations of visitors like to carve up the barks of many of these poor trees.)
And, more than anything, I was in awe of the very existence of these woods – hidden amongst the bright sun and white sandy dunes that surround them. At one point during my walk, I was overrun by bugs and saw a hint of pure sunshine amongst the trees, so I climbed up a small hill and, as if by magic, I took one step out of the woods and found myself in a never-ending expanse of dunes. I briefly wandered around the dunes, but decided it best to stick to my plan. Soon after my descent back into the woods, I ran into a ranger and anxiously asked if there were any ponds around here that were good for swimming. He paused, looked at me, and said, “There are some ponds in Truro.” No, I said, I mean are there any ponds in Province Lands. He said that there weren’t. “If you want to swim,” he said, “you should go to the beach.” Ah, how right he is!
But, before admitting defeat, I had a nice lunch on a platform built out onto one of the ponds. As I sat eating, a couple of people passed by. After sharing our dismay over all the mosquitos, one of them told me that these ponds freeze in the winter and are ideal ice skating spots. If that’s true, I’ll be here nonstop come winter. But, on the glorious summer day, I decided to throw in the towel, forgo my visions of pond swimming and join everyone else at the beach. I got into my car and drove to Herring Cove beach (one of the beaches in the Province Lands). I sunned and swam and rejoiced in the perfect summer day and, thankfully, there wasn’t a bug in sight. So, I guess I’ll leave the Beech Trail for the Spring, Winter, and Fall months, when the ocean water has turned cold, the bugs have buggered off, and the woods will, once again, be truly glorious.
But please, please, if you have the time, read the New York Times article. It is a wonderful written tribute to Province Lands and to the poet Mary Oliver, who loves this land more than most anyone. And also read the National Seashore literature on the Beech Woods Trail – it is full of great information on the geological freak show that is the dune ponds and how the very existence of Province Lands is one that erosion and mother nature won’t keep around that long.