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On the water

Near salty havens, fresh alternatives

Some find sanctuary in Cape Cod’s lakes, ponds that offer cool, calm, quiet, shark-free enjoyment

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2011

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BREWSTER - The water stretches clear, flat, and unruffled from sandy cove to sandy cove. No waves. No gulls. It reflects only blue sky and the fringe of forest that surrounds a small freshwater pond, cool and deep.

A few kayakers make a slow, lazy circuit, with only a duck or two to interrupt their journey. Swimmers drape arms over flotation noodles, turn their faces to the sky, and recline, otterlike, among the ripples at the pond’s center.

They could be anywhere. But they are on Cape Cod.

Yes, Cape Cod, where gold-streaked sunsets burnish endless seascapes and where crashing waves, lobster catches, and lighthouses dominate the postcards and draw the tourists.

“Our friends from Boston always ask us, ‘Why would we come all the way to Cape Cod and go to a pond, not the ocean?’’ said Jeff Hagan, 48, who had traveled from Cleveland with his family to bask in the fresh water of Flax Pond, one of eight freshwater ponds in Nickerson State Park. “We tend to go watch sunsets by the ocean, but for actual swimming, you don’t have to fight the tide here.’’

Ocean loyalists say they love the swirl of the waves, the vastness of the horizon, the bite of the scorching sand, and brisk water. Freshwater partisans champion the seclusion, the lack of salt stings, and the tranquility of the Cape’s more than 300 kettle’’ ponds, which were formed between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago by retreating glaciers.

In addition to the Nickerson ponds, the numerous freshwater ponds that dot Wellfleet and Truro are popular destinations.

Hagan, his wife, Marcia Egbert, 50, and their 12-year-old son, Will Hagan, are what they call “freshwater people.’’ They live on Lake Erie, spend summer weekends in a cottage by a smaller lake, and have come back to Flax Pond every summer for more than 10 years. Not only do they prefer swimming in peaceful water, but they say that shade, a boon to their fair skin, is easier to find around the pond. And it’s beautiful.

“It’s pristine, and not crowded,’’ Egbert said, drying off with a towel. “We feel like it’s a hidden spot.’’

But not too hidden: Although the nearby ocean beaches of Chatham and Orleans draw more crowds, the small patches of beach that ring Flax Pond and a larger counterpart in Nickerson, Cliff Pond, are regularly dotted with beach umbrellas and colorful boogie boards on nice days.

Many are people who have been summering in Brewster for years; a conversation in French could be heard drifting across the water on a recent afternoon.

Amanda Olsen, 18, and her family have been camping at Nickerson since she was a baby. Since her grandfather built a house outside the park limits, she has spent even more time here, sometimes bringing friends from Wharton, N.J., her hometown.

On Tuesday, she and her best friends, Allie Gonzalez, 19, and Andrea Maynard, 20, were performing an annual ritual: kicking all the way across the water on boogie boards, “just to see if we could,’’ Olsen said.

As for why they picked Flax Pond, “I feel clean afterward,’’ Olsen said as she clambered out of the water, three tie-dye and floral boogie boards at her feet. “And you feel safe. There are no sharks.’’

“And it tastes better than saltwater,’’ added Gonzalez.

Freshwater ponds have an added advantage for families. The beaches are usually small enough and the water calm enough that parents can still watch their children wade, swim, or boat even on the far side.

Kathleen Sztumerski, 62, of Newburgh, N.Y., watched her niece’s children - 8-year-old Elizabeth Lopez and 9-year-old Michael Lopez - swim and kayak around Flax Pond. They have been coming here for the past three summers, Sztumerski said, ever since the children declared they preferred the consistently cool temperatures and calm water to the ocean.

Sztumerski says she is an ocean person but defers to the children.

“When we go underwater, there’s no seaweed,’’ Elizabeth said, wiggling tanned, prune-wrinkled fingers for her great-aunt to see.

Some visitors split the difference.

Lafayette, Calif., resident Alice Pressman, 47, and the group of families she rents a Brewster cottage with often visit a Brewster beach in the morning and settle into a freshwater pond in the afternoon. Skimboarding - jumping atop a board skateboard-style as it glides over shallow water - is easier in fresh water because there are no rocks, said Greta Propp, 11, a daughter of Pressman’s friends.

Aside from the convenience to Brewster, the free parking, and the appeal of the fresh water, there was a simple reason for the pond’s visitors to be there: It was the most serene spot they could find.

“On a sunny day, it’s glorious to just float on your back,’’ said Karen Stevens of Cambridge, who was visiting with her husband, George White, 39, and her 5-year-old daughter, Zoe. “It’s exactly what a pond should be.’’

White nodded.

“It’s the perfect way to not do anything,’’ he said.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com. To read previous stories in this series, go to www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/specials/on_the_water/.

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