When one thinks of National Parks, New England does not come first to mind. We lack the vast, sweeping desert vistas and canyons of the west, and the compressed geography of these small states seems almost incapable of supporting any National Parks the way we usually conceive of them. But we’ve got a couple NPS managed places, and one of these is the utterly stunning Cape Cod National Seashore. My husband’s family has been going to the Cape for summer vacations for many, many years, and I have been joining them since I was a teenager. And yet, it was not until this year, when we immersed ourselves in the Cape as only the Department of the Interior can do it, that I came to genuinely love the place.
We paid $45 for a season’s pass, and with it, we could come and go to all the National Seashore’s beaches as we pleased (otherwise, it’s $15 a day per beach). As we have kids who won’t tolerate a full day on the beach (and frankly, neither can I), it was a fine arrangement to be able to come and go as we pleased. So, in the course of the week, we visited seven National Seashore beaches, and several hiking paths, marsh walks, and tide flat explorations. We also discovered the Junior Ranger program, wherein kids 5-12 can complete a booklet, attend one ranger led activity, and visit one historical site and qualify to wear the official Junior Ranger badge. Naturally, we participated, and even overachiever Simon, at only 3, was granted Junior Ranger status based on his exceptional interest in intertidal zone organisms.
As the days passed, we tagged along with Ranger Phillip to muck around on the tide flats of Great Island, and we stopped in to the Old Harbor Lifesaving Museum in Provincetown. By chance, I had picked up a kids’ picture book at our home library before we left called Heroes of the Surf, about the very same sort of Surfmen/Lifesavers who once patrolled the ocean facing beaches of the Cape watching for shipwrecks. This book is the reason I knew about the lifesaving apparatus known as the Lyle gun and breeches buoy. As I pointed out a Lyle Gun in the Lifesaving Museum in Provincetown, a khaki-uniformed guide there named Richard Ryder (grandson of a actual, turn of the 20th century lifesaver!) turned a sharp eye on me and, in a somewhat accusatory tone, snapped, “How do you know about the Lyle gun?” Afraid I was not supposed to be privy to this secret knowledge, I told him about Heroes of the Surf. He seemed to remain suspicious, and I pictured a thought bubble over his head reading, “Who told this girl about Lyle guns?! She looks like every other touristy, yawning buffoon who passes through here!”
It got better, for us Lyle gun enthusiasts. That night, as they do every Thursday evening at 6pm at Race Point Beach, the National Parks Service staff and volunteers put on a reenactment of a rescue using that same apparatus. And there is real gunpowder, and real firing of a real projectile over the fake mast and rigging of a fake shipwreck. And then, a real person is rescued using the breeches buoy–a lifesaving ring with a pair of bloomers attached that the shipwreck victim would sit in while zip lining onto shore, and safety, over the crashing waves in the middle of a winter’s night on the deadly shoals of Cape Cod. Pretty awesome. If you are one of my readers a long way from Massachusetts, and unlikely to see this in person, here’s a little clip to give you the flavor of the thing.
So if you go to Cape Cod, do not miss the National Seashore! Stop into one of the Visitor Centers and pick up one of their little event newspapers. Buy a season’s pass, and beach hop to your heart’s content. Learn stuff from the Rangers. Go see Richard Ryder narrate the breeches buoy reenactment (and if he asks, tell him I told you about the Lyle gun.)