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Dedicated to Henry Beston's literary classic and the
spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape Cod

Over-hyped storm: 'Fears and unappreciated mercies'


Sunday, March 11, 2001

Residents of states along the eastern seaboard are all having a good chuckle at the weatherman after last week's predicted "storm of the century" turned out to be only the "hype of the century," but the spirits of the Nauset region of Eastham may have shed a tear or two after the nor'easter pounded the outer beach of Cape Cod without mercy.

Had the storm taken on "Blizzard of '78" proportions, as many feared it would, what's left of Nauset Spit would be only a memory right now. The fragment of beach where author Henry Beston built his famous "Outermost House" is still there, but this historic barrier beach took one more big step toward extinction last week when a 12-foot storm surge made its mark here.

As was the case in '78, the ocean broke through the dunes in several spots and flattened the beach, leaving it more than ready to be consumed by the surf in the weeks and months ahead. Only 36 hours after the storm had pulled away from the coast and headed out into the open Atlantic, it was clear that this weather event had taken a big bite out of this barrier beach, which is annually regarded as one of
Trees and grass cover Coast Guard Beach. Note the small unidentified sea bird in the middle of the picture. (Photo by Don Wilding)

the finest of its kind in the world.

It was clear that the surf had risen to just a few feet below the area overlooking the beach, where plaques dedicated to Beston and the old Lifesaving Service stand. Large tree trunks and stumps, telephone poles, lobster pots and other surprises covered the beach areas where the surf had reached its high point.

The mystery bird strikes a pose for the camera. (Photo by Don Wilding)
Scattered among some of these treasures were several species of sea fowl. Some were injured and had to be taken to local bird sanctuaries to be nursed back to health. Some appeared to have blown off course -- in fact, one bird, which looked like a cross between a pigeon and a penguin, was nestled in among the debris on the beach in front of the Coast Guard

station. Days later, bird experts on the Cape were still debating about what kind of bird it actually is.

While the beach in front of the station was littered with debris, a walk further down the beach showed less and less of anything. A stroll through the dunes revealed a dead seal, stairs to a house (which bore some resemblance to the steps of Beston's Fo'castle, which was washed out to sea from this very beach in '78) and flattened dune grass, which indicated that the ocean was indeed here only hours earlier. In between some of these dunes were flattened out areas; sand paved by the surf with bits of grass strewn about. Elements of black sediment were peppered here and there for a natural artistic effect.

While the mainland had been pounded with as much as three feet of snow in some places, Eastham received only about two inches -- and that was melting away in the 40-degree temperature of the day. Off in the distance, on the hills of Eastham, were patches of snow, but none was to be found on this desolate stretch of coast.

The last 400 yards of Nauset Spit, south to the inlet -- only a sliver remains. (Photo by Don Wilding)

Reaching the end of some of the larger dunes on the spit, I came to an area that used to be roped off so that the nests of piping plovers could thrive. What I saw resembled Cape Cod Bay at low tide -- the only wildlife thriving here on a regular basis from now on would be marine creatures who make their homes below the surface of the sand. The beach had closed in from the east, while Nauset Marsh went through a massive expansion process from the west.

From there to the inlet, a distance of about 400 yards or so, it was nothing but flat sand. I debated about walking the final few hundred yards, but came to the conclusion that I should. It might not be here the next time I decide to hike this beach.

FURNITURE FROM THE SEA -- Would look nice in the living room, but too heavy to move.
(Photo by Don Wilding)

While trees and other debris were all over the entrance to Coast Guard Beach, nothing except for a large lobster pot was on this flat stretch of sand. The lobster pot would make for a nice coffee table, I thought, but getting it back to my car would be another matter. After coming to the conclusion that I wouldn't be able to lift it, the only function that this castoff

from the ocean would perform is to be a place to sit and rest for a few minutes.

Further down toward the inlet, one common centerpiece was no longer in sight -- a large tree with many branches which had been bleached by the sea. This once proud growth had been consumed by the ocean years before, only to be deposited near the inlet's opening. Now, it was obvious it had either been deposited elsewhere, or was completely buried in the sand.

I felt a bit of irony as I observed what appeared to be a coot swimming on the surface of the outgoing current of the inlet. The bird was no doubt looking for lunch in this fast flow of water, but was facing the west as the current carried him out toward the incoming breakers. Years earlier, Beston's legendary house was carried out into the Atlantic in much the same fashion. As the bird was pulled out a good 100 yards in less than a minute, I could only imagine how terrified I would be in such a situation. I eventually lost track of him, even with my binoculars. He probably went diving for a fish, as these birds often do, but I also couldn't help but worry that he might be in the same condition -- injured -- as so many other members of his kind were on this day.

"As I write of I think of my beloved birds of the great beach, and of their beauty and their zest of living," Beston wrote in the concluding paragraphs of "The Outermost House." "And if there are fears, know also that Nature has its unexpected and unappreciated mercies."

More photos of the storm's impact