Coastal Journeys

The Best of the West Coast: La Push to Point Grenville (Essay Four)

Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park with Hoh Head in the distance to the north.

Best of the West Coast Essays: Join paddler Jeff King as he paddles along sections of the USA coast. This is his fourth installment.

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)

La Push to Point Grenville

I launched just north of Ruby Beach into a sextet of chilly, five-foot breakers to continue our Best of the West Coast Journey.  The surf zone was dotted with numerous bus-sized boulders, which provided the protection I needed to bust out through the maelstrom, one step at a time. The transition from land dweller to sea traveler in a kayak is abrupt. It includes multiple, jarring shots of cold seawater to one’s body and face, and repeated, momentary loss of visual cues due to ocean-in-the-eyes.  During a seaward charge through the surf, I must strike a dynamic balance between breathlessness from the exertion of aggressive paddling, and conservation of my physical strength in case of mishap. Bossy surf can spectacularly discard the kayak end-over-end, or reject it in a series of skidding, uncontrolled backward surfs, or occasionally by logrolling the boat and paddler toward shore in a motion known as “window-shading”.   It often takes more than one gallant effort to get free of the beach. The final outcome of these intense, ninety-second, Sisyphean efforts determines whether I will get out to sea or choose to back off to try again another day.  I take several deep breaths and put on my nose plug before stroking into the breakers.  It is easier to concentrate, and to Eskimo roll the kayak back up after capsize, when my sinuses are not being pressure-washed by salt water.

I bounced through the first few curlers and ducked in behind one of the off-lying boulders.  I quickly ferried the width of the rock and then stabbed through another foamy wave, using its sloping backside to scoot beyond the outer breakers.  It is such a euphoric pleasure to break through the surf zone onto a brilliantly shimmering ocean, with nobody and nothing human-made in sight. As if to welcome me back to the sea, a low-flying squadron of pelicans skimmed by, ahead, a raft of grebes nervously swam and dived to clear the way, and moments later, a clutch of surf scooters croaked comments as I moved passed them.  Gratitude swept over me with each dip of my paddle.  I set a pace to get seventeen miles up the road-less coast before the predicted contrary afternoon north winds commenced. 

Once I was safely on my way, Molly turned the Ford northward for the circuitous, fifty-mile drive inland and then back out to the coast to meet me at La Push.  Though I am alone in the kayak, we share this West Coast Journey.  We inch along in a manner that allows us to enjoy the land-based activities and attractions along our route. We enjoy exploring on land together when the sea tells me to wait.  Molly is an artist.  She takes time for knitting, painting, yoga, meditation and reading most days. When I am at sea, Molly generously supports me in a dozen small ways that you will know by reading these essays. 

We had spent the previous four stormy days hiking in the Hoh and Quinault river drainages and visiting the Makah Museum in Neah Bay.  As the storm ebbed, the wind direction and sea conditions persuaded me to paddle from near Kalaloch Camp, in Olympic National Park, north to La Push, where I had halted my Journey – while traveling in a southerly direction - the previous summer.  As I was preparing launch, we met the tribal game warden.  He proudly updated us on the successful start to the tribe’s salmon fishing season.  The tribe manages their hatchery on the Hoh River and carefully controls the taking of fish from the river.  When the Warden noticed our Montana license plate he brought us into his social circle by telling us that he is married to a woman from a Montana tribe and he gave us an informative vingette of their lives.  He articulated a species-by-species update on the fish, concluding with an imaginative description of the coastal segment that I was about to navigate. He encouraged me to watch for the otters and whales along the way.

twoLooking back south from the halfway point for the day. Toleak Point and then Hoh Head in the distance.Except for a tiny group in central California, by the early 1900’s Sea Otters had all been removed from the west coast of the United States by fur traders from Europe, Russia and the east coast of the U.S.   Without otters to regulate them, urchins overpopulated and devoured the kelp beds, which are habitat for many ecologically important small sea creatures and birds.  Kelp beds also absorb the power of ocean swell and waves, which are otherwise extremely corrosive to the shoreline.  In 1970 otters from Alaska were re-introduced on the Washington coast.  An estimated twelve hundred Otters now inhabit the northern third of the Washington coast.  With their return, the kelp forests have flourished, re-establishing a home for all of denizens that abound in the kelp world habitat.  I was keen to paddle among the affable otter-beings, and to pass among the slimy ropes of kelp with floating bulbs and huge, fluttering, underwater leaves.

The chart showed that the route ahead of me to La Push was sprinkled with offshore stone megaliths, reefs and islets.  With blue skies and ten miles of visibility, I could simply stroke along enjoying the breathtaking scenery and watch as the named features seemingly drifted toward me.  There are three meaningful capes or points along this reach of coast. Hoh Head is a cliffy ridge, splattered with bird guano, stretching a mile and a half out from shore, screening the view to the north. With the calm sea state, I hugged in close to see the nesting Cormorants and to hear the staccato chatter of the Oystercatchers.   Toleak Point next bowed out six miles ahead along a course of amply spaced reefs and rock gardens.  When navigating such a rock-studded coast, I am ever watchful for “boomers”, which are deep, boisterous patches of breaking water, that open suddenly over submerged rocks, in even moderate swell, usually as the tide is falling.  In the space of five hundred yards my sea route cathreeTeahwhit Head to the north in the distance. n go from smooth sailing to something akin to a Class IV river rapid; that is, difficult whitewater.  On such an intoxicatingly sunny day, with the kayak pushing softly against the ocean, it is easy to loose focus. Especially when I am alone, boomer-phobia keeps me alert!


Clear of Toleak Point, I encountered monstrous mats of kelp. Though the kelp dampens the swell, it also causes tremendous drag on the kayak and makes paddle strokes seem akin to stirring wet ropes in a bucket with a shovel. Near the edge of the kelp forest, I spotted a few sea otters, floating on their backs, with their long rear flippers sticking up out of the water like voluminous, shiny-black, rain galoshes.  They seemed cheerful, though shy, as they bobbed and groomed.  I corrected my course to veer away and give them tranquil residence.  They were the first otters I’d seen since I rounded Cape Flattery to begin my West Coast Journey a year ago. Their clownish demeanor always brings me a smile.

After four hour’s travel I neared the final point of the day, called Teahwhit Head. I guessed that I had one, or certainly less than two hours left to paddle.  The wind was rising a bit from the north, but I was ready for a break, so I edged into the rocky jigsaw puzzle on the southwest arm of Teahwhit.  A stunning collection of small–but-tall islands, surrounded by a complicated system of reefs, offered a labyrinth of undulating slots through which to navigate. I latched onto a low green wave and rode it into submission behind one of the islands.  Over my shoulder I could gaze south and see most of my morning’s transit tapering back into the misty, flashing brilliance.  I eased in among the slippery, bowling-ball-sized shore rocks.  Careful, easy, slowly... I said to myself.  It is the hard edges of the sea that can really hurt you! I gingerly slid out of the kayak and then hiked it up high onto safer footing.  Out came the food bag and water bottle from under my back hatch.  Lunchtime.

The après’ lunch water reentry was a bit sportier than the exit had been.  I judiciously wove a few hundred yards seaward through the reefs and boulder litter on the south side of Teahwhit Head.  At the outer edge of the obstacles, I paused to wait.  When the sea lifted, I quickened my strokes onto a flexing surge and it gently heaved my boat up and then out, away from the rocks and into deeper water.   The calories from lunch coursed into my blood, fueling my muscles as I powered seaward away from the rocky labyrinth, around the cape and into the headwind.  The two hundred foot tall haystack called James Island that marks the river mouth at La Push rolled into view, now a short three miles away.

fourLunch spot on the boulders at Teahwhit Head.Thirty minutes later, Molly called from La Push on the radio.  She could see me out among the slosh and glare.  Though the obvious charted route to shore seemed to be between the jetties, she directed me to land south of the river mouth, due to the local boat traffic and the presence of a rather horrible surf break inside the jetties that would have been difficult for me to recognize from out to sea.  I moved shoreward cruising the last half mile in the lee of the south jetty, and finally catching a friendly two-foot wave that delivered me onto the beach near Molly.  My bow furrowing the sand marked the end of my segmented transit of the longest wilderness coastline in the continental USA, from Neah Bay to Ruby Beach, Washington.  After leisurely reloading the kayak and gear, we enjoyed a walk around La Push, where we saw several of the hefty sea canoes that the Quileutes use for their Canoe Journeys.  Search the web for “Canoe Journeys” to know more about the exciting rebirth of ocean canoeing among first nation groups from upper Washington, throughout B.C. and southeast Alaska. We enjoyed the friendly ambience and unplanned charm of La Push before heading back to camp at Kalaloch in Olympic National Park.

fiveLonely launch beach near Queets. 

Molly dropped me off near Queets, Washington the next morning on a deserted beach, away from the coastal highway, with a favorable wind pushing a rising swell, that would nudge me along as I traveled south. The three-foot surf was steep, collapsing over a slopping, cobble bottom.  Due to the smaller wave height, I was in no danger of pitching end-for-end, but I was careful to slice the breakers smoothly to avoid capsize in the rough shallows.   This is where full speed ahead is needed, efficiently stroking right at the edge of my aerobic threshold.  I banged outside of the break and onto a long three-foot swell under a leaden sky.  Another roadless coast stretched south into the gauzy, dissipating fog.  Before the Europeans arrived this coast was alive with villages and the sea was dotted with canoes. In 1852 smallpox decimated upwards of ninety percent of the coastal natives.  Early white settlers wrote how the beaches were strewn for miles with the dead bodies of the first nations people. Now, for me, it was a solitary thirteen sea miles to Taholah, and perhaps another three miles down to Point Grenville, with nothing human-made left standing along most of the route.  

I prowled along in the mysterious low light.  The monumental sea stacks and monstrous rock pinnacles were mostly behind me now.  This coastline was at first mostly lower, made of a different rock type, which was ploughed up as our continent marched slowly westward.  A gnarled rock-form dubbed Tunnel Island lived up to its name with arches, tunnels and alcoves in bold, enchanting shapes.  When I moved closer to scan the wild sculptural detail, the Sirens of Tunnel Island sang to me, tempting me into sixAfter a close call with the Sirens, looking back to the north with Tunnel Island distant.the mesmerizing, confused surge beneath the arches.  I channeled my inner-Odysseus at that moment, and turned away from danger, even though the urge to move closer was intense.  Tunnel Island is a powerful, marvelous landform, laced with intrigue.  I want to go back some day to explore its mystery, but I must have a strong group, in case the Sirens once again try to entice me.

Hog’s Back and Little Hog’s Back marked the halfway point of the day.  Once by the piggies, it was a two-hour cruise, before a freshening wind, down to Cape Elizabeth. The cliffy cape rises and reaches out to sea punctuated by a stunning arch that looks like it belongs in Utah.  For a half-mile in every direction, the sea is dotted with jagged outcrops that add to the drama of the place, especially with the swell exploding against these indestructible obstacles. I slowed my paddle speed and allowed the wind and the swell reflected off the sandstone cliffs to drive me slowly along.  I only added strokes as needed to fine-tune my trajectory.  As I rolled around the cape, I experienced more than a few vertiginous moments.  I relied on my forty-plus years of kayaking muscle memory to assuage my perceived tippy-ness.  I slid very near the largest arch and then tucked around into its lee, where a sheer wall loomed above and active, confused water surrounded me.  It is remarkable, I thought, how sea conditions can roughen up quickly when you approach a point of land.  A bald eagle looked down from a snaggy fir tree that clung to a crack in the cliff. For a moment, I wished to be on that quiet branch next to her.

Though I had earlier considered coasting all of the way down to Point Grenville, I now decided to go in at Taholah, where I assumed Molly was.  My vertigo while rounding the cape reminded me that I am only flesh.  I did not want to tack on more miles when I knew that a big surf landing awaited, and I had already been more than four hours in an active, irregular sea without a break.  In the event of a capsize, I have a reliable Eskimo roll, honed by over forty years of white water and sea paddling in very rough conditions.  I also practice kayak re-entry methods in case I fail rolling.  However, the surf zone is a relentless taskmaster, and it is the most likely place that I might get injured when paddling in the ocean.  I hoard a special cache of focus and energy to employ when I have to come back to shore through surf, especially when the beach and the surf makeup are unknown to me.  Having Molly on shore to identify the best entry point increases my changes of a happy landing.

sevenCape Elizabeth with the day’s route tapering into the distance.I edged along the imposing south face of Cape Elizabeth and then broke away into the cove, where the Quinault River completes its maniacal descent from the icy peaks of the Olympic Mountains.  It is a powerful river where it rolls into the sea; made especially so after the four recent days of rain pumped it up.  I squared up with the river mouth from about three quarters of a mile out to assess my landing.  It did not look promising to enter the river.  Just as I raised my radio to speak, Molly hailed me from shore on her radio.

She told me that she had been talking with some Quinault nation fishermen on the river.  They wanted to go out to sea, but they were currently stuck fishing upstream, because the river bar was too high and rough for them to cross in their twenty-four foot sleds.  She suggested that I come in south of the river mouth and land into the drift logs, that were stacked twelve feet deep at the high tide line in a tangled mass, stretching down the next mile of beach to the south.  What she described as a two meter wide “beach” at the foot of the logs was invisible to me because I could not see over the six-foot breakers between the shore and me.  All I could see was the glistening back of the rolling surf over which the rooftops of houses on shore a mile distant seemed to float in the air. This is not unusual.  After a good, long look, you commit to a surf landing, and then - long after you have surrendered the option to turn back – you have to quickly and deftly adjust course, during a boisterous ride, as your view of the landing spot improves.  I began my approach by stowing everything on the deck down into the kayak and double-checking my life jacket and the important things attached to it; my radio, rescue beacon, strobe light, and knife.  I attached my paddle leash, so that my boat, paddle and other gear would stay loosely together if I ejected in a mishap.  I breathed deeply and sighed a few times as I moved from fear to excitement.  I put on my nose clip.  It was party time.

When I am entering a powerful hydraulic zone, whether on the ocean or the river, I only paddle when it is mandatory. I conserve strength and lung capacity, especially at the end of a long day’s effort. I drifted in with the swells to just behind the muscular breakers, watching to assess just where the outermost waves were curling over.  I let the sea make the first moves, then, intuitively, I accelerated and caught one of the larger green faces, rode it to just shy of the break point, and peeled off of it.  The cresting wave swept under me and then slammed down, exploding two meters to shoreward. I quickly carved back around and chased it like a madman toward shore.  Micro moments later, another wave collapsed close behind me and I leaned my boat way over to catch it broadside. We were flounced fifty meters landward, bouncing along sideways in front of a frothy, four-foot wall of white water, that I balanced against by leaning on my paddle blade.  When the foam wall started to weaken, I levered up over it, carved around to re-point toward land, and sprinted to snag the silky, green face of another approaching secondary wave.  My boat fit that swell as though they had been molded at the same factory.  We lifted and I rocketed down into the wave’s belly and then joyfully slalomed the remaining hundred yards into that skinny, steep beach. 

Molly and a fellow I did not know, standing in water up to their ankles, generously grabbed the front of the kayak before the knawing backwash dragged me seaward.  I swiftly ejected myself and they lifted the boat onto the logs.  Molly shouted a greeting above the wind.  She has been a white water and ocean kayaker and she still paddles in protected sea conditions and on gentler rivers.  Her sparkling eyes told me that she’d been with me every second since we signed off the radio.

eightMolly among the logs. Surf to your left, fishermen in the river to the right.We lugged the kayak up over the log jumble to a sand track on the landside.  Molly introduced me to my benefactor, Fred, one of the Quinault fishermen.  “Don’t see many kayakers come in here,” he said.  “Is it difficult to learn how to do it?” He said that he wished he could go out when it was rough, to experience the wild ocean, and to do it in a small craft. I cautiously considered my answer.  “It’s like riding a bike,” I said.  “At first it seems difficult and scary, but once you get a feel for it, then you want to do it all of the time.”  As I stripped off gear and spread it out on the logs to dry, he asked more questions about my equipment, the price of a boat, what I did when I tipped over, and finally, where I was going.   I tried to answer in a concise manner, encouraging his fervor and feeding his kayaking dreams.  “Mostly I fish,” he said.  “It would sure be fun to just play in the ocean.”   I agreed with him on that.  After a few more questions, he bid us farewell and then turned to go back to his powerboat, to fish.   His curiosity and enthusiasm made me grateful that I could feed those traits in myself.

The village/town of Taholah is at the end of the road that winds north along the coast from Aberdeen.   It is the tribal center for the Quinault First Nation.  From here, they operate carefully planned logging operations on their heavily forested reservation. They also run two casinos and a few convenience stores elsewhere on the reservation’s margins and a small hotel in the village. The lower Quinault River fishing operation is supported by a hatchery operated by the Quinaults.  There is enough employment on the reservation to keep the families employed and solvent.  The town itself is small, and mainly exists to serve the First Nation people. It is not surrounded by a national park, so it lacks the retail, hotel and condo infrastructure of La Push.  We liked the tranquility of the place.  I have a precious, intricate, ninety year old basket from this village.  My mother was raised only fifty miles south, in Aberdeen, and her grandmother traded secondhand family clothing for that basket during the Great Depression.  Fulfilled, we loaded up for the pleasant drive down to Gray’s harbor, from where we would continue the pursuit of a cherished dream.

Where will your dreams take you?

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)


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