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On a quaking bog

Jüri T
CC BY 2.0

It was on a beautiful day in mid-July that I had my first and only experience with one of the rarest and most unusual habitats on Cape Cod: a quaking bog. A quaking bog is a thick mass of floating vegetation, primarily sphagnum moss, often thick enough and resilient enough to support the weight of a human being. It is usually found in more northern peat bogs and is extremely rare on the Cape. This one, located on the Lower Cape, is several acres in extent. My friend Richard, a self-taught botanist, had been studying the bog for the past two years, cataloging its plant community and discussing with the couple who owned the bog the possibility of placing a conservation restriction on the property.

The couple’s wife and her two young children accompanied us out onto the bog. It was a cool day with a light breeze, so that we weren’t bothered by the usually abundant mosquitoes. To get to the bog, we had to slog through a short section of cattail swamp, carefully holding our cameras aloft. In a few minutes we were up onto the bog proper, surely one of the strangest environments I’ve ever been in. Walking on a quaking bog is like traversing a giant water-bed. The floating sphagnum mat was resilient, like the skin of some enormous organism. The fabric of the mat was shredded and torn in places with open holes of water, and when I got near the edge of one of the holes, I could feel myself beginning to sink slowly as the tea-colored waters flowed in toward me.

Because bogs are extremely poor in nutrients, many of the flowering plants we found were insectivorous. There were little clots of the bulbous pitcher plant everywhere, and large patches of sundews, both the oval and long-leaved variety. In addition, we found two varieties of bladder-worts, many lovely, snake-toothed lilies in bloom, and pink swamp azaleas. But the prize denizen of the bog was the very rare swamp pink, a stunning orchid with a bright pink lip and glowing yellow column. Previous to Richard’s research, it had only been found in one other place on Cape Cod.

The owner’s two kids were having their own fun, falling down on the mat and getting soaked, and at one point finding the shell of a spotted turtle that was full of carrion beetles. Even their mother, who had never been out on the bog before, got in the spirit. After a while she went off on her own to the northwest corner of the bog where suddenly the mat gave way and she went down into the bog up to her chest. We went quickly over to her and managed to extricate her in less than a minute, but we feared the experience might have soured her on the bog. But in fact, she joked that she might have been found thousands of years later, “like one of those mummified bodies” that have been discovered in European peat bogs. Richard quipped that it probably wouldn’t have been good PR if we had lost one of the bog owners. “Yes,” I said, “but what a headline it would have been: ‘OWNER TRIES TO PRESERVE BOG - INSTEAD BOG PRESERVES OWNER.’”

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.