Last weekend, I went to Coast Guard Beach – a beach on the Cape Cod National Seashore I've been visiting since I was a baby swaddled in a blanket – and found it unrecognizable.
That's how bad the erosion has been this winter on the great swath of barrier beach along the Outer Cape. Last summer, a path from the old Coast Guard station gently sloped down along a boardwalk to a sandy path and the beach. The green beach grass of the dunes swayed in the wind as the shoreline seemed to go on forever.
But as a cold March wind whipped and I returned to the beach for the first time since January, everything had changed. The Coast Guard station still watched over me and the boardwalk still invited us down to the water, but the gently sloping sandy path had been turned into the jagged edge of a small cliff. A huge mound of peat – the remains of a former kettlehole – lay exposed like a beached whale. And as I looked south, the gently sloping dunes and waving grass had been replaced by a 20-foot-high bluff of exposed roots and centuries of sand and clay layers.
My family and I walked north along the bended arm to Nauset Light and Marconi beaches, both of which have grand staircases leading from the parking area down a high bluff to the beach. Both staircases were wiped away by the storms. Again. And if the 136-year-old lighthouse hadn't been moved back from the ever-eroding cliffs in 1996, this is the winter it would have tumbled into the ocean.
Over the years, I have come to know every line and angle of the sandy bluffs on the horizon and each pitch pine or scrub oak hanging near the edge. During this visit, it was like visiting a new part of the Cape. Huge islands of earth that once had pitch pine or scrub oak in the middle and bearberry and sea grass hanging over the edge now lie suspended halfway up the sandy bluffs.
As we walked down the lonely beach, rocks and sand continued to tumble down the high bluff as a little bit more of Cape Cod disappeared. The heavier stones fell away from the dunes while the sand piled up in funnels as it awaits its next placement by the churning waves.
My 11-year-old daughter asked what had happened to one of her "favorite places in all the world." It was a teachable moment. I could have told her this has been happening to the Cape ever since the glacier created the peninsula and thrust it out into the turbulent North Atlantic. I could have told her life is all about change and is fragile and fleeting.
"It's Cape Cod," I said feebly.
Life marches on. The stairs will be rebuilt and the beachgoers will return in the spring and summer and find their favorite beach has changed once again. The waves ebb and flow. All these are constants.