Beach Retreats, Strategic and Otherwise – Part One

Apr 17, 2018


The history of the retreat of our beaches in the face of the unappeasable force of the ocean is a long and ongoing one. But over the past year the process seems to have kicked into a higher gear and presented us with a fascinating variety of retreats, strategic and otherwise. 


Last August, for instance, at Wellfleet’s Cahoon Hollow Beach, an event occurred that we usually associate more with winter than high summer.  Following a torrential downpour of over six inches of rain, a huge section of the bluff overlooking the beach collapsed, taking with it nearly a third of the parking area. The Town eventually repaired the bluff, but last February the selectmen announced that for economic and safety reasons, the lot will remained closed to vehicles this summer, and presumably indefinitely. Access to the beach by foot will still be allowed, and there has been talk of a shuttle bus from White Crest Beach a half mile to the south.   

A few miles to the south, in North Eastham, a different kind of beach retreat – call it a kind of end-run - has taken place. For years the substantial wooden staircase at Nauset Light Beach, has been regularly, almost annually, destroyed by winter storms. Replacing the stairs had become an economic hardship for the Cape Cod National Seashore, and last fall the Seashore announced that it was abandoning access to the beach at that point, but that the parking lot would remain open – a kind of the opposite situation to the one at Cahoon Hollow. Instead, the Seashore has constructed a wide path from the existing parking to a low point in the bluff a few hundred yards to the south, providing an access that will requires no stairs to get to the beach. 

The other day I walked the path to this new access, a gentle handicapped-accessible stroll of less than five minutes. When I reached the beach, it was clear that this stretch of bluff has suffered more dramatic erosion in the past several years than most areas of the Outer Beach. The cliff face was raw and gouged and dead shrubs and small trees lay at its base. Moreover it was studded with artifacts of our past human presence here. There were the familiar iron well pipes that once served vanished cottages, looking like alien periscopes emerging from the sands. But there were also lengths of black, corrugated PVC plastic pipe, heavy braided steel cables whose use I could only guess at, and, most impressively, long lengths of rubber-coated copper wiring. These last I surmised were portions of the transatlantic French telegraph cable that was laid from France to Cape Cod in 1879.  

Nowhere else on this beach is our history so densely exposed and exhibited as on this small stretch of cliff. It’s almost like looking at the open pages of a history book, or a museum diorama. How can we look at this display of abandoned human artifacts and not realize that our fate here is not to endure, or to resist, but only, and increasingly, to retreat.   

This is part one of a two-part survey of some of the dramatic effects that have taken place on the Outer Beach over the past year.