By Susanna Graham-Pye, The Cape Codder
HARWICH – The soundtrack of this day is a late summer song played by crickets hidden beneath dappled shadows in yellowing grasses. Nuthatches skitter over the chunky bark of scrub pines, singing along, while crows and jays cry out warnings. To those who listen, they say, a line of hikers moves through the forest.
The group walks steadily down a sandy path toward an overlook where guides promise that those who close their eyes and open their minds will feel something special. The guides say the view tells tales of past and present, beginnings and endings, and that where they are walking and where they are going is hallowed ground. That this place was saved from development is a miracle.
Group and guides arrive at a place overlooking the soon-to-be-restored Muddy Creek. This was a feasting site where hundreds of years ago, for hundreds of years, sachems from around the region gathered. Everyone’s eyes travel over the creek, which indeed appears to be quite muddy, to the thin line of white sand dune that separates sky and bay. On this day, white sails dot the waters of Big Pleasant Bay and the lazy drone of a distant boat lifts and carries past on the soft salty breeze. Once Governor William Bradford and the Wampanoag called Squanto stood here looking toward the east, too.
During this early fall time of year, people who lived in the area would be burying their canoes in the river mud. With this chore completed, families moved from summer wetus into their winter long houses, low dwellings nestled against the north wall of a dry kettle holes, facing south, so worst winter storms would skim over their thick bark roofs.
The Muddy Creek site was called the “wading place” by the native people. Here their lives transitioned between winter and summer. The people would come back in the spring to dig up their boats, called mishoons. Timed properly, the project of hauling out the boats coincided with the running of the herring. People could fish, and pull up boats buried beneath the mud in the river, a tactic to preserve the canoes from drying and cracking if they were left on land. Some of the boats were 40 or 50 feet long, carved from old growth forest trees, hickory, elm and ash, that could have been 30 feet in girth. Those trees became the property of the king of England.
Leading the walk are Todd Kelley, a 12th generation native Cape Codder, and Marcus Hendricks, who is on the board of the Native Land Conservancy. He is of Wampanoag descent. Walking the slim sandy path that winds through the forest, Hendricks says he feels his heritage and believes other feel it, too.
One of the walkers asks if anyone has made a documentary of the story.
“No,” Hendricks says, nor does he want anyone to, he adds. The story is in the land and the only way to preserve it is to protect it. The tale can’t be captured in black and white, he says, nor on film where the smells and sounds and feelings of walking through it all can’t possibly be held.
Today’s hike is a part of a three-part series offered by the Harwich Conservation Trust. The series explores what is essentially the end of the native people’s true foothold in the Pleasant Bay region – a grasp held longer than in many other parts of New England, Massachusetts and the Cape.
Kelley notes that this final destination is where William Sears Nickerson wrote of looking out from the banks of Muddy Creek. From this precise feasting site, Kelley says Nickerson told with great poignancy, of Tisquantum “looking out on the end of his people,” he says.
Hendricks listens, nodding.
“It was a new world,” he agrees, but not as most understand the term. This was not the new world that fill the pages of U.S. history books and the minds of American children, he says. It was a new and unrecognizable world for the native people – a world into which they vanished.
“They were still living, but they vanished,” he says. “They were living in this new way, in this new world. Their world was gone.”
Whether it is spirits of that distant past whispering on the winds that float inland from the bay, or the land speaking, as Hendricks believes it does, residents of the Pleasant Bay region have long listened to calls to preserve the area. The efforts of the region are, in a way, quite unique in the preservation world.
Saving the land
In 2003, Harwich Conservation Trust led the Save the Monomoy River Campaign, says Michael Lach, director of HCT. The effort helped lead to the town purchase of 42 acres on Muddy Creek for $5.9 million. In 2014, north of Muddy Creek, the Trust purchased another 49 acres. That $3.6 million effort was known as the Pleasant Bay Woodlands Project.
“Harwich Conservation Trust’s land-saving endeavors in the Pleasant Bay Watershed and the pending Muddy Creek Restoration Bridge Project both help with the ongoing effort to protect and improve the quality of Muddy Creek and Pleasant Bay,” Lach says.
Currently, Lach says, the trust and other land preservationists hope that somehow another 17-acre parcel for $1.55 million will be recognized as another opportunity to preserve the area and purchased as open space.
For many, preservation and protection of Pleasant Bay, and projects such as the Muddy Creek Bridge project, are symbols of what can be achieved by towns working collaboratively on preservation issues. The restoration of Muddy Creek, slated to begin this fall will restore the river basin to a condition it has not experienced for more than a century. When the project is finished herring might return to run the river to upland ponds the way they did when Micah Rafe and his wife Sarah, the last native people of the area to trace their lineage back to Tisquantum, lived.
The Muddy Creek Bridge project will replace the current culvert and dike system that allows the tidal river to flow beneath Route 28.
Looking at a more recent story, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the agreement between the towns of Harwich, Orleans, Chatham and Brewster to develop a management plan for the Pleasant Bay system, designated by the state as an ACEC, Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The state designation, given nearly a decade earlier, required the development of a plan for the management and protection of what has always been acknowledged as extraordinary estuary system.
That plan was completed in 1998 and submitted to the four towns; town meetings in three towns – Chatham, Orleans and Harwich – voted to adopt the plan and form an alliance to manage the bay. Brewster entered the alliance in 2007.
Today, the Pleasant Bay Alliance is a municipal entity. Its steering committee and technical resource committees are appointed by the boards of selectmen in each member town. Recommendations made by those boards are implemented in each town by related boards and commissions.
Many today see the Muddy Creek restoration project as a symbol of the success of the Alliance. Perhaps no one is more familiar with the entire story than Carole Ridley.
“It was very forward looking of the towns to act together [to develop a management plan] in this way, along with leadership from the Friends of Pleasant Bay,” says Ridley, who 20 years ago coordinated the many stakeholder meetings, presentations, and collection of data necessary to complete the management plan. “The efforts undertaken by the four towns to nominate the ACEC and develop the Pleasant Bay Management plan were an example of effective regional cooperation before acting regionally was collectively thought of as an important objective.”
Recognition that the nitrogen loading in the bay would have a significant impact on the area’s watershed, not just the shoreline and marine water, Ridley says, came a number of years before state officials even began looking closely at nutrient management on the more familiar, broaderscale of today.
In short, she added, the towns were ahead of the curve developing data to help towns address problems related to nutrient loading, especially in the arena of wastewater management. The Muddy Creek Bridge and restoration project will save the towns of Harwich and Chatham an estimated $4 million in wastewater infrastructure costs in the coming years.
“There are very few instances of this type of regional cooperation on Cape Cod, and certainly not as long standing,” Ridley said of the Pleasant Bay Alliance.
Some of the biggest concerns that dominated discussions about the bay and management plan several decades ago haven’t changed. Development and nitrogen loading were among the top hot topics then and they are today.
Ironically, another major worry – the expansion of aquaculture – is being viewed as a positive now. Aquaculture is being considered as a safe and natural way to remove nitrogen from the water.
“This just wasn’t on the view screen in 1998,” Ridley says.
Early studies assessing various options to improve the health of Muddy Creek were sponsored by the Alliance. Ridley says the process was “incremental:” first the size of the inlet and what it should be was studied, then water quality benefits that would come from that size, and ultimately what changes to wetlands and fisheries would occur due to the changes.
“The stepwise approach led to the recommendation that a bridge was the best option to improve the health of Muddy Creek,” she says. “Muddy Creek is a part of the Pleasant Bay system and will become much healthier as a result of the project. That is good overall for the Pleasant Bay system.”
Muddy Creek is a “great example,” of how the Alliance’s work has been cost effective for the member towns, and has led to quicker responses to area problems.
For Hendricks and Kelley, that Muddy Creek and the sacred lands along its banks survive is represents more than tidal flow and species preservation – it is vital to maintaining a sense of place. Preservation of the area is essential to saving history.
“As long as the land’s here,” Hendricks says, “there will always be a story.”