BOURNE — Start, perhaps, at a place of beginnings.
Where the morning light first eclipses the horizon; where the one-ton slabs of granite first gave the waterway its shape and protection; where the Cape Cod Canal begins.
There are dozens of places a bicyclist can access the 13-plus miles of paths hugging each side of the canal, none better than the breakwater announcing its start at Scusset Beach State Reservation on the mainland part of the cape.
Here, families and couples dodge the whip of the fishermen’s casts and hopscotch across the half-mile long jetty, which rises 8 feet above high tide and sinks into a massive 62-foot-wide base. Underfoot are mined chunks of Maine and Cape Ann, first placed in the summer of 1909. That’s 286 years after Plimoth Colony’s Myles Standish initially proposed the building of a canal across the isthmus of the cape.
The breakwater is the oldest element of the canal, which was completed in 1914 and is celebrating its centennial with a series of events this week.
For bicyclists, the canal’s northeast entry from Cape Cod Bay differs from the rest of its path. Most of the canal’s ride feels a bit corralled, a pleasing channelling through human and natural engineering. At the breakwater, however, nature is untethered. A chaotic commingling of currents and open sea, a cacophony of seagulls, and the bracing wind give the bicyclist a sense of wildness.
From there, the paved mainland path travels 7 miles to the noted Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, with pitch pine and Eastern red cedar dotting the banks. It is a multi-use path. Expect many walkers on a weekend and a few rollerbladers, with an occasional maintenance truck or cart from the Army Corps of Engineers. Remember, it is a working canal.
The terrain is largely flat on both sides of the canal, but beware the betraying winds: What starts as a tail wind can twist into your face within a pedal or two with little wild rhyme or engineered reason.
Stop by the fish pier before you reach the Sagamore Bridge to ask if the stripers are biting yet. Keep an eye on the variety of wildlife. Seals can occasionally be seen dancing along and diving from the surface. Cormorants, those gawky, mainly black water fowl of prodigious diving abilities, are abundant. Don’t bother racing them as they fly, wings seemingly skimming the water’s surface — they can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.
The speed of the canal’s current, which changes direction every six hours, can be equally impressive. Because the difference in tidal ranges between both mouths of the canal is so drastic — 9 feet from low to high tide in Cape Cod Bay to the northeast and 4 feet in Buzzards Bay in the southwest — the canal generates currents that can either serve as a zip line or a drag to those plying its waters.
Occasionally, the canal receives a wayward visitor, such as white-sided Atlantic dolphins taking a shortcut or a humpback whale chasing food, says US Park Service Ranger Samantha Gray. Mink sometimes can be spotted darting along the rocks lining the banks, she says.
The canal is a boat-watcher’s mecca. Within the shout of a hearty sailor, a varied parade of vessels pass, from 18-foot Boston Whalers to stout fishing boats, from stately yachts to muscle-bound tugboats and oceangoing freighters.
If you are feeling a tad tired, take a break at about halfway along the path to consider the fate of the lowly herring. Here, the Army Corps of Engineers has set up a ladder that enables the fish each spring — a quarter-million last year — to fulfill their destiny: spawning in Great Herring Pond in Plymouth. Some travel more than 1,000 miles to return to the place they were hatched; most don’t make it back to sea.
If you’re looking for a longer break from your bike, a short hiking trail starts next to the herring run. Don’t let the name dissuade you: The Bournedale Hills Trail has few of them. Instead, it is a well-marked 0.8-mile loop through pines and other scrub trees, with plaques revealing a bit about the area’s geological, ecological, and engineering history. With the rush of cars on nearby Route 6A, however, you won’t mistake the trail for wilderness. A tributary from the loop will take you another mile along the canal.
Also in this area is a memorial to the more than 100 Massachusetts men who died aboard submarines in World War II, with a special tribute to the USS Trout, presumed sunk in 1944 in the Pacific Ocean.
Bathrooms are located near the monument.
Back on the canal path, you’ll find the Bourne Bridge around the corner and the railroad bridge in the distance. The latter is the most impressive structure on the canal. When completed in the depths of the Depression, September 1935, it was the largest vertical-lift bridge in the world (the center span, at 544 feet in length and 2,200 tons, descends to allow trains to pass over the canal). Some rail and bridge aficionados time their weekend visits to the schedule of the new CapeFlyer passenger train, which runs from Boston to Hyannis.
On the Cape side of the canal, the replica of the Aptucxet Trading Post is a highlight. Established in 1627, it was the first such post in Plimoth County. Dismount and take a tour of the grounds. Most days, the trading post building is closed, but investigate its example of the nearby salt works, where colonists would extract the spice and essential preservative from sea water through evaporation. A half-size replica of a Pilgrim fishing vessel is on blocks at the site.
Perhaps most instructive is the adjacent garden, with its sections for herbs, food, dyes, and flowers — a veritable 1600s supermarket in one clump of land.
Wind down your trek at the canal’s visitors center in Sandwich, just northeast of the Sagamore Bridge. The historian in you will appreciate how it walks visitors through the canal’s iterations. The sailor in you won’t be able to pass by the knot-tying display station without brushing up on your bowline knot. The centerpiece of the center is the installation of the 45-foot canal patrol boat Renier, which allows you to climb aboard and inspect her wheelhouse.
End the day on one of several rocking chairs on the center’s porch, with a great view across the canal to where you started: that half-mile jetty, reaching for the horizon.