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The New Wellfleetians

Ross Donihue & Marty Schnure

It was a perfect mid-September day, the kind we wait for after the summer crowds have left, feeling that it is almost a reward for having put up with the madness of August, the death-defying traffic on Route 6, the inflationary prices of everything from gas to gelato.

I parked my car at the bottom of Bank Street and set off across Uncle Tim’s Bridge to Cannon Hill. I am increasingly grateful for this modest sanctuary in the heart of Wellfleet Center, a small oasis apart from the hustle of Route 6 and the bustle of local businesses. Only 600 feet in length, the island offers much more than its size would suggest, and varies in character from day to day, season to season, tide to tide.

That day the tide was rising, the blue-gray waters running under the bridge, making the tall towers of marsh grass bend and sway like dancers on a ballroom floor. A thousand minnows flashed across the surface while overhead a great blue heron soared like a kite and uttered a single, peremptory QUAWK!

Usually, Cannon Hill takes me out of myself, opens me to the casual beauty that surrounds me. But today, the very loveliness of the place brought to mind more immediate local issues, none more pressing than the problem of affordable housing in our community. I remember when I first came to Wellfleet some fifty years ago, I was able to rent a small apartment for $50/week. Only 25 years ago my wife and I were able to purchase a house for under $100,000. Now a summer rental, if you can find one, will cost you at least $2,000/week, and the median price for a house (again, if you can even find one) is nearly $900,000.

Wellfleet, like most other Cape communities, is taking steps to try to increase the amount of affordable housing, but demand always seems to outstrip supply. This trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic, since many second-home owners have spent more time at their Cape homes or have even moved here permanently.

The results are manifold: It creates a shortage of affordable housing for seasonal workers and town employees. It makes it difficult for carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other trade workers to make a living here. It also affects the diversity of the local population, making it less affordable to young families and working class residents.

As I started across the footbridge carrying these heavy thoughts, I came upon a man and a woman leaning over the wooden railings, staring intensely at the water below them. They were a handsome young couple, in their mid-thirties, I would guess. She had a glorious head of golden-red hair. He was tall, big shouldered, wearing large, black-rimmed glasses. They had a look of blissful entrancement on their faces, and as I passed, the woman turned to me and said,

“We just saw a fish in the water that looked like a giant polliwog, but it was much too big to be a polliwog. Do you know what it might be?”

“Oh, you mean a goose fish.”

“A goosefish?”

“Yes, it’s a bottom-dwelling angler fish that has a fleshy lure above its mouth that attracts prey.”

“Oh, great! A friend of ours is studying those big ocean — what do you call them?...”

“Ocean sunfish?”

“Yes, that’s it!” she said with delight.

Then the man said,” I apologize for so many questions. We live in Boston, but a few years ago we bought a small house in Wellfleet, and we try to spend as much time here as we can. We hope to live here year-round someday.”

They thanked me for taking the time to talk to them and turned their attention back to the water.

I walked away, thinking, Yes, they’re young. They obviously have money, and probably portable professions, and I would guess they don’t have children – yet. They represent, I realized, the future of my town, and I surprised myself by thinking, and you know what? They’re not so bad.

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.