Watching over 70 restless sixth graders on the precipice of their final week in their school, six Mattapoisett Land Trust volunteers and several more chaperones representing Old Hammondtown Elementary School knew exactly what they were getting themselves into while embarking on a June 16 day trip to Cuttyhunk.
A local newspaper editor over a half century removed from such an experience could only imagine, but never having visited the island himself, the idea of spending a day away from the computer screen and instead engaging Mother Nature (and a bunch of happy kids) made too much sense to pass up.
So off we went, camera, notepad, sunscreen and water bottle.
Seen almost daily from a distance – I lived in Fairhaven the first 15 years of the 21st century – little did this old sportswriter realize how developed is this 154-foot hill at the western end of Buzzards Bay.
Last in the string of Elizabeth Islands emanating from the Woods Hole corner of Cape Cod, Cuttyhunk is a 581-acre island situated approximately halfway between the south coast and Martha’s Vineyard, the closest point being the Dartmouth and Westport beaches.
“I think it was pretty cool, it’s a big island. I expected it to be a little smaller, but it was pretty cool,” said 12-year-old Sadie Hartley-Matteson of her first trip. “I was surprised they didn’t have any stores … I just didn’t know how they get all the stuff that they need.”
Massive infrastructural water-related upgrades are ongoing on Cuttyhunk, and trucks are regularly being transported to and from the island on barges. The student group was well prepared to avoid construction areas.
The population of Gosnold (the Dukes County town) at the turn of the century was 52, but almost 10 times that many are estimated to live on the island during the warm months.
Broken into six groups, the 70 students from Old Hammondtown Elementary eagerly deboarded the HV Cuttyhunk ferryboat. Not far from the docks was the first scheduled activity with the Jacobsen Group B, a 10:30 am visit to study ocean waves with Wendy Copps of the Mattapoisett Land Trust, the event sponsor and provider of the on-site education in concert with the Cuttyhunk STEAM Academy and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Copps led the nine-student Jacobsen Group B out to Barges Beach, so named because the finer sand at water’s edge is divided from an extremely rocky upper terrain by an obsolete railroad barge that acts as a terrace. Remnants of the barge are easily visible and smart to avoid, its inch-diameter steel bolts still sticking up as if to show off the rust of many decades enduring New England’s harsh coastal winters.
Three props were used in the “Ocean in Motion” exercise: ropes to partner up with a create wave action, oranges to toss into the sea and a measuring tape to track how far the current swept the orange to the point it washed back up to shore.
Of course, three students momentarily turned the exercise into a game of jump rope, but Copps smiled and stayed the course. Patrick Henry took a liking to the oranges and ate one, and Cole Hitchings showed off base-stealing speed in fetching an orange that had drifted well over 90 feet away.
“I knew there would be some wildlife that I definitely hadn’t seen, but there was a lot – really amazing,” said 12-year-old Eamon Perez of his first trip to Cuttyhunk, highlighted by the spotting of a large Heron.
Hartley-Matteson most enjoyed putting on wader boots to walk in the salt marsh, where her group was taught about various wildlife there by MLT instructor Kate Armstrong.
“We didn’t pick plants, but we used this little bucket with a thing at the bottom that you could put it in the water and look … and see horseshoe crabs, cool things like that,” said Hartley-Matteson, whose animal life at home is somewhat more normal with three dogs and a chicken. “We also went birdwatching … we saw turtles sunbathing on a rock and bullfrogs in the water.”
Armstrong, a Wetlands intern with the Woodwell Climate Research Center based out of Woods Hole, led the Jacobsen Group B on the second morning activity, a Saltmarsh Exploration behind the Donny Lynch House. She explained as the group pulled on waders how the salt marsh delivers nutrients to coastal waters, positively impacting the coastal ecosystem and its creatures.
Riley Ferreira and Isabella Perez-Dormitzer searched together, leading to Ferreira’s discovery of a bushy plant from the upper, more wet area of the marsh, and Ava Figueiredo and Zoe Motta found leafy plants from the dry area that ironically lies closer to the shoreline.
Students took turns teaming up with Armstrong in an effort to use an aluminum, scope-like tool to dig up a soil sample, but they learned that the double-edged sword of wet soil is the shovel slides without as much effort but is also likely to lose its grip as the sample slides back out upon removal.
Hands-on experience was a key piece in the day’s experiences, and the students took part in various other activities, the day broken by a lunch break up on the hill where the town’s school and library are located.
The trip concluded with a 3:00 pm ferry ride back to the mainland and a hearty conservation with chaperone Carlos T.B. Fragada, son of a fisherman from Fairhaven. Having grown up a student of the sea, Fragada was happy to assist last week’s group effort to bring today’s gadget-oriented youth a little closer to the hands-on life he enjoyed as a youngster.
By the sounds emanating from the upper and lower levels on the return trip of the HV Cuttyhunk, the trip will resonate in the students’ memories and perhaps inspire them as well.
“My most favorite part was really just walking around, seeing everything,” said Perez. “The beaches were beautiful, especially seeing the shipwrecks that were there, the driftwood, it was amazing to see that. Like the amount of history that was also there. Along with the wildlife, it’s a place that you should go.”
By Mick Colageo