In the Middle of a Marsh

by Paul Schneider photography by Joel Meyerowitz

Floating through a Massachusetts salt marsh provides a whole new perspective on mud, grass, and ocean tides.

There is an end to every road, I suppose, and in a salt marsh on a falling tide, it's apt to be a smelly one. I paddled into the Great Marsh of Barnstable Harbor, about a third of the way out the 65-mile-long hooked peninsula of Cape Cod, with the laughable idea of poking all the way through a winding slough called Scorton Creek. I knew beforehand that it was an unlikely proposition; in places the sharply winding creek is only a foot wide, while my kayak is 17 feet long and inflexible. But Scorton served my purpose: It got me six winding miles up into the grass. Up into the mud. Up, finally, to my knees in the muck, trying to see over enough marsh to figure out where in creation I was.

I was in a part of the Cape rarely explored by the area's millions of summer visitors, being neither beach nor clam shack, historical museum nor "ye olde antiques shoppe." You couldn't say, really, whether where I stood was earth or sea. It was a salt marsh, of the sort that grows here wherever the beaches and tidal shallows conspire to make land that is too wet and salty for terrestrial plants and too dry for true seaweeds.

As the prickly mud oozed over my ankles, I was glad not to be one of those earliest Europeans, who were attracted to the Cape in the 1630s from Plymouth by the chance to harvest salt hay. The marshes here and in a few other places on the Cape and its companion islands presented square mile after square mile of dense waving grass, there for the taking. Getting it must have been backbreaking work, but fortunately for me, my goal wasn't to reenact the Pilgrim harvest. When I shoved off from the public boat launch at Blish Point, I merely wanted to see the mud and the grass, and whatever I could of who or what was living there that day. 

The tide rose, making for good progress along the occasionally rocky shore toward a gray-shingled house, where the harbor stops and the marsh proper begins. An American flag fluttered on the pole in the yard that morning, in the sun, in the light breeze. And the whole place looked like boiled lobsters and steamed clams, burgers and hot dogs. 

I turned once and backtracked before turning again and paddling in deeper. One is nearly always turning in a salt marsh, because the tide flows both in and out through a land of nearly uniform erodibility, the creek's curves approaching mathematical perfection. The house and flag disappeared behind the first curve. But the grass, which I could not see over, went on forever.

The backbones of Cape Cod and its islands are great ridges of rubble left behind some 20,000 years ago by the mile-thick glaciers of the most recent ice age. Since then the ocean has been inexorably eating away at the land, grinding the moraine into miles of sandy beaches. Wind has taken up the work as well, building great parabolic dunes at Provincetown and smaller ones on barrier beaches throughout the region. The same currents and waves that tear down this glacial moraine carry lighter sediments around the points and hooks and into the quiet waters of salt marshes, where they settle out. It is new land in the making, out of the remnants of old land destroyed. From about halfway down to the low-tide line out to a depth of about 10 feet, eelgrass grows, helping to trap even more sediment, until the land rises to a point where at last it becomes too dry for the eelgrass. Where the eelgrass gives way, various grasses of the Spartina genus carry on the work of catching muck. Spartina has a remarkable ability to filter fresh water from salt and to pump oxygen down from its leaves to its waterlogged roots. 

Particle by particle, tide by tide, year by century, the land rises, and the grass with it. Remnant marsh-grass roots can go 10 feet down, presumably to where the individual plant started when land and sea were lower. The peat soil of Barnstable Marsh is more than 20 feet deep in places, and carbon dating has shown samples from the bottom to be more than 3,600 years old.

"A salt marsh sanctions space and a rooted integrity," wrote the naturalist John Hay. "The centuries pass, and its patience deepens."

There are cycles within cycles, and the building of marshes is not simple. Life arranges itself here depending on tolerance for salt and water and air; these, in turn, are affected by the familiar daily rise and fall of the tide, caused by the gravitational pulls of both moon and sun. And by the twice-monthly spring tides, when the two orbs work together to create high tides that are higher and low tides that are lower. And by the twice-monthly neaps, when sun and moon pull against each other. There is also the monthly perigee tide, when the moon is at its closest to the earth. On top of this are an annual cycle, which produces greater tides at equinoxes and solstices, and an 18-month cycle called proxigee, when the moon actually temporarily speeds up its orbit, thus accelerating the tides. An 18.6-year tidal cycle caused by variations in the declination of both sun and moon accounts for the further long-term alternation between grasses of different salt tolerance in the marsh.

There are likely to be other tidal cycles yet to be deciphered. Long-term patterns of precipitation and dryness change the salinity in the upper marsh, with implications for the species that grow there. And, of course, there are storms, which can notably and frighteningly erase portions of lower marshes in a single afternoon but which may also be the primary way for sediment to get past the baffles of the frontline plants and up into the upper marsh. Sometimes a storm will close a marsh off from the sea, and the marsh will turn fresh; other storms reopen ponds, turning them salt.

Temperature, too, has its effect on life in the marshes. Cape Cod Bay faces the cold Labrador current coming down the coast from the north, and its water is, on average, 10 degrees colder than the Gulf  streamódominated waters just a few miles away, on the south side of the Cape. According to the National Park Service, the sea life of Cape Cod Bay is more similar to that of Canada's Bay of Fundy than to that of Nantucket Sound, just across the peninsula. As with people, there are varieties of crustaceans, like the Jonah crab, that would sooner move from Barnstable to Maine than cross the few miles of sand to the warmer waters of Hyannis Port. Similarly, the waters off Cape Cod's southern shore are more like Chesapeake Bay than like those of Cape Cod Bay, something that has apparently not escaped the notice of the warm-water-loving blue crabs.

I paddled in, and in some more, until I was completely content, somewhere near the middle of the Great Marsh. Whereupon I had lunch in the company of a long-legged bird. Distant company, for it would not let me get too close before whistling sharply and moving on around the bend. At best I am a mediocre identifier of birds, but I believe it was a greater yellowlegs. Its fine long legs, at any rate, were that color, and it was larger than my books say the more common lesser yellowlegs is likely to be. It would be good to be a better birder: More than 400 bird species have been identified on Cape Cod and the islands. Ospreys and other raptors gravitate toward salt marshes because of the abundance of prey. Shorebirds that migrate between the hemispheres spend time here on their way up to the Arctic in the spring and on their way down to South America in the fall.  Songbirds blown east by storms during their migrations sometimes grab on to these last bits of land; a friend who is a very good birder once identified 31 different warblers on a single spring morning. Southern species like the glossy ibis are occasionally blown here by hurricanes, as are even stranger birds from Europe and Africa. Migrating hawks regularly pass over the region, and on fall mornings their fans gather with binoculars on top of the cliffs in Aquinnah to wish them well.

By the time yellowlegs and I had finished lunch, the tide in Barnstable Harbor had turned. When it got low enough to leave me paddling through miniature canyons with mud walls four feet tall or more, with the tough grass waving another 18 inches or more above that, I turned around, too, and began to flow back out of the marsh.

Along the way, channels much smaller than the one I was periodically navigating went off to my left or right, offering tantalizing views, but always bending away before revealing where they were headed. I poked up one or two but ended up backing out.  Other channels, higher up, were already dry, like hanging valleys, and I wondered if any of them had been dug not by tides but by people. From the 1930s to the 1960s, more than 2,000 miles of drainage ditches were dug in the salt marshes as part of the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project. "The cost is great, but the profit greater," wrote one giddy observer in 1964. "Mosquito control projects on Cape Cod have been accompanied by a 50 percent rise in the tourist trade."

Fortunately, in the 1960s and '70s science and popular wisdom displaced most of the mosquito killers with a new image of the salt marshes as vast exporters of detritus, tiny bits of rotting vegetation that form the foundation of the marsh's immense popularity among immature fish, such as silversides, striped bass, and menhaden. And shellfish and crustaceans, such as sand shrimp, green crabs, and ribbed mussels. And birds, such as black-bellied plovers, whimbrels, and sandpipers. Sometimes the marsh holds its rich soup, sometimes it releases it.

When I ceased paddling and let my kayak drift like a bright yellow piece of detritus, I could hear water on all sides, seeping and dripping and sucking out of the 4,000-acre sponge. Some of the serenity of midday on the marsh was oozing out of me as well, though whether that was because I was tired or because I was gearing up to land again on a solid shore, I don't know.

But I was glad to finally see and pass the house with the flag again. Glad to paddle past the few clammers out on the flats. And glad to arrive at the ramp at Blish Point. I was glad that the tide that had brought me in had washed me out again. 

This story is taken from Paul Schneider's forthcoming book The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket (Henry Holt). Schneider lives with his wife, son, and two kayaks in Massachusetts.

Being There: Cape Cod

Cape Cod, which sticks farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other place in the United States, is the world's largest glacially formed peninsula. Perforated with hundreds of kettle ponds--lakes created by the ice left behind when the glaciers retreated--and bound in many places by even larger brackish ponds that form behind barrier beaches, it's a day paddler's paradise. 

Getting There: There are two bridges across the Cape Cod Canal--at Bourne and Sagamore--and if you attempt them on a Friday afternoon between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you will have the opportunity to check out a lot of great kayaks on the roofs of your fellow traffic inmates. Plan accordingly. The major airport is Hyannis.

The Tides of Marsh: If you want to paddle the great marshes of Barnstable (or anywhere else on the Cape), be sure to start your return trip early enough to avoid a long, up-to-your-ankles drag across a tidal flat. A topo map to show where the flats hide is worthwhile, as is sunscreen, bug stuff, and, of course, fresh water and binoculars. Put in at the public landing at Blish Point in Barnstable. 

Other Voyages: Start at the town landing on Kescayo Gansett Pond in Orleans and wind your way past to Little Pleasant Bay. In Chatham, if you don't mind strong currents, you can put in at the foot of Mill Pond Road and paddle to the northern tip of Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. You can rent or buy anything you need at Goose Hummock Outfitters (508-255-2620), in Orleans. 

Hiking and More: Cape Cod National Seashore (508-349-3785; comprises 40 miles of beach, dozens of kettle ponds, 10 nature trails, and 3 bike trails. Park rangers lead hikes and canoe trips. While on the Cape, consider a whale watch with the Dolphin Fleet (800-826-9300) out of Provincetown and a visit to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, in Brewster (508-896-3867). At the National Seashore Salt Pond Visitors' Center (508-255-3421) in Eastham, there's a 40-foot-deep kettle pond that allows for close-up observations of salt marshes. The 1,100-acre Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508-349-2615) in Wellfleet, run by Massachusetts Audubon, has a nature center and trails along marshes, pinewoods, grasslands, and heathlands. The center also offers seal-watching and birding trips.

Staying There: The Cape, as one of America's oldest summer meccas, is overendowed with hotels and motels. Consult a good travel guide or visit Or you can call Bed and Breakfast Cape Cod (800-541-6226), which represents about 120 B&Bs.  There's good camping at Nickerson State Park (508-896-4615), near Brewster. --P. S.

© 2000  NASI

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