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Family reunion 1: Where we were

What a fascinating spot! Nauset Beach, South Beach, Monomoy and the sand and waters all around them are in this constant dance with the ocean that makes for continuous change in sand, water, wild life and even human visitors. Stepping onto it felt like being in a time machine where natural forces are constantly on fast forward.

Trying to document this, however, is difficult because every map I found was out of date as Geoff had warned - and some of them were very poorly drawn. So here's a 1993 topographic map that comes close to what we experienced July 17, 2004, and a 1995 satellite photo that comes much closer. (The best map I found was in "The Nature of Cape Cod" by Beth Schwarzman, an excellent, up-to-date guide.)


We started at the Moulton family compound, a cluster of three homes, where Geoff and Lisa, assisted ably by Melissa and Emily, were the gracious planners, providers, hosts and patient ferry boat skippers. (The compound is represented by red dot Number 1 on the map and photo.)

But we didn't spend long there. Using two boats making multiple trips, the whole party (27 of us, I think) was ferried across to what is now called South Beach - red dot Number 2. As I understand it, this was once all "Nauset Beach" - or "North Beach." But in 1987 a Nor'easter opened up a gap in the beach that is now more than a mile wide. Thus there is now "South Beach" where we were and what's more, the sand that came out of the gap formed a new land bridge from the mainland to South Beach. This bridge is not complete in the 1993 topo map, but looks complete in the 1995 photo.

Among other things, this means the secluded beach the Moultons have visited for decades has become more heavily trafficked by tourists crossing that bridge. It also means that there is more cold water in the general area and apparently this has led to the seals staying over through the summer. (By 1900 there were no seals here. But they started coming back, first the Harbor Seals, then the Grey Seals. Still they were winter visitors only until 1989 when the first Grey Seal pup was born here.)

You can find reference to this in various places, but the best account I found was again in Beth Schwarzman's book, "The Nature of Cape Cod." She says "the barrier beach has a cyclical history of growth and breaching as evidenced by both written and geological records. It grows south several hundred feet every year, forcing today's waters to travel farther and farther to get into Pleasant Bay through the narrow channel behind the spit here at Chatham. Eventually (and the average appears to be about every 140 years), the distance around becomes so great that a disparity develops between the water levels inside and outside the bay. In some northeaster or hurricane the waves flatten the dunes at a vulnerable spot and wash across the spit. When low tide comes outside, the redoubled waters of the Bay pour out through the overwashed area and cut through the spit, creating a new inlet."

This is what many of us saw on the news in 1987 when the action threatened houses on the Chatham mainland near the famous lighthouse. But the news focused ont he houses of course. It didn't tell us that this would result eventually in a new land bridge, in the changing of water temperatures that would encourage seals to stick around, or in the eventual cretaion of a new birding hot spot on South Beach. And Tom Brokaw never seems to learn about the really important events, such as the Stone Family Reunion on South Beach ;-)

Our main camp was on South Beach, but the water was so cold on the ocean side that only the kids could take it for long. Bren started to venture in at one point, but when her foot touched the cold, wet sand she stopped - well, cold. So a lot of time was spent on the western - inlet - side of this beach because there the shallow water was as warm as a bath tub.

And Geoff gave one interested group a speedy tour all the way past North Monomoy, maneuvering the 20-foot Grady White at 35 mph through chop, the wakes of other boats, and a channel so full of twists it would break an eel's back. (The buoys marking this channel are changed annually since the sand shifts constantly. ) We eventually ended up in the ocean, then turned around and on the way back encountered dozens of seals making their way to the sandbars around North Monomoy Island. (See red dot Number 3.)

Here's a two-paragraph natural history of the region I found on this site.

Since 1944, Monomoy has been protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. At one time, Monomoy was a long peninsula connected to and stretching south from Chatham. In 1958, a storm separated Monomoy from the mainland, creating Monomoy Island. The Blizzard of '78 broke Monomoy in two, forming the one and one-half mile long North Island and the five-mile long South Island.

Until 1987, a continuous stretch of barrier beach ran from Nauset Beach in Orleans to South Beach in Chatham. Then, a winter hurricane broke through the beach creating the now famous Chatham Break, exposing parts of Chatham and Pleasant Bay to the force of the open ocean, and turning South Beach into an island. Erosion took several houses and literally washed them away, a reminder of the strength of the sea. The constantly shifting sands in this area have now reconnected South Beach to the mainland just south of the Chatham lighthouse, but the Break remains open. An overlook in front of the lighthouse offers good views of North Beach, the Break, and South Beach.

I might add Monomoy is a bird - and birders - haven. Several shore birds roost their. But from mid-summer on you have loads of shorebirds who stop here to rest and refuel on their way south from breeding ground in the arctic. This means the bird population is not only fascinating, but changes constantly. Geoff said they have had problems recently with coyotes who have come to the island and are threatening the bird population.

I had always heard about Monomoy. What I didn't know was that the newest birding hotspot is South Beach itself, though not the section we were on but the section near the south end that we passed in Geoff's boat tour. There's a site here that describes it in detail. And there's a description of birding throughout the region here.

For me this all comes down to a fascination with time - first illustrated by the three generations of our family on the beach - but driven home by the changing ecology of where we were and the really unusual changing geology. So where we were added an extra fascination I had not anticipated to the more fundamental fun of seeing everyone again.

Posted by Greg Stone at July 18, 2004 05:04 AM

Awesome job! We enjoy watching the changes in the sand and wildlife around here (although we'd rather not have the coyotes)- fun to revisit the dates and facts through Greg's research. You'll have to return for a birding trip...glad our little paradise offered beautiful weather for everyone's visit..thanks again, Greg! Great to see everyone and see the changes in the little ones.

Posted by: LIsa at July 19, 2004 10:55 PM
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