Young ranger comes home to get Cape Cod walking
The rising sun shimmered off the Atlantic Ocean at low tide, illuminating the bobbing heads of hunting grey seals no more than 20 yards offshore. Anna Gannett, immaculate in her tan ranger uniform, stared eastward with a slight smile.
It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. Gannett is living her dream.
That dream began when she was a young child during a very special week living with her family in one of the precious few surviving Dune Shacks of Truro. Enveloped by sands of time, the family listened to the rhythms of the sea, stared for hours at the starry congestion of the night sky and learned what it was like to live without electricity or running water.
Maybe it was the same shack where playwright Eugene O’Neill spent his summers, where he penned Anna Christie and The Hairy Ape. Or Gannett may have been sleeping in the same room where Jack Kerouac, e. e. cummings, Norman Mailer or Jackson Pollock were inspired by the silence and isolation of the dunes.
Now, this summer in 2015, the 27-year-old Gannet finds herself a steward of that past. As a newly designated ranger, she is a protector of the Province Lands’ dunes and so much more across all 44,000 acres that today is Cape Cod National Seashore – from its Great Beach, to its trails traversing diverse habitats, along its kettle ponds and on its delicate rivers.
On this bright Thursday morning, Gannett was leading one of a summer-long series of guided ranger tours. Called “Wake up at the Seashore,” it was an opportunity for walkers of all ages to beat the crowds, enjoy the rising sun and feel the ocean breeze along Nauset Light Beach in Eastham.
That was motivation enough for Lisa Weiss of Centerville, who roused her visiting brother, Mike Rice and his wife, along with their mother, to drive 45 minutes to enjoy this inaugural walk, which is associated with the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative launched on July 6.
“I love living on Lake Wequaquet, but there is something so special about the National Seashore,” Weiss said. ”It’s so untouched and pure.”
It was exactly what Anna felt this morning as she gathered everyone for the hour-long beach walk. Enjoy the exercise, she told them, but meditate as well. Be humbled by the immutable ocean. Think about 20 years from now when others will be walking the same beach, sustained by the National Park Service.
Indeed, the National Park Service is a shining light for Gannett, a recent graduate of Appalachian State University’s Sustainable Development program. There, on a full scholarship, she took courses in a multi-disciplinary program that incorporated environmental ethics and politics, economics, justice and sustainability, energy and technology, ecology, geochemistry, human rights, global awareness, geology and geographic hydrology, vegetation, soils and landforms, and planning.
But, it was one particular course, America’s National Parks, which crystallized Anna’s focus and tied those days and nights in the Dune Shack to her future. She would apply to become a summer ranger.
Her timing was just right. The application she submitted her senior year arrived just as Superintendent George Price and Assistant Superintendent Kathy Tevya were seeking a liaison to work in Healthy Parks, Healthy People, summer-long walking program co-sponsored by the Park Service and Cape Cod Healthcare, which began in 2015. Now in its second year, the Healthy Parks, Health People initiative is looking forward to welcoming new walkers and continuing to foster good health.
I truly felt the job description was written for me – taking the two most important interests in my life, nature and people, and placing them together,” she said.
A dream come true – back at home where her love of nature first formed– nurtured by parents whose honeymoon was a camping trip to Cape Cod.
As her group walked along the beach, the conversation swayed between achieving good health – how even a leisurely walk will burn calories and strengthen muscles – to the sights and sounds surrounding them.
At the halfway point, Gannett turned toward the high sand cliffs and pointed to a telephone pole that had tumbled toward the beach.
It was a powerful opportunity to talk about the National Seashore’s fragility, always at the mercy of the season’s winds, waves and currents. How the topography changes subtly each day – and at certain times, dramatically.
“Here, the sand is disappearing, moving in one direction to Chatham and the other to Provincetown,” she told her fellow hikers. “In an ordinary year, the National Seashore’s beaches lose about three feet, but they have eroded 18 feet each of the last two years.”
Not only has erosion stolen undergrowth and trees, but now homes built generations ago – then hundreds of yards from the water’s edge – are doomed in the coming years.
“It’s a constant battle we are not able to win,” she said. “About 500,000 cubic yards of sand are lost right here, moving north every year. That equals 137 dump trucks full of sand every day.”
“One cubic meter of sea water equals one metric ton,” Gannett explained. “And a wave hits shore every six seconds, 600 times an hour, 14,400 a day.”
As the statistics mounted, the sound of the sea took on a deeper dimension for the walkers. “Now, close your eyes and listen,” Gannett suggested. “Breath in slowly. Think about how humbling it is, how it is so much bigger than us. How the sea provides perspective to our daily lives.”
Learning the three E’s
The Healthy Parks, Healthy People program is dedicated not only to physical wellbeing, but also to mental and spiritual health. A good walk addresses stress – along with your heart rate, blood pressure and weight.
Gannett learned that well at Sandwich High School, where she participated in track, cross country and ice hockey. In college, she personally organized a triathlon team, finding time to train as a runner, biker and swimmer.
Gannett’s passion for the environment may have begun with the science, but by the time she graduated college, she was ready to make a difference in her community.
“I learned the three E’s: ecology, economics and equity,” she explained. “The first two E’s are self-explanatory. The third, equity, relates to the society and culture around us. All three forces must work hand in hand for success.”
The curriculum at Appalachian State was an entirely holistic approach to sustainability, Gannett said. “In a sentence, I was taught that development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.
“You can’t just hope to sustain the environment without considering the economic and social impacts,” she said. “It’s about systems and cycles and how everything is connected.”
And what better place to practice what she learned in the classroom than within the National Seashore. Its boundaries wind intimately through five towns from Orleans to Provincetown. Its 4 million annual visitors fuel the local economy. Businesses like Cape Cod Healthcare can partner to enhance the community’s wellbeing. Its artists, writers and poets can be inspired to create new works.
“It’s the place I know best,” she said. “It’s essentially how I was raised. We would never just go to a resort and sit on the beach. My parents were naturalists. They loved camping. Being in the outdoors in a no-frills way.
“Their passion rubbed off on all three siblings. My sister is in the Peace Corps in West Africa as a horticulturalist. My brother studies outdoor leadership and engineering, and is devoted to backpacking and kayaking.
“I kid with my sister that she’s now living the extreme version of a Dune Shack in a one room hut in Africa.”
Anna’s mom, a geometry and algebra teacher at Barnstable High School, and her dad, a manager for Onset Computers in Bourne, “allowed us to value what nature really is. We didn’t just talk about it, we lived it.”
Combining science and people
In college, Anna discovered two books that solidified her dream to become a park ranger. One is called “Ranger Confidential, Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks.” Written by a true role model, Park Ranger Andrea Lankford, it tells a story of living in the parks, chaperoning baby turtles on their journey to the sea; winning arguments with bears and sleeping all too near many a rattlesnake.
Her favorite is “Desert Solitaire, A Season in the Wilderness,” by another ranger, Edward Abbey. He shares the three seasons he lived in the desert at Moab, Utah in a place that already has disappeared, but is worth remembering.
“We don’t want the National Seashore to be a place that disappears and can only be remembered,” Gannett said. “Abbey’s recounting convinced me this is not only what I want to do, but what I must do. What I love is combining the science with people. Separate the two and so much meaning is lost.”
She is particularly gratified that Healthy Parks, Healthy People represents at least a three- to five-year commitment with Cape Cod Healthcare.
“While I may not be here past this season, it is very encouraging to know that,” she said. “It’s not just about now; it’s about years to come.”
As the walkers arrived back at the brand new stairs leading up to the parking lot at Nauset Light (they had been destroyed again last winter), Gannett made sure everyone spent a few minutes stretching – touching their feet, rolling their shoulders, balancing on one leg in the soft sand – before they said goodbye.
“Maybe I could help bring this program to other communities,” she wondered aloud. “I envision it helping lots of places across the country. I truly hope it takes off and becomes popular nationwide.”
Please visit the National Park Service for an updated schedule of ranger-guided activities at the Cape Cod National Seashore and to learn how to register for these informative and invigorating and/or contemplative programs.