Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Province Lands

Approaching Race Point in Provincetown
Imagine peering out from a single vantage point and being able to see the entire coast of Massachusetts Bay! You’ve observed our state’s coastline on maps. Those same contours are visible to the naked eye from the foot of Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. I would guess that the view from the top of the 252-foot tower is even more impressive!

I was in P-town for work recently, and was fortunate to have some time to explore. I’ve always loved the drive out Route 6 to the very end of Cape Cod – the shallow lake on one side, the cottages on the other, the gigantic rolling dunes that stand in stark contrast to the water and the sky. The eastern-most tip of the state is home to the Cape Cod National Seashore, with its many outposts. Spanning sections of Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown, this National Park is comprised of 44,600 acres. Much of it is sandy beach and dunes, but there are also forests, ponds, swamps and marshes, and plenty of well-marked trails.

I was in the mood for a walk, so I made my way to the Province Lands and Race Point, which are clustered together in the northern part of P-town. It’s an appealing destination for walking, jogging, or biking -- a 5.45 mile paved loop trail traverses ponds, wooded areas and dunes, connecting the Province Lands Visitor Center and the area known as Beech Forest. In addition, there are shorter spur trails to Herring Cove Beach and to Race Point. There are large parking areas at all four stops, each free of charge except for Herring Cove (where in season, there is a fee).

As I was traveling on foot, I didn’t have time to see it all before sunset. Wishing I’d brought my bike, I settled for a 3-mile, out-and-back route from the Province Lands to Race Point, along with a plan to return the next day to walk a different section.

What I wanted to see most was the Province Lands dunes, which vary in height from 30 to over 100 feet. There are two types of sand dunes in the National Seashore. Linear dunes -- or foredunes – form just behind the beach, and serve as barriers to protect the more fragile ecosystems behind them from the force of the ocean and its winds. Parabolic dunes sit farther inland, and are much more extensive. Hollowed out by the wind, they create a succession of horseshoe shapes – waves of sand, some bare, some vegetated.

I was drawn to the dunes because I am intrigued by their variability. They are constantly in flux. While many of the sand dunes in the Province Lands are now relatively stable, some move as much as ten feet per year.

In his book Cape Cod, Thoreau likened the Cape to an upraised arm, bent at the elbow, with Provincetown as its fist. The formation of lands that comprise P-town is relatively recent in geologic terms. They developed about 5,000 years ago, as wind and currents along the shore moved sand and gravel northward. While the outer beach “arm” was reduced to nearly half its width, the area inside the “fist” grew and even developed “fingers.” 

It’s hard to imagine, but accounts from the Pilgrims indicate that 97% of the land at Provincetown was once covered by dense vegetation and mature forest. So even though the coastal sands were shifting at a relatively rapid pace, they were anchored at center by trees and shrubs. However by the time Thoreau completed his long walk to the tip of Cape Cod (1850), P-town was almost barren. Thoreau likened it to a desert.

Why the change? When European settlers arrived in the 1600s, they used a lot of wood – for homes and other buildings, plus fences, watercraft, carts. They used wood for fuel as well, and grazed their livestock on grasses and other low-lying vegetation. They removed trees, shrubs and grasses at a furious pace -- faster than they could regenerate, and thus in time, P-town was laid bare. With nothing left to anchor it, the sand blew everywhere, threatening at times to bury the town.

Eventually the settlers saw the benefits of limiting the removal of vegetation, and also learned that planting grass and shrubs would help to curb erosion. Such conservation efforts have been in practice now for well over 100 years, so quite a bit of the area is now stabilized. The National Park Service continues to plant beach grass, and promote the long-term growth of hardy bushes and trees.

I find this sort of history fascinating. It’s a common-enough story. People arrive at a place, mark their mark on it, and eventually do some damage. If the damage is extensive enough that it impacts their world to a negative degree, they may see fit to find a solution. Better still, a way to undo the damage. If they’re smart and forward-thinking, they even take measures to prevent or at least delay further damage.

A visit to the Province Lands and Race Point is well worth the trip to the outer reaches of the Cape. You can learn more by visiting the National Parks website for the Cape Cod National Seashore at

Note to cyclists: Because of the terrain – steep hills, sharp curves, low tunnels and the likelihood of sand, water, or other hazards on the trail, the speed limit in this section of the National Seashore is 10mph. That’s plenty fast for sightseers and for families with young children, but probably not a good fit for a cyclist in search of a workout. 

by Kezia Bacon
September 2016 

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Century of National Parks

Dawn on the Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon.

This summer the National Park Service of the United States celebrated its 100th birthday. A century ago, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created a federal bureau within the Department of the Interior to oversee the country’s already-existing 35 national parks and monuments, as well as any additional going forward. One hundred years later, that number has grown to 413. This includes national parks and monuments, as well as properties with a variety of other “national” classifications, such as battlefields, historic sites, rivers and seashores. To mark the centennial, this year on August 25th, President Obama designated 87,500 acres in Maine as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Four-hundred-thirteen isn’t a huge number. It’s entirely possible that a person could visit every single one of our national park properties in a lifetime. (Ambitious, but still possible.) While I doubt I’ll make it to all 413 (or more, as there’s a good chance the number will continue to rise) it’s fun to contemplate which parks I might like to see next, and why.

Why do we have national parks? They preserve wild and natural places, not only for posterity, but also as a source of national pride. The first national park in the United States – possibly the first one on the planet as well – was Yellowstone, designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. While Grant was the first president to create a federally-owned park, Theodore Roosevelt is generally known as the “conservation president.” Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks while he was in office. Perhaps more importantly, he oversaw the passing of The Antiquities Act, which gave the president unilateral power to designate national monuments as well. Creating a national park requires an act of Congress, so the passage of The Antiquities Act opened the door to significantly greater conservation efforts nationwide.

Our national parks are truly a treasure, and I encourage you to check some of them out! Here’s a series of questions to get you thinking along those lines . . . along with my own answers.

1. Have you ever visited a US National Park? Do you have a favorite? I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of them. My favorite might be Acadia, in Bar Harbor Maine, where I climbed Cadillac Mountain and rode trail bikes with my son last summer. Or maybe it’s Yellowstone, in Wyoming, because the park itself is so varied – mountains, lakes, waterfalls, geysers, mineral pools, bison roaming everywhere! Or possibly Canyonlands in Utah, even though – thanks to a 5-day whitewater rafting trip in 1993 – it’s also the setting of one of my recurring nightmares.

2. What was the first national park you visited? Mine was either the Cape Cod National Seashore or the White House, both before age ten, but the one that made the biggest impression on me, and got me paying attention to the National Parks System at an early age, was The Grand Canyon, which I traveled to with my family when I was twelve. (And again with a friend on a cross-country road trip at age twenty. . . And on another cross-country trip at 29. . . And again at 44.) Each visit revealed different aspects of the park, the canyon, the Colorado River . . . as well as varying insights into our national character.

3. Can you name the 19 National Parks, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, and other NPS properties in Massachusetts? Off the top of my head, I cannot! But here’s a list. National Historic Parks: Adams, Boston, Lowell, Minute Man, and New Bedford Whaling. National Historic Sites: Boston African American, John F. Kennedy, Longfellow House/Washington’s Headquarters, Frederick Law Olmsted, Salem Maritime, Saugus Iron Works, and Springfield Armory. National Scenic Trail: Appalachian Trail. National Heritage Corridor: Blackstone River Valley, Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley. National Recreation Area: Boston Harbor Islands. National Seashore: Cape Cod. National Heritage Area: Essex. Wild and Scenic River: Westfield River. This list alone could keep an eager traveler busy for quite some time!

It is worth noting that in 1977 our very own North and South Rivers were designated a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior, “possessing national significance in illustrating the natural character of the United States.” The National Park Service oversees the National Natural Landmark (NNL) program. While an NNL designation doesn’t confer park status on the river and its watershed, the recognition still significant. There are eleven NNLs in Massachusetts, and close to 600 nationwide.

4. Which national park would you like to visit next? With a ten-year-old, I’m in “revisiting” mode – going back to places I’ve already seen, in order to offer my son some different perspectives on the landscape and on our country in general. We toured 11 national parks, monuments, and historic sites in Arizona this summer, along with a handful of Navajo tribal parks. Southern Utah is next on the family list – Arches, Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, etc. – but the historic sites and memorials of Washington DC rate pretty highly as well.

5. What are the Top Five national parks you’re hoping to see in your lifetime? There are a bunch of parks and monuments in Alaska and Hawaii . . . sigh! Maybe someday! Glacier National Park in Montana; Voyageurs in Minnesota; Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California. And if I ever get to the point where giant reptiles don’t make me squeamish, an airboat tour of the Everglades in Florida would definitely appeal.

by Kezia Bacon
August 2016

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit