Middle Meadow Marsh looking North on 2 October 2021.
I went to Great Island to look for a trace of the Witch of Wellfleet, but instead hiked out to Jeremy Point and glimpsed the Atlantis of Cape Cod.
The tide was particularly low, so the remains of Billingsgate Island (or the surface of Bellingsgate Shoal — both spellings show up in the record) were visible to the eye, if not particularly cooperative for my camera. Purportedly named for the Billingsgate Fish Market in London, the island was originally home to The Punonakanit people, who were members of the Wampanoag Federation.
Postcard of Billingsgate Island before 1915.
In the 17th century, when Europeans first colonized the island, it measured 60 acres. William Bradford, in Mourt’s Relation notes that it has previously been connected to Jeremy Point — but apparently began to erode from the mainland after a ditch was dug across the point. The island’s heyday was the early 19th century, when more than 30 homes were on the island. Coastal erosion started to eat away at the island significantly by the mid-19th century. In 1915, the lighthouse — which was the last structure on the island — collapsed in a storm. By the early 1940s, only the shoal remained — which is now only visible at low tide.
The end of Jeremy Point looking south to Billingsgate Shoal (barely visible).
I think of Great Island as one of my parent’s places. Whenever we came to Cape Cod — which was generally several times a year — they’d drag me to the island for a walk. As a kid, I could have cared less, but as an adult it’s a place of unending fascination. I paint here a lot.
The truth is, I tend to paint on the trails around The Gut — the tidal basin of the Herring River that connects with Wellfleet Harbor — with is, in fact, an interstitial area between Griffin Island and Great Island. This is the area my parents thought of as Great Island, and yesterday was the first time I’d ever hiked all the way out to Jeremy Point.
National Park Service map of Great Island, downloaded 3 October 2021.
There were a fair number of other hikers on the path around the island and on the interior path through the island. But once I passed the Middle Meadow Marsh, I was largely on my own. The area is vast and doesn’t photograph well. I was lucky that the tide was particularly low, and I could follow the sand bars deep into Wellfleet Harbor. Signs of the tide — floes of salt hay, signs of water flow over the sand, and the scarcity of grasses — reveal how little of this space would be accessible by foot if it were a particularly high tide. An encounter with some gulls and the dried remains of a seal carcass reminded me of Thoreau’s observation of The Atlantic side of Cape Cod: ‘It is a wild and rank place, and there is no flattery in it.’
At Jeremy Point looking north on 2 October 2021.
At the end of the point, I noticed how stressed I’d been about reaching my destination while staying aware of the lowering sun. Given the beach’s austerity, it was difficult to judge distance by sight, and the walk from Jeremy Point Overlook to the end of the bars, which I thought might take me 30 minutes, took closer to an hour. My entire walk on Great Island, which given my meanderings was probably close to eleven miles, took about 3.5 hours.
I tried my best to be present to the vast expanse, and my sense of isolation, but I wish I’d been able to start this hike earlier in the afternoon. My entire walk back was disrupted by a concern about fading light, and I suspect I missed something of the grandeur of the place. I also missed something in the possibility that isolation offers.
Thankfully, I can return. And I will. I still need to hunt down that trace of Mehitable Brown.
Sunset at The Gut on 2 October 2021.
For a a bit more information on Billingsgate Island, Mel Tulin — who by kayaking out to the shoal proves to be more intrepid than me — has posted his account and a few photos from the shoal at low tide.
Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod is a fundraiser to support Provincetown Commons’ artist studios, co-working facility, meeting spaces and exhibition gallery. Please donate at our website: https://www.provincetowncommons.org/fieldguide-walkingandpaintingcapecod