We had just returned from voting in Wellfleet on the warmest day of the June heat wave. My wife and I voted for selectmen and for expensive new equipment for four different departments.
Despite the heat, I headed to a bar full of stripers halfway between Newcomb Hollow and Cahoon Hollow. I was happily casting when a woman approached, saying she had found a small injured bird. She wasn’t sure it was a rescue-worthy species. I got to the bird and recognized it as a pretty tern, an eager baitfisher, whose persistent screeching and elegant dives have shown me where to fish for half a century. My debt to these feisty terns being incalculable, I borrowed a beach towel, carefully wrapped the bird in it, and headed back to the parking lot, while the woman promised to keep trying to raise Wild Care on her cell phone.
When I got to my stifling hot car, I found a Wild Care volunteer had left me a garbled message. Unable to make out whether he was coming to Wellfleet or not, and given the relentless heat and the bird’s weakening condition, I decided to head to Eastham with the A/C on full blast.
Halfway down Ocean View Drive I reached the volunteer via another terrible connection that lasted just long enough to hear him say, “I’m coming to Newcomb’s!” I rushed back, left him both texts and phone messages describing my location and car, and waited for the next 45 minutes, engine running to keep the A/C going. I tried calling a dozen times, only to get his voice message.
Finally, I left a message and a text saying I was heading to my air-conditioned home, where I could keep the tern and myself safe from the heat. He finally pulled into our driveway, and as we transferred the bird, now barely moving, to his car we were horrified to know we had both been in the Newcomb Hollow parking lot the entire time.
“The cell service is always like this on the beach,” he said, shaking his head in anger and frustration.
Three years ago, when boogie-boarder Arthur Medici suffered a fatal shark bite at Newcomb Hollow, just a few weeks after a near-fatal great white attack at nearby Longnook Beach, a great hue and cry was raised about the inadequacy of cell-phone coverage on nearly all the Outer Cape beaches. Beach commissions, fire and rescue officials, and private groups listed better cell service among the most pressing (and easily implemented) safety improvements towns could make.
Virtually all the existing Outer Cape beaches are the former sites of a chain of nine Coast Guard lifesaving stations built in the late 1800s to rescue sailors whose ships had wrecked on the Cape’s infamous sandbars. The stations were manned year-round and, in the later years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, were equipped with telegraph lines.
Town and Park Service lifeguards today have walkie-talkies and seasonal direct telephone lines to emergency services. But for the public using the vast swath of the Outer Cape beach, especially in the nine off-season months, there is no reliable cell service from Provincetown to Chatham. Today, more than a century after the last lifesaving station closed, we arguably have poorer communications on the Outer Cape’s beaches than in the age of sail.
The tern, unfortunately, was DOA at Wild Care. A hardened pessimist might point out how hard it is to save an injured wild bird, and that not even dramatically improved communication would have saved Medici from his terrible injury. But there is a lot of well-charted territory between an injured seabird and a fatally wounded boogie-boarder. I have witnessed a broken neck at Longnook from a hang-gliding accident, a plane crash south of Ballston Beach, a dune slide that took a young woman’s life, and a drowning during the Truro Nude Beach days, in which, as a town lifeguard, I spent 40 minutes unsuccessfully performing CPR on a young man before the rescue squad arrived.
As the Cape’s population ages and former summer residents retire and become year-rounders, the risks of medical issues on the beaches will increase. We must respond to hordes of summer visitors, and also to the consequences of warming water that will continue to attract more seals and sharks, more rapidly collapsing dunes from sea level rise, and fiercer ocean storms.
The loss of a beautiful tern tells us that nature is an unforgiving force, but it can also remind us of Cape Codders’ rich history of doing everything we can to save our neighbors, friends, family, visitors — and, yes, even wildlife — from avoidable suffering and tragedy. Consider the effort we once made in lifesaving stations. Surely, today, when the back shore is a defining part of the Outer Cape’s life, the cost of however many cell service repeaters are necessary to amplify the beaches’ spotty to nonexistent service is minuscule in comparison.
Jim Gilbert of Wellfleet is a retired newspaper and magazine editor who started his career at the Provincetown Advocate.