A woman wearing a bright pop of salmon bobbed along the pathway leading to Moshup Beach. Close behind, spots of red, magenta, and purple dutifully followed guides Julie Russell and Kristen Fauteux through the pale beachgrass.
Going to the beach on a chilly Sunday afternoon in December is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, for 22 curious Islanders, traipsing up-Island to explore Aquinnah was the perfect way to spend a cloudless winter day.
Ms. Russell, a botanist and ecologist who has worked for the Land Bank for 17 years, led the group along Moshup’s Trail, past the Vanderhoop homestead, and through trails behind the Outermost Inn that are closed during the summer months.
This weekend walk was a collaboration between the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank (MVLB) and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), which own the properties.
This particular day, there was ample parking, no traffic, and a nearly unobstructed view of
the surrounding area. Thickets that had recently covered spots surrounding the lower parking lots had been cut down and uprooted, creating a patchwork of raw, untilled plots. Ms. Russell explained that the recent landscaping project is part of an effort by the MVLB to preserve a rare species of coffee plant that has been spotted growing in the area. The Aquinnah headlands are a great place for bird watching, as the thickets provide protection from weather and birds of prey, as well as a stable food source for migrating and native birds.
“This is a really popular place for birders to come,” Ms. Russell said. “Any time we cut down
dense thickets, birders tend to get a little upset. It’s possible that cutting down the thickets right by the parking lot, where you could get out of your car and spot a bird, isn’t going to be that popular. But as I like to say, they’re not the only thickets in Aquinnah.”
The brambly hills of Aquinnah don’t hold leaves this time of year, which makes it easy to peer through the barren thickets and see enclaves of houses, and maybe a bird or two if you’re patient.
Leaving the raw patch of stumps next to the parking lot, the group proceeded down the pathway to the shoreline. At the beach, the cliffs rise up like a palette of archaic hues. Their clay, which dates back 18,000 to 24,000 years, is legendary. People have pulled bones of whales, rhinoceros, and mastodons out of the red clay that is continually shoved up from the Earth’s crust.
“A lot of the research on what plants existed here on the Island is from pollen that has been found in the soil and green sand, which is dated to 11 million to 16 million years ago,” Ms. Russell said. She explained the color that paints the sides of the cliffs as a “ribbon effect,” caused by the natural process of heaving and compression in the Earth’s crust.
“We get to enjoy this car-free view and parking lot for 10 months out of the year,” Ms. Russell said. “Who comes up to Aquinnah in the height of summer?”
She’s onto something. Aquinnah is certainly special in the wintertime.
For more information on upcoming winter walks, check in with your favorite conservation group.