Ghost Forest

Bound Brook Island, Duck Harbor Restoration Area, 18 January 2023.

Last week, Adam and I walked the loop from the entrance of Bound Brook Island Road, along the marsh, to the Lombard Cemetery, past the Hatch House, along the beach, and just before we turned on the trail to the Baker-Biddle House, we saw three big trucks parked at the edge of the Herring River estuary — adjacent to what I believe was once the Duck Harbor inlet. 

As a kid, Duck Harbor was just a name of a beach my parents occasionally took me, and I’d assumed that it referred to a place where ducks hung out. It wasn’t until I became familiar with Bound Brook Island, and especially since reading Sharon Dunn’s beautiful love letter of a book — An Island In Time: Exploring Bound Brook Island, Its Land & People, It’s Past & Present — that I understood how central Duck Harbor was to the commerce of early Wellfleet. Indeed, in a sense, it was early Wellfleet.

Bound Brook Island Road, Duck Harbor Restoration Area, 18 January 2023.

It’s unclear why the harbor silted up, forcing the residents of Bound Brook Island to migrate to what we now know as Wellfleet Center, but certainly the 1909 diking of the Herring River was the final blow. While the area that was once the harbor was obviously a wetlands, the abundance of plantlike made it difficult to image that it had ever been a tidal river. 

Since the mosquito apocalypse of 2021, I’d been aware of the salt-water wash over at Duck Harbor, the stagnant pools of water that allowed for unusual mosquito breeding, and the efforts to solve the problem. I’d also been vaguely aware of the die-off of plants in the affected area. But the clearing of the briar made the scope of the ghost forest more apparent to me, and I returned yesterday to take a look. 

Bound Brook Island, Duck Harbor Restoration Area, 18 January 2023.

The work that’s been done is impressive. In addition to the clearing of briar, channels have been created to allow for the flow of water along the estuary. In theory this will allow for the return of fish that will eat the mosquito larvae. Walking into the cleared plane gives one a sense of the size of the land and allowed me to imagine for the first time how this place could have been a navigable harbor. This week the Park Service issued a press release about the next stages of the project, which I’ll quote liberally (Cape Cod National Seashore press release on 17 January 2023):

Since January 2021, the 120-acre Duck Harbor floodplain has had periodic over wash of saltwater breaking over the dunes on Cape Cod Bay. Higher high tides occurring for 3-5 days during most months allowed saltwater to flow rapidly inland and slowly drain back out through the Herring River and into Wellfleet Harbor. The saltwater accumulation in Duck Harbor caused a massive die-off of upland and freshwater trees and plants that had colonized to the area following the diking of the Herring River in 1909.

Removing the dead vegetation at Duck Harbor will promote the natural recruitment of salt marsh plants and increase the ecological productivity of the area, while helping to minimize breeding habitat for mosquitoes by facilitating flow and drainage of water. Tree and shrub removal will be accomplished with heavy duty mulching equipment and will be accompanied by intensive scientific monitoring to document ecological changes. Park staff will be on-site regularly to monitor the work area. The dead vegetation will be mulched and spread amongst the area to promote growth and vitality for the native species.

Park scientists will work with the Center for Coastal Studies to monitor changes in Duck Harbor and are optimistic about the revival of native salt marsh species, as saltwater tolerant plants have already been observed returning to the area. The near-term future of dune over washes is unknown, but Duck Harbor will eventually experience routine saltwater flow from the Herring River after the dike at Chequessett Neck Road is replaced with a bridge.

Bound Brook Island, Duck Harbor Restoration Area, 18 January 2023.

The Park Service refers to the Herring River Restoration Project, which is a massive effort to correct an environmental catastrophe catalyzed in the early 20th century when the dike at the opening of the Herring River blocked tidal flow. While the project nominally was undertaken to control mosquitos (it arguably made the mosquito problem worse), the dike also created a lot of new acreage. What’s now happening on Bound Brook is part of this larger restoration project. Follow the link for a map that provides a context for the massive scope of the project. 

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