The Moon, the stars, but no electricity
Inside Scoop: For the first time in about a year I had some real errors in a story. They weren't huge ones but put together, all four of them sure make me feel like I had egg on my face. Two of them were the result of a bad phone connection during an interview. I thought the guy said fox tail, not "box turtle", and baby trail, not "Bay View" trail. But I still should have doubled checked these things with the sanctuary. The errors in mileage are still baffling to me, as I did a Mapquest for Alexandria and I was just there in April. Just careless reporting. A reader sent me a pretty nasty e-mail, asking me for proof of this exotic "fox tail turtle" species. He had every right to blast me, but he was really condescending in his letter. Live and learn - and pay closer attention.
(Correction: Because of reporting errors, a story about camping on Cape Cod in Sunday's Explore New England section gave incorrect distances from North Truro to East Falmouth and Alexandria, Va. The distances are 60 miles and approximately 520 miles, respectively. Also, a quotation about Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary by Rick Longley should have read that box turtles inhabit the sanctuary and that the Bay View trail is less used.)
TRURO -- The entrance road to North of Highland campground is rutty, barren , and very, very dark at night. Were you to pull over in your car and shut off every light, the stars in the sky are all you would see.
Which is just what Jacqueline and John Ford do when they arrive.
The Fords carve out a week each summer to go camping on Cape Cod with their teenage sons, Matthew and Michael. Leisurely hours spent reading under a favorite pine, jogs along dune-strewn beaches, and foosball showdowns in the camp recreation room fill their days. But the moments spent sitting in silence watching the stars are the most peaceful, by far.
``It's incredibly dark. Darker than anywhere else you would see in New England," said Jacqueline, a Milford native who now lives in Virginia. ``If we're coming in late at night, we just sit there and say, `Let's see how dark it gets.' "
Crowded clam shacks, even more crowded beaches, and endless traffic delays are the norm for multitudes of Cape Cod vacationers who accept that scenery and sun come with a price. But for others, escaping to the Cape truly does mean escaping it all -- electricity included.
From Sandwich to Wellfleet, thousands of campers pitch their tents on sandy bluffs and forested grounds each summer. Are there mosquitoes? Sure. Rain? Always a chance. But the flip side, campers say, is grand: less hassle, less hustle, and all at a cost far less than what hotel and motel dwellers pay .
Giant Nickerson State Park, with 420 sites, is perhaps the best-known campground on the Cape. (Badly damaged by a fierce wind storm in December, it reopened May 22.) But look further and you'll find campsites in wildlife sanctuaries, on islands, and, while not directly on beaches, just steps away from them.
Alexandra Lancaster and her husband have kayaked to Washburn Island off East Falmouth for some 20 years, setting up camp in one of a dozen sites maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation that are accessible only by boat.
Some of them are so secluded you can't see anyone else , Lancaster says. Most of them sit up on bluffs overlooking the shore, with private paths to the beach.
``No matter what site you're at, the moon comes up just for you," said Lancaster, who digs clams from the island's beach for dinner stews. ``One summer we went in early June and there was not a soul out there. The sun came up in the morning and it was shining right in our tent. We looked out and the water was as flat as can be. You're like, `Man, people pay a lot of money to do this.' "
How much do the Lancasters actually pay to camp on Washburn? Eight dollars a night.
Rick Longley's camping heaven is located about 10 miles farther out on the Cape, where deer, foxtail turtles, and fiddler crabs roam inside the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Longley's father, an avid bird -watcher, began taking the family camping there in the early 1960s. They returned almost annually for the next 30 years .
``It's a sanctuary in every sense of the word," Longley said. ``When you go down the trails you go through three or four coastal environments -- ponds, a hardwood forest, traditional beachfront. They're very careful about keeping it wild. If the public does come in, they tend to use one set of trails. Even now, the one new trail, the baby trail, you almost never see anyone on it. "
Nickerson and North of Highland campgrounds can't match Washburn or Wellfleet's tranquillity. But they are homey, rustic, relaxing places nonetheless, with fresh water ponds, hiking trails, bicycle paths, and hundreds of campsites .
``I'm a medical intensive -care nurse and educator at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Nickerson State Park has always been a place I go to kind of fill my cup," said Barbara Grady, who hangs a hammock at her campsite overlooking Flax Pond .
Grady's family embraced Cape camping decades ago. Her mother, Barbara MacLeod, 83, still camps with her every summer; Grady's granddaughter, Meghan Grady, now works in Nickerson's front office.
``There's a group of campers who go every year. You get to know each other. It becomes your summer home," Grady said. ``A lot of people use the park as the starting point to go to Monomoy Island, the Audubon sanctuary, Provincetown. I get a sticker so I can drive out in the dunes in Orleans."
North of Highland was built by owner Steve Currier's parents, Malcolm and Evelyn, who were regular tent campers at Nickerson before opening their own park just a half mile from Head of the Meadow Beach in 1954. Seven years later, President Kennedy established the 43,608-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, which surrounds the campground.
``You can't actually tell where they begin and where we end, which is beautiful," said Currier, pointing to brown picnic tables scattered among pine trees, some of which are his, others, the federal government's. ``You'd be surprised at how many campers tell me, `Don't asphalt the roads.' They like an old dirt road so they can play boccie or whatever on it."
The Fords drive about 1,500 miles from their home in Alexandria, Va., to camp at the park, but even that doesn't quite explain their passion for the place.
Jacqueline, a country and western singer, is so enamored by Currier's campground she's written a song about being there. (``The children awake, and the place is abuzz / And the rain disappears, as the sun comes up / And the bikes are rolling, down a sandy path / On the playground, you can hear the children laugh / On a campground in Truro, Cape Cod.")
Once inside the park, John hates to leave.
``There are days there when I don't want to venture out of the park. I know we need food, but gosh, I don't want to do it," he said. ``It really is that peaceful."Contact Peter DeMarco, a freelance writer in Somerville, at email@example.com.