THE BIG ROCK
It’s rather strange, but there are four boulders that have a special place in my lfe. They were dropped on the sands of Cape Cod as the last huge ice sheets slowly receded ten thousand years ago. Three of them reside in Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass, where I spent my summers before we moved to next door Orleans.
The first of these boulders we kids simply referred to as “The Big Rock.”
This thing stood close to five feet high and probably had a diameter of around ten. The road leading to Area Five where we, camped passed by it.
We, along with the Bolducs, Larivees, Cullums, Brenners, Taylors, Morrises, and my Uncle Bill and his family spent six or seven years in a row there. In my case our stay started the day school let out and ran until the day after Labor Day. Hard to believe, but even after three quarters of a century I’m STILL in contact with Suzanne Bolduc though she swapped that last name for another of French Canadian extraction.
Every once in a while an unknown family would set up in an empty spot for a spell, but the ones I’ve mentioned were ALWAYS there. That’s just one of the many reasons I loved the place. Always the same people. You see, I went to five different schools in the first seven years. I was always the “new kid.” At Nickerson I was with friends and didn’t have to fight anyone.
Back in those days my dad had a green, Chevy panel truck he used in the catering business during the winter months in Watertown and Woburn, outside Boston. In the summers back then he ran the very first Philbrick’s Snack Shack at Skaket Beach on the Bay side of Orleans, a half mile from the house we would eventually live in. In fact, the first summer he had the place Skaket Road, properly Namskaket, was DIRT. The truck had a big, exterior grill in the front made from steel strapping. We kids would go to The Big Rock many evenings and wait for him to come back from work. He’d let us sit on the fenders and hood behind the grill and we’d delight in the short ride to the campsite with the wind blowing through our sun-bleached hair.
(Note: Namskaket has a Nauset Indian derivation. The Nausets were a small Algonquian tribe, allies of the Wampanoag and speakers of a dialect of theWampanoag language.)
The summer I was 10 a family from California took the site on the other side of the dirt track from the Bolducs and ourselves. They had a pretty, precocious, girl, Sandra. She, Frannie Cullum and I would go to the Big Rock and satisfy our curiosity of the reproductive anatomy of the opposite sex. It’s a wonder we never got caught because when I passed the rock years later, and took this photo, I was surprise at how little cover there was to have kept ourselves concealed.
DEPTH GAUGE BOULDER
The state of Flax Pond in Nickerson State Park was different each summer depending on the kind of winter that had blanketed Brewster a few months earlier. If there had been a lot of snow the 54 acre pond would be high. A dry winter and the waters receded and more of the handkerchief-sized sand beach for our area would be exposed. If you visualize a clock face, our campsite was at about 5:30. The “Depth Gauge” Boulder, as I would come to think of it, but not name until just this moment, would have been at about 7:30. It was perhaps 40 feet from shore.
Arriving at the camp site a nanosecond’s glance at the pond in the direction of the boulder would tell you the water level. If the boulder was invisible the water was VERY high. Half of it basking in the sunlight meant it had been a relatively mild winter. The best time was when the pond was fairly high and only the tiny peak of the rock stood high and dry. That created a wonderful platform for small, 8, 9, and 10 year-old bodies to dive from. The rock was oblong shaped so when only the diving spike was exposed those waiting their turn could laze around on the submerged section;
Sitting at the 12 o’clock position on our imaginary clock was an impressive boulder that served as a landmark over the years. Even though it was on the other side of the pond, nearly half a mile away, it was easy to pick out against the dark green of the forest.
Sometimes, my back against a tall pitch pine at the edge of the pond, listening to the breeze sighing through the park’s pines and scrub oaks, I wondered if a Nauset Indian my age had ever sat in the same spot and stared across the water at that huge chunk of stone before Europeans ever set foot on the sands of Cape Cod.
All of us kids, boys and girls, were required to take swimming lessons over at what we called the “Public Beach.” It was located at the 9 o’clock spot on our imaginary clock face. People from all over Brewster, and some from neighboring Harwich and Orleans would come to use the nice, white sand beach under the watchful eye of a life guard.
Every morning the whole troop of us, four boys and five girls, carrying towels, would hike barefoot down a trail through the trees alongside the pond’s edge for our lessons. It wasn’t until years later that I realized why we were required to go. I mean I passed the Junior Life Saving course TWICE before we moved to Orleans. The time we were gone, and counting the hiking time to and from, was about two hours. That was the mom’s “kid-free” time. Well, except for my mom who was raising two infants.
I don’t know whose idea it was, but from when I was nine until I turned eleven, the bunch of us would swim clear across the pond from our little sandy beach to where the landmark rock sat. My mom would row the little 8-foot pram my dad built in the basement of our house one winter, to make sure none of us sank and drowned. There were turtles in the pond. Those black-shelled “sun turtles.” We’d sneak up on them as quietly as possible in our boats as they sat warming themselves on a rock and when they finally became aware of us and skidded off their perch into the water we’d dive in after them and catch them. Once in a while we’d drill a hole at the edge of their shell and thread a piece of cord through it and keep the hapless critter as a pet for a couple of days before releasing it back into the wild again. It was always fun to recapture one of the holed turtles days or weeks later. There were also snapping turtles in the pond and on our swims across the pond I always imagined one swimming up from the depths and biting me. Never happened, of course, but it COULD have. We wouldn’t have won any competitions for speed but a nearly half-mile swim is an accomplishment for a nine year-old.
What was so special about THIS boulder, out of all the boulders strewn around the park was that it guided us to one of the deepest spots in the pond. The place my mom and I would go at night to catch fish to be fried up for breakfast the next morning.
Of the several ponds in the park, Flax was the only one that didn’t have its native fish killed off and then been restocked with trout. They left Flax alone. It was filled with yellow perch and small catfish we called “hornpout.” We kids would catch minnows in the shallows and use them as bait for the perch. When we’d catch a mess of those we’d beach our boats, gather some twigs, start a fire and after gutting and scaling the fish on a rock we’d roast them over the flames on the sharpened ends of thin branches we’d cut off of nearby bushes. There was no adult supervision. We were free range kids ages 8 to 11. We carried sharp knives, matches and boundless imaginations. Most days I had a huge sheath knife strapped to my tanned waist. It was my dad’s Navy knife and on the back were carved the names of the islands in the Pacific where his ship had anchored during WWII…Tinian, Saipan, Guadalcanal, Eniwetok, Kwajelain, Leyte… we were allowed to be wild and free. Imagine that these days.
My mom loved fishing. Many nights we’d mount a little, green, horse-and-a-half, Sears and Roebuck outboard to the stern of the pram and sputter off across the pond to that fishing hole in the dark of night. Hornpout bite best at night.The light color of the boulder against the darkness of the shore was like a lighthouse for us.
That little outboard was a demon. You after opening a petcock on the fuel tank you set a little sliding whatchamacallit to “start,” pull on the choke and wind a rope around the little thing-a-ma-jigger on top and give it a yank. It would go putt, putt, spfttt. If you were lucky it would catch on the fifth or sixth pull and the boat would take off. There wasn’t any sort of transmission.
One memorable night we went over to our fishing hole, my mom cut the motor and I dropped the mushroom anchor over the side to hold us in place. We were catching them pretty good when, suddenly, my mom got a strong strike.
“Oh, I think I’ve got a bass,” she cried as her rod bent as neither of us had ever seen before. Unlike the hornpout that you essentially just reeled into the boat whatever was at the end of her line was actually putting up a struggle. Finally the head of the fish broke the surface of the pond and the body followed. And followed, and followed. She’d tied into a large eel. It was WAY too much like a snake for her tastes. She grabbed the starter rope, screamed “pull up the anchor” as she wound the rope around the little thing-a-ma-jigger on top and, without setting the slider to “start” gave one mighty pull on the rope. The engine started on that single pull, the first and only time that ever happened. The throttle was set wide open and when the motor caught it nearly ran the boat out from under my mom’s feet as it took off for home. She thumped back down on the thwart and we dragged that poor eel all the way across the pond and, essentially drowned it. She’d have nothing to do with it. Left it on the hook, left the rod and reel in the boat and high tailed it back to the camp site, went in the trailer, closed the door, and didn’t come out ’til morning.
In the morning we skinned the hornpout, rolled them in cornmeal and fried them up nice and crispy. Served them alongside blueberry pancakes that were filled with blueberries picked off bushes that grew between the campsite and the pond. THOSE are the breakfasts I can get around.
THE SENTINEL BOULDER
The house where I spent my teenage years was a half mile from Skaket Beach on Cape Cod Bay. A huge boulder stands silent sentinel in an otherwise rock-free environment.
The tidal range at Skaket, the difference between the depth of the water between high and low tide, is around ten feet. At low tide the water’s edge is nearly a mile from its high tide mark. Because the Earth rotates through two tidal “bulges” every lunar day, coastal areas experience two high and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes. High tides occur 12 hours and 25 minutes apart. This disparity in time means that every other week the water level at Skaket is different. Let’s take one o’clock as an example. This week high tides will occur around one o’clock and the water’s edge will be close to the parking lot. The next week at one, the water’s edge will be a mile away.What makes Skaket so attractive to families with young children is that the water’s depth for a considerable distance from the high tide mark is relatively shallow. Unlike Nauset Beach only four and a half miles away on the Atlantic there are no large waves to contend with. More like wavelets you’d find in a pond or lake.
When the tide is out there are dozens of tidal pools that are havens for tiny critters like hermit crabs and small fish. Wonderful places for kids to get in touch with nature up close. But you’ve got to be attentive when you’re out walking the flats. If you pay attention you can actually see the tide moving towards the dry, sandy stretch of beach and before you know it you may find yourself standing on a bar with thirty or forty yards of water between you and the next dry spot.
One of the good things about having the flats exposed during the morning to early afternoon is that the sun heats the sand and the sand, in its turn, heats the incoming water so it’s almost like a bathtub at high tide. Water temperature will be in the mid 80F range. Over at Nauset on the other side of town 62F is considered “warm.”
You can’t climb around on this rock. As you can see in the photo much of it is covered with barnacles that will slice and dice you faster than a Ginsu knife on an infomercial. When I was young it used to be festooned with mussels, too. But back then no one ate mussels. Especially not Cape Coddahs. “Yah, cahn’t eat them. They’ll kill yah. Yah evah look at ’em? Why, theyz ORANGE. Yah cahn’t eat orange shellfish. Stick with things like cohawgs an soff shell piss clams.” When I ate my first mussel decades later I was SO pissed that it had taken that long to taste one. You won’t find mussels growing off that rock any more now that people realize they won’t “kill ya.”