Cape Cod is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean as though the collective towns and tourist traps were either flexing a muscle or waving an invitation that says “Come play with us!” Depending on where you slice the peninsula in your imagination, people all the way up to Boston will say that they live “on the Cape,” but the locals consider the Cape to be everything east of the Canal, and rightly so, I believe.
Point of view, prejudice and pride are funny things. I had always thought of the Canal as starting just out side of Onset, but not ending there. Wherever it starts or ends, the Cape Cod Canal serves as a shortcut from the Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay and makes the trip from New York to Boston much shorter, and safer, for any ships that are making the trek.
Having grown up on the inlet beaches of Buzzards Bay and so near to the Cape Cod Canal, I have always had not so much a love-hate relationship with water as a fascination-fear relationship with it. Beaches are inviting, even to the locals and when we went out to play during the summer, it was, as often as not, to play at the beach. Not unlike the tourists, we went to lay on the hot crystalline white sand, to dig in the water-logged sand at low tide and try our hand at sand castles. We went to swim or wade in the water, dodging seaweed and crabs (from the small white crabs that would take a shortcut across your foot if you were wading, to the horseshoe crabs that lumbered along) and also dodge the occasional gasoline rainbows left by the motor boats and yachts. We even collected seashells and carried sand pails.
But as locals, we also weathered hurricanes and ‘noreasters there, and I still shiver when I think of the high water marks of the hurricanes of 1953 and 1954. I can remember the water beading on the windows of our house, the cool confidence we feigned as we tried to assure ourselves that the water would not make the 200 yard trip up from the beach to our house. Such experiences taught us a strong sense of caution and respect for the water and that is how I approach any body of water today.
Buzzards Bay is the name of a village, as well as the body of water, and it is at the town of Buzzards Bay that the Canal actually begins. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is the first landmark inside the Canal. You can see part of the Railroad Bridge that crosses the Canal in the distance. Happily the Academy has built up considerably in the years since I left home. It is now a full four year college, with both male and female cadets. The old Quonset huts that housed the male students back in the 1950’s are gone and new classrooms and dorms and from what I hear a wonderful library have been built on the site. The dock pictured above left used to be all open, but there is plenty of access to the water for fishing.
My dad was in the Merchant Marine and although he did not attend the Academy it is a site that has a lot of pull for me. Before his ship sailed for the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, it would make what was called a coastwise trip, from Boston to New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and Charleston and back to New York, to pick up or unload cargo. One memorable time when I was about five years old, we went to the dock and were there when his ship was scheduled to pass through the Canal. We stood on the dock, and he was on the deck of his ship, the S.S. Exchequer, dressed in his khaki dress uniform, megaphone in hand and he called out to each of us. I stood there unaware of much else, attempting to play him a song on my toy accordion. It was amazing how fast that ship could go. I never understood speed in terms of knots, but it seemed to my five year old self that the ship went through the canal and past our site too darn fast.
When dad was at sea, every now and then Mom would decide to take my brother and me for a ride to Buzzards Bay to get ice-cream. It didn’t matter if we were ready for bed, we could make this trip in our pajamas. She’d get us each a cone and drive to the dock at the Maritime Academy and look at the Canal. At the time I just thought it was a great treat. I was so young, I didn’t understand how sad or lonely she must have been or the pain she must have felt as she looked out at the empty water.
The revetments on each side of the Canal are lined with large boulders, making the Canal seem partially landscaped as well as landlocked. It is not unusual to see fisherman standing between the boulders with their lines cast out into the Canal. I saw my first star fish on the rocks by the Academy as well as the shimmery purple black mussel shells that clung to the rocks..
There are three bridges that cross the Canal; the first bridge is a vertical lift railroad bridge, less than a mile from the Academy. It is one of five bridges of its kind in the United States. At the top of each tower, the bridge looks like an upside down ice cream cone, only this cone is made of latticed iron, toped with red and green lights in place of cherries. The Canal is under just eight miles long and is about 32 feet deep and is mostly straight; there is a gentle curve as the Canal leads out to the waters of the Cape Cod Bay. It is really quite a sight and while for years the sight of the three bridges seemed so ordinary to me, on a recent trip home I was amazed at how much the sight of them stirred something deep within me. I wanted to sit and drink in the site and do it all over again.
The other two bridges are twins of each other. The Bourne Bridge crosses the Canal at Bourne on Route 28, one of the two main road on the Cape. The Sagamore Bridge, crosses at Sagamore on Route 6 which is the other main road on the Cape. The road from Buzzards Bay to Sagamore runs parallel to the Canal and there are three overlooks or vistors’ areas where one can pull over and take in the view. As a child I learned to ride in the car with one eye on the road and one eye on the Canal, and that is the way I drive now. One eye on the road and one eye out for any body of water that does me the kindness of running parallel to the road I am on. Often it’s the Susquehanna River, sometimes it is Sugar Creek, or the Tioga River. I drive, always with a sense of longing, wanting to stop, to ponder and drink in the view, though I cannot drink the water. When the River and streams are overflowing, muddy and moving fast, that same childhood fascination-fear pulls at me to stop and gaze. But I drive on as though some weight were holding my foot to the gas pedal. Though I seldom stop, I don’t drive on without noticing or longing to notice the quality of the water. “Deep calls to Deep” the Psalmist says, (Psalm 42:7) and so it is with me.