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Trip Report: Washburn Island, Falmouth, MA

Posted by on January 25, 2012

A weekend of camping on Washburn Island has become an annual “must do” on my summer activities list! Washburn Island is located on the western side of the Wacoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in East Falmouth, MA. The wooded island boasts over a dozen, primitive, waterfront campsites that look out across Wacoit Bay. It’s a great destination for kayak camping, a mid-day picnic, or a stop on a day trip. You could easily spend a week exploring the marshes and inlets of the sheltered bay, hanging out at South Cape Beach, or paddling out into Martha’s Vineyard Sound! I’ve been doing this trip for over 10 years and each one has special memories attached to it. In this post I will report on my latest trip to Washburn Island as part of a Spring 2011 kayak camping trip with the MIT Outing Club.

It was the start of my first full season as the MITOC co-sea kayaking chair and I wanted the annual spring kayak-camping trip to be especially memorable. Where should we go? As I thumbed through my mental rolodex of kayak-camping destinations, I was flooded by visions of the good-old-times on Washburn Island. It just so happened to be the last weekend before the rangers were scheduled to re-occupy theirs posts on the island and start to collect camping fees as the season got into full swing. This meant that there was the chance that we’d have Washburn all to ourselves for the weekend. That sealed it; load up the war wagons, Washburn here we come!!!

We had a great group of eight MITOCers with Rick and I in the lead. Meaghan had also decided to come along. Our caravan pulled into the parking lot at the Child’s River boat launch in Falmouth after a Cape-traffic-free ride and a quick food stop at Stop and Shop. It was a gorgeous spring day and everyone was excited to get the kayaks packed and onto the water. I was glad to see that everyone had taken my advice from the pre-trip meeting by packing light and making sure that everything was in a waterproof bag and fit within the hatches of their kayak. As it turned out, I was the only one who broke the rules when I secured the two-burner propane stove to the rear deck of my kayak. My friends certainly didn’t spare a joust or two!

The outgoing tide helped us down the Child River and we soon found ourselves making the turn around the Northern end of Washburn Island. Rounding the island was a sight to behold: Wacoit Bay was flat calm without a single boat in sight! I had never seen it that way in all of my trips to date and likely never will again. We found Washburn Island to be just as deserted upon our landing on the beaches outside of the campground. I hustled up the beach and was quick to claim a cozy, waterfront tent site for Meaghan and me. The site looked out through a stand of scrub pine toward the mouth of Wacoit Bay. I felt like Robinson Caruso staring out across unknown waters from an island where I was King! This was bound to be a magical weekend…

It was mid-afternoon when camp was set up and it was time to do some exploring. I decided to lead the group on my favorite trip in Wacoit Bay. Across the bay from the Washburn campsites sits the entrance to a marsh that leads to the back side of South Cape Beach. The last time that I had paddled through the marsh I had discovered a large corrugated pipe that allowed water to drain under a roadway. It seemed safe and large enough to paddle through if the tide was right. I was eager to see if we could get the group past this obstacle and investigate the marsh on the other side of the road. Luck continued to be with us; the tide was low enough for us to squeak through the pipe. The other side opened to a series of narrow marsh channels. We took the main channel and it dumped us into a small, salt-water pond that was hedged with cedar trees on the ocean side. The muffled surf could be heard splashing on the not-so-distant shoreline.

The pond offered a quiet spot to relax for a few minutes before we performed an about-face to return to the road near the pipe. Here we portaged the kayaks down the road to South Cape Beach and followed the shore-line back to the entrance of Wacoit Bay. Martha’s Vinyard was visible on horizon and the tranquility of The Sound beaconed for us to make the crossing. This was certainly far outside of the scope of the trip and I quickly put the thought of a crossing to rest. We took instead to surfing on some of the larger ocean swells a few hundred hards off shore. Some of us were brave enough to test our skills at the entrance to the bay by riding the ground swell in through a narrow gap in the jetty. Then it was back to Washburn for the evening festivities!

We had a fantastic evening alone on Washburn Island. The night started with a quick but satisfying dinner of hot dogs and couscous whipped up by Meaghan on the over-sized camp stove that had occupied my back deck earlier that day. After dinner, the group decided to take a stroll to the western side of the island to catch the sunset. It was a lovely stroll along the beach with our toes in the sand and the sun setting across the Child River. The scene was alive with shore birds, thousands of periwinkles, and even a few horseshoe crabs that wadded in the shallows. Once the sun was set we all returned to camp for a fire. We built ourselves a solid fire on the beach near our tents and roasted marshmellows and told stories late into the evening. It was great to share the island solitude with so many friends!

Sunday dawned and the soundbirds of yestereve were replaced by the sound of the wind. The skies were just as clear as the day before but the light and whispy breeze had been replaced by a 15 knot beast from the North East. We’d be fighting this wind all the way back to the launch in loaded kayaks so we took great liberty to relax on the island that morning with the hope that the wind might change. Some decided to explore the northern reaches of the island while others lite a second campfire and kick back on the beach. Breakfast consisted of banana pancakes hot off of the griddle lathered in syrup and it hit the spot! The bunch of us lazing on the beach had no motivation to break camp and load the boats for our food coma was kicking in and the scene was just too good to walk away from.

It’s too bad that all good things come to an end. We bid farewell to our island abode at just after noon. The wind had failed to change and, if anything, had grown in strength. We decided to put the breeze at our backs and round the island to the South. That way we could sneak out into the Sound, hug the shore, and then hopefully minimize our exposure by using Washburn Island as a wind-block. The first part of the plan worked out great as we shot out of Wacoit Bay into the Sound. I was surprised at how close to shore we had to paddle to remain in the wind-shadow of the island. I nearly had my right paddle blade in the sand as we crept toward the mouth of the Child River. I had never taken this way back to the launch before and the mouth is hard to see from the west as it’s pretty narrow and blends in with the background.

Thankfully, the mouth was right where the map said it was and the tide was in thus dissolving the need to portage the loaded boats. Upon turning into the mouth of the river we met the full force of the wind. It had shifted just enough to be blowing directly down the Child River. We made the next 2.5 miles like a train of hampsters on a stationary wheel. It was two strokes forward and one stroke back for the next couple of hours but we finally made it. Everyone was happy to be out of that wind! Rick and I decided to take the group into Falmouth for the remainder of the afternoon and to grab dinner before the drive back to Boston. We had certainly worked up an appetite on the treadmill-paddle back up the Child River and could use some warming up.

Our magnificent weekend paddling trip to Washburn Island was a great success. It was filled with that special island solitude, great friends, and much adventure. All-in-all we had paddled about 12 miles, explored Washburn Island, had an awesome campfire, and enjoyed each other’s company in a scene straight out of Cast Away (albeit a bit cooler and without the palm trees). Certainly the best way to kick off the paddling season is with a trip like this: one for the ages!

-Kayak Dave

Trip Details:

Launch: Child River Boat Launch, Route 28, Falmouth, MA

Landing: Child River Boat Launch, Route 28, Falmouth, MA

Highlights: Camping on Washburn Island, South Cape Beach

Duration: 2hrs from launch to campsite, 3hrs RT to South Cape Beach from campground, 3hrs to circumnavigate Washburn Island from campsite to landing.

Distance: 3-4 miles from launch to campground (red). 4 miles RT to South Cape Beach from campground (blue), 4 miles to circumnavigate Washburn Island from campsite to landing (green).

Good Eats:  Camp Cooking on Washburn Island

More Info at:

Kayak Dave Rating:



Wacoit Bay from our Campsite on Washburn Island

Into the Pipe!

Camp cooking on Washburn

Sunset from Washburn Island

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