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Exploring Cape Cod

3 credits ENGL 181B (GH or US) and 1.5 credits RPTM

“Over the past four hundred years the Cape’s landscape and its people have probably inspired more memorable writing than any other nonurban area of comparable size,” writes Robert Finch of Cape Cod.  In “Exploring Cape Cod” (ENGL 181B) we will come to understand why the Cape has stirred the imagination and talents of so many—from indigenous people who lived there for millennia before the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620; to Henry Thoreau, who hiked the Cape in five visits there and wrote down his impressions of it; to Henry Beston, who built his “Outermost House” near the Nauset Inlet in the 1920s; to John Hay, who came to the Cape after World War II to learn to be a writer and stayed to become one of its most eloquent writers.  Add to this mix a number of contemporary writers—Elizabeth Bradfield, Annie Dillard, Robert Finch, David Gessner, Mary Oliver, and Heidi Jon Schmidt—and you have the basics of the classroom portion of the course.

Outside the classroom, the class will travel in Cape Cod during Thanksgiving Break, where we will live, work, and study for a week at the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary, an 1100-acre nature preserve on Cape Cod Bay.  We will venture out to hike in the footsteps of Thoreau, Beston, and John Hay, and to take a boat into Cape Cod Bay to learn about seabirds and their migration.  We will spend time talking with some of the writers whose work we read in class.  We will explore the marshes and the beaches, and help sea turtle researchers working to save stranded turtles.  We will travel to and explore historic villages, windmills, and lighthouses, spend a day at Land’s End, in Provincetown.


Class meets each Tuesday of the semester from 6:00 to 8:00.

Through Wednesday of Thanksgiving break: Travel to Cape Cod for a week of exploration and adventure with staff from the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary.

While the syllabus changes every year, the below schedule offers a sense of the readings and themes that guide our study of the Cape Cod region.

Week 1: Introduction to the course


Week 2: “Foreword,” “ Introduction,” “How Cape Cod and the Islands Were Formed,” and “The Forces of Erosion,” pp. ix–xiv, 9–32 in A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands; and “Loomings,” pp. 1–9 in A Place Apart: A Cape Cod Reader; FILM: Cape Cod: The Sands of Time (13 mins.)


Week 3: “Loomings,” and “How They Lived,” pp. 10–31 and 33–53 in A Place Apart; Selection from Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower (Reserve); FILM: We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower (c. 40 mins.)


Week 4: Chpt. 1, “The Shipwreck”; Chpt. 3, “The Plains of Nauset”; Chpt. 5, “The Wellfleet Oysterman”; Chpt. 6, “The Beach Again”; Chpt. 9, “The Sea and the Desert” in Thoreau’s Cape Cod; FILM: We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower(concluded from 9/15; c. 40 mins.)

Week 5: Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, Chpts. 1–5

Week 6: The Outermost House, Chpts. 6–10; FILM: Portrait of a Coast (29 mins.)


Week 7: “Leviathan,” pp. 105–110 and 128–140; “Men’s Lives,” pp. 141–146, 151, 167–168; “Natural Mystery,” pp. 185–188, 214–234, 246–249; “Land’s End,” pp. 251–254, 281–299 in A Place Apart


Week 8: Robert Finch, The Primal Place, Chpts. 1–6

Week 9: The Primal Place, Chpts. 7–9

Week 10: The Primal Place, Chpts. 10–13; David Gessner, A Wild, Rank Place, pp. 1–27

Week 11: A Wild, Rank Place, pp. 28–135; FILM: The Sea Behind the Dunes (c. 58 mins).

Week 12: Cynthia Huntington, The Salt House, pp. 1–87; FILM: Voyage of the Lonely Turtle (c. 55 minutes)


Week 14: NO CLASSES — Thanksgiving Holiday (until 11/30)

Week 15: The Salt House, pp. 88–183

Week 16:“The New Cape Codders,” pp 363–40 in A Place Apart

Thursday, November 15

Late Afternoon – Arrival
Arrival and check into dormitory

6:00 pm – Dinner
Pizza dinner (provided) and a welcome lecture

Friday, November 16

9:30am – 3:30pm – Field Trip: Following Thoreau
Visit several sites described by Thoreau in Cape Cod, including Nauset Light, Goody Hallett’s Meadow, Newcomb Hollow, and the Wellfleet Oysterman’s House. Van trip with short hikes. (Note: The lighthouse is closed that time of year, but we may be able to gain special access for a fee.) Penn State will provide transportation.

Discussions will be varied but will include the environmental changes over 150 years; the role of Cape Cod National Seashore; the ecology of the different natural communities; and the maritime and cultural history of the area.

Saturday, November 17

10am – Noon – Boat Trip: Seal and Seabird Cruise
Wildlife changes with the seasons on Cape Cod. Two of the most visible that brave the cold waters of the Cape are seals and seabirds. We will cruise out of Wellfleet Harbor to Billingsgate Shoal and Cape Cod Bay to view gray and harbor seals and migrating sea ducks (including eider, scooters, and long-tailed ducks) as well as loons, northern gannet, and black-legged kittiwake. Information on identification and natural history will be provided.

This will be part of a public trip (up to 35 people aboard) which will help reduce cost ($30 per person vs. $650 to $700 to charter the whole boat).

2:30 – 5:00pm – Field Walk: Searching for Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles
Each year in late fall, sea turtles become cold-stunned from dropping water temperatures and they strand on bayside beaches. Staff and volunteers from Wellfleet Bay canvass beaches after high tides in search of stranded turtles. Penn State students will be assigned a beach with naturalist and stranding coordinator Dennis Murley. Students will assist with processing found turtles, which includes weighing, measuring, and preparing for transport to New England Aquarium.

Sunday, November 18

9:30 – 10:30am – Presentation: Birds and Beston
Birds feature prominently in Beston’s The Outermost House.Our illustrated presentation will focus on the changes in species and status since Beston’s time.

11am – 1pm – Field Walk: Coast Guard Beach
Barrier beach ecology and geology and birdlife will be explored at this site of The Outermost House. Discussions will also include the impacts of sea level rise and human impacts on the shoreline.

Late Afternoon – Service Project
Assigned to area beaches to canvas for sea turtles

Monday, November 19

9am – 1pm – Nickerson State Park Hike
Extended hike through pine/oak woods and kettle ponds

Early Evening – Service Project
Assigned to area beaches to canvas for sea turtles OR Presentation by a local author (such as Bob Finch or David Gessner)

Tuesday, November 20

9am – 1pm – Exploration of the Provincelands
Dunes, High Head, Race Point Beach. Lunch in Provincetown

3:30 – 5:30pm – Sunset hike
Sunset hike and owling at Wellfleet Bay

Wednesday, November 21

Morning – Departure
Possible departure on Thursday, November 22 (based upon staff availability)

Fees and Registration

The class fee is TBD. The student portion of the class fee covers transportation to and from all field trips and room and board at Wellfleet dormitories. You should register early, since the course fills up quickly.

For full-time Penn State students (with 12 or more credits)
Upon your acceptance, this course will be added to your semester schedule. No additional tuition payment is required. Your class fee will be charged to your student account.

For non-full-time students (part-time students or non–Penn State students)
You will receive a bill for payment, which includes tuition — based on your residence and semester status — and the information technology, activity, and class fees.

How to Register

Students should register on Lionpath. Enrollment is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.

Students can take the course as ENGL 496, which may fulfill some degree requirements. Those interested in taking the course as ENGL 496 should contact Talley Kayser at


All registrations must be received by September 3. After this date, please call Wanda Bickle at 814-863-6780 for information about late-registration opportunities. If space permits, you may be able to register for an additional $30.

Penn State Cancellations or Changes

You will be notified of any cancellations or changes. If some unforeseen event forces Penn State to cancel or postpone the program, you will receive a full refund of your registration fee; however, the University cannot be held responsible for any related costs, including cancellation fees assessed by airlines or travel agencies.


A maximum class size is established for most courses. The University may cancel or postpone any course because of insufficient enrollment or unforeseen circumstances. Visit for the refund policy for credit courses.


The University reserves the right to revise the schedule of tuition and charges without further notice. For more information on tuition, visit


Penn State encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs. If you anticipate needing special accommodations or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the planner at 814-863-5144 before your participation.