The Vineyard Conservation Society had its first educational walking adventure on Nov. 10 at the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah. The VCS winter walk programs were first introduced over 20 years ago and have grown in popularity which was evident by the more then 100 participants on the Sunday outing.
A strong but warm westerly wind blew as people met at the town parking lot near the cliffs, where they were greeted by VCS executive director Brendan O’Neill and one of the Vineyard’s foremost amateur geologists Bob Woodruff. Mr. Woodruff studied and gathered his knowledge under the mentorship of the renowned geologist Clifford Kaye, who worked for US Geodetic Survey, based in Boston. Mr. Kaye spent a couple of decades studying the Vineyard’s many interesting land formations, especially the Gay Head Cliffs.
Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Woodruff had people gather around while they gave a brief description of the geological makeup of the cliffs with charts, and explained the layers of moraines that were created by the movement and melting of glaciers that started receding 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. After listening to descriptions of prehistoric times, fossils and woolly mammoths, the group started the trek down the trail leading to Moshup Beach. The long line of people, with some dogs in tow, looked like a group of nomad cavemen dressed in modern day clothes out searching for better winter grounds. Occasionally the group leaders would stop and point out plants of interest, such as the beautiful winterberry (Ilex verticillata). One of the Islands’s most noted bird watchers, Susan Whiting, would point out birds of interest along the hike.
Once on the beach the hikers walked west along the rocky shoreline, stopping at various points where Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Woodruff shouted to be heard above the roar of waves and wind, describing the names of the multicolored deposits of glacial till composed of rocks, sand, clay and ore.
At the end of this wonderful and informative adventure, VCS provided cookies and cider while Mr. Woodruff explained in more depth, using charts, the geological history of our fragile Gay Head Cliffs. Perhaps correlating to the cliffs, the Island was well represented with people from all walks of life — there were lawyers, nurses, carpenters, landscapers and conservationists, to name a few, along with dogs of mixed breeds.
The Gay Head Cliffs are not only an Island gem, but a designated national landmark that attracts people from all over the world.
The cliffs were leased many years ago for the mining of clay to make bricks, a practice that destroyed a large chunk of its beauty. People also used to make large clay baths with shovels in warm summer months and they would cover their bodies in the pudding-like clay.
The town of Gay Head (now Aquinnah), but more important the Vineyard’s federally recognized tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), saw the destruction being done to the cliffs, so the tribe hired rangers in 1993 to protect and educate people about the fragile lands of which they were and still are the stewards. Jeff Day and Brett Stearns were the first rangers hired, who posted the cliffs with informative signs and patrolled the beaches to keep people off the cliffs along with the support of the Gay Head police department. Only Aquinnah tribal members have the right to harvest clay from the cliffs. The cliffs are protected from trespassers under the laws of the town of Aquinnah, as well as the state and federal government.
The Vineyard Conservation Society is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to preserving the environment of Martha’s Vineyard through advocacy, education and the protection of the Island’s land and water.
For more information about VCS scheduled winter walks, visit the website vineyardconservation.org or call 508-693-9588.