Houses Built On Sand

The families lucky enough to still occupy Nauset’s Outer Beach Camps know their days are numbered, but enjoy the solitude the area brings nonetheless.

By Jennifer Sexton | Photography by Jay Elliott

These words, penned by Thoreau a century and a half ago, could not be more fitting as Mark Zibrat pilots our small boat from Chatham’s Municipal Fish Pier across Chatham Harbor to the thin strip of Nauset Beach, stippled with the tiny, lonely-looking outer beach camps. As he deftly negotiates the way between moored vessels and the cheerfully bobbing markers of submerged lobster traps, I am amazed by the way the land and water seem to playfully deceive, Tern Island on our left abruptly giving way to a broad expanse of tossing ocean that moments ago I would have sworn was land. It’s as if the place is shifting, changing before my eyes. And in a very real sense, it is.

IMG_1945“See that spot directly across from us? It looks like land from here,” says Zibrat over the boat’s engine. “But it’s not.” And sure enough, as we approach, what appears to be sand dissolves into whitecaps. “That’s the new break,” he says. In April of 2007, a northeaster slammed into the slender barrier of North Beach, as Nauset is known locally. When the storm was finished, the southern portion of North Beach had become an island.

Zibrat is taking us to the Dubis Camp, originally built by his wife Robin’s grandfather, Joe Dubis Sr. on land purchased for $750 in the late 1950s. Presently in its third incarnation after being destroyed once by fire in the 1960s and again by ocean in the No-Name Storm of 1991, the Dubis Camp is now accessible only by boat.

Nauset Beach is a slender barrier peninsula, protecting the Chatham coastline somewhat from the fury of the open Atlantic. Besieged by the constant sculpting of tide and wind, this vulnerable sliver of sand is more ever-changing barrier system than stable land mass. In 1987, a break directly across from Chatham’s Lighthouse Beach overlook allowed the Atlantic to rush unimpeded to the unprotected shoreline and sent mapmakers scrambling once again for their pencils. A comparison of historic maps reveals that, in a sense, one never navigates the same Pleasant Bay twice. Nevertheless, among the shifting sands and fluid contours of the coast, Zibrat’s family and their camp neighbors have found firm ground and built decades of memories in the windswept solitude of their Nauset Beach camps.

The few dozen small, largely rustic cabins are called “camps” in reference to their origins as hunting camps in the early 1800s. Professional hunters, or “market gunners,” stored their gear in what were originally simple wooden shacks to minimize the difficulty of carting it over the sandy terrain. As hunting laws eventually changed, and with the availability of affordable four-wheel drive vehicles after World War II, the camps, grouped into “First Village” in the north and “Second Village” in the south, became beloved recreational retreats for the local families who owned them. With the creation of the National Seashore Park in 1961, intended to preserve the land in its natural state, all new construction was forbidden. Camps built after 1959 were taken over by the Park and leased back to their owners, including the Zibrats, for finite periods of time, a reprieve made bittersweet by the knowledge that when their time is up, the intrepid little camps will be taken down for good. Today about half of the outer beach camps are privately owned, and half leased from the National Seashore Park. The 25-year lease on the Dubis Camp expired in 1997, but so far has been extended every year by the Park. Each year the family receives a letter extending their stay, but along with the relief comes the awareness that every letter of extension could be the last.
It’s a very different world on North Beach, and different worlds breed different versions of the five senses. Zibrat, for example, can identify his North Beach camp neighbors cresting a dune at such a distance that I am still trying to ascertain whether they are human beings or not. “There’s Roger,” he says, indicating a moving shape the size of a flyspeck. The flyspeck raises its arms in greeting, silhouetted against the enormous sky.

Roger and Sue Carroll pass by the Dubis Camp on their way back from the beach. They are the closest neighbors, only a few hundred yards down the sandy path. The Carrolls grin when I ask how the new break has changed their time on North Beach.

“You hate to say you’re celebrating,” smiles Sue. “But it is nice. We’ve always been boaters, so the only difference for us is that the beach is so quiet now.”

IMG_3455The Carrolls took over the National Seashore lease on their camp from another family in 1991, when nine years remained on the lease. Only six months later, the camp was completely destroyed by the No-Name Storm. Thanks to the hard work of another camp resident, Nelson Long, who would not take no for an answer on the subject of rebuilding his destroyed Second Village camp, the Carrolls and other camp neighbors were able to rebuild their camps as well. Long managed to obtain the necessary approval that allowed his and 11 other camps to be rebuilt of the 17 that were destroyed by the No-Name Storm.
Before the break, camp residents like the Zibrats and Carrolls shared the North Beach with legions of four-wheel drive vehicles and day visitors who flocked to the glorious barrier beach. Now that nature has surrounded them with water, the atmosphere has returned to something very like the quiet and solitude the camp families remember from decades ago.

The interior of the Dubis Camp is humble and cozy, palpably filled with the presence of many pleasant times spent with family and friends. Rainwater is collected and warmed in the sun for showers, while the slightly peat-colored pump water is used for washing dishes. The surrounding landscape of stark sand and roiling dune grasses visible in every direction outside the windows blends with the relentless rush of wind on the camp’s exterior, somehow increasing the snug humanity of the inside rather than the wild desolation outside. Other camps are visible, the farthest ones arranged like scattered toys in the distance with a raised or lowered flag indicating whether the occupants are home or not.

A profound sense of security and relaxation reigns inside. The prominent features of the rooms, the wood stove and the large kitchen table surrounded by many chairs, underscore the importance of basic survival in this place. Warmth and sustenance take a starring role. As darkness falls, the gaslights are carefully lit with a long match. The delicate silk mantles that enclose the flame would turn to dust if touched.

In her book about the Nauset Beach camps, Drifting Memories: The Nauset Beach Camps on Cape Cod, Frances Higgins writes of her childhood summers spent in a similar cottage on the beach in North Eastham. “The cottage floor was plywood, and the rugs moved like magic carpets when the winds swept under the cellar and up through cracks in the floor.” Memories like these inspired Higgins to preserve the history and unique extended family of the Nauset Beach camps before they shift and ultimately disappear like the sands themselves.

Robin Zibrat remembers toasting her mother’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the wood stove as the Dubis Camp was being rebuilt for the first time in the 1960s. The children didn’t bring toys along to entertain themselves on North Beach— the beach itself was plaything enough, days disappearing into a haze of hide-and-seek, fishing, clamming, beachcombing and simply playing in the waves.

In the Dubis Camp’s communal journal, many different hands attempt to capture the magic of a lifetime or even a weekend visit spent nestled among the waves. An entry made by a visiting friend in 2001 conveys some of the sense of otherworldliness coupled with community and a hopeful awareness of the changes that time will surely bring:

“This place is so beautiful that it almost seems surreal…and combine that with good friends in a place where nothing else matters… Hope to see you again, same time, same place next year.”

A chronicle of good times that the family plans to preserve for future generations, this precious, one-of-a-kind document is now kept on the mainland.
Earlier editions were lost to the Atlantic when the No-Name Storm of 1991, also known as the Halloween Northeaster, devoured the camp, along with 16 others.

“It was devastating. I grew up here,” Robin Zibrat says. “The family stood on the mainland, watching, saying, ‘Is the camp moving? I think the camp’s moving! No, the camp can’t be moving!’ The next morning the debris was over on the beach, just below the lighthouse. It had traveled across the harbor and onto the mainland. I found the little blue bikini that I spent my childhood summers in—it was in a dresser drawer in the camp for decades. The whole family went into a depression.”

With six years left on their lease from the National Seashore Park, the family and many others decided to rebuild yet again, following a new set of building regulations. The rebuilt camps stand above the sand on pilings sunk deep into the sand and heavily bolted together. Thus reinforced, the camps perch between sand and sky, small and insistent, rooted as firmly as possible by those who love them.

Before the break, the Zibrats traveled in their four-wheel drive vehicle to spend time at the camp in every season of the year. With the Second Village now surrounded by water, cold weather jaunts will demand more careful thought. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen now,” says Robin. “I guess we have to take the good with the bad. We’re lucky we still have the camp. We could have lost it again. You can’t fool with mother nature.”

“Sometimes I feel like nature knew what it was doing when it took its course and made us this new break,” she says. “Now we’re an island— it’s the best, most tranquil place in the world. There are some drawbacks. We have to lug everything up the beach and bring it by boat. But it’s so peaceful out here now. It’s just like when I was a little girl. There are only a few people on the beach, and we know everybody. We’re back to being a whole community as camp owners. We all grew up out here together. I feel bad for the people who can’t drive out anymore, but it’s just unbelievably peaceful now. We sit outside with a fire pit in what used to be the driveway—of course it doesn’t get any cars anymore—and watch the sunsets, the stars, the moon, the meteor showers. Sometimes we sit and listen to the music traveling over the water from the Chatham Bars Inn. Unbelievable. So many memories.”

Editors’ Note: Since this story was written, six camps have been lost or demolished by their owners, and three camps have been moved on wheels to safer (for now) ground. At press time, the camps we featured were still intact.