OFF THE COAST OF CHATHAM — The captain of our boat, Mac, pulled back the throttle and turned off the engine. “You can go over the side,” he said to my teenage son and me. “Or there’s a ladder in the back.”
I looked out at North Monomoy Island, stretched flat and wide across Nantucket Sound. The morning sun was still low and I could see a haze of green from a few trees in the middle of the island. But mostly, I saw sand and sky.
“It looks like you have the island to yourselves,” Mac said.
Kieran, 15, climbed over the gunwale first, holding his camera and long zoom lens carefully above the waves. I clambered over behind him. It was low tide and the water rose to my knees, clear enough that I could see pebbles on the sandy bottom. Along the west coast of North Monomoy, Nantucket Sound is too shallow for boaters to pull up to the island’s edge, even in high tide. We would wade the final 15 feet to shore.
“I’ll pick you up somewhere around here,” Mac said. Then he took off.
This was our second trip this summer to Chatham’s North Monomoy Island, part of the 7,600-acre Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge and an important sanctuary for migrating and breeding birds. North Monomoy is 2.5 miles long, the closest to the mainland of the three barrier islands that stretch south from the elbow of Cape Cod into the Atlantic.
My 15-year-old son became a passionate bird photographer, and after a year of driving him — and, pre-pandemic, his friends — to bird hangouts, I’d fallen in love with birds, too. We were especially hoping to see one threatened species that breeds here: the American Oystercatcher.
I also liked the idea of spending the day on an uninhabited island. The isolation of North Monomoy would be an adventure that was relatively safe, even during the pandemic.
We just needed a ride to the island. I found Outermost Harbor Marine, which shuttles people to North Monomoy for $30 per person, round-trip. Travelers choose the time they’d like to depart and get picked up. The trip takes only about 10 minutes.
Before our first trip, part of me worried, a tiny bit, about what could go wrong. I’m a Gen-Xer who watched every episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” The show lodged the calamity of the 3-hour tour deep in my psyche. What if the captain forgot to retrieve us?
I stuffed my backpack with granola bars, several bottles of water, nuts, crackers, ibuprofen, sunscreen, a book, a flashlight, an extra pair of contact lenses. Should I take bandages? I wondered. Antibiotics? A portable desalination device? (Oh wait — that doesn’t yet exist.) I considered packing a mirror after remembering that a friend who paddleboards on the ocean takes one to beam light and attract attention in case of an emergency. Then the guys at Outermost told me cell service on North Monomoy is excellent.
On that first trip, we waded through the water to the island and immediately found a large, perfect conch shell and a small starfish lying on the beach. We heard Laughing Gulls guffawing above us. A daring tern chased an Osprey.
We saw human clammers on the north side of the island, hunched over the sandflats, digging for clams with rakes. And very soon, we saw a pair of oystercatchers. They, too, were looking for clams. But they only needed their long beaks, burrowing into the wet sand, to yank out small clams.
Oystercatchers’ bodies could be confused for those of other shorebirds: brown backs, white bellies, long legs. But the birds’ most spectacular feature is their beaks, which are wholly original: long and brilliantly orange or red. Oystercatchers plunge their beaks into the sand, searching for clams or other bivalves. Then they tear or hammer the mollusks open and eat the flesh inside.
Near the end of our trip, Kieran kneeled in shallow water and took photos of another pair of oystercatchers. I watched, too, as they hunted for clams.
There was one problem. We were so mesmerized by the birds that we hadn’t paid attention to the tide. The water had rushed in and a channel had formed between us and the main island, where we were supposed to meet our boat ride home.
I called the marina — cell phone service was, indeed, excellent — and explained our dilemma. I’d hoped the boat could motor to our section of the island. No luck. The water was too shallow, the man at the marina told me. We’d have to walk out to the boat.
By now, we were splashing through water that was more than 2 feet deep and getting deeper. The shore looked far away. The boat looked farther. Also: sharks! But the voice on my phone, our guide out of the watery abyss, said we were probably walking through a “bowl” of deeper water. We should soon exit into shallower water, he said.
And we did. We got to the boat and climbed aboard for the trip back to the mainland.
Later, sitting safely at our dining room table, I worried that I’d put us in danger. No, Kieran says, the water was too shallow for sharks. “Maybe tiny, toe-nibbling sharks,” e-mails a friend who hears the story.
Later, we learn that sharks don’t roam the inner channel of Nantucket Sound, where we were sloshing through the sea. Great whites have been spotted on the outer, Atlantic coast of the Monomoy islands, where seals haul themselves upon the banks.
We return to North Monomoy a second time in late August, hoping to see the oystercatchers again before they migrate south for the winter. We’re lucky: We see more than a dozen. This time, we closely watch the incoming tide.
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.