The rain continues, with Tremendious gusts of wind, which is Tremendious. The winds violent Trees falling in every direction, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder… – William Clark, William Clark Journal, December 16, 1805.
I don’t remember not remembering the Pacific Coast of my native Washington State. Rain one hundred and fifty inches each year. The ocean cold regardless of season. Wind spuming the waves, blowing the sand, roaring through shore pines and Douglas fir, even in the 1950s, its towns depopulating, its fisheries fading, its lumber mills shutting down.
Yet, as I remember it now, there were few places I would rather be.
I remember camping at Twin Harbors State Park when I was only three years old. I remember the razor clams my parents had dug lying in a tin wash basin outside our camping trailer door and I remember my mother complaining about cleaning the clams and how these clams would be the last clams my mother and father would ever dig.
I speak here of Washington State’s outside coast, beyond the protected inland sea called Puget Sound. Did this open-ocean coast give me a first sense of the largeness of the world, knowing that if I sailed due west, I’d set foot in Japan or what was then the Soviet Union? Did the ever-heaving sea manifest humankind’s vulnerability in the face of an indifferent universe? And what about the sound, the incessant roar – an ocean beach with breaking waves is not a silent place? (Can you have the same insight inland in Iowa or the landlocked Dakotas?) Of course, our beaches were not the same one to another. Some had dunes, others cliffs, some were long and flat, others tumbled with drift logs. On some weekends, there wasn’t even rain.
Washington State has three coasts (not counting the Columbia River). The first begins at the mouth of the Columbia at Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific, and it runs a hundred miles north past Aberdeen and Hoquiam and on to Copalis Beach and Moclips. It has long, sandy beaches, some of the longest beaches in the world, and it’s indented by two large embayments, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, the latter the ice-age egress for the river that drained the continental ice that eleven thousand years ago filled Puget Sound. The shore is backed by dunes and cranberry bogs and low hills darkened by Douglas fir and western red cedar and Sitka spruce. Logging. Oyster farms. Limber mills. Tourism. How people survive.
The second coast runs north another hundred miles from Hoquiam to Cape Flaherty, the westernmost point of the continental United States. This shore was once sea bottom and it’s still rising and it’s skimming seafloor crust onto the continental rim as the Juan de Fuca plate plunges under the North American Continent. Here are rocky headlands, ocean-carved pinnacles, sand-and-shingle beaches, high bluffs, a wilderness strip seventy miles long, an interior of snowcapped and glaciated mountains that is Olympic National Park, which occupies the center of the Olympic Peninsula and which is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Outside the park you’re in logging country, the redoubt of the Makah peoples who still hunt, as they have for millennia, Pacific Gray whales, the setting, in the logging town of Forks, for the twenty-first-century vampire saga called Twilight.
The third coast – and here I’m perhaps taking liberties as to what “ocean coast” means – is the north littoral of the Olympic Peninsula that borders the Strait of Juan de Fuca, an east-west, twenty-mile-wide, eighty-mile-long body of water that connects the open Pacific to the sheltered inland sea of Puget Sound and that separates Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. I call this “ocean” coast because, unlike Puget Sound, it’s open to the Pacific. It also marks a geological boundary. The land to the north that is Vancouver Island comprises a different terrane with a different geological history than its southern, Olympic Peninsula neighbor.
When my parents purchased their homemade, hard-shell camping trailer in 1949, park rangers sometimes demanded to know if they were gypsies (camp trailers were rare in 1950 and gypsies were unwelcome in parks). That trailer was fifteen feet long, tall enough to stand in, but without a stove or toilet. It had a full-breasted, windowless front that swept up and back and down again like a ducktail haircut. It was framed in spruce and sided with plywood under thick, layered canvas. My parents painted it green on the bottom, belted it with a red stripe, and topped it gray, and named it Papagayo, after a parrot they’d owned in Brazil that had died from drinking too much Coca-Cola. We spent weekends March to October in that trailer, and many of those were on the Pacific Ocean coast.
In 1959, my brother Charlie and I bought our first tent. We disparaged recreational vehicles, believing, as Jimmy Buffet sings in his A1A album, that “They looked a lot better as beer cans.” When my wife Susan and I began our life together we continued tent camping. But during the last couple of years we noticed we were checking into the nearest Best Western every time it threatened to rain.
Was it time to join the RVers?
We decided it was.
We bought a sixteen-foot, aluminum, pod-shaped, 2013 Airstream Bambi. A silver cocoon. A gypsy caravan. Our Bambi attracts attention like a Hollywood starlet attracts paparazzi. People approach us in campsites, they knock on our car door in ferry lines, they accost us in supermarket parking lots. They want to see inside. What they see is a small dinette forward, a galley with a propane countertop stove, a sink, a waist-high fridge, a small closet-style toilet/shower, and a double-size bed. There’s not much to it. Still, the Bambi triggers wanderlust. A means to recapture (or revisit) the campgrounds of one’s youth. When we towed our Bambi trailer off the dealer’s lot, there was only one place we wanted to spend our first night: that was on the Washington Coast, in Olympic National Park, at Kalaloch Beach Campground.
To get to Kalaloch you travel south on Interstate 5 through Tacoma, turn west at Olympia on US 101, follow 101 through Elma and Satsop (under the shadow of the cooling towers of the never-to-be-built, Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear plant, aka “Whoops,” for its ill-conceived but premonitory “WPPSS” acronym), continue past Montesano, head north at the down-on-their-luck mill-and-fishing towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, travel inland through logged over and replanted clear cuts, transit the not-really-even-a-town of Humptulips (a great name nonetheless), enter the Quinault Indian Reservation, pass through Amanda Park and Queets, and then, within a dozen miles you enter Olympic National Park, where, a few minutes later you will arrive at Kalaloch Beach. There’s a small concessionaire’s lodge, a store, and a few cabins. Kalaloch Creek flows under the highway bridge and enters the ocean below the lodge. The beach is flat, its sand gray, its berm silvered with drift logs. Low upland cliffs back the beach, cloaked in western red cedar and Douglas fir and shore pine that have been stooped and bent by North Pacific gales. In the Quinault language Kalaloch means “a good place to land a canoe.” The Quinault must have been good boatmen – in all seasons waves break on this beach in white-foam fury.
The campground is north of the creek.
For me, Kalaloch Beach Campground is like a geologic strata, memory layered atop memory. I have come to Kalaloch since I was a boy. It was my Grandmother Catherine’s favorite beach. She camped here with our family long after she ceased camping elsewhere. My sister spread Grandmother’s ashes on this beach. In the fifties Kalaloch was a rough place, hacked out of the brush by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corp, its cedar-log picnic tables slowly rotting away. We camped here often in the spring. My father liked to listen to the Canadian geese honking their way north and he liked it when the campground was uncrowded. We came here the weekend of the 1964 Good Friday Alaska Earthquake, a 9.2 Richter whooper, the largest recorded quake in North American history. The day after the quake, rangers drove through the campground warning us to be ready to leave in a hurry – there might be an aftershock-triggered tsunami. One hundred and forty-seven people died in that quake, most in Alaska. What we didn’t know then was that four had died south of us on the Oregon Coast, at Beverly Beach State Park, four children swept to sea in the quake’s initial tsunami. We saw no tsunami. We didn’t expect to. An expectation born out of ignorance. Only one other place in North America can trigger a quake of a 9-plus magnitude. That’s right here, off this beach, where the Juan de Fuca plate dives under the North American continent – “subducts” is the technical term.
Subducting isn’t a smooth process. It occurs in fits and starts. Pressure builds up. Pressure suddenly releases. Scientists believe a major quake on the Juan de Fuca Plate occurs every five hundred years. The last major quake occurred in 1700. We know the date with unexpected accuracy because its tsunami arrived in Japan on the evening of January 26, 1700. We are three hundred years into the cycle. The specter of this quake – a certainty – hangs over Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, the Northwest’s skyscraper metropolises.
Can ignorance be a coping strategy?
Albeit not a good one.
When Susan and I arrive at Kalaloch with our Bambi, the campsites above the beach are all taken. A lot of RVers have hit the road these days. The old-timers have the foreknowledge to book the best sites. Not to worry. The campground is mostly empty. We find a decent site only one campsite away from the beach bluff. We can’t see the ocean but we can hear it. I unhitch the Bambi and set its stabilizing jacks. It begins to drizzle. We sit at our dinette table, sip glasses of wine, look out the Bambi’s window. We tell each other this beats the heck out of tent camping. Despite the drizzle, an elderly camper couple is walking arm in arm through the campground. The man is walking with some difficulty. The woman is supporting him on her arm. I find something beautiful in this couple, here at Kalaloch, on this misty coast, in the sunset of their lives.
Later Susan and I take a long walk down the beach. Gulls strut at the water’s edge. The surf ebbs and flows. The break is modest, although it still breaks white. I pick up a stone. It’s the size of a ping-pong ball and is pocked like an asteroid. This stone was birthed on the ocean’s floor in a rain of river outflow sediment and it’s called mudstone. It’s veined with creamy quartz, a form of chalcedony, an ancient name for the most common mineral in the continental crust – silicon dioxide. I think of my grandmother’s ashes spread on this, her favorite beach. Perhaps some part of her will become mudstone too, to be found on a future beach by a future beachcomber like me.
A couple of days later, Bambi in tow, we continue north on US101. We stop briefly at Ruby Beach where black basalt pinnacles rise from a gray shingle beach. To the south is Destruction Island, one of the few offshore islands on Washington’s coast. Why so few? Why so (relatively) few headlands? Wave refraction is the answer. Waves approach the coast, curl around the island/headland tips, shorten their period, focus energy on the tip, pound pulse after pulse of compressed air into fissures in the rock, crack the rock, and little by little, the headlands, and islands, wash away. In 1775, a Spanish shore party landed near here and was massacred by local Indians, an event reprised twelve years later when Captain Charles William Barkley landed his English shore party to the same end. Barkley named the river where his crew was massacred “Destruction,” a name transferred to the island by Captain George Vancouver when he restored the river to its Native American name, “Hoh.” Congress failed to fund a lighthouse here until 1889 despite this being a notoriously dangerous coast. Even as it was being built, the sailing bark Cassandra Adams ran aground on the island’s north reef. This is a foggy coast as well as a stormy coast. I remember watching the lighthouse flash and its foghorn sound as I lay in my sleeping bag in Kalaloch Campground in the 1960s. The lighthouse crew is gone now. So is its light. So is its horn.
At Ruby Beach, US 101 heads inland, not to approach the coast again until Port Angeles, a drive of some eighty miles. From here to Camp Flaherty there are only a few Native American coastal communities – Quillayut, La Push. Ozette, Neah Bay – and only a few roads from US101 to the shore.
One of my favorite short stories concludes at Cape Flaherty. The story is by Charles D’Ambrosio. It’s called “Her Real Name.” The narrator – Jones, recently out of the Navy – drives west from Virginia until he meets a young woman pumping gas at a crossroads town in southern Illinois. The girl – D’Ambrosio never names her – agrees to accompany Jones on his journey. Later she confides that her stepfather, a violent, fundamentalist Christian is certainly pursuing them. Later still, Jones discovers the girl has a late-stage terminal cancer. By the time Jones reaches Neah Bay the girl has died and her body is in Jones’s car. A forest fire is burning. “White shacks lined either side of the street,” D’Ambrosio writes of the Makah Reservation, “staggering forward on legs of leaning cinder block, and a few barefoot children played in the dirt yards, chasing dust devils. Several girls in dresses as sheer and delicate as cobwebs stood shielding their eyes and staring at the fire.” Jones steals a small outboard boat, motors out and around Cape Flaherty, beaches the boat, loads the girl’s body into its bow, and heads seaward again. When he is beyond what he believes to be the continental shelf, he attaches a flashlight to the girl’s bagged body and pitches the bag overboard. “Down she swirled, a trail of light spinning through a sea that showed green in the weakening beam and then went black.”
It’s important to me to know why the beaches are the way the beaches are. My brother Charlie collected rocks. He often returned from our weekend camping trips loaded down with rocks. I don’t have his passion for rocks. I do have a passion for geology.
My passion grew out of a series of New Yorker essays by John McPhee on the new science of plate tectonics. What these essays gave me was context. Why a mountain range was here rather than there. Why the coasts of Africa and South America, which looked like pieces from the same jigsaw puzzle, might actually, at one time, have fit together. But even as McPhee interviewed the geologists who were building plate tectonic theory, a few sounded a cautionary note. Plate tectonics, they said, explained many things but it didn’t explain all things. Some aspects of geology – glaciation, stream dynamics, wind erosion, many types of faulting – had at best only an indirect connection to plate tectonics. To unravel these, you had to do what geologists, at least since the nineteenth century, had always done – you had leave your schools and universities; you had to search for oil, dig for minerals, decide where and when it was safe to build a skyscraper or lay down a highway or drill a tunnel, above all, you had to collect rocks.
In the Pacific Northwest, much of our geology has nothing to do with plates. As Susan and I approach the Juan de Fuca Strait we are entering a domain not of plates but of ice.
We’ve camped at Dungeness Spit County Park, on the Juan de Fuca Strait. The campground is at the base of the Spit, a six-mile-long run of sand, cobbles, and driftwood that cuts into Juan de Fuca Strait like a scythe blade. We’ve hiked halfway down the spit. It’s a cool, clear, day in May. The Strait is calm. The weather dry. Farmers irrigate here on this corner of the Olympic Peninsula because the Olympic Mountains dry out the Pacific storms creating what is called a “rain shadow.” To the north we see Victoria, on Vancouver Island, the capital city of the Canadian province of British Columbia. To the west Port Angeles, the Clallam County seat. To the east, the clay banks of Whidbey Island, the fourth longest island in the contiguous United States. I pick up a stone. What clues does it offer about place? The stone is polished and smooth and red as the planet Mars. The stone is jasper, a member of the family chalcedony and it forms from sedimentary rock – mudstone or limestone or sandstone – that has been subjected to moderate heat and pressure, a process called diagenesis, which may be chemical, physical, or even biological, but which takes place at temperatures not so hot as to melt the rock, not so exposed as to weather it. The jasper’s smooth surface is due to waves. Waves raise up these stones and roll them together and grind them into smoothness. Waves are the genesis of Dungeness Spit. Driven by winter westerlies and by summer northeasterlies, waves lengthen the spit by sixteen feet each year. It’s not likely the jasper was born here. This stone likely traveled a great distance, carried by the great continental ice sheet that during the last ice age filled Juan de Fuca Strait. Even in high Olympic Mountain valleys, you will find stones that have their origin in the far north of British Columbia. This is a geography of ice with glacial kettles and glacial drumlins and solitary glacial eskar rocks that can be as big as houses. Mammoth tusks have been found here, one as long as sixteen feet in the glacial till of this same Dungeness Spit County Park. These are estimated to be a hundred thousand years old but mammoths may have grazed here much more recently, perhaps only four thousand years ago, an evolutionary blink of the eye. Our campsite is adjacent to a group site where on this May evening a dozen or more children run back and forth in a game of Capture the Flag. Several hide under the bushes in our camp until a young girl, perhaps twelve years old, her hair as golden as the sun, stops, apologizes to us for disturbing our evening peace. But we are not disturbed. We are nostalgic. The games and laughter remind us of our son John and our nephews and our nieces, moved on to other games, too old now for Capture the Flag. Why does it seem that we heard their laughter only yesterday? A tick in time, a blink of the eye.
If ice is a major architect of Northwest geology, so is water: seawater and rainwater and river water, but especially the Columbia River’s water. Especially here, in the southwest corner of the Washington State where Susan and I are Bambi-camped at Cape Disappointment State Park. It’s a balmy, blue-sky, late September day. In 1805, when Lewis and Clark first sighted the Pacific only a few miles up the Columbia River from here, it was December and raining and this campground wasn’t even land. The land formed after construction of jetties at the Columbia River’s mouth when river sediment, carried north by the prevailing current, filled in the shallow water behind the jetty. Our campsite is no more than twenty yards from the beach. Walk through a screen of pines, step over a drift long or two, and, on this afternoon, you will feel you’re in Hawaii. A crescent of sandy beach runs south to the rickrack-rock jetty, the Columbia River’s Washington-side breakwater, and north to a steep, lighthouse-topped escarpment called North Head. I wade in the surf. Seawater ebbs and flows around my ankles. Its temperature surprises me: not warm but not frigid either. Still, I’m not as bold as a gang of high-school kids who are swimming and dunking each other in the surf. The peace of this September afternoon belies the coast’s well-deserved nickname: A Graveyard of Ships. The jetties (there’s a sister jetty on the Oregon side) and lighthouses (there’s a second lighthouse south on Cape Disappointment Head) are here because this is a dangerous place. From the late 1700s until now, over two thousand shipwrecks have occurred on this coast, at the cost of at least eight hundred lives. Most occurred right here, at the entrance to the Columbia.
The short answer is “no delta.”
The Columbia is fourteen hundred miles long and drains a watershed the size of France and drops six thousand feet from the continental divide, thus its outflow current is unusually strong; plate subduction is causing the land to slowly rise and, sometimes, when a plate slips, to abruptly drop, thus sediment washes directly into the open ocean rather than collecting at the river mouth; lastly, it takes many millennia to build a delta but sea level has risen rapidly since the last ice age and has drowned and washed away the sediment that might have formed a delta. No delta means no delta to absorb the river’s energy and to moderate its current. Combine this with the storm-prone North Pacific high seas, sandbars that shift location month to month, and you have one of the most dangerous river bars in the world.
The Columbia shaped this coast before anyone even thought of building jetties. At least since the end of the last ice age eleven thousand years ago, the river has laid down long sandbar beaches across the estuarine mouths of what once were river valleys. These valleys, now Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, flooded when the Pacific rose due to melting ice-age ice. This occurred rapidly, so rapidly that the Native Americans who lived here almost certainly noticed the rise over the span of their lives. I find it fascinating that so much of what characterizes the Southwest Washington coastal geography occurred so recently. It raises the question of time. What time can we truly comprehend? What lies beyond the reach of our understanding?
Our campsite has electricity, sewer connections, a paved platform to park our Bambi. The neighbors appear to be mostly retired, many of them in RVs the size of a semi-truck trailers or Greyhound buses. One party a couple sites away differs: three men, two women, young, German speakers, surfboards, a black Mercedes SUV with giant tires and a rooftop tent; a sign in the SUV window reading “Pan-American Highway or Bust.” The camp host is a lean, dour man, in his sixties, with shoulder-length gray hair. He barely acknowledges me when I wish him “Good morning.” His trailer is painted with a large American flag. I overhear him speaking to another same-age, same-gender camper. GI dialog: “Pleiku,” “Air Cav,” “Nam.”
The Long Beach Peninsula begins at Cape Disappointment, but the beach that gives the peninsula its name begins north of the state park boundary. The beach lies along the Pacific side of the peninsula, a twenty-eight-mile, dune-backed stretch of hard sand, the longest continuous beach on the West Coast, one of the longest “drivable” beaches in the world. Behind the dunes are a series of small resort towns – Holman, Long Beach, Breakers, Oceanside, Klipsan Beach, Ocean Park – most are no more than a grid of modest second homes, but Long Beach, the largest, has a downtown of fast food franchises, kite stores, surf shops, bars, seafood shacks, B&Bs, motels, amusement arcades, a couple of supermarkets. The beach ends at Leadbetter Point State Park at the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Willapa Bay, a shallow, estuarine inlet borders the eastern peninsular shore. Tourism on the peninsula is its real business and the local community works hard to promote it. Ilwaco, inside the Columbia Bar and at the south end of the peninsula, is a sport fishing center. Elsewhere the peninsula offers a year-round series of festivals convened to lure tourists: the Asian New Year Kite Celebration, the Peninsula Quilt Guild Show, the Razor Clam Festival, the Surf Perch Derby, the World’s Longest Garage Sale, the Northwest Garlic Festival, the Doggie Olympic Games, the Clamshell Railroad Days, the Blues and Seafood Festival, an event called Jazz and Oysters, the Wild Mushroom Celebration, the Annual Cranberrian Fair, and numerous other half-marathons, decathlons, kite contests, runs, walks, and feeds.
What charms me most about Long Beach isn’t its festivals but its bikeway, what I call “The Dunes Bikeway” although its real name is The Discovery Trail, a seven-and-a-half-mile trail from Ilwaco to the town of Long Beach. What makes it so special? Dunes. The trail winds through the dunes like a rollercoaster for bikes. Susan and I have ridden it several times. This week, we’re doing it with our son John. We park the car at the trail’s south beachhead, unload the bikes, and begin peddling north. The day is perfect. Sun. Windless. Little traffic. Up and down. Left and right. We pass under the Long Beach elevated boardwalk, a sort of boardwalk and viewing platform, high enough that you can see the ocean from behind the dunes. We stop at the monument where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery actually reached the Pacific for the first time. (The Corps had sighted it days earlier from the Columbia estuary. “Ocian in view,” Clark wrote then. “O! the joy.”) We return via the grid of small beach houses. Every mile or so, tall poles stand along our route topped by what looks like a stack of white dinner plates. These are tsunami sirens. Geologists have uncovered cedar forests from here to Grays Harbor that have been inundated by historical tsunamis. We may thrill to the cinematic dangers of Twilight vampires and zombies, but if you live here, the real danger is earthquakes on an earthquake-and-tsunami-prone shore. Nevertheless, many people retire here, raise their children here, call the peninsula home. Does living under a tsunami threat change how they see the world?
Where we live shapes us, despite our jet-connected, highway-laced, computer-and-Internet-linked age, in different ways for different people, but more than we realize. Washington’s Pacific Coast has shaped me, drawn me to the sea, taught me to respect Mother Nature. In his novel Sometimes a Great Notion, which is set on the Oregon Coast, Ken Kesey writes that to live here “you had to go through a winter to know.” Ours is a hard, harsh, muscular coast. No Beach Blanket Bingo here. My father used to say, “Never go out without a warm jacket, a pair of dry boots, and a good raincoat.”
I never do.
Neil Mathison is an essayist and short story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in Ontario Review, The Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, AGNI, Under the Sun, -divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, Blue Lyra Review, Notes, Northwind, Blue Lake Review, Moon City Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Brooklyner, and elsewhere. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z,” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. A second essay, “Wooden Boat,” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2013. His essay collection Volcano: an A to Z and Other Essays about Geology, Geography, and Geo-Travel in the American West was the finalist in the AWP 2013 book-length nonfiction contest. Neil’s author website is http://www.neilmathison.net.