In this time of social distancing, kayaking represents a safe way to exercise and enjoy the outdoors, either solo or with friends.
On the Outer Cape, two places stand out as premier paddling destinations: the northern section of Nauset Marsh and the west side of Wellfleet Harbor, from the mouth of the Herring River to the southern tip of Great Beach Hill. Both waterways are within the Cape Cod National Seashore, and thus are protected for future generations of paddlers to enjoy.
The American golden plover was in full breeding plumage, which would not have been surprising had we been near Hudson Bay in northern Canada. But we were at the southern tip of Eastham’s Nauset Beach, having arrived by kayak via Nauset Marsh only moments before. The plover stayed for a week or two and then left.
That’s the best thing about Nauset Marsh—you never know what birds you’re going to see. And if you’re looking for birds, a kayak is the perfect craft, allowing you to glide silently through the marsh’s bays and channels, most of which are inaccessible to the landlubber. Shorebirds, gulls, terns, waterfowl, wading birds, and raptors are among the avian visitors you might encounter. An osprey pole in the middle of the marsh has been in use every year I’ve visited the marsh. The marsh attracts both birds and birders.
Nauset Marsh, however, does not give up its secrets easily. When I was preparing the first edition of Adventure Kayaking: Cape Cod in 1999, it was relatively easy to circle the marsh, as long as you avoided the few hours before and after low tide. Nowadays, your timing has to be much more precise, requiring you to arrive at the outer beach almost exactly with the high tide. Otherwise you risk being grounded on the many sandbars that crisscross the marsh.
A convenient launching spot is the public landing at the end of Hemenway Road in Eastham. I almost always turn left after leaving the landing and then stay relatively close to the left shoreline until past a couple of shoals jutting out from the marsh. Once past the inlet to Salt Pond, hug the marsh’s northwest edge—where the current may increase dramatically as it runs across a shallow bar—before crossing the shallow expanse of water south of the old coast guard station to find a channel on the right to the outer beach. Time on the outer beach is necessarily limited to about 20 minutes, because you need to be back in your boat as the tide begins to drop. Then you can simply retrace your route or, along the way do some exploring and find an alternate channel to return to the landing.
Parking: Hemenway landing has a small boat ramp and a small paved parking area reserved during summer for Eastham residents. Nonresidents may park beside Hemenway Road, off the pavement. This is a busy landing used by commercial fishermen, kayak tour groups, and recreational boaters. Please do not block the boat ramp or access to the water.
Tide: The marsh’s tide is roughly an hour and a half behind the tide at Nauset Beach. If you launch at the time posted for high tide for the beach, you should have enough water in the channels to make it out to the outer beach. Sometimes you may have to wait a few minutes for the tide to catch up, and sometimes you need to get out and drag your boat over a sandbar.
I’ve heard a coyote yipping in broad daylight as I paddled by Great Island. I’ve learned to spot diamondback terrapins poking their thumb-sized heads out of the water in the mouth of the Herring River. Young striped bass sometime flash their silver sides by my boat, and the occasional gray seal keeps a wary eye on me as I do on him. Whimbrels, American oystercatchers, ruddy turnstones, and piping plovers patrol the beaches and marshy areas, while terns and gulls rule the skies.
The peninsula jutting south between Wellfleet Harbor and Cape Cod Bay represents what some say is the longest undeveloped coastline on the Cape. Known locally as Great Island, the peninsula actually consists of two former islands (Great Island and Great Beach Hill), three salt marshes separated from Cape Cod Bay by low dunes, and a narrow sand spit called Jeremy Point.
The Great Island Trail, one of the best walking routes in the national seashore, explores the marshes and wooded uplands of Great Island. But to explore the ecologically rich zone where land meets water, nothing beats a kayak.
If you launch from the Wellfleet town landing just southwest of the Herring River dike, you can enjoy a pleasant paddle out the mouth of the Herring River, around the northeast tip of Great Island, and then southward along the shoreline to Middle Meadow Marsh, which separates Great Island and Great Beach Hill.
Great Island and Great Beach Hill are part of a chain of former islands extending north to the Wellfleet–Truro line—the others being Griffin, site of the trailhead for the Great Island Trail, and Bound Brook, home to the national seashore’s historic Atwood-Higgins house. Perhaps with rising sea levels, these “islands” will once again live up to their names.
Because my summer home is only a few minutes from the landing, the trip out the mouth of the Herring River and around Great Island is my traditional first paddle of the season. After crossing Smalley Bar, a shallow area extending from the southwest corner of Great Beach Hill part way across Wellfleet Harbor, I usually land somewhere near the south end of Great Beach Hill, being careful not to disturb the piping plovers and least terns that nest nearby. Jeremy Point, about 1.5 miles farther on, marks the entrance into Cape Cod Bay. In recent years the area around the point has become a favorite gathering spot for gray seals, so I’ve been forgoing it as my destination. Seals (except curious youngsters) general hate kayaks, and I see no reason to provoke them.
Typical summer weather features afternoon wind from the southwest at 10 to 15 mph, which can kick up a chop even in the harbor. The wind has its benefits, though—in addition to knocking down the gnats and flies, you can sometimes get a free ride almost all the way back to the landing. It is rare that electrical storms make it across Cape Cod Bay from the mainland, but if you hear thunder, you have about 20 minutes to get to land and seek shelter.
Parking: The town landing has a small dirt parking area with space for about 10 cars. It fills up early in summer and floods at the highest high tides. However, you can easily drop your boat at the landing and drive to the large national seashore lot just uphill from the landing. Then follow the Great Island Trail downhill to the edge of a saltmarsh and turn left to find the landing.
Tide: Wellfleet Harbor and the mouth of the Herring River are both extremely tidal, and low tide may sometimes strand you on mudflats littered with razor-sharp oyster shells. You can avoid this by launching two to three hours before high tide for Wellfleet, which will allow approximately six hours of good paddling.
About the author: David Weintraub is a writer, photographer, and editor based in South Carolina and Wellfleet. He is the author of numerous guidebooks, including Adventure Kayaking: Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard and a new edition of Walking the Cape and Islands. Follow David’s blog at davidweintraubblog.wordpress.com/blog.