Monday, April 28, 2008
The Shifting Sands of the Rexhame Dunes
It's early afternoon on Thanksgiving. Most people are at the football game, but I'm walking in the Rexhame Dunes, collecting empty beer cans. Over the past few years this walk has become my own holiday tradition.
Every year at Thanksgiving I visit the sand dunes between Rexhame Beach and Humarock. The dunes are one of my favorite places on the South Shore, but I especially enjoy them in late November -- not so much for the way they look, but for their historical significance.
In 1898, just under a century ago, these dunes did not exist. In their place stood the mouth of the North River.
On Thanksgiving weekend 1898, the South Shore endured one of the worst storms in its recorded history: The Portland Gale. This was a storm on par with the Blizzard of 1978, a storm that destroyed roads and bridges, took hundreds of lives, wrecked scores of ships, and left trees and buildings toppled in its wake.
But perhaps the most significant effect of the Portland Gale was a geographic one: the relocation of the mouth of the North River.
The North River begins in the tidal freshwater marshes of Hanover and Pembroke, and flows for twelve miles through Norwell, Marshfield and Scituate, emptying into the sea at Humarock's Fourth Cliff. The South River, which begins its eight-mile course in west Duxbury, joins the North just west of the Cliff. The mouth of these two rivers, with its constantly shifting sands and fierce cross-currents, is regarded as one of the most unpredictable and dangerous inlets on the Atlantic Coast.
But it wasn't always this way. Just under 100 years ago, the mouth of the North River was located at the southern end of Humarock, where the Rexhame Dunes now stand. The present site of the river mouth was a narrow beach connecting Scituate's Third and Fourth Cliffs.
If you've ever wondered why Humarock, which is attached by land to Marshfield but not Scituate, is within the jurisdiction of the latter town and not the former, here's your answer. When these towns were founded -- and for more than 200 years after -- Humarock was actually attached to Scituate. When the Portland Gale struck, it created such turbulence in the North River that water washed across the beach, scouring away enough sand to do permanent damage. A new mouth was formed. When the storm subsided, the river continued to flow through the opening, gradually widening its new outlet over time. Originally it was only 200 feet wide, now it is close to a mile.
For a while, there were two river mouths, but eventually the original one filled in with sand.
We must not assume that any of this is permanent. The "original" river mouth at Rexhame Beach was unlikely the first outlet for the river -- only the first in our memory. Nor will it be the last. As the sands of Humarock continue to drift southward, this barrier beach grows ever-more-vulnerable to storms.
There is widespread speculation that the South River may soon cut its own mouth -- not at the site of the former outlet but two miles north, at the southern side of Fourth Cliff. In some ways, this is already happening. With the right combination of elements -- a new or full moon, high winds, and stormy waters -- Fourth Cliff very easily becomes an island: temporarily, at least. Even minor storms cause the South River to rise out of the salt marsh and flow right over Central Avenue, passing under a few stilt-houses before rolling out to sea, making the roads to the end of Fourth Cliff impassable.
This is an increasingly common occurrence. Drive to the northern end of Humarock after just about any storm and you will see evidence of it: sand left behind by the rising river, cleared away by bulldozers and piled up at the roadsides.
Every year at Thanksgiving I take a walk through the Rexhame Dunes and think back on the events of 1898. I stroll through the cedars and scrub and ponder the forces of nature that created such a strange and beautiful place. I climb to the top of a dune and look downstream, noting how drastically the river changes shape, even from year to year.
And in a sense, I watch for ghosts . . . glimpses of a time gone by, when wooden vessels built in the shipyards upstream sailed through these dunes en route to distant places, when horses were still the most common mode of transportation, when life was simpler, but perhaps no less complicated. I watch for ghosts of more recent times, too -- the spirits of those who have lost their lives on these rivers (there's one almost every year), those who have fallen prey to the currents and riptides of the ever-changing mouth.
My stroll through the dunes this year leads me to the site of what appears to be a hastily-abandoned party. Following a narrow path through the sand and down into a hollow, I find the remains of a campfire, with empty beer cans strewn all around it -- a typical scene for a suburban weekend.
As I walk the perimeter of the site, picking up trash and stowing it in the bag I've brought along, I find a number of open and nearly-full drink containers, each standing upright in the sand. I chuckle, recalling so many teenage parties "busted" by the local police. I understand why kids tend to congregate in out-of-the-way places like this -- but why can't they clean up after themselves?
Choosing a sheltered spot, I nestle into the side of the dune and survey the landscape before me. Cedars sway in the breeze, and a lone duck flies overhead. The river, reflecting the pale blue sky, shines in the sun. The brightly-colored bottles and cans are out of place against the smooth white sand.
"It was a good night to be outside," I say to myself, remembering the mild temperature and the clear, starry sky of the previous evening. "I don't blame them for coming here."
Just then the wind picks up, creating a stir on the water that sends waves crashing to shore. A cloud drifts in front of the sun. The sky grows dark. I shiver, suddenly cold. I hear strange sounds in the trees and shrubs around me -- leaves rustling, twigs snapping. A bird? Something else?
In the dimming light, the place seems desolate . . . even haunted. Perhaps I was wrong to assume that the party-ers had been ordered to leave the dunes. Perhaps they chose to leave -- and left in a hurry. I picture them running full-speed, back to the safety of the well-lit parking lot, chased perhaps by a ghost.
by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.