With two young kids, we've had lots of great family beach days, but haven't really had the opportunity to explore the "backcountry" areas of the several thousand acres of dunes and remote beaches. But the arrival of Grandma and Grandpa yesterday gave us a couple of hours this afternoon without the kids to explore an interesting area that I had my eye on.
Less than a 10 minute drive towards Provincetown from our vacation rental house is a fire road that heads directly east in the direction of the Atlantic. Although there are no obvious trail markers or signs, I had always noticed several cars parked along the roadside there, as though the fire road was a trailhead of sorts. I knew that it must head into the dune lands and towards the beach, and would likely prove to be an interesting area to explore.
From the roadside trailhead, the fire road leads for about 150 yards through a maritime oak forest and emerges onto a landscape of rolling sand dunes. Although the air temperature today was a very comfortable 75 degrees with low humidity, the intense sun reflected back in the sand landscape created an environment that might as well have been the Sahara. The 3 mile round-trip hike to the beach felt much like some of the hiking I've done in parts of the desert Southwest.
The trail to the beach leads through some brief areas of scrub pine and oak, mainly in low-lying areas between the dunes where moisture settles and enough organic matter can accumulate in the soil to support more than the lichen, dune grasses and other pioneering species that dominate much of the landscape. On the edge of one of these "forested" areas we caught our first up-close glimpse of one of the Provincetown dune shacks.
A short while later, an unmarked side trail led us directly to another unoccupied dune shack. The Provincetown dune shacks have always fascinated me. Around 80 years ago, in the 1930's and 40's, dune shacks were cobbled together out of driftwood and scrap lumber by squatters in the dune lands surrounding Provincetown. These shacks became a refuge of sorts for artists, adventurers and eccentrics. There is no water or electricity, and access is by foot or jeep trail. With the formation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, the dune shacks were incorporated into the lands administered by the National Park Service.
Whatever the dune shacks lack in creature comforts, they make up for it in solitude and location. Over the years the dune shacks have been occupied by poets, artists and writers such as Jackson Pollock, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams and others. The dune shack pictured above was unoccupied and appeared to be more austere than the others that we saw, but it was the one that we got the closest to. Of the twenty or so dune shacks that remain today, many are still occupied by artists under a program administered by the NPS while others are private residences grandfathered in by NPS.
The dune shacks are spread out along a line of wild outer dunes close to the beach. An encouraging sign (clearly not NPS signage) pointed the way onward, and we eventually emerged onto the gentle beach grass covered dunes which led to the ocean.
Cape Cod owes its existence to the whims of the ocean currents that sculpt its shoreline. Geologists and oceanographers estimate that within several thousand years it will no longer exist at all. Here, on a remote beach on the edge of the Atlantic with no other people in sight, we were reminded of that fact and how lucky we were to be here, now.