By Pat Garber
The breakers looked like droves of a thousand white horses of Neptune, rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when, at length, the sun shone for a moment, their manes were rainbow-tinted. Henry David Thoreau
Sitting on a dune near the north end of Ocracoke Island, I study Thoreau’s words, written more than 150 years ago, about the coastline of Cape Cod. I could have written the same today about the view that stretched before me.
I used to walk Ocracoke Island’s ocean beach each winter, having someone drop me off near the Hatteras Ferry, walking all day, and then bumming a ride back out South Point Road to the village. I usually did it alone, as I wanted to focus my entire attention on the space and moment I presently occupied, without distractions. Sometimes I took a canine friend, Duchess or Huck.
There is something primeval about seeing the ocean and shoreline expand before you without the refuge of a truck waiting nearby. I made mental notes and later recorded them in my journal.
While I had visited different stretches of the beach often in recent times, I had not walked the entire beach for seven years. It was after I began reading Thoreau’s classic account, “Cape Cod,” and realized that he had done exactly the same thing, walking the length of the Massachusetts cape, that I thought of doing it again myself. This time I decided to carry Thoreau’s book with me and compare his experiences with my own. Cape Cod is much longer than Ocracoke Island, so Thoreau broke his walk into several segments, taking his first walk in 1849, his last in 1857. I decided to break up my walk similarly, so as to have more time to sit down along the way and reflect on his and my experience.
Thoreau wrote, as his reason for walking, that Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two thirds of the globe…I made a visit to Cape Cod in October, 1849…I have spent, in all, about three weeks on the Cape; walked from Eastham to Provincetown twice on the Atlantic side, and once on the Bay side also, excepting four or five miles, and crossed the Cape half a dozen times on my way; but having come so fresh to the sea, I have got but little salted.
I visited Cape Cod when I was 22 years old, traveling its length in an old spray-painted-black Dodge van with Pete, a man I loved deeply (though perhaps foolishly), a boa constrictor, and a little black cat named Smut. The Cape we saw in 1972 would have been vastly different from the one Thoreau wrote about. He arrived by taking the cars for Sandwich, where we arrived before noon. This was the terminus of the Cape Cod Railroad, though it is but the beginning of the Cape…we here took that almost obsolete conveyance, the stage, for “as far as it went that day.” Pete and I spent about a week camping on Cape Cod’s beaches, but, like Thoreau, I “got but little salted.”
Now, on January 17th, 2011, I set out once again to experience a beach walk, this time through the eyes of Henry David Thoreau as well as my own. It was Martin Luther King Day, so my friend Rita, a teacher at Ocracoke School, was out of school. I asked her to follow me in her car to the parking lot across from the Ocracoke pony pen. I left my truck there and got a ride with her to the north end, where she parked near the ferry station. It had been ferociously cold the previous week, but the thermometer registered warmer temperatures now, and with heavy rains forecast for the 18th, this looked like the best day for a walk. Rita planned to go with me for a while, so she pulled on her hat and I donned my backpack and we started out along a path through the sand dunes. It quickly became apparent that “warmer” was a relative term. With heavy cloud cover and a brisk wind rushing down the beach, it was pretty darn cold. “Are you sure you want to do this, Pat?” Rita asked me. I wondered myself, but told her that I would kick myself if I gave up now.
It was low tide, and the flats at the north end stretched out before us like a maritime desert. We headed east along the dune line. The shape of Ocracoke Island has always been confusing to me, as it does not run north-south, as one might expect, but juts out into the ocean in an easterly direction. It was hard to get oriented as we hiked across these flats. We could see the village and water tower of Hatteras in the distance, as well as that long stretch of sand, part of Cape Hatteras, that extends almost to Ocracoke. Thoreau said, referring to the name Cape Cod, that I suppose that the word Cape is from the French cap; which is from the Latin caput, a head; which is perhaps, from the verb capere,–that being the part by which we take hold of a thing:–Take Time by the forelock. It is also the safest part to take a serpent by…My dictionary says that a cape is “a piece of land projecting into water.” I guessed that not only the piece of land we gazed at across the Inlet, but also this strip of sand we stood on, was technically a cape.
I stood for a moment and looked at the body of water separating us from Hatteras Island. I knew that Hatteras Inlet had not always been there. The inlet had opened and closed several times through the centuries, the last being in 1846, when a storm breached the island. Now the inlet provides access for boats heading from Pamlico Sound into the Atlantic Ocean, and a corridor for ferries traversing the short distance between Hatteras and Ocracoke. We caught sight of an Ocracoke-bound ferry as it wended its way through the channel and, turning, saw a fishing trawler head through the Inlet and out into the ocean.
Fishing was one of the topics Thoreau wrote about, saying that it had replaced the production of salt which once provided livelihoods for Cape Cod residents. Soon after passing the Highland Light(house), he described how he saw countless sails of mackerel fishers abroad on the deep, one fleet in the north just pouring round the Cape, another standing down toward Chatham…Later he described them as whitening all the sea road…it appeared as if every able-bodied man and helpful boy in the Bay had gone out on a pleasure excursion in their yachts, and all would at last land and have a Chowder on the Cape.
When Thoreau came to Cape Cod in October, 1849, his plan was to walk with a companion along that part of the Cape which is known as the Plains of Nauset. They met up immediately with a storm. We walked with our umbrellas behind us, since it blowed hard as well as rained, with driving mists…Everything indicated that we had reached a strange shore…I had seen plenty of storms at Ocracoke, and had no desire to encounter one today. I looked at the sky uneasily, hoping the weatherman had been right when he said the rain would hold off until night.
Rita and I walked along a scraggly shoreline where small, twisted and lifeless trees protruded from banks, and sargassum weed, blackened by its tumultous journey to land, draped the sand. We hopped across the stream of flowing water which gushed from a small pond, visible from the highway, that provided habitat for several species of ducks. We wandered across the salt flats for about an hour, picking up shells and bits of jetsam. I came across the remains of several jellyfish, which looked to me to be what locals here call jellyballs. Even in death their bell-like shapes and lovely translucence drew my attention. Thoreau wrote of coming across similar forms on Cape Cod, saying that The beach was also strewn with beautiful sea-jellies; which the wreckers called sun-squall, one of the lowest forms of animal life, some white, some wine-colored, and a foot in diameter. I at first thought that they were a tender part of some marine monster, which the storm or some other foe had mangled. What right has the sea to bear in its bosom such tender things as sea-jellies…? Strange that it should undertake to dangle such delicate children in its arm…
Finally reaching the ocean, Rita and I stopped to gaze offshore. The altitude at Ocracoke is not as high as that of Cape Cod, so we did not approach the sea from a bluff, but otherwise Thoreau’s description could have been ours:…then, crossing over a belt of sand on which nothing grew…we suddenly stood on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Atlantic…The waves broke on the bars at some distance from the shore, and curving green or yellow as if over so many unseen dams, ten or twelve feet high, like a thousand waterfalls, rolled in foam to the sand. There was nothing but that savage ocean between us and Europe.
It was nearing time for Rita and me to part ways, so we found a protective dune beside which to eat our tunafish sandwiches. She returned to her car and I, clutching my jacket tightly around me, continued onward along this majestic ribbon of sand where, in Thoreau’s words, everything told of the sea.
It was a very inspiriting sound to walk by, filling the whole air, that of the sea dashing against the land…Henry David Thoreau
Having wandered for more than an hour along the salt flats at Ocracoke Island’s north end, I set out to walk in earnest. Thoreau’s account of his own beach walk, recorded in his book “Cape Cod,” was tucked in the top of my pack, within easy reach. The music of the waves breaking to my left was, as Thoreau had written, an inspiriting sound.
The wind was at my back, not a hard wind but one that sent the fine grains of sand scittering ahead of me, low to the ground, and produced the illusion that the land itself was in motion.
Thoreau described the wind as he and his companion trekked across what he called the Cape’s wrist: to face a migrating sand-bar in the air, which has picked up its duds and is off, to be whipped with a cat, not o’nine-tails, but of a myriad of tails, and each with a sting to it…I have encountered many such winds, but the wind this day was gentler, and a pleasure to walk with.
Before long I noticed that I had companionship on my journey. A pod of bottlenose dolphins were making their way along the beach, their graceful forms rising and falling just on the other side of the breakers. The ocean was a busy place here, with brown pelicans riding air currents above the waves and herring gulls splashing in the grey waters. The headlong plunges of gannets, big elegant white birds with black wing-tips, a little farther out, convinced me that the fishing must be great here. I set my pace to keep up with the dolphins, slowing down when they ran into better fishing, hurrying up when they moved ahead of me. They stayed beside me (or I by them) for about a mile, at which time they and the feasting birds disappeared. I think my traveling pals must have turned around and returned to the rich fishing grounds. As I continued my southwestern trek I saw quite a few other dolphins, but most were heading back toward Hatteras, and I can’t help wondering if they had heard, via dolphin language, where the best dinner was being dished up.
Thoreau’s encounter with cetaceans was not so pleasant to read about. Whaling was legal in 1849, and an important source of income on the Cape. Thoreau described the harvest of “blackfish” (probably similar to what we call pilot whales, a kind of dolphin) which he came across near Provincetown: In the summer and fall sometimes, hundreds of blackfish (the Social Whale…called also the Black Whale-fish, Howling Whale, Bottlehead, etc), fifteen feet or more in length, are driven ashore in a single school here. I witnessed such a scene in July, 1855…I counted about thirty blackfish, just killed, with many lance wounds, and the water was more or less bloody around…The fisherman slashed one with his jackknife, to show me how thick the blubber was,–about three inches; and as I passed my finger through the cut it was covered thick with oil. The blubber looked like pork, and this man said that when they were trying it the boys would come sometimes round with a piece of bread in one hand, and take a piece of blubber in the other to eat with it…
“Trying” the blubber meant, I knew, heating it to render the oil. Here on Ocracoke, dolphins had been harvested in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their blubber “tried” for lamp oil. Try Yard Creek, one of the saltwater creeks which partially bisect the island and which I would be passing today, received its name from this practice.
Other than Rita, I had seen no other humans since I had left the village of Ocracoke. Having the beach to myself was wonderful, and I found my thoughts reflected in Thoreau’s description of his1857 walk:…that solitude was sweet to me as a flower. I sat down on the boundless level and enjoyed the solitude, drank it in, the medicine for which I had pined…
The shore I walked now was barely recognizable as that which I had traversed seven years ago, but that came as no surprise. Ocracoke’s shoreline changes shape with every hurricane, every nor’easter that churns her sands. Barrier islands are always on the move, migrating westward toward the mainland and sharing sand up and down the beaches. It is not a new phenomenon, as reflected in the following observation made by Thoreau. As I looked over the water, I saw the isles rapidly wasting away, the sea nibbling voraciously at the continent…” Later in the book he remarked, Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape, it gives to another,–robs Peter to pay Paul.
There were not as many birds along this stretch of beach. An occasional squadron of pelicans, flying in formation just above the waves, passed by on occasion, and I saw a great black-backed gull sitting near the dune line. Swooping across the water, too far away to identify, were a few gulls, no doubt searching for fish. Thoreau wrote about gulls he saw on the beach at Cape Cod in October, 1849, saying Mackerel-gulls were all the while flying over our heads and amid the breakers, sometimes two white ones pursuing a black one…and we saw that they were adapted to their circumstances rather by their spirits than their bodies. Theirs must be an essentially wilder, that is less human nature, than that of larks and robins….
Being unfamiliar with a bird called mackerel-gull, I had, upon reading “Cape Cod” earlier, looked it up in my bird books. I read that in Massachusetts this name was sometimes used for the common tern. I think it would have been unlikely for common terns to be at Cape Cod in October, and I don’t know that there are black ones and white ones; so I wonder if mackerel-gull might have been a generic name Thoreau used for gull-like birds. There could have been several gulls that met his description. His thoughts about their wild spirits does, however, put me more in mind of the graceful terns than of the more pragmatic gulls.
As I followed the shore, I became intrigued by a proliferation of what looked like artistic drawings in the sand, in varying shapes and colors, a few yards my side of the tide line. They were somewhat circular but very irregular, sometimes connected, with two or three rings composed of differing colors of sand. Some resembled little people or strange creatures. I had seen them before, though never in such numbers, and knew that their formation was due to interactions of wind, water and slope with sands of differing weights and textures. With such variety and somewhat ghoulish shapes, it was easy to imagine an artistic sense of humor behind their design.
Thoreau did not describe the same sand art I saw, but a similar phenomenon which I have often noted in my beach explorations. Talking about beach grass (Psamma arenaria) he wrote: As it is blown about by the wind, while it is held fast by its roots, it describes myriad circles in the sand as accurately as if they were made by compasses.
Farther down the beach, I came upon the timbers of an old shipwreck, its bones laid open to view by recent wind and water. I recalled another beachwalk I had taken, when the wreckage of a 74 foot fishing trawler had littered the shoreline I walked. I turned to Thoreau’s words: The sea, vast and wild as it is, bears thus the waste and wrecks of human art to its remotest shore. There is no telling what it may not vomit up….perhaps a piece of some old pirate’s ship, wrecked more than a hundred years ago, comes ashore to-day.
Several years later, again exploring Cape Cod, Thoreau described coming upon an old shipwreck. Soon after leaving Newcomb’s Hollow, I passed a hulk of a vessel about a hundred feet long, which the sea had cast up in the sand…half buried, like a piece of driftwood. Apparently no longer regarded. It looked very small and insignificant under that impending bank.
I was nearing the place where, on the other side of the dunes, I had left my truck. The rain was falling harder and I was anxious to reach shelter, but I took a moment more to stand and gaze at the surf. The tide was coming in, and each wave, as it thrashed its way toward land, seemed intent on out-racing the last. I thought of Thoreau’s description of standing on the shore at Cape Cod ..Before the land rose out of the ocean, and became dry land, chaos reigned; and between high and low water mark, where she is partially disrobing and rising, a sort of chaos reigns still, which only anomalous creatures can inhabit…
P 220 lack of trees that used to be there
On page 198 Thoreau describes how sand-hills are made.
beyond this stretched the unwearied and illimitable ocean…
At intervals I came across little flocks of gulls, all hunkered down next to the water line and facing the same direction. As I approached they would fly up and circle around, then return to the same relative positions.
Thoreau wrote of his 1857 excursion that At East Harbor River, as I sat on the Truro end of the bridge, I saw a great flock of mackerel gulls, one hundred at least, on a sandy point, whitening the shore there like so many white stones…They had black heads, light bluish-slate wings, and light rump and tail and beneath. From time to time all or most would rise and circle about with a clamor, then settle down on the same spot close together.
None of my bird books mention a bird by the name of “mackerel gull”
also gulls p 73
Near the Airport Ramp I stop to pick up a half-deflated yellow balloon with ribbon attached; the remnant of someone’s birthday party or wedding perhaps, carried by the wind and deposited here on the sand. The next storm tide might wash it into the sea, where it would float upon the waves, an amazing imitation of a jellyfish, favorite food of leatherback and other sea turtles. Dinner, snatched up by a passing leatherback, and a death sentence as well. Sea turtle necropsies had I knew, revealed alarming numbers of turtle stomachs stopped up and entwined with balloons.
In the 1850s, when Thoreau wrote Cape Cod, less was known about the damage human activities could and were enacting upon the oceans. Even though he recorded the slaughter of the whales at , he did not comment upon it as an assault upon the Nature he revered.
A new sound meets my ear, and I turn to watch a single-engine plane take off, flying close over my head. Turning seaward, I saw a small pod of dolphins feeding, their dorsal fins rising and falling among the surf. Farther out, sun-glistened gannets, barely visible until the perfect angle when bird and sun ray met, floated in the sky. Every few seconds one would streak down toward the ocean, a meteor and disappear in a splash. Sometimes, I knew, the gannets would hit a shoal in their dive, breaking their necks. There must be menhaden of mullet out there, I guessed, to attract the dolphins and the gannets
Here were the stakes which had marked the last turtle nest of the season- a green sea turtle.
Chunks of charcoal litter the sands between the water and the dunes. This is a favorite area for bonfires on sultry summer evenings. I am guessing these are remnants of a warmer season,
A green sign with the number 85. Last time I walked this beach there were no markers to tell you where you were. The signage may be useful in many ways, but it takes away some of the sense of adventure.
The farther south I walk, the more I notice the imprints of tire tracks, reminding me of the on-going controversy regarding driving on the beach.
If you turn away from the ocean, along this stretch of the beach, you get a glimpse across the dunes of one of Ocracoke’s favorite attractions, the lighthouse. The Ocracoke Light, built in 1823, is one of the oldest on the east coast and, while not one of the tallest, it is surely one of the prettiest. Thoreau took note of the lighthouses he saw on Cape Cod, and called one chapter of his book “The Highland Light.” Built in 1798, it stood, at the time of Thoreau’s beach walk, twenty rods from the edge of the bank, and rose one hundred and ten feet above its base.
The shell hash creates an interesting pattern here-stripes lined up side by side with stripes of sand, suggesting an interesting mix of currents and substrate. Further down, the cacophony of current direction is even more apparent, as sunlight gleams on water rushing into shallow channels and around and back, cris-crossing other currents and waves.
The crash of surf is less distinct here, waves lower and longer. I am approaching Ocracoke Inlet, the channel which .