The truth about Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs

Leo's Cranberry Bog Tours

Over the summer, I visited Estonia, a Baltic state in northern Europe, and enjoyed a bog hike at Soomaa National Park. The landscape was a smorgasbord of wild edible fruit. My face puckered and swelled popping one of the white, organic cranberries into my mouth. (Read: Soomaa, “Land of the Bogs”) This weekend, I toured the marshy peninsula of Cape Cod and also sampled the acidic fruit – far riper with a deep rosy red tint but not much sweeter.

Leo's Cranberry Bog Tours

Cranberries are Massachusetts’ number one agricultural commodity crop with 70 percent of production coming from small family farms with plots less than 20 acres. One of those farms is Cape Cod Farm Supply & Cranberry Company run by the Cakounes family and patrolled by four dogs, two goats and one pig. With an advanced reservation and small contribution ($15/per person), visitors can enjoy a short tour via their blog bus and overview of the growing basics.

“Visitors expect to see us standing up to our waist in water, but that doesn’t happen. It’s completely different than what you see on tv,” educates Leo Cakounes, a certified-organic, independent, farmer since 2001.

Unlike the misconceptions perpetrated by the Ocean Spray commercials, cranberries do not grow in flooded pools of salt water, they actually grow on low-lying creeping shrubs or vines.

The so-called flooding is only done during a process called “wet harvesting” (versus “dry harvesting”) to aid in the removal of the fruit from the vine. A machine called an “egg-beater” agitates the water enough so that the hollow, chambered fruit falls from the vine and floats to the surface. It’s then corralled and collected by a wooden or plastic “boom.”

Leo's Cranberry Bog Tours

“If the fruit sits in water for more than two days, it begins to rot,” advises Cakounes.

A Good Berry Bounces

Cakounes demonstrates the sound and bounce difference between a rotted cranberry and a good one by dropping both onto a wooden board. The good one bounces higher, like a ping-pong ball, the bad one plummets like a rock.

He turns around to show me a vintage, wooden machine built in 1920 and still in use today called a “separator.” The Rube Goldberg-like contraption is made up of five bounce boards (also called steps) that help separate berries, the good ones ricochet toward the back and the bad ones get shot out the front, onto a trough.

Cakounes converted his from manual to electric by adding a small motor. An attached blower removes the leaves and twigs. Big industrial growers use a modern-version separator, usually aluminum or stainless steel, but it’s basically the same concept.

After the separator, the berries continue to be scrutinized using a gravity-driven table that looks more like a card or cribbage game. It too is vintage and made for the express purpose of human eyes and hands removing the bad berries while the quality ones roll down into a bin.

“Admittedly, it’s tedious job but with a few cups of coffee, volunteers usually have a lot of fun doing it.”

Cooking with Cranberries
No need to wait until Thanksgiving to enjoy a feast of cranberries. The Cakounes household makes a very simple cranberry sauce that they bottle and sell all year long, the more popular variety includes a shot of brandy. Cranberries also freeze beautifully and can be combined with a favorite muffin, cake or bread mix.

When asking Cakounes if he ever gets sick of cranberries, he had this to say: “Oh, hell no! I take a handful, put them in a glass jar, filled it up with vodka, shake it around a little, put it through a sieve, throw away the cranberries and then (voila) drink.”

Cranberry Bog Tours

Leo's Bog Bus

Leo's Cranberry Bog

Leo's Cranberry Bog Tours

Mastering the mollusk at the Wellfleet OysterFest

OysterFest 2015

OysterFest 2015

OysterFest 2015

So, what kind of a person enjoys raw oysters? The question begs an answer. Oysters are slippery, slimy and sandy. They are terribly expensive. And, eat a contaminated one and you’ll spend the day fevered, chilled and running to the bathroom every hour on the hour.

Then again, ask the thousands of shellfish connoisseurs who attended the 15th annual Wellfleet Oysterfest today and you’ll get a different response.

“People who eat oysters are open-minded, they like to try new and different things,” said Boston-based, emergency room physician David Mudd, a longtime festival goer who carefully juggled two plates of oysters bathed in lemon juice and hot sauce.

“Oyster lovers are the same kind of people who love craft beer and farm-to-table menus. Best of all, we lead very happy lives,” he smiled assuredly.

My cheerful interviewee insisted on sharing his delicacies and, then, washing down the lot with a pint of Sam Adams Oyster Stout. Yes, you read correctly. I too was a skeptic but, contrary to what you might think, there is no fishy taste or smell to oyster beer, just a creamy, delicious goodness that helps counteract the bitterness. The compromise is that the beer is only available on festival days.

A grimaced face stood nearby looking ‘shell-shocked’ by the affection and affirmation that oyster fanatics displayed for this living creature. She obviously didn’t share in her husband’s passion and joy for slurping in the countless health benefits of oysters. For the record, the humble filter feed is high in protein, rich in vitamins and loaded with zinc, selenium, and iron (the aphrodisiac element), all vital information that unfortunately holds little sway for those like Mudd’s wife.

There are several oyster farms throughout the area but Cape Codders agree that Wellfleet has the best around. The key is freshness. Basically, the harvesting beds are less than a mile away from restaurants, stores and festivals, like this one, that sell them directly to customers.

After wishing my doctor-friend adieu, I am reminded of French poet Leon-Paul Fargue who said that eating oysters is “like kissing the sea on the lips.”

OysterFest 2015

A fall weekend getaway to the Outer Cape


Nauset Beach


Pumpkin patches, hay bales, chrysanthemums, autumn leaves and football games; fall is here in all her crowning glory! And, to make the season even more special we hurried to Cape Cod early this morning for two days of coastal living. Wisely, I picked the brains of the travel savvy folks at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce beforehand (new favorite website: and found out where to stay and play.

We discovered that this year marks the 15th annual Wellsfleet OysterFest, a highlight for an artsy town located on the far end of the Outer Cape. Not only is the event popular for slurping down fresh oysters, but there’s also plenty to learn about shell fishing and shell shucking traditions. (Photos and details in tomorrow’s blog.)

Mutti, sis and I have found refuge tonight in a quintessentially picturesque New England town called Orleans. A guest resort known as the Ship’s Knees Inn has an enchanting history that dates back to 1820 when the Main House (of three structures) used to be a barn and bunk house.

Upon arrival, we popped the cork on a Pinot and toasted our find with handfuls of homemade cookies around the gas fire pit. The charming adobe has all the “in-and-out-of-room” amenities you could hope for: wi-fi, distant ocean views, buffet breakfasts, manicured lawns, courtyard gardens, and the best feature – walking distance to the beach!

Nauset Beach was, seemingly, quiet at sunset given that the parking lot is big enough to accommodate 900 cars. As we collected shiny pebbles in bare feet, only a couple dozen beachgoers and a lone seagull crossed our paths. We hoped to spot a playful seal frolicking in the waves but then we read warnings about the results of cruising great whites.

Seeing a shark breach an unspoiled beach to macerate an unsuspecting seal would have really put a guillotine to the genteel vibe of ‘Day One’ on the Cape Cod peninsula.

“Getting Happy” hiking Bearpen Mountain

Bearpen Mountain

Partridge Family Bus Replica

“Travelin’ along, there’s a song that we’re singin’
Come on, get happy!”

If you ask, I’ll never admit to whistling these cheesy lyrics while hiking Bearpen Mountain yesterday but 70s nostalgia was clearly on my mind. Minutes earlier, en route to the trailhead, I drove past the parked bus on Route 23 in Ashland that you see in the photo above. Turns out I was duped by the Mondrian paint scheme and California plates because this bus is actually a replica. The original that was used in the television show was a 1957 Chevy. This one is a 1968. So much for hoping my schoolgirl crush might have performed inside this relic.

Instead of David Cassidy, I hiked to a collection of alternative music favorites blasting from my cell. The tunes helped keep me company traversing the switchbacks of an extremely tiresome, logging road built circa late 1950s.

Oh sure, it’s virtually impossible to get lost on a logging road and pricker bushes stay clear of limbs, but, honestly, how boring! Gravel spread four feet wide is best serviced with rubber tires, snowmobile tread and horse hooves, not a pair of waterproof Merrells. And, like the bus, the history of Bearpen was a letdown too.

Upon seeing two rusted out truck parts converted into power rope tows, I anticipated learning that this might have been a thriving ski resort in the past. The faint outline of multiple ski trails is still visible facing west from the summit. But, the NY SKI BLOG site clearly describes otherwise. The mountain has the makings of a flawless place to ski but instead patches of stunted trees and silent campfires remain.

But, hey, who’s complaining? The falling maple leaves are the vivid color of Danny Bonaduce’s hair and the last gasp of a warm day fills the air.

We had a dream we’d go travelin’ together
And spread a little lovin’ if we’ll keep movin’ on
Somethin’ always happens whenever we’re together
We get a happy feelin’ when we’re singin’ a song

Bearpen Mountain Rope Tow

Bearpen rope tow

Bearpen in October

Bearpen Mountain Trail

Bushwhacking a crash zone on Doubletop mountain

There are several plane crash sites that litter the Catskill Mountains.  We bushwhacked past this relatively intact downed Beechcraft on the south-side of Doubletop mountain.   The solo pilot crashed as a result of severe downdrafts during a late summer thunderstorm on the afternoon of September 21st, 1983.

There are several plane crash sites that litter the Catskill Mountains. We bushwhacked past this relatively intact downed Beechcraft on the south-side of Doubletop mountain. The solo pilot crashed as a result of severe downdrafts during a late summer thunderstorm on the afternoon of September 21st, 1983.

Thirteen of the Catskill High peaks are off-trail but that’s where you’ll find the most interesting stories. For the first time in a long time I set my GPS to autopilot and let someone else do the dirty work of finding our way up two mountains.  The result: coming across the sad remains of a downed private plane flying from Atlantic City to Oneonta in 1983.

Like a cemetery, the zone is now a sacred site that triggers a sense of reverence and regret for the untimely demise of the lives lost, in this case one 51-year-old pilot.

Since the improvement of aviation navigation technology there have been far fewer crashes in the Catskills or any mountain range, for that matter.   Inclement weather (fog, snow, low-lying clouds) coupled with spatial disorientation tended to lead to terrible tragedies. Disintegrating wreckage scattered in the woods includes engines, wings, rudders, and even an ejection seat dating back to a WWII aircraft.

The above photo was taken not far from the summit of Doubletop Mountain in the Central Range of the Catskills. If only the pilot had pulled up just a few seconds earlier he might have skimmed the treetops and survived.  But, of course, not all is macabre hiking the fabled serenity of the Catskill mountains.

My nine mile loop up Big Indian and Doubletop with experienced members and aspirants of the Catskill 3500 Club was fun too! And, like I mentioned, more so because compass-head David Bunde led the pack with equally hardy David Connolly pulling up the rear with his canine companion Bailey.

We hopped streams, past lean-tos, paraded up herd paths and filled canisters. To earn the oft-sought after 3500-badge signatures are required in notepads protected inside grey canisters nailed to trees on 13 summits.

Hiking in the raw and untamed wilderness is best in the autumn when a tapestry of colors explode in the forest. We experienced multiple shades of reds, yellows and oranges lapsing onto a bed of mossy sediment that proved soft on the foot but a little difficult to navigate. Surprisingly, slipping and sliding was seldom among our crew of 12, those who did lose their footing (yours truly) did so graceful, almost purposefully.

Two lost souls hooked up with us at the midway point, one of them a quiet, ragtag character that reminded me of Stephen Katz played by Nick Nolte in the newly released motion picture A Walk in the Woods. Others agreed. You know you’re in good spiritual company when everyone reads the comedic works of bestselling author Bill Bryson.

Following a conga line of hikers requires safe distance between one another lest you get smacked in the face by a bent tree branch. I have the faint scars of a narrow lashing on my left cheek following a podiatrist a wee-bit too closely. (No worries Po!)

When the going got tough I found inspiration chatting with a heroic gal who had just hiked a challenging 23.9 mile Escarpment Trail not 12 hours earlier. Elizabeth works as a program and promotional editor for the History Channel – a surprisingly sedentary career choice for someone so active. Nearing the end of the hike, I picked the brain of a recently retired union electrician who advised me how to save money on my solar utility bill.

Between the attention reserved for traversing a bushwhack and the interesting conversations shared between sweaty faces time passed quicker than hiking alone. Many thanks to the motley crew of playmates that kept us aspirants safe and on-course. Hell, if I did this hike solo my fuselage would have looked much like that of the doomed aircraft.

Catskill 3500 Club members and aspirants

Views coming down Doubletop

Bailey the bushwhacking dog

Berries are a favorite treat for bears as evidenced by the bear scat.  This pile was found descending the north side of Doubletop mountain.

Berries are a favorite treat for bears as evidenced by the bear scat. This pile was found descending the north side of Doubletop mountain.

Bailey the bushwhacking canine shares big gulps from his master's water bottle.

Bailey the bushwhacking canine shares big gulps from her master’s water bottle.

A Friday evening on the longest footbridge in the world!

Starry Starry Night 2015

What? You say you haven’t signed up for Starry, Starry Night yet? What in heavens are you waiting for? There will be fireworks, cocktails and catering, entertainment and the debut of an original production by PilotGirl Productions.

Join the 500-plus suits and gowns that will sashay atop the longest pedestrian footbridge in the world on Friday evening (that’s less than 24 hours) for the Walkway Over The Hudson’s annual gala celebration.

The Walkway will recognize the roles of two strong-willed luminaries, both who have been instrumental in the building and completion of the bridge, and both retiring from their roles at the organization. My six-minute video features remarks from friends and colleagues like Dyson Foundation President, Rob Dyson and former NYS Parks Commissioner, Carol Ash.

Past guests have included television personality, Martha Stewart, NYS State politician, former Governor George Pataki, and local musical fixtures like the late, great Pete Seeger.

Tickets are still on sale at their website ( for $150 ($75 tax-deductible) and goes to benefit a bridge recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.

See you there!