There is always something to do at the shack because most of the modern conveniences of home are missing. There is no electricity or running water. You get a water pump located down a hill, a dry sink, a hot plate, and a gas-powered fridge. We collect sticks for kindling and admire the bleached green lichen. We hear an occasional squawk from a blue jay, one of the few birds that haven’t headed off on winter migration. Dive-bombing gannets also remain, and they and the grey seals, with their enormous horse heads, provide late-afternoon entertainment just off shore.
At night, we read Thoreau’s Cape Cod aloud by lantern light. It seems like the thing to do. I am especially moved by the passages about the victims of the shipwreck off Cohasset, which are appallingly vivid.
We’re up as first light appears. Here, the weather determines the day’s activities. We want to experience the sunrise in the east, where Provincetown meets Truro, just southeast of Highland Light. The pink light signaling the sun’s ascension gives way to the bright red sphere itself. The top appears and the rest of the planet quickly rises, casting the blue sky with a purple tone.
As we walk back along the jeep road, we see signs of the creatures of the night. Delicate deer prints are visible, as are the pointed tracks of a coyote across the path made fat by the tires. The sea grass blows and sways. When you regard it without the sea, it’s as though you’re in the middle of a Midwest prairie. But then the blue rises in the distance and the scrub pine bobs in the wind. You’re not in Kansas—this you know.
Back at the shack, it’s time to prepare for the journey out of the dunes. We pack our things, which weigh considerably less now, and sweep away the sand. As we head past the outhouse, trudging toward the bogs, we again hear that high-pitched rattle. We look toward its direction, but no creature shows itself.
Shacks for the future
The future of the dune shacks has been in the hands of a panel working to develop a comprehensive access plan for them.
A group of shack dwellers, Cape Cod National Seashore officials, representatives from Provincetown and Truro, nonprofits offering residencies to the shacks, and others began meeting last fall to decide what happens when the lease agreements and other arrangements some dwellers have with the Seashore begin expiring in 2014.
On one side of the discussion are the families and others with longtime leases for whom the shacks are a significant part of life. They fear the changes the Seashore are proposing will chip away at the culture and history of the area, which was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. On the other side are Seashore officials who believe shack access should be open to more people, not just those fortunate enough to have been related to someone connected to a shack from early on. They also believe in keeping the land as pristine as it is now.
A preliminary report of the panel, released in May, suggests tenants could compete for leases that range from three to 20 years. A final plan is expected sometime this winter, according to Sue Moynihan, chief of interpretation and cultural resources management for the Seashore.
Donna V. Scaglione is a freelance writer living in Falmouth.