Special Places: Kent’s Point on Pleasant Bay
(originally published in Cape Cod LIFE, May 1999)
Naturalist Robert Finch takes us through the dynamic landscape of Kent’s Point
With this first installment of Special Places, we are proud to welcome celebrated essayist Robert Finch to the pages of Cape Cod LIFE. Mr. Finch has graciously offered to contribute the following regular column exploring the region’s many Capescapes. Although these areas are little known, they contribute immeasurably to the beauty and splendor of our natural landscape.
When I was young, and the Cape seemed young too, Orleans was the town I most wanted to live in. One of its enduring attractions is that Orleans is more intensely penetrated by saltwater than almost any other community on Cape Cod. Numerous coves, harbors, bays, salt ponds, tidal rivers, and other arms of the sea deeply probe and thread its landscape, so it seems more a loosely-connected fleet of ships at sea than an anchored landform. Kent’s Point, on Pleasant Bay in Orleans, epitomizes this sea-invaded quality, and the fact that Orleans has preserved such places suggest it is still a town worth living in.
For its size, Kent’s Point is arguably the most beautiful piece of conservation land on the most beautiful body of water on Cape Cod (and you can extend the hyperbole yourself from there). Acquired by the town in 1988, it consists of a long, wooded, steep-sided peninsula jutting some 500 feet out into the waters of upper Pleasant Bay. It is surrounded by saltwater on all four sides: Kescayogansett Pond on the west, Lonnie’s River on the south (“river” being a local term applied to salt as well as fresh watercourses on the Cape), Frost Fish Cove on the north, and the upper bay’s main navigational channel, known simply as The River, to the east.
Though it encompasses only 27.7 acres, Kent’s Point seems much larger than that, in part because of its unsurpassed water views, but also because of its superb trail system. Four of five planned walking trails have been completed, including benches, picnic sites, observation platforms, and a handicapped access ramp to the beach built by the local Boy scout troop. Imaginatively designed and sensitively constructed, the trails maximize the property’s aesthetic resources and at the same time respect it fragility. One can spend a casual hour walking the various paths without retracing one’s steps, and come away with the feeling that one has experienced a place much more extensive than it actually is.
Walking out the River Trail along the south shore, for instance, one catches glimpses of Lonnie’s River, glimpses that widen as one continues along the Beach Trail toward the Point and culminate in spectacular and sweeping views of upper Pleasant Bay. Here soft, rounded headlands are studded with pines and separated by winding watercourses. Along The River, the serpentine shorelines are strung with one of the architectural glories of Pleasant Bay—its old boathouses, with their weathered shingles and painted doors, some still with their short sections of iron rails leading down to the water. Looking south past Sargent’s Point to Hog and Sampson Islands and out to the low, thin bar of the Outer Beach itself, one discerns the tiny abstract cubes of beach cottages perched like mirages on the horizon.
Along the Cove Trail, on the north side of the property, salt marshes and freshwater seeps punctuate the shore, providing foraging areas for deer, raccoons, brant, scaup, mergansers, black ducks, and other waterfowl. The trail looks out across Frost Fish Cove (which gets it name from a local term for the tomcod, a smaller relative of the cod, which shows up in coves like this about the time of the first frost) to another wooded finger of land known a Cummings Point. Here, on a winter’s morning, one can often view the impressive sight of several dozen great blue herons roosting in the tall pines.
The proposed Pond Trail will lead to Kescayogansett Pond, a salt pond that serves as the entrance to Orleans’ largest herring run and in summer provides snug harbor to numerous small craft. Along these wooded trails, in spring, one may also come upon one of the property’s botanical treasures, the uncommon Little Lady Tresses orchid, with its lovely spiral of small white flowers.
Kent’s Point is perhaps best seen, however, on a bright, breezy fall day, when Pleasant Bay recaptures some of the feel and look of a generation or two ago when only a few sails yawed and tacked on its soft surface. Then the pungent smell of dried eelgrass rises from the rock-littered beach, and the clear blue waters, sharded with sunlight, hurt the eyes with their loveliness. On such quiet autumn days, Kent’s Point does not so much seem like a protected remnant of landscape as a particularly lovely part of what once was.
A special appreciation adheres to many locally-owned open spaces on Cape Cod, an appreciation that comes not only from their ability to remind us of what once was but also from the knowledge of what they might have been. In the case of Kent’s Point, its fate might have been a 23-acre private subdivision, had it not been for its long-time owner, the late Charlotte Kent, who sold it to the town for much less than its appraised value because she wished to keep it “as open space for animals and flowers and other growing things. I think there is very little of that left in Orleans,” she wrote, a fact all too evident in the proliferation of new houses seen along much of the Bay’s shoreline.
Half of the charm of places like this is what they evoke: Kent’s Point gushes, not only with natural beauty, but with a rich sense of the past, and of human continuity. Two overgrown bogs bordering the proper indicate this area was once part of the thriving 19th-century cranberry industry. The land itself was farmed as far back as the 18th century, and along the Pond Trail signs of this agricultural past are evident in the form of tall spire-like junipers glowing with turquoise berries. Junipers, or red cedars, as they are commonly called, are a “pioneer species,” seeding into former pasture land. There are also a couple of large old oak “wolftrees” whose limbs, spreading wide into the surrounding younger trees, once likely provided shade for the family’s cows or horses.
On a winter visit, near one of these large oaks, I came upon a stand of tall “mystery trees,” with light-gray reticulated bark. They bore characteristics of cherries, beech and poplar but seemed to fit none of these. What were they? I was content to leave them unidentified that day; every place should keep a mystery or two to draw us back.
The easternmost point, currently closed to public access, contains an early 19th-century farmhouse, a small studio cottage, and several outbuildings. A cement square at the crest of the Point, overlooking The River, once held a rustic gazebo. There are plans to reconstruct the gazebo and perhaps rebuild a small dock on The River to allow access by canoe and small boats; the other buildings are slated for removal before the area is opened up to visitors.
This may be regrettable, for these structures and their ghosts are redolent of another time, calling up a slower and more gentle summer community along its still waters. Imagination easily conjures up parties of half a century ago, romances that blossomed here, courtships that consummated in proposals, birthdays, and anniversaries of long ties celebrated. They remind us of a more patrician society—so easy to criticize now in our more socially democratic age—which was nonetheless responsible for keeping many of our special places intact and undeveloped until we, as communities, finally came to appreciate their value and began to take steps to preserve them. Recognizing this, we ought to value such places as Kent’s Point not only for their present beauty and glimpses of Cape Cod’s less-crowded past, but also for their ability to provide inspiration and to serve as templates for crafting a more appropriate occupation of our landscape in the future.
If you go:
From Orleans Center, take Main Street east toward Nauset Beach approximately 0.8 miles. Turn right at the Civil War monument onto Monument Road and continue south 0.7 miles. Look for Frost Fish Lane and “Kent’s Point” sign on left. Follow Frost Fish Lane 0.6 miles to the Kent Point parking lot.
Robert Finch is the author of four books of essays about Cape Cod and the editor of A Place Apart: A Cape Cod Reader.