Cod's Country

In the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber on Beacon Hill, a four-foot wooden sculpture of a cod hangs from the ceiling. A fake fish in the rafters may seem whimsical, but the Commonwealth does not take it lightly. Nor should they.

Since the first European arrivals reached New England, the Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) has been much more than a fish. Huge populations of this tasty creature were one of early America's most important natural resources. Cod fed the people, built the economy, and drove a shipbuilding and seafaring industry that ultimately enabled a revolution and the creation of a world-dominating navy. Without this fish, there might not have been a Massachusetts, or an America. One nation, under cod.

Foreshadowing the history of nearly every other fishery in the world, G. morhua tolerated relentlessly increasing exploitation for centuries before finally collapsing. If you order cod in a Boston restaurant today, you'll most likely get a serving of G. macrocephalus, a different species caught in a different ocean and shipped across the continent.

While its original target courts extinction, the Massachusetts commercial fishing fleet still thrives. After cod came whales, and after whales came a series of bottom and mid-water species. Today, they mostly catch scallops.

Passing over the mill town of Fall River, I started my descent. "New Bedford tower, Warrior 4302 Victor, five to the northwest, descending through four thousand, inbound to land."

"02 Victor, come straight in for one four, the wind's shifted around to the south."

I had expected to lose the remaining altitude while maneuvering through a few turns, but now I needed to get right down to the runway. Kicking the rudder and cross-controlling with the yoke, I pushed into a side slip to speed my descent. A few minutes later the wheels chirped onto the pavement and I took the first exit to the taxiway.

With the rented airplane due back in Northampton I didn't have time to explore the town, but my sister is a paramedic there, so I've heard quite a bit about it. New Bedford is the most lucrative fishing port in the country, with the culture that seems to come naturally to boom-and-bust extractive industries. It's a place where young, mostly male workers who've been doing dangerous, isolated jobs for months suddenly find themselves ashore with huge wads of cash in their pockets. Most of them return to their boats a few weeks later, often penniless. Some land in jails, hospitals or morgues instead.

The airport is pleasant enough, though. There's a small playground right outside the terminal, and a restaurant and a Cape Air ticket counter inside. The friendly folks at Cape Air directed me to the Challenge stamp at the end of the counter, and a few minutes later I was on my way back into the sky.

Cranberry bogs, Cape Cod Bay, and a solar array.

About a week later, I visited the opposite end of the state's socioeconomic spectrum. Quick: think of a wealthy, powerful Massachusetts family. Where do they live?

"Hyannis tower, Warrior 8272 Papa, five to the west, three thousand, inbound to land."

"72 Papa make left traffic for three three."

The southern approach to the extravagantly named Barnstable Municipal Boardman/Polando Field Airport comes right over the harbor, which is full of high-end yachts in the summer. After an uneventful landing I taxied to Rectrix, one of a chain of FBOs that caters primarily to the jet crowd. I parked near a Cessna Citation: cod plus compound interest. A friendly man at the desk wasn't familiar with the Bay State Challenge, but was happy to stamp my passport with the Rectrix name and give me his card.

From Hyannis I flew east to Chatham, at the elbow of Cape Cod in an area where the first settlers found particularly good fishing. Expansive beaches, clusters of sandspits and islets just offshore, and a huge wildlife refuge make it an attractive - and expensive - summer destination. Like the rest of the Cape, Chatham is very flat, and a ten-knot sea breeze blowing perpendicular to the runway gave me a good opportunity to practice my crosswind technique.

The restaurant at KCQX is supposed to be quite good, but it was closed; like many businesses on the Cape, they keep an abbreviated schedule in the winter. After getting my stamp in the office, I sat in the airplane with the door propped open, enjoying the unseasonably mild weather while eating a lunch I'd packed.

During a vacation trip to the Cape a few years ago, my family and I rode along the paved bike path that passes this airport. It features one of the most stereotypically Massachusetts things I've ever seen: a rotary for bicycle traffic.

My next stop presented another set of distinctly local features. Flying west along the Cape's bay side beaches, I reached an area on the aeronautical chart labeled "numerous cranberry bogs," and there they were. The chart also shows a nearby windmill farm, and I could see a solar power installation as well. There is only one place in the country that can compress that much traditional agriculture and liberal environmental sentiment into such a small space.

"Plymouth traffic, Warrior 8272 Papa, five to the south, two thousand, inbound to land, will overfly the field and set up for three three, Plymouth."

I had reached peak Massachusetts.

The religious extremists who came here after getting thrown out of England originally landed on the Cape, but soon moved their base to the mainland. An absurdly famous glacial erratic boulder on the beach commemorates this event. With the thriving cod fishery, fertile farmland, and an abundance of sheltered anchorages, Plymouth grew into a highly profitable colony.

My own landing at Plymouth left no marks, and I quickly located the charming cedar-sided main office of the airport. The manager was a big fan of the Challenge program, and we chatted about it for awhile after he stamped my passport.

Taking off from Plymouth, I made my departure turn and emulated the Pilgrims' descendants by heading west.