Travel

Monomoy: Cape Cod’s desert island

A hiker on Monomoy Island.Below: A dunlin (right front) and sanderlings on South Beach in Chatham.
Saeahlee Photography
A hiker on Monomoy Island.

Monomoy Island has been many things over the years: An island, a peninsula, an island again (as storms build and then destroy sand bridges with the mainland), a remote fishing village, a crime scene, a navigation hazard, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Just south of Chatham, at the elbow of Cape Cod, Monomoy is an 8-mile sandbar that separates the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound.

For now — that is until the shifting sands connect it to Chatham again — the only way to get there is by boat or kayak. To protect the island’s bird habitat, there are just three designated landing points where you can anchor. They’re not marked, you have to find them by GPS coordinates and try not to run aground on the way over.

Advertisement

Depending on where you land, it’s a 2- to 7-mile hike to the lighthouse at the end. The island narrows to just a few hundred feet across as you head south. Near the lighthouse, the land fans out again into a tear-drop shape of about 2 square miles. There are marshes, ponds, and tall grass. From up on a dune, you can see Nantucket on a clear day. Other than that, this is the middle of nowhere.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

There’s a year-round chill in the air — from the meeting of warm and cold water at the end of the island — and it’s as if the wind remembers things the sands and waves have long obscured. You get the feeling that yours are not the only footprints here. And that’s true. Walking around the point, you’ll find the slab foundations of some old buildings, abandoned wells, the boat ramp from a decommissioned Coast Guard Station, and a boarded-up lighthouse, which is the only structure still standing.

These are the ruins of Whitewash Village, a fishing settlement. From 1710 to the early 20th century, these people existed on the starkest terms with the violent ocean that surrounded them and provided their livelihood. Their homes were described as “amphibious” in an 1864 Harpers article, built to allow surf to flow around them when it washed over the island in Nor’easters and hurricanes.

The Monomoyers were tough and self reliant, even by Cape Cod standards. According to local historian Spencer Grey, the boys on the island would carry their female classmates to the one-room schoolhouse through winterstorm surf. The schoolmaster told Harpers that he got along well with these boys because none of them was big enough to beat him up — yet.

But there was a dark side to this rough existence. The people of Monomoy practiced wrecking, a form of piracy in which the wreckers would confuse a ship at sea, force it to run aground, and then loot it.

Advertisement

The most infamous wrecker was “The White Stallion of Monomoy,” documented by Grey. On stormy nights, Monomoyers would walk a limping old horse down the beach with two lanterns hanging from a pole mounted on his saddle. Mariners trying to get around the Cape would mistake the lanterns for the lighthouse, turn too soon, and wreck on the bars. The most sinister version of this story has the villagers murdering the ship’s crew. Wrecking continued until as recently as 1909, with the wreck of the Horatio Hall. Today, many homes in Chatham have china and silverware from the Hall and other wrecks.

Shortly before the World War I, the townspeople packed up Whitewash Village and floated their homes on barges back to Chatham, where some of them stand to this day. The cod had been fished out of the sound, and the harbor filled with sand. That’s the official account anyway. Another version is that series of brutal, unsolved murders sent villagers fleeing.

In the absence of the settlers, wildlife has thrived — particularly the feathered kind. Monomoy is a stop for migrating shorebirds in the spring and fall. There are nesting egrets and herons, sea ducks, terns, Hudosonian godwits, and several species of sand piper. To protect the birds, the National Wildlife Refuge does not allow dogs, fires, or overnight visitors.

Some of the best striped bass fishing in New England is found on either end of Monomoy. The shallow flats, on the north end, near Chatham, are for fly-fishing. It is said that, back in the day, there were so many bass that they would bump into your legs while you were casting.

Off the southern end, where the Sound meets the Atlantic, and where Whitewash village once stood, the tide moves across the bar like a river and hosts a feeding frenzy. It’s known as the Monomoy Rips, and it looks like a boat parking lot in the summer.

Advertisement

The fish attract seals by the thousands. The seals, in turn, feed Chatham’s newest summer resident: The great white shark.

A dunlin and sanderlings on South Beach in Chatham.
Saeahlee Photography
A dunlin and sanderlings on South Beach in Chatham.

Charles Daly can be reached at dalyprose@gmail.com.