Sometimes — like when a rebounding seal population chums up large oceanic predators — I’d rather swim in fresh water than salt water.
Honestly, I’m normally not that worried about sharks. I see them often while scuba diving, and they’re just not that interested in humans. But a fatal shark attack on a popular Cape Cod beach in 2018 (the first in more than 80 years), a rash of shark-related beach closures during my visit to Massachusetts and a plethora of warning signs put me on edge last summer.
Happily, more than 200 freshwater kettle ponds, formed thousands of years ago by melting glaciers that left behind bowl-shaped swimming holes, provide a less sharky alternative, so my friend Sara McCabe and I set out on a mission to see how many we could dip a toe in.
In the end, we bagged nine, including a pair at a gorgeous state park, a few hidden in suburban neighborhoods, and a couple easily accessible by the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 25-mile bike path that traverses this popular Massachusetts vacation spot.
RELATED: In light of coronavirus pandemic, RV travel could see an uptick
As of press time, most beaches and kettle ponds were open on the Cape, with new COVID-19 regulations in place, including beach distancing, masks if you’re closer than 6 feet, no beach games and no large groups. Find details and learn more about two-week self-quarantine requirements for travelers entering Massachusetts at capecodchamber.org/covid-19-visitor-info.
Below is a sample of kettle ponds in the Cape Cod area meant to provide future inspiration when and if the time is right to travel again.
Flax Pond. Several ponds on the Cape are named Flax, so it can get confusing. This one, off of Setucket Road in Dennis, is popular with dog lovers and rope swingers. Park in a dirt lot, walk a few hundred feet down a pine needle-covered path and you’ll find a small, sandy beach. A bucket nailed to a tree holds spare tennis balls so no four-legged friend is left out of the fun. Follow the trail past the beach and about halfway around the pond to a rope swing attached to a tree on a high bank. The swimming experience earns high marks — I swam all the way across the pond, which is roughly twice the length of Barton Springs Pool and surrounded by small docks and tall trees.
Horse Pond. Park in the small pullout on Higgins Crowell Road near the Yarmouth Police Department and strike out on the shady path through the woods, which will deposit you at the foot of a beautiful pond filled with clear water and surrounded on one side by luxurious private homes. You’ll have to dodge the lily pads, but that’s a small price to pay for this secluded experience.
Little Sandy Pond. This pond comes with its own recreation area, complete with tennis courts and a couple of things many of the other ponds don’t have — plenty of parking and a restroom. A trail takes you down to a human-made beach and a roped-in swimming area. There’s also an ugly cement bulkhead, but once you start swimming you won’t notice it. A water tower is tucked in the woods on one side, too, but other than that there’s little development here, just lots of lush trees crowding around the pond.
Seymour Pond. This large, inviting pond is situated right along the Cape Cod Rail Trail and makes a great cooling-off point during a hot summer bike ride. Stash your wheels on the bike rack, settle in on a bench, admire the trees (including one with a strange, U-shaped trunk) and wade in for a blissful dip in this popular oasis. The sandy bottom is smooth and plant-free. Plus, the ducks like it here.
Upper and Lower Mill Ponds. Unless you know someone with a house on dreamy little Lower Mill Pond in Brewster like we do, you’re probably out of luck. But if you manage to get in, it’s perfect for cross-pond laps or lounging on one of the huge boulders at its edge. And take a look under the water — the herring spawn here. The attached Upper Mill Pond, though? It’s open to the public, with free parking in a dirt lot (called Punkland Parklands) just a short walk from the pond. If you’re willing, take a beautiful 20-minute hike from that same parking lot and reach the other side of Seymour Pond, mentioned above.
Big Cliff Pond. Nickerson State Park in Brewster is home to this glinting, king-size pond. Locals pay $8 to park; out-of-towners pay $15. But admission gets you access and easy parking at Big Cliff and three other delightful ponds. On windy days, the water gets choppy. A swim area is roped off, and a trail circumnavigates the pond.
Flax Pond. Like I said, Flax is a common name for the ponds around here. This one, also in Nickerson State Park, gets busy, but if you walk past the main beach and follow the signs to the boat rental area, you’ll discover a spacious and much-less-crowded spot to throw down a towel on a bed of soft pine needles. Expect perfect water temperatures, and for best results swim all the way across the pond to the campground on the other side. This is my favorite Cape Cod kettle pond — so far.
Long Pond. We biked along the Cape Cod Rail Trail to Yarmouth, then picked our way through suburban streets to this long, narrow pond ringed with houses. We jumped in at the Davis Road boat ramp but didn’t like the forest of tentacle-laden aquatic plants that tickled our toes. Another, larger beach is located near Saint Pius X Church off Station Avenue. It’s popular with kayakers, too.
Flax Pond Recreation Area. We chalked up our third Flax Pond in Yarmouth. This charming, pint-size pond comes with a roped-off area for kids to swim, plus an anchored platform a few dozen yards offshore suitable for leaping. Toss your bag down on the amphitheater-style bench seats, but beware the summer camp crowd, which arrived in a whirlwind during our visit.