FALMOUTH -- Washburn Island, one of the last undeveloped coastal properties on Cape Cod, is largely a secret. Even to many locals, the 335-acre island, accessible only by boat, is a mystery. Lying in East Falmouth's shallow, narrow Waquoit Bay, on the Cape's south side, with sandy barrier beaches, dunes, oak and pine forests, and coastal salt ponds, Washburn is truly a pristine environment. It's also the only place on Cape Cod where you can legally camp on the ocean.
Camping facilities on the uninhabited, L-shaped island are primitive. There are no showers, flush toilets, or running water (though there are two solar-powered outhouses). You must bring everything with you, and campers are asked to bring portable stoves that use man-made fuels or a charcoal grill. Open fires are not allowed; the risk of fires going out of control on the windblown island is too great. And you have to remember to take everything with you when you leave.
Washburn is a nesting area for endangered piping plovers and ospreys and a peaceful refuge for other animals, including owls and the occasional deer. At dusk, you might spot a coyote swimming across the bay, seeking shelter on the island for the night. Part of the Waquoit
In the early 1900s, a few summer homes were built on the island when it was owned by the family of Albert H. Washburn, once a US diplomat in Austria. An access road connected the island to the mainland. In the late 1930s, the Washburn family left, and in the 1940s the island became the center of planning for the invasions that helped win World War II. The Army located its secret training for amphibian landings there and Rangers trained on the island, developing tactics employed on beachheads from Oran, Algeria, in North Africa, to Leyte in the Philippines.
Next it was turned into a recreation area for injured soldiers sent to convalesce at the nearby Army hospital. In addition to the beaches, there were basketball and volleyball courts and barbecue pits. On Sundays, interdenominational religious services were held at a small altar of green pine branches. Outdoor movies and dramatic programs by volunteer performers also were offered.
Eventually all the soldiers left Washburn, and not long afterward a hurricane ravaged the island and destroyed the causeway. No new access road was ever constructed and no Washburns ever returned. During the next decades, people living in the Waquoit Bay area used the island for camping and recreation. In the late 1970s, the Washburn family put the island up for sale. Two developers signed a purchase and sale agreement in 1980, and plans were drawn for a luxury development with 50 four-acre lots, a helicopter pad, and yacht club. Two years later, after battles with the planning board and challenges from the grassroots organization Citizens for the Protection of Waquoit Bay, the state acquired the island by eminent domain.
Since then, the reserve, which operates with state and federal financing, has worked to preserve the island's natural character. The visitors center is in the mansion of an 1880s estate, atop a 30-foot bluff at the head of Waquoit Bay. Open year-round, it features exhibits about watersheds, coastal ecology, and research conducted at the reserve. Washburn is still accessible only by boat; White's Landing, a town launching area, is not far from the reserve headquarters just west of Edward's Boatyard on the Childs River. A large parking lot accommodates nonresident parking. After launching, head down the Childs, which flows into Waquoit Bay, for a little less than a mile and turn left up the Seapit River, which takes you to the island. As you approach Washburn, you'll pass tidal marshes and an osprey nest; you may see swans presiding over their territory and cormorants in the sky.
The warm (in summer) waters of the bay are 5 or 6 feet deep at high tide. Rich in estuary life, the bay teems with fish -- striped bass, bluefish, trout, herring -- as well as quahogs, littlenecks, mussels, oysters, and blue crabs. In summer, Washburn buzzes with activity. In addition to being a prime spot for camping, it's a popular day-trip destination for families who come by boat, drop anchor, and wade to shore to spend the afternoon picnicking, swimming, and building sandcastles.
In fall, Washburn is calmer. The shoreline is far less crowded and so are the island's many wooded walking trails, some of which follow old military roads past remains of structures the Army used more than half a century ago. The Washburn population of the endangered flora northern blazing star is the largest in Massachusetts. Along the trails, you'll also encounter several other protected flora, including the federally endangered sandplain gerardia and bushy rockrose. Beaches on the island also serve as nesting areas for the threatened roseate tern and least tern.
The Cape is frequently blessed with warm Indian summer days, and during fall, many visitors to the island find the temperature just right for taking a dip in the ocean. On one of autumn's typical clear days, it's not uncommon to see seals bobbing in the distance, and Martha's Vineyard can look deceptively close. If it's too chilly to venture into the water, enjoy the ocean in a kayak. All approaches to Washburn are shallow, so it's an ideal kayaking destination. If you don't have your own, kayaks (as well as canoes and fishing rods) can be rented near the launch pad.
Until about 15 years ago, horse patrols policed Washburn in summer (horses were brought over daily by barge). Now, in fall, members of the reserve staff, naturalists called ''island managers," are on the island to keep the peace. Frequent volunteers, such as the Piping Plover Patrol, are also around, observing the island's threatened species and helping visitors identify signs of mating and nesting.
Even if you spend an entire day walking around the island, you won't see it all. Be sure to check out the sandbar near the middle of the island. Just beyond it is an inlet with the small coastal Tim's Pond. Look down at the bottom at horseshoe crabs scurrying about. Off the island's jetty, cast a line and try to catch a little something local.
Autumn evenings on the island can get very cool, so make sure you bring layers of clothing and extra blankets for sleeping. You'll be captivated by the fiery red sunset off Washburn's shores, and when the sun dips beneath the horizon on a clear night, there follow endless opportunities to wish upon a shooting star.
J.C. O'Connell is a freelance writer living in Falmouth.