Taking a sea kayaking or kayak fishing trip to Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge at Chatham, Massachusetts on the southeasternmost tip Cape Cod is a simple matter.
Throw a drybag, some lunch and water, sunscreen and a windbreaker into your dayhatch, load up your camera with fresh batteries and plenty of memory, and off you go, shoving into the refuge’s vast shallow water embayment from its traditional put-in, the Morris Island causeway .
It’s a rewarding area to paddle, especially if you enjoy warm water. The island’s typically calm paddling conditions make for good birdwatching and seal viewing. Monomoy is a unique area: a dynamic, rapidly-changing land- and seascape whose long and narrow barrier beaches, vast flats and numerous shallow water embayments both attract and support a wide variety of wildlife.
Sand is the dominant feature here, followed by sand dunes, plants and grasses that thrive in sand, mollusks and shellfish that burrow in sand, and sea and shorebirds that hunt for forage and sustenance on the sand flats Nantucket Sound’s tides cover and re-cover once again.
The most common route first-time sea kayakers take runs from Morris Island through the Southway, a long and narrow body of water sluice between South Beach and North Monomoy Island bisected by a wandering boat channel marked each year with buoys by the local harbormaster.
The Southway is separated from the powerful surf and tidal currents of Cape Cod’s easterly waters by dun-colored South Beach, and from the fast tides, and wind-driven chop, of Nantucket Sound, by Monomoy Island, better referred to as North and South Monomoy Islands, to the west.
Haul out on a sandbar, pull your kayak above the high water mark, pull down your sunglasses and have a look around.
Sand, sand, sand. The granules here, hardly powdery but rough, hard-edged and crystaline, where deposited here during the ice age by the same glacial lobe which formed the rest of Cape Cod including the vast Nantucket Shoals and the not-so-distant and well-known islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Tuckernuck, Muskeget and Nantucket.
The sand is always in movement, pushed and pulled, grain by grain, by the diurnal tides, wave action, and the rippling effects of wind, littoral currents and chop. The prevailing wind direction during here the summer is from the southwest. Its handiwork — sand waves, sand ripples — is always evident underfoot. Ripples, runkles, crenelations, oblong patterns, repeated bulges and v-shaped wedges.
The patterns can be mesmerizing, providing stimulation to the eye, and calming effect to the brain, and a litany of inspirations to a photographer.
Equally beautiful and subtle, and cast with the pale yellow hue that characterizes the shades of the sand here, are the patterns that form in the shallow waters to the west of the two islands. Delicate ripples roll forward, catching light and casting shadows, as they pass over the stands of eel grass and tidal pools.
One element worth looking for is not always here, nor entirely natural. Monomoy has long been a prized fishing area, its waters’ thick biomass of baitfish consistently attracting large schools of migratory striped bass, bonito and bluefish.
The three species, widely regarded as sportfish, have more recreational than commercial value, although there is a short, closely-monitored commercial striped fishing season in Massachusetts based upon a yearly quota. None of the fish are actively targeted by that traditional method of catching fish, the fish weir. Fish weirs, permitted by grants that to the colonial era, are laboriously erected in the waters west of South Monomoy Island. Constructed of non-stretch polypropylene rope, rot-resistant cedar, the weirs are erected, maintained, and removed once again every few seasons by local permit holders who use the weirs to corral bunker, menhaden and, occasionally, herring.
The weir extends at right angle from a stretch of the west side of lower South Monomoy Island few sea kayakers or kayak fishermen explore, mostly because the trip is lengthy — nearly three hours round trip — and because the waters here, featureless but for their occasionally swarming schools of fish, don’t have much to attract the weary paddler.
The weir is a sort of fence that interrupts the schooled passage of nutrient-rich mackerel and herring. Their parallel-to-the-island passage blocked by the weir, the schools swim parallel to the weir which, suspended with nets below the water’s surface, twists closed at narrow entry-way, forming a diabolically effective circular pen. Mackerel and herring collect in the pen and swim around and around in circles until the day of harvest.
Well that’s it for today’s intro to one of the many surprises to be found in the waters of Monomoy Island, part of Monomoy Island National Wildlife refuge at the southeasternmost tip of Cape Cod at Chatham, Massachusetts.
Paddle this area if you have the time and the stamina. Its waters are warm, its landscapes and seascapes subtle and rewarding and delicate. Low- to high intermediate sea kayakers can have a safe time here so long as they keep an eye on the persistent southwest winds, remain mindful of powerboat traffic bound for Stage Harbor, and are careful of not getting caught out on the area’s vast tidal western flats on a dropping tide near dusk or during a thunderstorm. Times like those returning to Morris Island can become into a lengthy, energy-draining grind that can keep you out long after dark as you feel your way down the westernmost edge of the islands’ western flats in search of deeper water.