Monday, November 30, 2015

Province Lands: Plants, Dunes, and Shacks in the Backshore of Provincetown

There is a popular walk through the windswept dunes of the Province Lands, beginning at Snail Road off  Route 6,  just minutes from Provincetown's main drag, Commercial Street.  What starts out as a short path into the woods was once a road leading to the Peaked Hill Coast Guard Station, which no longer exists.  Soon you confront a surprisingly steep slope with almost no vegetation  --- some of the dunes in this ridge are 80 to 100 feet high-- and the trail takes you up a mountain of shifting sand. At the top are expansive views and a sense of the topography of the tip of Cape Cod.  

I walked this trail in mid-afternoon in September.  Unlike the summer months when the sand is scorching hot, the cooler fall weather means it's possible to go barefoot ( my shoes filled with sand in short order) on most of the trail.  

Looking south at Long Point lighthouse and the very tip of the Cape across Provincetown Harbor into Cape Cod Bay.  All those pockmarks are foot prints.

Looking in the opposite direction toward the Atlantic.  The walk continues in this direction.  You can just see a dune shack at the top of the ridge of dunes that overlooks the beach. 
Looking west into more dunes.  It almost seems like a desert landscape.
From the first high ridge the trail gently falls into an open valley with patches of scrubby pitch pine and oak, and in the lowest spots, cranberries, blueberries, mushrooms, sheep laurel, and cotton grass grow.  It is surprising to find the lushness of these mini bogs amidst so much sand, wide open sky and salty air but an underground aquifer supplies moisture to the low-lying depressions, sustaining the plant communities.   At one time locals farmed the cranberry bogs in the dunes, which were considerably bigger and the water more plentiful.  

Vaccinium macrocarpon, Cranberries
Wild Blueberries, tiny but sweet

Sheep Laurel, Kalmia angustifolia, growing among the cranberries, Looks like they had abundant bloom.

Cotton or  Bog Grass, Eriophorum angustifolium (not sure of the species) 
There are a number of interesting National Park Service publications about the Province Lands area, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.  "Dwelling in the Dunes" is an ethnographic study, describing the cultural history of the the dune shacks, now on the National Register of Historic places.  They began as shelters for coastguard men who patrolled the beaches and attempted to save survivors of shipwrecks along the "backshore," the northern, outer coastline of the hook of Cape Cod, where shifting bars can make for treacherous navigation.  Think of a clenched hand and Provincetown Harbor is cradled within the hand on the opposite, more protected shore.

No longer privately owned, the dune shacks are still inhabited by ancestors of the originally families that used them.   

A restored dune shack and one of the more palatial ones
I think my route is more or less the small dotted line on the far right, next to "Peaked Hill Bar Historic District," which is the dune shack district.  
The same shack from a distance

Shacks in a hollow, protected from the worst winds

One of the more modest shacks, close to the beach.
A particularly poignant section of the "Dwelling in the Dunes" report is "Four Women from Provincetown" (chapter 7), the stories of  women who grew up visiting the dunes and Sunny Tasha's shack.  The dunes and Tasha were essential to the women's coming of age and the dune shack has continued to be a place of refuge, celebration and adventure for their children. At the same time, the women reveal sadness about their struggle to remain part of the Provincetown community, a community gentrified and transformed by tourism, rising real estate values and all that comes with it. 

Arrival at dune ridge above the beach, looking west 
Four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed on this road. 

After seeing few people all afternoon, with only the ocean wind in my ears, it was a bit of shock to see the road.   The dunes can still feel like a wild and solitary place even though they are heavily visited, especially in the summer.  

 Dune shack dwellers can drive all or part of the way to their shelters and the Park Service and dune tour operators use the road.  

The gray-leaved plant feels fleshy like a succulent.  Anyone know what it is?    The paths above are the way back towards Route 6 and P-town.

Cladonia rangiferina (?) , Reindeer Lichen

Ripe Beach Plums, Prunus maritima , another fruit P-towners harvested

Sickle-leaved Golden Aster, Chrysopsis falcata  growing in pure sand! 

Back to the high ridge of the parabolic dunes shaped by the winds

Back to the beginning.....

And back to the world of  Provincetown.  These guys are just starting out.