by Ryan Shea/Goose Hummock Kayak Staff
The following article, which appeared in the October Newsletter of the Goose Hummock Shop on Cape Cod, is an excellent primer to paddling the Nauset Marsh from Town Cove to Nauset Inlet, a round-trip distance of roughly 3 miles. Goose Hummock rents and sells kayaks and paddling gear from its location near the shore of Town Cove in Orleans. Its staff offers excellent advice on exploring this magnificent waterway, and can even arrange guided trips. Learn more at Goose Hummock Newsletter.
You’ll start your journey at the dock behind the Goose Hummock Shop, on Town Cove, and head north toward the Nauset salt marsh. As you paddle, be mindful of the motorboat traffic, which can get very busy in the summer months. Stay close to the shore and you’ll be all right.
About a half-mile north you’ll come to Hopkins Island. You can beach your kayaks on the northern end of the island, or travel along the eastern side, where you’ll find an osprey nest high above the tree line.
Osprey are migratory birds that summer on Cape Cod, where they to breed and raise their young before flying to Central and South America for winter. The young usually hatch in late May to early June, and fledge by early August. Related to the bald eagle and the red-tailed hawk, these birds have a wingspan of roughly 5’. Osprey prey almost exclusively on fish, which they catch with their sharp talons.
Clams & Red Tide
At low tide you can wade through waters teeming with different types of bivalves, from littlenecks to mussels. You can spot a mussel bed by the darker water, caused by the deep blue of their shells.
Other local shellfish include steamers (soft-shell clams), quahogs (hard-shell clams), and Atlantic jack-knife clams (mistakenly referred to as razor clams). Remember not to gather them unless you have a permit, which can be obtained at the town hall.
Note that the shellfish in the Town Cove and Nauset marsh may be affected by red tide. Red tide is another name for an algal bloom of Alexandrium fundyense, a toxic dinoflagellate. Red tide can produce neurotoxins that accumulate in shellfish. If eaten in large quantities, the toxins can cause serious illness or even death. Monitor signage at the launch spots or check the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection website if you intend to harvest shellfish.
Around the next bend is Rachel’s Cove. Here you may notice numerous large, blue boxes perched on legs along the edges of the marsh grass. These boxes are used to control the population of greenhead flies (Tabanus nigrovittatus), a species of biting horse fly that harasses both beachgoers and paddlers in July. The boxes are designed to trap the flies, which are attracted by the color of the box and the scent of octanol, which is often placed inside the traps. Once trapped, the heat of the sun kills the flies. Most of the boxes are placed in areas known as “fly-paths,” where there is a break or opening in a grove of trees. Similar to mosquitoes, female greenheads bite in order to gather blood for the development of their eggs. Unlike mosquitoes, the bite of a greenhead is a lot more painful. Fortunately, their lifespan is only 3 to 4 weeks, and most are gone by August.
Nauset Salt Marsh & Erosion
Rounding another bend will bring you to the Nauset salt marsh. Here, tree-lined Town Cove opens to an expanse of low-lying vegetation. The salt marsh was created by the barrier beaches, which provide protection from the Atlantic Ocean’s waves and currents. Erosion of the beaches is a constant problem on Cape Cod, both as a result of human activity, and also as natural process from the continual movement of sand. Beach grass traps sand blown by the wind, helping to build dunes that protect the salt marsh. If stepped on by humans, the beach grass can die, and thus not perform its vital task. That’s why it’s critical to stay on designated trails when walking the dune areas.
Paddling through the winding creeks of the marsh presents great opportunities for observing various species of birds, such as great blue herons, snowy egrets and double-crested cormorants. A type of duck, cormorants live in aquatic habitats and prey primarily on fish. Cormorant nests often comprise manmade materials such as rope and balloons. Dead birds are even incorporated into the construction of their nests.
If you look toward the sandy bottom of the marsh as you paddle along, you may see horseshoe crabs scurrying about. Horseshoe crabs are a wonder to many Cape Cod visitors. These creatures are not actually crabs, but rather arthropods, more closely related to spiders. They live about 20 years, although their ancestors date back to the Paleozoic Era, between 540-248 million years ago. Horseshoe crabs molt, leaving behind an empty casing that many people mistake for the live animal. Humans use horseshoe crabs for a number of reasons. Biomedical companies use a component of the crab’s blood called Limulus amebocye lysate, or LAL, as a means to test the safety of vaccines and drugs. You can read more about horseshoe crabs by visiting horseshoecrab.org.
If you reach the barrier beaches that run between the marsh and the ocean, you’ll often see oystercatchers, terns, gulls, sandpipers and plovers feeding along the shoreline. In recent years the piping plover has been a topic of intense debate among many locals and environmentalists. The bird is protected under the Endangered Species Act, and when nesting occurs during the summer months, the result is partial beach closures, as the plovers nest just behind the intertidal zone. Off-road vehicle access is restricted along sections of beach where plovers have been known to nest. Some residents and visitors who wish to use the beaches for recreation are angered as a result of the closures.
Outer Beach & Nauset Inlet:
If you manage to paddle all the way to Nauset Inlet, a distance of approximately 3 miles, you can beach your kayaks on the marsh side of barrier beaches and observe the strong current that runs through the inlet. While Nauset Inlet is very dangerous for kayakers (do not try to run it unless you are experienced), it plays an important role in the marsh ecosystem, allowing the tides to enter and exit the marsh. The ebb and flow of water provide a vital source of nutrients for the life of the marsh, and also rids the marsh of harmful pollutants. Walk towards the beach to watch the waves crash as gulls patrol the waves, looking for fish. Keep an eye out for the gray seals that also feed along the beaches.
Note: While there has been an increase in great white shark sightings along the Outer Cape in the last 5 years, a result of the growing population of gray seals, no sharks have been sighted in the Nauset salt marsh or Town Cove.
The Journey Home
With your paddle complete, remember that the learning and discovery doesn’t stop at the dock. The Massachusetts Audubon in Wellfleet, the Cape Cod Natural History Museum in Brewster and the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitors Centers in Eastham and Provincetown are a few places to learn more about the ecosystems of Cape Cod. Have fun!