Monday, April 26, 2010

The Shipwreck Coast

Part I – The End of the World

I don’t know how to write such a long trip report as the one I am currently filing. I figure it would be best to break it up into parts so that the reader isn’t intimidated or bored by its length. As I post each “part” of the story I will also upload the corresponding pictures into my photo album…

The Olympic coast is called the “Shipwreck Coast” for good reason; over 180 wrecks have been documented there. With such a powerful tide, and the numerous offshore rocks and islands, it’s easy to see why. The tide seems at a never-ending war with the rocks, and the sea stacks, and the islands, and the cliffs, which are battered by the relentless waves day and night. But they stubbornly hold their ground. Despite the constant barrage, they endure, and though it may seem like a stalemate, we know that the waves are slowly winning, and over time the rocks will fall and the cliffs will crumble... It is the sound of this endless war that dominates the coast.

The coastal cannonade echoed down the shore, over Rialto Beach, and into the parking lot where we lucky four, me, Luke, his dad Steve (henceforth called Uncle Steve) and Steve Keller (henceforth called Stevie) prepared for our journey. As I watched our shuttle driver John Nelson (brother of Willie Nelson) speed away, one of my long time best friends Stevie walked up after a peek at the beach and announced, “It looks like the end of the world out there boys.” We had to raise our voices to be heard over the thunderous waves. I walked up over the hill that separated the parking lot from the beach to see for myself. The first thing I noticed was the sea. Huge and mighty and limitless, the high tide crashed against the beach and against the islands just offshore. To my left was the regal James Island standing guard over the Quileute village of La Push, where werewolves supposedly live. The other thing I noticed immediately was the trees. Apparently the Olympic coast isn’t just a graveyard for ships, as deadfalls are stacked like cordwood by the hundreds along its beaches.

We started out on foot headed north from Rialto beach. Our plan for the first day was to go 8.8 miles to our first camp at Cedar Creek. Along the way we would negotiate five points that would be impassable at high tide. The tide turned out not to be too much of a problem for us. With a custom correct map and a tide chart we could accurately predict when the tide would be low enough, and any time limits we had for passing certain points along our route. The problem was that none of us brought any type of instrument to tell the time. But even telling time was relatively simple. Using the tide chart we knew what times corresponded with the changing levels of the tide. So by physically watching the tide change in conjunction with the chart, and backed by the position and movement of the sun through the sky, we could tell the time fairly accurately, and that is exactly how we did it the entire trip.

Rialto beach is covered in sand and gravel, and trees. The deadfalls were huge and we wondered where they all came from. Some of them looked like they were 10 or 20 feet in diameter. We speculated that they could be Sequoias carried north from California a long time ago. Now I think they were giant Western Red Cedars that have fallen down on the beach from years and years of erosion. Of course, I’m no expert, that is just my guess based off of what it looked like to me, because the trees that were still standing on the forest edge were huge too, and some looked on the verge of falling over.

We started passing large sea stacks at the water’s edge. The incredible thing about these sea stacks is that these giant rocks sometimes have trees growing out of them. I don’t know how the roots take hold, but they do. Eventually we made our way to Hole in the Wall, where we were introduced to the treacherous terrain that would make this trek really difficult at times. Miles and miles of rock, covered by slime and seaweed and who-knows what else, that slowed our progress at every turn.

Crossing over these rocks at low tide, we discovered dozens of tide pools, in which we found some interesting and colorful sea life, like green sea urchins and purple starfish. Crab was the most common. I don’t know what kind they were but we saw them almost the whole way. I was surprised to see the beach was also littered with all sorts of manmade objects that must have washed ashore. We saw tires, and gas cans, and shoes, and Styrofoam containers, and fishing nets, and water bottles, and probably hundreds of buoys, which someone had tied to the roots of deadfalls in some places. It was actually quite bizarre to see so many signs of humans in a place so removed from civilization.

That first day was long and hard, but beautiful. We had eyes on the sea the whole day. Only once did we have to take an overland route because of an impassible headland. By the time we got to Cedar Creek we were all in need of a meal and good night sleep. The camp, it turned out, was the sweetest camp this side of heaven. Nestled on a hill overlooking a beautiful sand beach, it was picturesque, and we all agreed as far as camping goes, it didn’t get much better. After we made camp and had dinner, we sat on some fallen trees on the beach and watched our first sunset. They would only get better.

We all dozed off in our tents to the rhythmic sound of the waves, and dreams of an easy tomorrow… But we were mistaken. Tomorrow had its own plans, and we weren’t consulted about them.