from erosion along the southern shore of Chappaquiddick Island near Wasque Point. He says the breach
that was punched through the spit of sand in between Wasque and Norton points in 2007 will naturally fill
in again someday. Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip
CHAPPAQUIDDICK — To Chris Kennedy, the superintendent of The Trustees of Reservations on Martha’s Vineyard, the erosion at Wasque was Nature writ large, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Large trees and brush sliding over the edge of a bluff into the water below, trailing root systems and the thin cap of sod, was high drama, like viewing a lava flow in slow motion.
Still, others couldn’t bear to watch as the pace of erosion quickened on the southeast corner of the island and the Atlantic gobbled up hundreds of feet of beach and ate into a forest in less than two years.
Standing on what was once a sandy strand as wide as a football field — now a thin slip of sand littered with dead trees — Ebie Wood grieved, as if a family member had died, at the loss of the beach she’d known for more than 50 years.
The trustees own most of the area under siege, including 200 acres of Wasque (pronounced WAY-skwee) land and a mile of beach. The erosion has severely limited access for fishermen, beachgoers and those driving off-road vehicles.
Since it began with a breach in the barrier beach in 2007, off-road enthusiasts can no longer use the sandy trails from the Edgartown side that once ran along Norton Point Beach to Wasque. Dangerous currents also caused the trustees to close much of the Wasque beach area to swimming.
Even from the Chappaquiddick side, access is difficult because the beach is now narrow and choked with debris from erosion. The trustees also lost most of a big parking lot with more than 100 spaces as well as stairs that provided a way down a steep bluff onto the beach west of Wasque Point.
It’s been traumatic to those who know, love and use the area year after year.
“I feel bad for people who come out here after being away for a couple of years,” Kennedy said. “I can see it in their face. ‘What happened? Am I in the wrong place?’”
Known as the banquet table of the Atlantic, Wasque is a popular destination for fishermen, particularly at Wasque Point. Its location at the southeast corner of the island puts Wasque at the crossroads of two strong currents that run along the southern and eastern shores, dragging along hapless baitfish. Where these currents converge, off Wasque Point, bigger fish like striped bass, bluefish and even sharks lie in wait as their prey gets delivered to them.
Beachgoers also loved the area for its wide sandy beaches and relative seclusion.
“I talk to a lot of people who are alarmed. They think it’s never going to come back,” said Brian Frost, who had driven all night from Brattleboro, Vt., to get in some fishing before the plover closures would close off many of the off-road trails until mid-summer or later.
The Norton Beach break, a big hole punched through the barrier beach adjacent to Wasque, back in 2007, widened, then shifted toward the east. As it approached the Wasque shoreline, it narrowed and deepened into a swift running channel nearly 20 feet deep. Powered by a strong tidal flow between the Atlantic and Katama Bay, the current scoured the shoreline, eroding the beach then the cliffs behind them. The once clear blue waters have turned into a buff-colored river of silt and sand.
Marshes disappeared; much of their vegetation was carried away, the upland remnants were buried in sand. Erosion exposed the Swan Pond to the sea, and it vanished beneath the implacable tides.
As if the scouring wasn’t enough, waves now pound the narrow beach to the east of the break, reaching right up to the steep bluffs at high tide or in storms. Trees and shrubs that have literally had the land pulled out from underneath them lie everywhere on the beach, some still sporting green leaves. Fishermen must not only watch out for trees in the surf, but collapsing cliff faces behind them.
‘THIS IS THE WORST IT EVER WAS’
Not all of Wasque is owned by the trustees. Two private homes have been built close enough to the bluffs that they could be in jeopardy in the next five to 10 years. Martha’s Vineyard Commission Coastal Planner Jo-Ann Taylor said that erosion of the bluff on which both homes are located could average a foot a day as the channel scours away the beach and swift running tidal flows attack the base of the cliffs directly.
One smaller home that lies within 200 feet of the water has already sustained some damage. A large concrete doughnut that once stood atop the cliff, protecting the wellhead of the home, now lies on the beach, surrounded by a scattering of cinder blocks. The housing of the well pump is almost completely buried, and an electric wire and PVC piping stick uselessly out of the wet sand.
A second home, which is much larger than the first, is less than 300 feet from the bluff edge and its swimming pool is located under 230 feet away.
Overall, the southern boundary of Martha’s Vineyard has variable erosion rates, Taylor said, from a couple of feet per year on the western end of the island to 10 to 12 feet a year on the western side of Katama Bay. Because the barrier beach has periodically broken through and the breach eventually heals, Wasque is considered too dynamic and variable to have an average rate.
“If you like change, you’ll love Wasque,” Kennedy said. He drove to what is still known as the Fishermen’s Parking Lot. It was popular with fishermen who didn’t have four-wheel drive. They once walked 100 feet to a stairway that led down to a marshy area and boardwalk that ran another 150 yards out to the beach. It’s all gone now, including the stairway and 50 feet of the bluff, most of it taken in the past two years.
Kennedy has already closed a big section of Norton’s Beach and Wasque to swimming because it is too dangerous. The current runs at 3 to 5 miles per hour, faster than someone can swim. Last July, a man drowned there, dragged out to sea while attempting to walk along one of the sandbars.
Fishermen have already lost access to many areas because the beach is either too narrow and the sliding cliff faces are too dangerous, or make beach trails impassible for the off-road vehicles needed to reach this remote spot.
Long sections of beach look post-tsunami. Kennedy tried using volunteers and even earth-moving equipment to try to clear away the trees, shrubs and thick tangles of phragmites roots and rhizomes. But much of the vegetation was buried in sand and the work proved tedious, Kennedy said. More vegetation often washed ashore fouling the cleared areas.
Kennedy ended up roping off big areas of beach, keeping only the off-road trail cleared. Phil Bibeau from Jaffrey, N.H., and Dave Grove of Florida sat in beach chairs with their fishing rods beside them propped up in the sand. All around them the skeletal remains of trees big and small lay on their sides. The water in front of them was an opaque brown, and waves were rolling what was once a 20 foot-high cedar up onto the beach.
“There’s nothing you can do about it; it’s nature,” Grove shrugged.
“This is the worst it ever was,” said Bibeau, who has been fishing at Wasque for 37 years, of the erosion.
MATTER OF TIME
Ebie Wood stood beside the family SUV while her husband fished alongside Bibeau and Grove. She figured she had been coming to Wasque since 1959. She inherited one of the cottages in the historic Campground in Oak Bluffs. While not a fisherman, Wood called Wasque her refuge. “This is the place you come to breathe,” she said.
The Woods live in New York, and over the winter friends tried to prepare her for what she would see when she returned to her favorite beach, which she said was once so wide with such pure sand that she compared it to the Sahara.
“I cried last year; I really cried this year,” said Wood of her first viewing of the devastation.
Fishermen remained more philosophical about nature’s ability to heal itself.
“I think until the breach closes and the erosion slows down, we’ll just deal with it,” said Phil Horton, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association who has been fishing Wasque for 25 years.
For now, fishermen still have access to The Rip. It’s tougher to get to. What used to be an hour ride over sand from Edgartown is now blocked off by the 2007 breach. Fishermen now must plan to use the busy Chappaquiddick ferry with its long wait lines and limited hours. If he wants to go to Wasque for early morning fishing, Horton said he has to leave the night before and catch the last ferry then stay overnight on the beach. But, as long as they are mindful of the tide and careful about the obstacles floating in the water, they can still fish. The banquet table, Frost pointed out, is still set.
Eventually, five years, maybe 15 years into the future, the breach will heal, Kennedy said. The signs of that are already apparent. A long sandbar stretches out from the western edge of the Norton Point break trailing eastward toward Wasque where it will one day rejoin the mainland at Wasque Point. This is a process that has been repeated over and over again, Taylor said.
“It will take a few more years for the spit to wrap around and then the break will sew up and become a single barrier beach again,” Taylor said.
The Swan Pond that once stretched for a third of a mile and was 300 feet across was a relic from the last break. When the land heals around the restored barrier beach, another Swan Pond will likely form, Taylor said. “The remnant that you can see on some of photos pond we call Swan Pond. It is bucolic, peaceful-looking,” Taylor said.
But it will only be a matter of time before the barrier will be breached again, and the whole process starts over.
Read more in “Beach Wars, 10,000 years on a Barrier Beach.” See Strawberry Hill tab at the top of this page.