Op-Ed: Whose Dunes Are They?

CHRISTA ZEVITAS PHOTO. A child "surfs" the dunes in Wellfleet--a controversial activity. Signs forbid people from the dunes to prevent more erosion.

A child “surfs” the dunes in Wellfleet–a controversial activity. Signs forbid people from the dunes to prevent more erosion.


WELLFLEET- It was a balmy September twilight on Wellfleet’s Cahoon Hollow Beach—the kind that’s just right for an impromptu game of volleyball by the shore. Locals from Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans brought along some balls and some kids and, net in place, the fun began.

For Laird and Cormick Parker—teenage brothers from Orleans who had accompanied their father that evening—the timing was also perfect for dune surfing on their boogie board. They took turns trekking to the top, flying down with smiles of sheer joy as the volleyball group enthusiastically cheered on their efforts. Soon, the lure of the dunes had two young Centerville sisters enjoying this Cahoon Beach ritual.

The feel-good scene ended unexpectedly when a woman, using expletives, demanded the children get off the dunes.

She then accused the adults of allowing the kids to contribute towards erosion of the dunes in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Sensing that what we had here was a debate that had been ongoing for years, I decided to do a little digging—so to speak—on the issue of the dunes and ask people about the issue.

The volleyball crew—which included fishermen and small business owners alike—asked the woman to calm down. They explained that while they have a healthy respect for the dunes, the winter storms would soon wipe out everything the kids were playing on—and much, much more.

Oysterman Aaron Francis weighed in with the knowledge of a Wellfleet native. “Most local people have seen it wash away through the years and know that Mother Nature’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. Kids aren’t gonna do near the damage that Mother Nature will in just one storm,” he said.

Hillary Greenberg, Health and Conservation Agent for the Town of Wellfleet, agreed that, as everyone knows, storms cause erosion. “With the big Nor’easters, winters are really harsh,” said Greenberg. “Some winters during the past couple of years, we’ve lost three feet of dune all along that coast. We’ve lost vegetation, telephone poles, well casings, and dwellings have had to be moved back or removed.”

Francis pointed out that spirited encounters between locals and out-of-towners similar to the one surrounding the dune surfing are a common daily occurrence on Wellfleet beaches during peak season. Fueling the locals’ fire is the fact that although Wellfleet beaches fall within Seashore boundaries, some are managed by the town. The same is true of Truro beaches, according George Price, Superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Price said that while the park is comprised of 44,000 acres, only 27,000 are owned outright by the government. The rest, Price said, is “a mosaic of private property, town property, state property and other property.”

Apart from the fact that climbing dunes accelerates erosion, Price also emphasized that “there’s the possibility for personal injury. As people go up and down the cliff faces, there’s the opportunity for sand to slide down. In the past, people have been seriously hurt.”

Suzanne Thomas, Wellfleet’s Beach Administrator, echoed Price’s concern. She cautions beachgoers to take the threat of sliding dunes seriously, citing an accident from the 1980s wherein two boys climbing dunes at Long Nook Beach in Truro died after a dune collapsed.

Wellfleet warns beachgoers with signs posted at beach trail headsreading “don’t climb dunes” and “danger, sliding sand.”  Unfortunately, Thomas said, “signs disappear all the time and [end up] in dorm rooms or as firewood for bonfires. And funding runs out to replace them.”

In reality, will any amount of warning ever keep kids off these legendary dunes? If what happened at Cahoon Hollow day filled with beach volleyball and dune surfing is any indication, probably not. As soon as the irate woman left, the Parker boys and their young counterparts were back riding the dunes.

“It’s a difficult situation and a dynamic situation,” said Greenberg. “That’s the draw of the Outer Cape. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful. It’s kids being kids.”

Christa Zevitas of Centerville is a writer who likes to take her family to the beaches of the Outer Cape.

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