Banking on Barnstable
EXPERIENCED NEW ENGLAND BOATERS, AND ESPECIALLY FISHERMEN, HAVE LONG KNOWN BARNSTABLE HARBOR AS A PLACE THAT SERVES AS BOTH A SAFE HAVEN AND A GATEWAY TO ALL SORTS OF AQUATIC ADVENTURE, BUT THERE’S MORE TO THIS CAPE COD TOWN THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Tom Richardson
The town of Barnstable comproses 7 villages, including West Barnstable, and Barnstable Village. West Barnstable borders the inner harbor and the sprawling 4.000-acre Great Marshes, the second largest saltmarsh system on the East Coast.
Protecting this rich and fragile ecosystem is the sheltering arm of Sandy Neck, a barrier beach featuring majestic rolling dunes, some rising to 100 feet.
When entering Barnstable Harbor from Cape Cod Bay, it’s important to follow the markers carefully, as the narrow channel is surrounded by extremely shallow flats that have caused headaches for more than a few boaters.
To starboard, shoal water extends from beautiful Sandy Neck, a barrier beach marked by the Sandy Neck Lighthouse on Beach Point. The 182-year-old lighthouse presides over a cluster of venerable shingled cottages that are part of a private summer community on the Neck. Originally built in 1826 and rebuilt in 1857, Sandy Neck Light was decommissioned in 1931. Until the spring of 2007 it was regarded as an area oddity because of the fact that its lantern room was missing, giving it a peculiar “headless” look. Residents raised more than $65,000 in private donations, resulting in construction of a new lantern room in 2008. Today the light—all 48′ of it—stands whole again, although it and the adjoining lightkeeper’s house are not open to the public.
Fortunately, Sandy Neck itself is. The beach is a favorite summer and fall outpost for boaters and non-boaters alike. Each season a legion of off-roaders stake their claim along the beach (after securing a permit from the town) in RVs and pickup trucks, either carrying or towing campers.
Long before the area became a summer playground, Sandy Neck played an early role in New England whaling, which got its start here in the 1600s. Colonists would venture into the bay in small skiffs and chase the whales onto Sandy Neck, where the animals were killed and processed. Bones and other artifacts from this industry are occasionally unearthed today.
During the 1930s, the harbor was a major source for soft-shell clams, with 8,000 barrels harvested in 1936 alone. Yet another early industry that flourished in Barnstable was saltmarsh haying. The Great Marshes’ abundant cordgrass (Spartina altiflorens) was harvested by early settlers and dried for use as feed for livestock, bedding, insulation and mulch. The marshes were once dotted by “haystaddles”—stands upon which the cordgrass was left to dry.
Evidence of Barnstable’s colonial past can be found a short distance (one mile) from the harbor. This includes the stately captains’ homes on Route 6A, also known as Old King’s Highway. Originally a Native American trail between Plymouth and Provincetown, the Highway was used daily by early settlers to move supplies. In the 18th century, the sea merchant and whaling trades transformed it into a major route to Boston. Today, 6A runs through the heart of Barnstable’s business district, which features shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Back on the water, kayakers, canoeists and intrepid shallow-draft powerboaters can venture into the maze of tidal creeks that wind through the Great Marshes in the western portion of Barnstable Harbor, behind Sandy Neck (although novices are advised to do so only on a rising tide and to get out of Dodge lest the rapidly falling water leave them marooned for the next six hours). It’s a good idea to carry a GPS and cell phone with you, and beware the onslaught of greenhead flies that rule the marshes in midsummer. The best times to boat or paddle the marshes are the months of May and June, and again from late August to mid-October. And if you like backwater fishing, the Barnstable marshes produces some amazing action with striped bass in June.
NAVIGATING THE INNER HARBOR
Barnstable’s Inner Harbor (Maraspin Creek) is accessed via a narrow (25′ wide) channel marked on either side by a “fence” of tall PVC pipes. Follow the markers closely, as the channel is bordered by extremely shallow flats. If unfamiliar with the harbor, you might consider entering on a rising tide, which may float you clear if you accidentally ground.
A concrete state-run launch ramp with float provides trailerboat access immediately to port on Blish Point after clearing the inlet. This is a busy area in summer, with hundreds of boats and kayaks splashing and hauling on nice weekends. The small harbor features a restaurant and three marinas, as well as a nearby market for provisions. A whale watch boat that runs trips to Stellwagen Bank also operates out of the harbor. Be aware that there is little room for turning in the basin, so larger vessels should keep to the outer harbor.