Around the Horn

In an ancient Cape Cod cottage, the Farm House, the walls of which were decorated by his uncle, the artist Frank W. Benson, DR. WYMAN RICHARDSONspent some fifty summers. Here he came to know the moods and ever-changing beauty of Nauset Beach and the great salt marsh within; here he developed his extraordinary knowledge of the shore birds; and here he guided his family and friends on happy expeditions for the striped bass or the blue crab. We shall miss his friendly presence in the Atlantic.


THE Nauset Marsh at Eastham on outer Cape Cod is a most unusual salt marsh. Most such marshes are protected to the seaward by a barrier beach through which an estuary enters. This estuary is widest at its mouth and divides into smaller and smaller branches which lead into denser and denser bodies of solid sedge.

Not so the Nauset Marsh. It contains more water than sedge and has large bays at the upper end. Even the Main Channel, while nearly two miles from the Inlet, is a quarter of a mile wide. (The “Inlet” is the passage through the barrier beach.) The sedge is divided into sections. The large ones are called “flat” or “marsh,” and the small “hummock.” The largest such piece, Porchy Marsh, is about a mile and a half from north to south. Its nearest, or north, edge is about a mile from the Farm House. We call the southernmost tip Cape Horn, and the shallow passageway that makes a tiny island of it, the Strait of Magellan.

One of our best expeditions is to “round the Horn” in the canoe. In order to do this, there must not be so much wind that paddling becomes a task, and the tide must serve in such a manner that we can drop down the Main Channel on the ebb, meet the flood at the Horn, come up with it, and get home at a comfortable hour for dinner.

The tide is right for us the ninth of one October. There is a light breeze from the northeast and the air is sparklingly clear. From the Farm House piazza the water in the marsh channels is a clear blue, while through the dips in the dunes we can see the deeper blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

As we leave the mouth of the Salt Pond Creek and begin to negotiate the twists and turns of the upper channels, we see many ducks along the edge of Tom Doane’s Hummock. Most of them are black, although we note two hen mallards, one pintail, and perhaps half a dozen baldpates. As we approach, the black ducks begin to take notice. Their necks become straight, long and stiff—at least twice as long as a duck’s neck should be. The nearer ones separate from one another and luff up into the wind, a sure sign that they are about to fly. And away they go, with that spectacular jump of theirs. They drag off others which are not so close, and these in turn drag off others, until at last the whole caboodle is in the air in a great straggling, lacy flock. Most of them go straight to the eastward out across the dunes to the ocean where, presumably, they will spend the rest of the day asleep.

We soon come to that deep part of the channel south of the Cedar Bank, where we put out a bucktail fly and begin trolling. This is simply to protect ourselves; for what with the bright sun and very low water, it does not seem like a very good chance. The flats are pretty well covered with shore birds. “Winter” yellowlegs and black-bellied plover represent the larger birds, while the smaller ones are mostly red-backed sandpipers. Suddenly we hear their shrill alarm note, and at once every bird is in the air.

“Must be a duck hawk around,” I observe.

My wife snatches off her white hat. A day or two before, when she was sketching, a duck hawk had come along. She had taken up her binoculars and, just as she had them focused on the hawk, he had made a pass at her hat. This, as seen through her glasses, had been truly terrifying.

“Leave it on,” I suggest. “You may attract him.”

“Here,” she says, “you wear it.”

“I guess I won’t,” I reply, lamely enough.

White hat or no white hat, a handsome fullplumaged male duck hawk comes directly over our heads. Soon he begins to soar and in an incredibly short time disappears to the northeast.

At this point five huge shore birds come low over our heads and light on the flat in front of us. A quick glance through the glasses shows that they are all godwits, four marbled and one Hudsonian. We all have a good look at these magnificent birds, the largest of our shore birds. We let the canoe drift up to within thirty feet of them. The marbled godwits show at the base of their long, upturned bills an orange tinge which we have never noticed before. The Hudsonian is considerably darker and there is a bit of the white patch at the base of his tail which is obvious when he flies. We leave them to their bickerings and their worms, as the ebb takes us slowly past.

We go by Hay Island, where some bass boil ahead of the canoe and corroborate the old adage that “a boiling bass never bites.” Past the mouth of Jeremiah’s Creek, where we put a night heron in a dither as to whether to fly or not to fly. Past the outermost end of Porchy Bar, which so many neophytes have tried to cheat by cutting across too soon, only to find themselves hopelessly stuck on the sand riffles. Past Broad Creek, now, at low water, almost dry except for a few deep holes here and there. Past Deep Water Point, which is no longer a point and where there is no deep water. And finally, down to the sand bar to the south of the Horn.

The sand bar is covered with herring gulls, perhaps two hundred of them, and we wonder why they are standing so still and so erect with all eyes turned in the same direction. And then the reason for this rapt attention becomes apparent. At the upper end of the bar, austerely aloof, is a large brown bird, about as big as the gulls. When we get the glasses focused on him, we realize he is a brown gyrfalcon. He seems to be eying the gulls with a malevolent expression. As we approach, he turns his baleful glance on us, as if to say: “Get to he’ll out of here.”

But it is he at last who moves. He allows us to come within about fifty yards and finally takes off. As he does so, every gull turns and faces him. He flies directly over them and makes several dives at them. Each time, the target gull spreads his wings, opens his beak wide, and screams. And each time, the gyrfalcon swoops up, inches from the gull’s head, without touching him.

The gyrfalcon does this about three times and then, off to the east, he spies a marsh hawk. He dashes away and comes down on the marsh hawk from above. But just before he gets there, the marsh hawk flips over on his back, with upraised talons, and again gyrfalcon swoops up and away. Time after time, this performance is repeated, until finally gyrfalcon tires of the sport and lazily flies to the south. In fact, what with his lazy flight and his over-all brown color, one could almost mistake him for a year-old herring gull.

After this excitement, we go ashore at the end of the sand bar and wait for the flood tide to take a hold. We walk over the riffled sand in our bare feet, looking for items of interest, but we find nothing more interesting than that savage shellfish, Polynices heros. He is the common big round “snail” which makes a trail in the sand ending in a very suggestive hump. He is equipped with not only a powerful foot but also an effective rasp as well. He it is who destroys so many mollusks, and he who fashions that smooth sand collar which never meets in the middle but which nevertheless holds many thousands of Polynices eggs.

When we went ashore the tide was rising on the flats, while still ebbing in the channels. This is a peculiarity of estuaries which it is not too difficult to understand. One can see how the water, while still running out of the estuary system, must meet the flow from the sea. In the resulting struggle the water may, and generally does, rise while it is still flowing out. After about twenty minutes or so the current will coincide with the rise.

But it is more difficult to visualize the reverse process. The tide will generally start to fall even while it is still flooding. And this brings up a very curious situation. At the mouth of the estuary the tide will be ebbing and falling; and at the head, flooding and rising. What happens at that critical point in the middle? It would seem as if the two parts of the watershed must separate and leave a dry place in between. Of course, no such thing occurs. I have been much puzzled by this matter, but I have taken comfort in finding that Hilaire Belloc reports, in The Cruise of the Nona, his own mystification.

At any rate, when we climb back into the canoe the tide is flooding strongly. We make our southing and turn with the tide, leaving Cape Horn to starboard. The channel takes us close to the Tonset Shore where eelgrass, five or six feet long, has come in thick. We skirt the edge of it and are just approaching the rocks, when suddenly the rod man’s reel begins to screech.

I back water sharply to stop the canoe’s progress; but the fish continues to tear off line. Not only that, but he starts weaving around some lobster pot buoys which are always to be found in tins region. I do my best, in the strong current, to weave the canoe around after him, and must confess to a feeling of relief when he suddenly kicks off. At this moment someone spies a large white object in the Skiff Hill pastures, a quarter of a mile ahead. “It’s a mushroom,” say I, making a rather poor joke.

At the foot of the pastures, we land and climb the green slope. And a mushroom it is! Nine and one-half inches across the top it measures, with a stem an inch and three-quarters thick. In the old Farm House log, my father wrote of mushrooms as big as dinner plates. Well, this pasture is full of dinner plates and we pick a mess of them.

These mushrooms, we find later, are not the common field mushroom, Campestris agaricus, but a close relative, Campestris arvensis, or horse mushroom. They are just as good to eat — if not better — as their smaller cousin. The very young ones have white gills and we are chary of them. For, although we think we know well the deadly Amanita phalloides, our rule is never to eat a white-gilled mushroom of any kind. Consequently, we are careful to pick only those more mature ones with delicate pink or brown gills.

The mushroom-picking diversion allows the tide to catch up with us and we all pile back into the canoe. Even so, the upper flats are still out. The Skiff Hill Channel is plenty deep but it shoals to nothing when we get up towards our hill. We follow a run which turns and twists through the West Cove flats. For some time it is satisfyingly deep. However, it peters out just as we approach the first bend of the Main Channel. When we come to a stop, there is some talk about getting out and dragging. But the hazards of wading in bare feet through soft mud are too great. We prefer to wait.

And we are repaid for our waiting. As we sit quietly, an army of sandpipers lights beside us. Each little bird begins frantically to scurry to and fro, constantly probing with his bill the soft surface and evidently getting something to his liking. We watch them through our glasses, trying to tell the difference between the semipalmated and the least sandpiper. The least is darker and has greenish legs, and the semipalmated is lighter and has black legs. They look very small beside their cousins with the down-curved bill, the redbacks. The latter, who are winter visitors, seem to specialize on a small, pink worm which they carefully dunk in the water before swallowing.

So engrossed do we become looking for darker backs and greener legs that we are surprised when the canoe suddenly begins to move. The tide is not only rising; it is flooding. We go along with it into the channel, up into the Salt Pond Creek, and back to the boathouse. We park the canoe alongside and, somewhat wearily, trudge up the hill to the Farm House.

But the fatigue gives way as we sit on the piazza and sip a refreshing drink. Soon someone will have enough energy to start producing a hearty Farm House meal. Meanwhile, strangely content, we look out over the marsh with its blue water slowly spreading over the flats. A few of its secrets have this day been bared to us. Another day, when conditions are just right, we may wrest even more secrets from the Nauset Marsh, as once again we round the Horn.