Coastal Journeys

Best of the West Coast: Cape Flattery (Essay Two)

Join paddler Jeff King as he plans a journey along some 'Best of the West Coast' sections of the United States in this second installment of a series of essays/articles on this epic journey.

Best of the West Coast USA Journey: Imagining the Journey (One), West Coast Cape Flattery (Two), | Best of the West Coast, Columbia River (Three) | Best of the West Coast: La Push (Four) | Best of the West Coast: Paddling to Oregon (Five)

Cape Flattery to Rialto Beach

Many of us harbor a fantasy about making our own odyssey.  In this age of Internet, where video clips hype the minutia of other people’s lives, some will find it difficult to act out their own dreams.  Maybe the adventures of others seem too hard-core for us to attempt. Perhaps we don’t prioritize time to create our own memories.  We become observers rather than participants in life.  When will your odyssey begin? 

My West Coast USA Journey began at Neah Bay near the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Across the strait, Vancouver Island seemed suspended on the shimmering water, its green legions of rugged mountains marching off to the northern horizon.  It was perfect weather for paddling and the forecast called for a day of agreeable conditions.  In the clear morning light the strait looked like polished steel.  After seeing me off, Molly drove and hiked to the lookout point on Cape Flattery, which marked the halfway point of my first day at sea.

Each time I launch my kayak I ask myself, “am I fit enough for this… are the sea and weather conditions manageable and will they remain that way…. is my kit in Bristol shape and is it all that I will need until I am safely back on shore?”  I am always thrilled to go to sea and usually just a little bit anxious.  On this September day I was keenly excited because it marked the beginning of actually living out a life-long fantasy.   I had imagined traveling the blue lane from Canada to Mexico since childhood. 

Cape Flattery is the variegated, cliffy, exposed northwest corner of the lower 48 of the USA. Ebbing tidal forces from as far south as Olympia and as far north as Campbell River race across this rocky headland.  Half a mile offshore lays Tatoosh Island, perfectly located to pinch the current and funnel the wind through a rock-studded deep-water pass called “the Gut” by local boatmen.  I launched early to avoid the strongest of the predicted afternoon winds and to pass the cape shortly after the low tide so that I would be paddling into the rising water as I rounded the cape.  I prefer being close to a rocky shore at or just after the ebb, when I can see most of the underwater obstacles, rather than having them rear up suddenly as “boomers”, which they seem to do when the tide is falling.

wc2 2

Approaching Cape Flattery with Vancouver Island in the Distance.

Such a monumental piece of real estate is a delight when experienced on a bending ocean in a tiny craft.   By the time I covered the six miles out to the cape the wind had freshened from the north and it was driving a low swell onto the headlands.  The new tidal current from the south met both this swell and its reflected lumps to create a square kilometer of lively, liquid moguls that filled the Gut as I approached from the east.  I sought deep water and sea space from hard objects as I paddled and surfed the now-trailing swell through the confused seas between the cape and Tatoosh Island.  When possible, I took shelter from the current behind the giant sea stacks and then darted out around them with the wind behind me as I bent around the cape past the immense, blocky Fuca Pillar and into the rock garden and kelp beds on the south side of the massif. Once inside the kelp line it was calm enough for me to take pictures while chewing down a snack. 

wc2 3

Looking back north at Cape Flattery with the Fuca Pillar and Tatoosh Lighthouse visible.

I pondered the name of this place, Cape Flattery, named such by Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery in March of 1778, because he saw “a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding harbor”.   Of course the cape was already well known to members of the Makah tribe who still inhabit the upper 20 miles of what is now the coast of Washington state.  Though diminished in numbers, the Makah have held onto the cape and some of the surrounding land as their reservation.  The tiny, informal town of Neah Bay is their cultural hub.  Neah was ground zero in 1999 when a group of specially prepared Makah men stirred up a fuss by deciding to start ceremonially hunting and killing gray whales from a traditional dugout, cedar ocean canoe.  The whole story is well told by Robert Sullivan in his book, A Whale Hunt.  The rediscovery and enactment of their historic hunting rituals was a strong positive for the Makah tribe members.

The Makah are expert salmon and halibut fishers who also guide anglers in the rich waters of the strait.  They maintain a pleasant – if casual – campground in Hobuck Bay with a beautiful beach just south of Cape Flattery.  After rounding the cape and enjoying another six-mile paddle along the south facing cliffs and sea stacks, I was pleased to join the local SUP’ers and surfers in a finale to the fine first day of my journey. 

Giants Graveyard, Point of Arches, the Father and Son.  These captivating landmarks loomed just ahead down the next 35-mile, roadless section of the coast.  I set out from Hobuck Beach planning to only do half of that distance on the first hop.  While I was at sea, Molly would move south via a somewhat complicated route over the inland roads and set up our next camp at Ozette Lake.  She then planned to hike four miles out to the coast to greet me as I surfed in at the end of the day’s travel.   The sea route is littered with everything from refrigerator-sized rocks to sea stacks taller than most houses.  From Hobuck we could see down the coast far enough to make out the first of the largest basalt haystacks that lie off of Shi Shi Beach. 

wc2 4

Launching from Hobuck.  The Giants lie just ahead.

 I popped out though the surf and set well out into deeper water.  I wanted to make sure that the reefs and boomers ahead had plenty of water over them as I coasted south. Nearing the Cape of Arches, dozens of rugged offshore obstacles rose up in front of me.  Sometimes, when approaching sea stacks of this size, my sense of scale and speed are warped due to my small comparative size.  This day I was at first tricked into thinking that I was standing still, even though I was paddling briskly.  As I neared the largest of the stacks, which was pierced by an arch big enough to drive two busses though side-by-side, I had the strong sensation that I was being sucked into the opening.  The sea was seething and spitting over a shallow rock shelf in part of the cavernous passageway.  I imagined the Makah canoe captains daringly shooting through the opening in the old days.  It looked tempting but I moved seaward to get clear of danger and to regain my balance within the grand spectacle.

Once I adjusted to the scale of things I slowed my stroke pace and let the long, low swell and eddying winds carry me among the marvelously sculpted monoliths.  The intertidal rock surfaces were plastered with mussels, sea stars and anemonies.  I moved closer to some of the bigger walls and rode the rise and fall of the swell as I stroked along.  What first had seemed daunting and dangerous became fantastic and friendly as I relaxed into this new, land-of-giants reality.  From one behemoth rock, napping sea lions raised their heads to bark comments as I passed their sleeping ledges, but they made no effort to pursue me as I moved along.

wc2 5

Among the monoliths at the Cape of Arches

With only three miles left to paddle, I came ashore to at the ancient site of Ozette Village.  A group from the Makah tribe occupied this coastal settlement for several thousand years prior to its engulfment and entombment by a mudslide about 250 years ago.  A large part of the village was covered over by mud the consistency of creamy peanut butter.  This sandy slurry smothered and intruded into the cedar long houses, encasing the occupants and all of their possessions in an oxygen-proof, waterlogged cocoon.  The village remained in situ, perfectly preserved, until the winter of 1970 when beach hikers noticed the first evidence of artifacts that had been eroded out of the now forested dunes above the high tide line.

Thoughtful people got involved to cordon off the site and protect the buried artifacts for the army of archaeologists, local Makah people and other volunteers who spent the next 11 years painstakingly digging, sifting and cleaning the buried cultural items.  Ozettte Village has been called the Pompeii of North America. It is recognized as one of the most significant discoveries of its kind in the world.  Special care was taken to treat the recovered organic wooden and fiber items with chemicals that arrest the decay, which would otherwise have happened with contact to dry air and to sunlight.  Rather than haul the precious artifacts off to some distant museum, the decision was made to house them on the Makah’s ancestral lands.  You may now visit The Makah Cultural Center in Neah Bay to view some of over 20,000 artifacts, including a reconstructed long house, canoes, tools, knives, and basketry, and whaling and fishing gear in the spiffy modern museum.  There is nothing like it anywhere else on our continent.

Although the Ozette Village site has been backfilled and replanted, several hand cleared, rock-free surf-zone landing alleys remain as reminders of the maritime culture that used beach-launched, large vessels.  Pictographs nearby display the creative spiritual mind of the ancient inhabitants.  I remounted my kayak and bagged Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the lower 48.  I then silently picked along another rocky three miles to where Molly met me at Sandy Point.  We lifted the kayak into the woods and stashed all of my gear safely under the cockpit cover.  I had another roadless stretch ahead of me and only one more day of good weather was forecast.  After that, a sizeable autumn storm would prevent ocean travel for several days. We walked four miles inland to Ozette Lake over the boardwalked trail that crosses a long reach of marshy country.

wc2 6

Stashing the kayak and gear overnight south of Ozette Village at Sandy Point.

 I was up, fed and coffee-powered before daylight the next day.  I retraced the boardwalk track back out to the beach in a dreamy tunnel of light cast by my headlamp.  I was in a meditative yet eager state when I came to my kayak lying in woods.  Peering out of the forest towards the ocean in that early light, fog blanketed the water and curtained my view.  I clambered down out of the woods onto the beach only to find that my initial impression had been too optimistic.  It was darn foggy out.

This was one of those times where I would normally consult with my partner to consider the wisdom of launching in such conditions.  In this case, the consultation was internal and remarkably brief.  The sea and wind conditions were fine and they were forecast to hold steady all day.  I was reluctant to leave my boat and gear in the woods for three or four days while I waited and hoped for a future day with the fine sea, surf and wind conditions that now existed right in front of me.  Though the fog was thicker than what was mentioned in the day’s forecast, I could see far enough to avoid trouble and I could navigate by staying just outside the breakers and following compass bearings between known large points and objects.  I had bivy gear, food, and water enough to overnight if forced to do so.  I was mildly disappointed that I would not enjoy the grand views of this stretch of the coast but I was sure I could make the passage in the fog.

wc2 7

Morning fog calls for clear thinking.

The final consideration was that by now Molly had left our camp back at Ozette Lake.  She was most likely driving the circuitous inland route to La Push, where I planned to come to shore in the afternoon. Cell phones don’t work in this empty corner of Washington, so I would have no way to tell her if I backed off.  She would be in La Push, probably in the fog, wondering where I was if I bailed out.  I carried my boat and gear to the tideline and prepared to launch into the gauzy dawn.

Navigating in fog is a challenging exercise in concentration.  Ears and eyes strain for clues of what lies at the boundary of the senses.  The mind skips tracks like a worn needle on an old LP record.  The paucity of crisp sensory inputs makes one doubt the compass and the chart, the only two truths that are readily available.  I ghosted along at my cruising rate of three to three and half miles and hour with only water sounds to break the eerie gloom.  My dead reckoning was augmented with sightings of large sea stacks and headlands, which resolved into view from the smoky fog.  Every few miles I could nail down my exact location on the chart and then bear off to another charted object using my compass.

With three miles left before I had to find my way through a matrix of rocks and islands into La Push harbor, I came into one of the few  “sun holes” of the day.  One can be paddling along in thick fog, having given up hope of ever seeing the sun again, when suddenly there is an opening into a half-mile wide, mist-walled, crystal-clear cylinder of space with brilliant sunlight pouring in from above. It is as magical as a double rainbow when this happens.  I cruised over behind some protective boulders to soak up the sun while I tried to raise Molly on my handheld radio.  She answered back that she was having radio problems.  Before her radio died, she managed to transmit that the Rialto Beach surf conditions looked manageable for a landing.  Due to the limited visibility, I could not have made that decision for myself from out at sea. Her news meant that I did not have to swing way out around James Island - which I could not yet see - in search of the opening to La Push Harbor.  Yippee!

wc2 8

A Sunhole provides reprieve from a misty world.

I left my sunny haven and reentered the misty soup.  I had passed the last of the large objects upon which I had relied for guidance all day, so I moved to a position just seaward of where the swell was bending up to race shoreward as breakers and surf.  I could barely make out the beach but the change in color inland, from blurry forest green to milky gray, indicated that I had cleared the cliffs and was now along the spit just north of Rialto Beach.  By carefully watching my bearing I could tell when the spit started to arc westward, this marked Rialto Beach, the spot where Molly would be waiting.

I gingerly began to swerve toward shore.  Beyond the saturated atmosphere I could see the satin, shiny beach. I stowed my chart and then double-checked my spray skirt, PFD and helmet for the turbulent ride ahead.  I could see just well enough to be able to time my shoreward approach with the swell from behind and the breaking surf in from of me.  My moment came and I committed to one of the medium sized swells and then joyfully surfed it all the way into shallow water.  With a few dozen quick strokes I was onto the steep, cobble beach and racing to get out of the boat before the next wave came onshore.  Out of nowhere appeared Molly to help pick up the pieces.

We camped near La Push that night but moved south to Kalaloch the next day to shelter from the big storm that had rolled in.  The second day of the storm we drove inland up the Hoh River Valley to escape the raging coastal wind and to walk in the Hoh Rainforest for our first time.  The drive was spectacular and we dawdled, as we had no schedule at all during the foul weather.  Mid-day Molly’s phone rang in a most unlikely spot for cell coverage.  It was her father’s hospice nurse calling.  Her dad had taken a turn for the worse and the nurse was kind enough to reach out to tell us that only a few days remained for Bob.  We immediately drove from the Hoh Valley to Salem with only one stop for fuel.

The nurse was right.  The next two weeks were intense, loving family time in Salem, with lots for us to do to help out.  By the time we could consider heading back up to La Push another storm system was vigorously stirring the sea and soaking the land.  The two-week weather forecast was dismal.  Nature dictated that the first summer of my West Coast USA Journey was at an end. 

But the little boy’s dream to transit the west coast by water still lives.  I will work to stay fit.  I will get my kit ready.  Soon, I will have more to tell you.  In the meantime, I will ask you this:  What dreams are you planning to make come true this year?

wc2 9

The dreamer, on a clear day at Rialto Beach.  The journey resumes from here in Summer of 2018.


Best of the West Coast USA Journey: Imagining the Journey (One), West Coast Cape Flattery (Two), | Best of the West Coast, Columbia River (Three) | Best of the West Coast: La Push (Four) | Best of the West Coast: Paddling to Oregon (Five)

Login / Join