The Island That Sometimes Is

Photography and Text By Mel Tulin © All rights reserved.


It was a beautiful day last summer when we paddled our kayaks from Wellfleet Harbor, on Cape Cod, to Great Island where we met some Cape Cod natives who told us a story about a nearby island that is visible only during low tide. This island lies off of Jeremy Point, which is at the western tip of Great Island. One hundred and twenty years ago, this island, known as Billingsgate Island, was home to thirty-three homes, a schoolhouse, a factory and a lighthouse that marked the entrance to Wellfleet Harbor.

This year we decided to launch from Rock Harbor and paddle straight across the bay to Billingsgate Island, about six miles away. We knew that many years ago the United States Coast Guard had sunk a ship about 2 1/2 miles off shore to use as a target practice. It is known as the "Target Ship". We decided to detour so we could see this old wreck, a haven to scuba divers and those interested in old ships.
It was a great day for kayaking, the tide was starting to go out and the winds were at about ten knots. It was a perfect day for trying our first "open water crossing". We launched about 10:30 A.M. and made it to the target ship within the hour. The rusty old ribs of the old ship stuck slightly out of the water and looked like pilings of an old wharf. Black cormorants perched proudly on each of the antiquated ribs and made for a perfect Kodak moment. As we got closer, the whole picture began to take shape. About one and a half feet under the water, we could see the hull and some of the other parts, which were all encrusted in barnacles and laced with stringy green seaweed. It was a bit eerie paddling over this old ship knowing that real men used to call it home. One wonders what happened to them and how many weeks, months or years they devoted to this boat.
When we first arrived there, a cloud was passing overhead making it very difficult to see down very far. As the cloud dispersed, the entire being of the ship came to life. All of a sudden as we looked down, we could vividly see the inside parts of the ship, we got a little spooked. It was as if the boat suddenly came to life. We examined it for a while, paddling all over it, but carefully avoiding the ever-protruding ribs. Would we paddle by on our way home when it was lower tide? We could see Great Island in the distance and decided to be on our way.
We headed off to Great Island. The water was still glassy, not a ripple in the ocean, not a sound to be heard except the paddles in the water. Two people ever so day dreaming and in an euphoric state. Then, seven feet in front of our boat, a head emerged out of the ocean. A head, two and a half times larger than the size of ours. It looked as us as if to say "Glad to see that you are enjoying yourself", rolled over with its large body exposed, and slowly dove underneath our boats never to be seen again. We knew it was not a seal, having paddled with them many times. After contemplating for a few moments in a startled state of mind, we decided that it was possibly a very large turtle.. or maybe a VERY LARGE TURTLE weighing between 1,200 - 1,500 pounds. We would visit the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary later to report and confirm the sighting.
After paddling another couple of miles, we could see little sandbars popping up everywhere. The tide was rapidly going out and the water was getting very shallow. We had no idea how low the water could get. About a mile away we could see a small island populated with some small boats and a few tiny people walking about. That must be Billingsgate Island! The water was being swept out of the harbor at an incredible speed. As we neared the larger island, we spotted a larger motor boat anchored off to one side. We thought this must be a safe place to land - one that would not be void of water too soon. We landed our kayaks and pulled them up on the shore.
As we started walking toward "higher ground", we could see large granite stones set in a circular pattern in the sand. This must be the old lighthouse, we thought. We took some pictures and then started walking. We found an old circular cannon ball with a huge rusted ring on it. Maybe this once held anchor for one of their boats. We found many small pieces of slate that looked like they were once used on the roofs of the old homes that once stood here. It was uncanny to think that an entire community once inhabited this 60 acre flat stretch of sand. As we walked, the tide continued to rapidly flow out and we realized that this island has a diameter that was at least a mile wide. It was much larger than we had ever imagined. We walked quietly as if in a trance, taken back in time, looking at all the stones that were once parts of the foundations of these old structures. We imagined the force of the water and the wind that could erase all traces of civilization on this large sandy island. We imagined the people living here, children playing here and going to school only to see their homes slowly succumb to the forces of nature.
As we walked back back to our kayaks to get our lunch, we realized how much the tide had gone out in such a short period of time. We quickly realized that the larger boat with the father and two children must be visitors because they were so far up on the sand that they were sure to be there until the high tides returned to free their vessel. Hopefully they had packed a good cooler with lots of food for they would be there for a few hours.
We ate a leisure lunch as Billingsgate Island continued to appear before our eyes. We realized that the little sandbars that we had seen as we paddled in were a part of this large island at one time. We decide to leave about 2:30 P.M. so we could get back in time. We walked over to our kayaks only to see them locked in the sand. The nearest water was at least a half mile away. With our new kevlar boats, dragging them was not even an option. So, we picked them up, side by side, and carried them to the water. Little did we know that when we finally found water, it was only 4 inches deep and too shallow to paddle. But, we could drag them in these waters to some deeper water about another half a mile away. At least we didn't have to carry them anymore!
As we finally started paddling back toward home, we decided to take a look at the target ship again in low tide. It was quite a site. Much of the hull stood out of the water and the ribs were now visible ten feet high. But the clouds had come in and the wind had kicked up making it very difficult to see down into the water. We knew we still had two and a half miles to go across the bay. When we arrived at Rock Harbor, the tides were still very low and all we could see was mud. We tried to find a little stream of water coming out of the harbor that was deep enough for us to paddle. It was apparent that boats could only use this harbor at high tide, so they must plan all their activities around the tides or they might literally be "stuck" for a long time. We landed on shore where it was very busy with people milling about... many asking us numerous questions about our kayaks and trip. We were tired from the long day but feeling quite content that our first "open water crossing" was so much fun and gave us such a great feeling of accomplishment. We visited the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary the next day and they confirmed that it was a very rare sighting of a 1,200 - 1,500 pound leatherback turtle.

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