Coastal Journeys

Best of the West Coast, Paddling to Oregon (Essay Five)

On the mud near Oysterville, Washington on Willapa Bay.  Looking for Mr. Swan.

Best of the West Coast Series: Join Jeff King in his fifth installment of his journey along some of the 'Best' sections of the USA West Coast.

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)

Chasing Ghosts Down to Oregon

To continue our Journey, we moved camp south to Ocean Shores, Washington. I skipped some of the flat coastline north of there. Our quest is to see the Best of the West Coast of the USA.  As a result, some sections will get left out, because I want to use the limited fine ocean conditions to explore the most interesting places. 

On a moody day, with a so-so forecast, I launched through the sandy surf at Ocean Shores to paddle south along the real estate lined beaches and then inland into Grays Harbor.  My route was chosen to celebrate pieces of American frontier and native history, and to honor my family connection to the harbor. Nearing the north jetty of the great harbor, I got spanked by a tall, dark squall, that I had monitored for an hour as it rapidly advanced from way out to sea.  Suddenly the wind revved up and the ocean swiftly morphed from dimpled to spumy, with sheets of flying water dousing and blinding me.  For fifteen minutes I could not make way against the wind. I glanced over at shore periodically and there sat the same house in the same location as five minutes before. Gradually, the squall let up enough that I was able to claw south around the north jetty and to ride the tidal current down into the bay.  I had a few “what the heck am I doing out here” moments before Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, decided to take a rest.

Captain Robert Gray, after whom the bay is named, was an East Coast merchant captain who initiated American involvement in the lucrative West Coast maritime fur trade.  He was the first American captain to circumnavigate the globe.  In 1792 he was the first non-native ever to sail over the bar of the Columbia, to recognize it as a great river and to name it after his ship.  (Lewis and Clark showed up by canoe in 1805).  It was Gray’s unprecedented entry onto the Columbia along with the nine days he spent exploring and mapping the river, that later helped sway the negotiations with England about where the boundary with Canada was eventually drawn.  Gray established a first claim for America.  Can you imagine what the map of North America might look like had Gray not made his bold move over the hazardous, uncharted Columbia bar? Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in B.C. Canada?   We visited a working, life-sized replica of one of Gray’s ships that was built and is berthed in Aberdeen, Washington.  You can pay to spend two weeks before the mast aboard this actual sailing ship!  If that sounds a bit too salty, then at least don’t miss a visit aboard the Lady Washington if you pass that way.

We were eager to explore each of Washington’s two great coastal bays.  Willapa Bay, just south of Gray’s Harbor, was home to frontier diarist James G. Swan for three years in the early 1850s. He arrived, to what was then-called Shoalwater Bay, just at the twilight of the natives’ tranquil existence, when mortality from European-introduced diseases among some native groups was at ninety percent.  He was a keen and unbiased observer of people and of nature. His captivating writings, about what is now called Willapa Bay, render what it had been like there, right at the brink of momentous human and environmental change.  The Bay had fewer whites than the rest of the frontier, so the natives had fewer problems than elsewhere.  Swan was not an anthropologist but his work reads like some of the finest ethnogrophy. Three years of Swan’s writings are collected in a book he published in 1857 entitled, The Northwest Coast.  My father was raised on Willapa Bay and he had that book in his library all of my life.  It resides on my bookshelves now. I recommend it for anyone interested in an historical, informative, eyewitness account of this strikingly beautiful place

essay5twoAmong the Oyster pens with the jaws of the bay far off to the north.When considering my water travel itinerary, I simply wasn’t drawn to paddling down the monotonous ocean side of the Long Beach Peninsula, with its eighteen miles of shoals and flat beaches.  We were eager to visit the historic, decaying small towns along Willapa Bay, and I could not resist paddling in the wakes of Swan and the first nations people - inside of the bay.  So I began at Oysterville, on the upper, bay-side of the Long Beach Peninsula.  Molly dropped me in at low tide, with just enough water beneath the kayak for it to glide over the gigantic mudflats of the west coast’s second largest bay.  The Willapa muds are home to the largest farmed oyster fishery in the USA.  Entombed in the Willapa muds are cedar tree remnants, intermixed with ocean sands that were driven over the barrier Long Beach peninsula and into the bay by tsunamis.  Several, historic, Cascadia Fault generated tsunamis are thus recorded in a carbon-date-measurable, readily observable manner.  The next one is likely coming soon according to Henderson’s riveting book, The Next Tsunami, which credits evidence found at Willapa Bay for helping to reveal the cyclical nature and broad scope of these destructive tsunamis.

Lunching on the eastern shore of Long Island.essay5threeI sifted these thoughts in my imagination as I stroked out through the oyster beds to begin the crossing over to Long Island.  It was a clear day with only a whisper of wind.  I could see twenty miles up the bay but I only spotted one other boat out in the calm water. Low tide over a shallow bottom gave me the selfish pleasure of solitude in this massive, marvelous space. Ninety percent of the bay gets extremely shallow or dries up at low tide, creating excellent bird habitat. The entire bay is a Western Shorebird Reserve.  I lost count of the number of Great Blue Herons wading the shorelines. There were mobs of Sandpipers, Wimbrels, Oystercatchers and Plovers.  Loons, Grebes, Cormorants, Mallards and Mergansers cruised the bay with me while bossy Kingfishers defended their shoreline territories.  A soaring Bald Eagle hunting fish topped off my Willapa bird list. I arced around the north end of Long Island and cruised down the east side, where I entered the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge encompasses the lower third of the bay, as well as several tributary rivers.  What a quiet, magical place this is.

I followed the route used by James Swan and the “Shoalwater” natives to tour south, arriving near the mouth of the diminutive Bear River at the bottom end of the bay, where I took my kayak out.  They would pole up the Bear until their canoes ran aground and then lift them to portage south over a low ridge to the Columbia River estuary.  This was the travel and commerce route used historically by the local aboriginals to trade with the Chinook and other tribes living along the Columbia River, and during frontier times, to connect Shoalwater settlers with Astoria and the growing flotilla of international vessels calling there.  Molly scooped me up and we then enjoyed walking a unique, imaginatively assembled interpretive trail, which we accidentally discovered, at the Refuge headquarters

essay5fourCruising the lower tip of Long Island while looking for the Bear River portage.We also tramped Cape Disappointment’s hiking paths and visited the captivating Lewis and Clark pavilion before rolling across the Columbia at Astoria and driving fifty-five miles south to launch the next ocean-phase of the Journey.  Over the past forty years, I have paddled from Fort Stevens to south of Tillamook on various daytrips.  Though the history-rich Tillamook Head, the sea pillars and Haystack Rock near Cannon Beach, the sea lion riot at Cape Falcon, the fabulously tall cliffs of Neahkanie Mountain, and the surf-clad beaches along that coastline all deserve honorable mention here, we were keen to use our remaining good weather days to see parts of the coast that would be novel for us.  Cape Lookout was next! However, without entirely giving away the secret, I will divulge that there is a three hundred meter-long sea tunnel cut through one of the basalt headlands somewhere south of Cannon Beach.  Search for it by kayak at low tide along tall cliffs.  When you venture to the back of “the grotto” you’ll notice what looks like a single star in the night sky blackness of the cavern’s back wall.  That tiny pinhole of daylight is calling you into the wet darkness.  Let it guide you breathlessly through the long passage and into the explosion of sunlight on the far side.  Careful, the variegated rock ceiling is close above you.



Some years ago, we hiked five miles out the basalt-faced, imposing neck of land that is aptly named Cape Lookout.  All along that ridge-top hiking trail, but especially at the very end of the protruding peninsula, the views are spectacular.  To the north and south, the coastlines fade off gradually in forty-mile vistas.  To the west, the subtly curved horizon plunges away into the blue distance.  Squint hard.  Can you see Hawaii?  Breakers sometimes roar against the cape’s western toe, which is only visible from three hundred feet directly above, because the trail never descends from the ridge’s heavily forested crest.  From numerous dizzying, cliff-top lookouts you peer down on birds as they come and go from nests somehow perched on the rocky faces below, you look down at sea lions hauled out on the cape’s rocky, stepped prow, and you gaze out across hundreds of square miles of ocean,essay5fiveThe Northern Oregon coast angling south from Neahkahnie Mountain Headlands. Look for the sea tunnel near here. earnestly hoping that you spot a passing Gray Whale’s spout.

Gray Whales, though a distant relative of hippos - with fossil remains going back thirty million years, are an utterly unique species, genus and family.  People strain to see them swimming off-shore all along the west coast of the USA, during their annual migration to and from Baja, Mexico to visit their winter caving grounds. Gray Whales also swim in close to shore and are visible being pummeled and pushed around in the breakers. Grays can be seen along portions of the coast lying on their sides munching the dark bottom ooze that is full of bottom dwelling micro-organisms called amphipods - which they suck up like vacuum cleaners - and then strain out the edibles with their rugged baleen-lined jaws.  Another reason the Grays keep close to shore is to avoid the Orcas, or killer whales. Though not whales themselves, but the largest species of dolphins, Orcas are stealthy, efficient, pack- organized predators of other marine mammals including seals, sea lions and Gray Whales. As a strategy to avoid the Orcas, the Gray Whales, especially the mothers with babies, mostly swim in shallow water close to shore.  The breaking surf acts to muffle the sound of their breathing, a sound the Orcas listen for when in the hunt for immature or sick Grays.

In spite of being ruthlessly, industrially hunted in their Baja calving lagoons nearly to extinction in the 1800’s, the Grays have made a storybook recovery and now number near fifteen thousand individuals.  Some few Gray Whales are highly social and interactional with humans, especially but not exclusively, in their Baja mating and calving lagoons.  Dick Russell’s award winning, seven hundred page tome, The Eye of the Whale, follows the Grays’ migration from the Baja lagoons to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.  Russell’s work is superb natural history woven together with the history of whaling as lived by Captain Charles Scammon, whose discovery of the gray whales’ calving grounds caused their near elimination as a species.  Russell incorporates quotes and themes from Melville’s Moby Dick in a manner that gives his scientific work an artistic, readable quality.  The Grays are by far the most accessible, viewable whales for the common person and you don’t need a whale watching boat or even fancy binoculars to witness these creatures as they make the world’s longest mammalian migration.  Figure out where they are along the west coast in the spring and fall.  Put your lawn chair in a place with a good ocean view and then wait for the Grays to pass buy.  They are the motorhome-sized things with the spouting, vaporous – and I might add, stinky – breath.  Russell quotes Roger Payne, from his work, Among Whales:

                  “… the lives of whales are somehow enough to match any fantasy humanity can create.  They are what we have lost, what we yearn for.  They are in some ways the last wild voice calling to the consciousness of terminally civilized humanity, our last contact before we submerge forever in our own manufacture and irretrievably lose the last fragments of our wild selves.”

essay5sixCape Lookout in morning light from the north.The beach at Cape Lookout State Park stretches seaward from the foot of a four-meter pile of riprap upon which a long, scenic campground is perched.  We arrived early, the first to enter the day use parking area that is nearest to the pounding water.  The park worker there was curious about our Journey.  Like so many coastal residents that we meet, he lives near the ocean but has no way to explore the off-shore worlds.  He generously allowed that kayak launching was not “day use” and waved the park entry fee.  He then seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time raking a small area, which had a commanding view of my beach launch area.

The breakers were stacked six deep over the first hundred yards.  They were large and tightly packed, which meant that a carefully timed entry and then a full blast charge might get me clear of the surf.  After mounting the boat and snapping on the spray skirt, I prowled ankle deep water for several minutes to get calm and to feel the ocean’s pulse.  When thought and intuition aligned, I turned into the soup and sprinted toward the heaving waves.  Quick lateral moves allowed me to crash the middle rollers in their green bellies, just before they rolled over.  I then attacked the largest, outermost breakers guessing it was a fifty/fifty chance that I’d get through them before they dumped onto me.  A harbor seal streaked toward shore inside the closest wave, casting a silhouette in the rising bulge.  I ski-jumped those final two waves just as each one broke over.  I was vigorously stroking out into deeper water when the seal startlingly burst above the surface, joining and following me outside the surf zone, it’s mottled body like a phantom beneath the glassy surface.

I stroked westward along the sheer, blocky base of Cape Lookout.  I strained my gaze upward as scores of seabirds launched into flight from the rocky perches of their skinny ledge-homes.  The sea was calm, with only a two-foot swell licking the bottom edges of the basalt columns.   Though I was on the shady, north side of the peninsula, above me the top of the cape was painted by morning light in an Irish green blaze of cedar, hemlock and fir trees.  I rounded the cape an hour later riding a slight calliopsis caused by the swell sloshing on and off the stepped end of the promontory. Cape Kawanda now protruded to the south and the elegant dunes of Sand Lake were ahead of me at the eastern base of Lookout. I closely traced the mesmerizing south facing cliffs in pond-like conditions.  Finally, I turned out onto the silvery, dimensionless space that lay to the south of the cape.

essay5sevenA look back to the north at Cape Lookout, with the Sand Lake Dunes to the right.Two hours of meditative stroking in the company of huge, luminous jellyfish, that pulsed along like miniature starships a meter beneath the mirrored surface, brought me to within a few miles of Cape Kawanda and it’s Haystack Rock.   The sun polished a brilliant, backlit sheen on the water.  Squinting from beneath the brim of my ball-cap, I began to see the unmistakable, wispy spouts of several Gray Whales.  There were at least five members in the group nearest to me and they were moving north, getting nearer.  I continued my pace but altered course a bit out to sea, as they appeared to be angling inland, toward the shallows.  We closed to within two hundred yards and then they calmly lifted their flukes and vanished.  Moments later I paddled over the dimpled spot where they dove.  It was like chasing ghosts. After fruitlessly waiting to see if they would show themselves, I again carried on south toward the haystack.

One more Gray showed up near the haystack.  At first she seemed to be cruising away and to the west.  Then she turned and came back to the base of the rock.   I was only a hundred yards away when I stopped paddling.  I sat quietly and observed as she sank without a splash.  The slosh of swells kissing the haystack and the cacophony of the resident seabirds were the only sounds.  Unexpectedly, from behind me, I heard her blowing.  The whale had submarined beneath me and was now headed north - I guessed to join the other group?  The sound of a whale breathing is like hearing your lover’s heartbeat.  It causes you to hold your breath, and to fully experience two souls - in this case mine and the whale’s - connecting.  I sat with my eyes closed until I could hear her no more.  When I looked north there was no evidence that the whale was ever there.

Closing in on Cape Kawanda. Pacific City is around the corner.essay5eightI crisply swept the boat around to face the beach at Pacific City.  As I approached shore Molly called on the radio.  She was sitting near the Pelican Restaurant wondering if I wanted to join her for late lunch.  I quietly spooned my way toward the gentle, protected surf for which Pacific City is known.  On this sunny, very late summer day, the Oregonians apparently took the sixty-five degree weather as a signal to go Hawaiian.  Families splashing with toddlers and teenagers with boogie boards took no interest in this old man, in his funny yellow kayak, as I sledded in on an eighteen-inch swell. 

We will continue the Best of the West Coast Journey next summer, and there may be a few days of paddling along the California coast for warm-up in the springtime. We will travel slowly, letting our curiosity and the weather guide forays on land or in the ocean. For me, each day at sea is an energizing balance of judgment and skill against the shifting elements of water and wind. I am eager to attain the numinous mental state brought on by ocean paddling, to experience the beings that live in and near the sea, and to inhale a profound sense of wonder and insignificance. I want to share the fulfillment of my dream with you in a manner that ignites your imagination and that gets you out paddling as an expression of your wild selves. 

Where will your dreams take you next?


essay5nineA fuzzy blowup from an iphone image of the surf launch at Cape Lookout. In the winter I visualize coming back to this next summer.

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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