The Mashpee River Woodlands / South Mashpee Pine Barrens Conservation Area is a piece of Cape Cod Pathways - a growing network of walking trails linking open space in all 15 Cape Cod towns from Falmouth to Provincetown.
Cape Cod Pathways is an effort coordinated by the Barnstable County Commissioners through the Cape Cod Commission. The purpose of the trail network is to:
Involved in the Pathways effort are the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, The Conservation Fund, the National Park Service and the Cape Cod National Seashore, as well as trail advocates and local town committees. We hope you'll take the time to enjoy the Pathways network.
We ask you to preserve this beauty by treating the environment with respect. Please do not pick plants or disturb habitats in any way, keep dogs under control, and stay on the designated trails, marked by the Cape Pathways signs. Fires, motorized vehicle use, camping, and littering are prohibited. These trails are maintained by Mashpee Conservation Corps volunteers. If you would like to join, call the Mashpee Conservation Commission at (508) 539-1414.
For more information about Cape Cod Pathways, please contact the Cape Cod Commission, 3225 Main Street, Barnstable, MA. 02630. Telephone: (508) 362-3828.
Mashpee - Land of the Wampanoags
Fifteen thousand years ago, melting water flowing south from the last glacier deposited the sands and gravels of Mashpee. This outwash formed a gently rolling plain, pitted with numerous depressions called kettle holes, and intersected in several places by bays and rivers. At 87 feet deep, Mashpee/Wakeby Pond, the source of the Mashpee River, is one of the deepest kettle hole ponds on Cape Cod.
The Mashpee River valley was most likely formed either as a result of meltwater outflow which carved into the frozen permafrost, or by spring-sapping, a process whereby springs of ground water migrate over a sloping surface, cutting a channel in the process. Whatever its origin, the Mashpee River is a fossil from days when Cape Cod was a mere infant, the child of the powerful earth-shaping forces of the last Ice Age.
The riverine ecosystem represents the meeting place of several habitats and their associated species. This "edge effect" results in greater biological diversity and productivity.
The native Wampanoag people have traditionally lived along this river valley and depended upon its bounty for food, shelter, recreation, and spiritual fulfillment. In the summer, they lived in temporary shelters, called wigwams, along the water and the retreated to the sheltered inland swamps, woods, and valleys during winter. Their patterns of migration were directly connected to the natural cycles of the area.
Wampanoag Culture and History
The Wampanoags, whose name means "People of the First Light," have inhabited this narrow land for at least 10,000 years and have always had a deeply intimate relationship with the environment. Agriculture was their primary means of sustenance. They planted, harvested, and celebrated by the phases of the moon and the seasons of the sun. Fishing, hunting, and gathering were also important, especially along waterways such as the Mashpee River. In the spirit of thanksgiving and reciprocity, which is so much a part of native life, the Wampanoags always took from the environment only as much as needed for sustenance and survival.
Though the Pilgrims first came for religious reasons and were spiritual in their own heartfelt ways, the colonial way of relating to the earth has historically been quite different, and the resulting ideological conflict a source of long-standing problems between these two cultures. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they, like explorers before them, found the Indians very welcoming and particularly helpful in teaching them the skills necessary to survive a harsh New England winter. But by the 1640s, most of the Indian-inhabited lands on Cape Cod had been overtaken by European settlers, and Mashpee, where the sachem (chief) of the Massipee people served as the leader of all Cape Cod Indians, became a haven for those forced from their territories. By 1650, the combined forces of famine, disease, and outright oppression reduced the Massipee population to less than 400 natives.
In the latter half of the 17th century, a farmer-turned-preacher named Richard Bourne came to Mashpee and, appalled at the poor treatment afforded the natives, was instrumental in helping them to establish land rights. Plymouth Colony decreed that no Mashpee land could be sold to whites without full consent of the Indians. Bourne's meetinghouse was the first of its kind on Cape Cod and can be seen today just north of these trails on Route 28.
In 1693, new legislation removed many of the Indian's civil rights and effectively allowed the legal confiscation of the Mashpee land by whites. In 1861, a law was passed granting full citizenship to the Indians of Mashpee and in 1870, Mashpee was incorporated as a town.
A suit to recover Indian lands failed when federal court decisions between 1976 and 1981 declared that the Wampanoag people were no longer a tribe due to their cultural dissolution. Today, Wampanoags work hard to restore their culture and insure that its wisdom and beauty live on for future generations.
Land development has sprawled over the Cape in the last 30 years and nowhere more so than in Mashpee, the fastest growing town in the state in the 1980s. between 1950-80, Mashpee's population rose 644% and grew by another 148% by 1995. Residential growth has often limited access to the river and sea which Wampanoags so depend upon for physical and spiritual survival.
Water quality, open space, and wildlife habitat are declining, while time and money are being spent now to preserve what is left. Cape Cod Pathways is one such effort. By creating a greenway system of Capewide walking paths, wildlife of all species, and people of all cultures will benefit in a multitude of ways.
Mashpee River: The Riparian Habitat
The Mashpee River begins at Mashpee/Wakeby Pond, and flows south 6.5 miles to Popponesset Bay. The river is renowned for its rich fishing grounds. It has great recreational and economic value as a fishery for "salters," or sea-run brook trout. It is also fished year round for stocked brown and rainbow trout as well as native warm water species, including small-mouthed bass, chain pickerel, and bluegills. The most important fish may be the alewives, or "herring" which run up the river to spawn in the pond each spring. Herring were an essential food source for the natives who lived here. Known as anadromous fish runs, such streams link salt and fresh water bodies, allowing certain fish to complete their life cycle. Herring, who spend their adult lives in the salt water ocean environment, migrate to their freshwater birthplace to lay eggs, and their cycle is repeated.
The alewife is a native anadromous species, while brown trout is an introduced sport fish. The alewives begin their return home when the fresh and brackish waters turn warmer than the marine water, generally occurring on Cape Cod around March. If you are here in spring, you may witness a sight like no other, as huge numbers of fish make their journey from ocean to inland in a reverse pattern to the seasonal journey of the Wampanoags who would move inland to seek the warmth of protected places in the fall. In addition, this river is one of only two in Massachusetts in which the rare American brook lamprey is found.
Marshes: Food Factories
At the water's edge, you will notice both fresh and salt water marshes. Canaway Cove represents the approximate meeting point of fresh water flowing south from the pond and the salt water intruding north with the tides. The "edge" effect" is strongest here. North of this point you will see mostly freshwater and brackish marsh plants, such as the grass-like sedges, rushes, reed bentgrass, and cattails. South of this point, extending to the sea, are salt marsh plants such as salt meadow grass and black grass, which used to be harvested as salt hay for cows and horses.
Would you believe that marshes are more productive per acre than a Kansas wheatfield or even a Brazilian rainforest? What better place for wildlife to hunt, mate, and find shelter? At least 19 species of birds nest along the river with over 100 different species being visible during times of migration.
Over two-thirds of the commercially important fish and shellfish species spend at least part of their lives in the salt marsh. Mussels, quahogs, soft shell clams, sever crustaceans and various fish are some of the inhabitants. In the fresh water marsh are small shrimp, snails, tadpoles, and insect larvae. Muskrats are the quintessential mammals of the marsh. Look for mounded dens built out of reedy plants. Painted, spotted, and box turtles can also be seen
Outwash Plain: Diverse Ecosystems
Much of the trail winds through upland habitats beyond the river's edge. Here you will find different plants and animals adapted to different environmental conditions.
Just west of Canaway Cove lie abandoned cranberry bogs. Cranberries have long been a symbol of Cape Cod. Massachusetts is responsible for over 40% of the national harvest. Small bogs such as these were often carved out of swampland for cultivation. Bogs here were active into the early 1960s, but have since been invaded by other plants, including cedars, laurels, red maples, grasses, and rushes. Rabbits nibble the rushes. Waterfowl love the seeds and muskrats eat the rootstalks. Birds nest in its cover. Even lance-leafed violets and orchids are sometimes found here.
Pitch Pine / Scrub Oak Barrens
Pitch pine/scrub oak barrens are characterized by open strands of pitch pine with thick understories of scrub oak. Barrens occur on dry, flat, sandy areas such as those which are found along the southern part of these trails. Pitch pines, the dominant species and another pioneer plant, thrive in open, sunny conditions. They reach 50 to 60 feet tall at most and are rather scrubby in appearance, hence their other name, scrub pine. They have three needles per bundle and are naturally resistant to fire, having developed adaptations which enable them to reseed themselves after damaging wildfires. Controlled burning is actually one way to retain the barren habitat and prevent the natural change to a more diverse forest.
Whether you love or hate the stark, desertlike appearance of the pine barrens, it characterizes large parts of Cape Cod and is home to at least one threatened species, the barrens buck moth. Buck moths, which live only in the barrens, can be seen flitting about at noontime. The name "buck moth" is given since they fly during hunting season.
Though used by Pilgrims, pitch pine wood now has no value as a construction timber due to its sticky sap and weak wood, but it is used as fuel and the pitch can be distilled to make turpentine.
Although the pitch pine is the signature tree of the Cape, when the Pilgrims first arrived it was quite a different story. A climax forest community of various hardwoods abounded. In the centuries after that, irresponsible cutting left most of Cape Cod barren and windswept. The current pioneer forest of pitch pine is a direct result of that clearing and is our major ally in the stabilization of Cape Cod's shifting sands.
White Pine Groves
Eastern white pines are a pioneer plant species, thriving in open, sunny areas. Eventually, they will give way to natural succession and these groves will become a more diverse and stable forest community. In places, this is beginning to happen, with black and white oaks, red maples, and other trees tolerant of more shade conditions, creeping in. Eventually these trees will shade out the pines and take over.
White pine is the largest conifer in the northeast, reaching heights of 75-100 feet tall. You can most easily recognize it by its soft tufts of light green needles arranged in bundles of five. Chickadees, crossbills, grosbeaks, nuthatches, and siskins feed on its nutritious seeds along with chipmunks, squirrels, and white footed mice. Rabbits, porcupines, beavers, and deer feed on its bark and foliage. Indians used the inner bark as food and as an ingredient in cough remedies.
White Cedar Swamps
Cedar swamps, dominated by the beautiful and resourceful Atlantic white cedar, are found only in a 100 mile wide strip along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. They are, therefore, very rare and globally significant. We are fortunate to have five such swamps scattered off of Great Hay Road within the landscape traversed by our trail system. In contrast to the drier, sunnier pine barrens surrounding them, they create a beautiful juxtaposition of threatened habitats. White cedar swamps usually have an understory of water loving plants, such as bushy sweet gale, highbush blueberry, swamp azalea, sweet pepperbush, winterberry, sheep laurel, and inkberry. The floor of the swamp is covered with absorbent sphagnum moss which gradually accumulates to form dense mats of peat, as much as 30 feet deep. Most peat bogs are thousands of years old, but the development of peat can take place in as little as 25 years. All of these plants thrive in the acidic, nutrient-poor soils of the swamp.
White cedar wood is resistant to rot and insect damage. Substantial harvesting of valuable wood and clearing for bog production have contributed to the rarity of cedar swamps.
The brown tint you may notice in the swamp water is tannic acid. It has natural germ fighting properties which encouraged both natives and colonists to use it as a source of drinking water for long trips. The feathery green sphagnum moss on the swamp floor also has natural antiseptic properties and, being more absorbent than cotton, has been used to dress wounds. Native Americans used it for baby diapers.
If you venture into the white cedar swamp accessible from the trail, search the ground for carnivorous plants such as bladderworts, pitcher plants, and sundews. A relative of the venus flytrap, sundews are the most common and easily found. Watch your footing and by all means enjoy the special quietness and power of a place like no other. Remember, this is a fragile habitat. Please do not venture beyond the edge of the swamp. Those mounds you see, called hummocks, are more fragile than they look. Stepping on one could cause irreparable damage to tree roots and might get you into a sticky situation!
Cedar swamps are refuge for white tailed deer who love to browse on the foliage, as well as for squirrels, chipmunks, owls, various insects and amphibians, snakes, and even some rare animals, including spotted turtles, parula warbler and sharp shinned hawks, all rare species in the state.