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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Tackling the Cape's tough terrain

Originally published in the Cape Codder, Dec. 1, 2015

Here on Cape Cod, there’s two classes of walkers: those who ‘stroll’ … and then there’s the members of the Eastham Hikers Club.

Traipsing across the woods, beaches, and dune lands of the outermost lands east of Bass River, these wayfarers wander some four to six miles every Wednesday morning, beginning at 9 a.m. sharp. “This is by the far the most rigorous,” says Mark McGrath of Harwich, one of the leaders for the EHC and several other hiking groups.

““Just the pace that we lead it at, and the length,” interjects Don Light of Orleans, the club’s leader since 2011. “It’s not strolling.”

The Eastham Hiking Club is a pretty informal group, but you’d never know it by the number of folks involved. On any given Wednesday morning, anywhere from 35 to 70 hikers will show up at a pre-designated location. One week it could be Griffin Island in Wellfleet; the following Wednesday, it’s at Sands Pond in Harwich … or maybe McMillan Wharf in Provincetown or the Punkhorn in Brewster.

“The group is free and open to anyone,” says McGrath, 75, who has hiked the entire outer coast of the Cape. “No signup is required, just show up. Most hikes are two hours with some extending to two and a half. We walk at a decent pace to get a fair amount of exercise.”

The group has no website, but has an extensive email list. “The current membership is 346 email addresses, plus spouses of hikers who share schedules,” Light noted. “The realistic estimate is about 420.”

Co-leader Chuck Thompson then distributes a hike summary after most hikes. It includes some historic and current references to the area and several photographs taken by members during the hike. The EHC was founded by John Sullivan in 1977, but by 1983, Hortense Kelley was beginning a 23-year run as the group’s leader. Kelley learned many of the hikes on her own and developed several more. She co-led the group with the likes of Brigitte Falzone, Lorna Hutcheons, and Ken Coulson. “During those 23 years, attendance ranged widely from maybe 13 hikers to a high of 75 hikers,” Light noted.

Because of the volume of participants on EHC hikes, permits from the National Seashore have been required since 2014.

Kelley, in her mid-80s at the time of her retirement in 2006, was succeeded by Don Heyer, who succumbed to cancer in 2011. Light, a co-leader, became the leader, with Bob Rabenold, McGrath, and Thompson as co-leaders.


On Thanksgiving Eve, the group tackled a four-mile stretch of the Provincelands in a hike referred to as “Beeches and Berries: Is there any foliage or are there any cranberries left?” Maybe not, McGrath warned: “The beech trees are bare, and the berries are all buried,” he quipped to the unusually small group of 25 hikers, although they did uncover a few cranberries while hiking through the bog later on.

The rules are pretty simple for the EHC: Stay on the trails, away from the cliffs, and don’t trample vegetation. Stay together, always have the person in front of you in view. When you’re up on the trail, make sure you can see people in back of you. The hike leader stays in front, while another one of the leaders (Light filled that role here) trails at the end of the line.

McGrath is quick to concede that he’s “the slow leader. When I do my hikes, I like to stop and talk,” he says. “Don likes ‘more walk and less talk.’”

Light and Chuck Thompson, another one of the group’s regular hike leaders, “are the fast leaders,” says McGrath. No matter who the leader is, you can bet on Yvonne Simkin being right behind him. “You get Don and Yvonne on that stretch of Nauset Beach, and by the end of that hike, we’re probably stretched out for a mile and a half, with them out in front,” McGrath adds.

However, on this day, it’s McGrath leading the way. At the Beech Forest parking lot, he starts the walk off by quoting the poem, “At Blackwater Pond,” by Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver of Provincetown. After crossing over Race Point road into the woods, he relates the story of “Tin Pin Alley,” where, as the story goes, trash can lids once covered the sandy road to provide easier access to a camping area.

Further up the trail, he points out an elevated area that, according to the Peaked Hill Trust, is the highest point in the Cape Cod National Seashore — two feet higher than the legendary Mount Ararat. Rabenold, 77, joined the group in 1998. He walks alongside Patty Sandri of Harwich and Joyce Halpert of East Dennis. As the trio emerges from the woods with leaves, twigs, and thorn branches, the trio fondly recall some memories of Kelley, but the views and surroundings of the dunes quickly overtake their observations.

“It’s always changing,” marvels Halpert, who joined the group in the early 2000s. “When you look out from Snail Road now, and from when I started, the terrain is completely different.”

The group ascends a high dune, and takes in the view while McGrath surveys the landscape dotted with dune shacks. “That one’s Liberty Bell,” he begins, and proceeds to point out several more of the Spartan structures in another one of his “slow” moments.

“I learned something from (CCNS ranger) Nick Paradis,” McGrath says. “On all of his walks, all of sudden, he says, ‘For the next five minutes, it’s a John Muir moment of silence.’ Nobody talks, and then he starts you down the trail, and you go out every 20 seconds so that you’re alone. This is a nice place for it.” The sojourn through the sand continues down the trail, back into the woods, and briefly through a cranberry bog before emptying back on to Race Point Road.

Whether the walk is a four-miler such as this one, or one of the more rigorous treks such as the one at Pilgrim Heights and High Head in North Truro, there’s no denying that there’s a passion here for the unique walking experience that the wild Outer Cape offers.

“We get out of New Jersey and come up here as much as we can,” said Tom McNellis, a part-time Eastham resident who was on his second EHC hike. “This is one of the reasons we come up this way.”

About the Eastham Hiking Club: The Club meets at 9 a.m. at a designated area every Wednesday morning. Car-pooling options are available. In the event of heavy snow or rain, a group email canceling the hike is sent out by 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday. For more information, contact Don Light at 508-247-9887 or, or Mark McGrath at 508-432-3775 or

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