Living in Geologic Time: Cape Cod’s Shipwrecks, Dune Shacks and Shifting Sands

My Dune Shack

Last year, I started a new feature column for Eos magazine called Living in Geologic Time, “a series of personal accounts that highlight the past, present, and future of famous landmarks on geologic timescales.

The latest feature—Cape Cod: Shipwrecks, Dune Shacks, and Shifting Sands—was inspired by a week I spent in a dune shack in Cape Cod National Seashore.

Dune Walk

Provincetown is taking progressive steps to protect itself from future flooding, but the Cape Cod National Seashore, located on the other side of the peninsula on the Outer Cape, subscribes to a very different, hands-off approach, Waldo said. “The philosophy of the national seashore is to leave it alone and let nature take its course.”

This is the wilder side of Cape Cod that I am most familiar with, having spent time in a historic dune shack on the national seashore. In the late 1800s, when shipwrecks were still common on the shoals and sandbars off the coast of Cape Cod, a series of shacks was built along the Outer Cape to provide shelter and supplies to shipwrecked survivors. With better mapping and navigation, shipwrecks became less common, and the shacks began attracting writers and artists, including Henry David ThoreauJack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollock.

In 1961, when the Outer Cape became the Cape Cod National Seashore, the dune shacks, many in disrepair, were slated to be destroyed in an effort to return the seashore to its natural state. But the Massachusetts Historical Commission stepped in and recommended that the shacks be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the National Park Service owns 18 out of the 19 surviving dune shacks, several of which are available for artist residencies and long-term leases.

Provincetown Harbor

Go to to read the rest of the JMT story. I’m delighted that the Living in Geologic Time series was named part of “The Best of Eos in 2020”! Links to my other Living in Geologic Time columns on places like the Grand Canyon, the Cascade Volcanoes and Arches National Park can be found here. Stay tuned for more in 2021!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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