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A special property in Wellfleet

Herring River Overlook
Wellfleet Conservation Trust
Herring River Overlook

Over the past several months, I’ve introduced several of our friends to an extraordinary property recently acquired by the Wellfleet Conservation Trust. I don’t usually talk about “official” conservation areas on this program, because I don’t want to imply that “nature” is only to be found in formally protected areas. But this one is special. The property in question is called the Herring River Overlook. Located on Chequessett Neck Road, it’s accessed from a small parking lot on the right just before the road dips down to the Dike at the mouth of the Herring River. Encompassing nearly twenty acres, it was acquired by the Trust in 2020 through the generous gift of local resident Jaqualyn Fouse. A one-mile loop trail takes you through a wide diversity of native ecosystems, including pitch-pine barrens, open bearberry meadows, and a “featherbed swamp,” so-called by the old Cape Codders for its cover of thick, springy bushes

But the crowning glory of the property is a series of spectacular views from a steep bluff overlooking the river itself. Before this gift of land, there was no area open to the public that afforded such a sweeping prospect of the river’s course, from the barrier beach known as “The Gut,” to the Herring River Dike, to the winding upper reaches of the river itself. The last time I was there, on a sunny day in early April, red-tailed hawks screamed high in the sky, turkey vultures glided in wide circles, while black ducks and other waterfowl paddled in the tidal streams below. It was a stunning scene, but also a misleading one.

As most local residents know, this estuary is the site of a major environmental restoration project. It’s designed to address the problems created by an ill-conceived plan to build a dike across the river’s mouth in order to create more upland for farming and development. The dike, originally built in 1908, greatly restricted the tidal flow into the estuary, transforming a once thriving salt marsh into a barren, brackish wetland, restricting spawning access to migratory herring, and polluting extensive acreage of potential oyster habitat.

A century later, the town of Wellfleet and the Cape Cod National Seashore partnered to create the Herring River Restoration project, an ambitious program designed to reestablish the original tidal flow to the river and restore hundreds of acres to productive salt marsh and healthy habitat for aquatic fauna. It’s an ambitious undertaking that will likely take decades to complete. It will literally be a multi-generational undertaking, one whose completion most of us will not live to see.

But that for me is its greatest significance, for it represents a commitment that we are willing to make to the future wellbeing of our community and its environment. The Herring River Overlook provides a place for us to witness, over time, the changes that will take place as invasive phragmites weed is gradually replaced with native Spartina marsh grass; as deepening river currents enhance its potential for recreational use by kayakers and canoeists; as healthy reclaimed oyster beds enlarge Wellfleet’s most famous industry; and as increased runs of herring once again fill the river that proudly bears their name. To paraphrase Thoreau, the Herring River Overlook is a place to stand and see the future before us.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.