The Raw Edges of The Olympic Coast

My heart thumps. It really shouldn’t beat so hard, but I am enamored with the same feelings I get when hanging off a peak in the North Cascade Mountains of my home state, Washington. But there is one stark difference - where I am now, there isn’t a mountain in sight. Instead, to the west, I see endless skies layered on top of never-ending ocean and to the east, green folds of forest roll away into fog and out of sight. Like two indomitable forces, this is where sea meets land, where black, murky depths toss great emerald-colored waves, where life is in the process of being eternally absorbed and exposed and where you can smell the reek of death and perfume of life. With the beach, you can fall in love with the raw, jagged edges of our planet and that, to me, injects fear into veins and boils blood. 

Situated along the northwestern-most border of the United States, you’ll notice Olympic National Park. 

First set aside as Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909, it has since gained many distinctions for its diverse wildlife, varied forests, snowbound peaks and untamed coastlines. In 1938 it became a national park and in 1988 ninety-five percent of it was set aside as wilderness, further protecting this incredible park’s million acres from human encroachment. 

 Back on the coast, my heart beats normally once more as I walk onto sand. This was the first day of a planned eight. Trailing me are my youngest brother (12 years old), my younger and much older brother along with his wife and two kids (ages 8 and 12) and my mom. Ahead are 35 miles of untamed coastlines. Already the kids leap ahead of me. They begin uncovering the first slime-encrusted rocks and waterlogged shells, ever in search of treasures or the ‘biggest crab’. 

We plan one night at the Chilean Memorial and two at the Norwegian Memorial. These are reminders of where Sailors and their stalwart ships ran aground. All that remains now are these two stone markers. The sea gives and the sea takes. 

On the first night, I stare out onto waters blushed in reds. At which point, the ocean begins snaking into my mind, infatuating my already entangled feelings with expressions of beauty I can’t possibly ignore. They are infectious. Encircling a warm fire beneath a bright moon, everyone gazes beyond waves crashing, toward thin clouds and bountiful stars. 

Back at camp, alder and maple trees frame stars and a rising moon. Leaving my tent door open, I decide to take a night photograph. With everything set up and ready to go, I realize I need a filter. Back in my tent I sit down to search for the correct one. When, from the corner of my eye, I see a black animal with a white stripe down its back. Not outside, but in my tent! There is only one animal I can think of that has that particular pattern, a skunk. Leaping to my feet, all I can think of is spray filling my tent and covering me. Horrified, I sniff the air as he vanishes into the undergrowth. Even though I swear I smell something, there was nothing. 

In the morning birds are sounding their calls as well as the kids. Earlier it was raining hard, but it has since stopped. Enough so that ribbons of blue hang over water. Pretty soon gear is in packs and we are chasing low tides around headlands. 

Six miles along the coast we arrive at Norwegian Memorial and Kayostia Beach. Two nights here will be wonderful! Relaxing under a shade tree sitting on driftwood, munching chocolate, sipping lemonade and caressed by a cool breeze, ‘wonderful’ perfectly describes my situation. 

As night rolls in, I head out to the surf for photographs. The darker it becomes, the more intent I am on the images I’m taking. Don’t shake the camera, watch the big waves threatening to splash my equipment, and get that shot – it’s amazing! All along a stinging has been migrating up my feet, bearable so I forget it. Another photo – damn this water is cold. And one more before I notice my feet are not just stinging, they are on fire! I literally ran out of the ocean and in the dark, down on my feet a black mass squirms over skin. The pain is amplified by fear. I brush them off, still unsure what they were, all about the size of a lady bug. Back at camp streams of blood were rolling down my feet. I am horrified. 

Another day and night pass and my story of flesh-eating bugs become myth and legend to the kids who search them out to exact revenge. I stay out of the water altogether. Instead I help the others set-up kites; a strong breeze sends them high into the air. My toes squish into the sand as I pull back on taut strings. Knuckles white, I daydream. Like the kite, I urgently hold them to the Earth. 

Day four is gorgeous! On our way to South Sand Point, we stop at Yellow Banks to wait out the tide and cool off. Before long, we are in the fifty degree Pacific being pounded by waves. Set after set roll over us until we are so cold, even sun-soaked sand isn’t enough to warm us. It is only after drying and changing clothes that we stop shivering, even then, the short hike through a natural tunnel to camp helps. The loss of afternoon sun is still missed, but not for long. As dusk rotates into night, stars shake from the heavens and all that’s on our minds is the moment. 

Since it is a short way to Cape Alava, 3.7 miles, my older brother and I surprise the kids. Near Lake Ozette a tiny store supplies a nearby campground. Once the day’s progression up the beach is behind, tents are pitched, we tell the kids we are going on a ‘hike’. Their tired faces brighten up like the previous night’s moon when they see a sign that reads, “Ice cream,” and I watch seven miles of effort melt away. They go to sleep with full stomachs to the sound of Steller sea lions bellowing and firewood crackling. 

Going to Ozette River requires a low tide. Shaking the tents, everyone awakes and we head off at first light. Blue skies overhead are in stark contrast to previous the morning’s fog and clouds. Oystercatchers gather on the shore, strikingly pretty with their red bills. Sea anemones, sea stars, crabs, and hundreds of gulls abound. My eyes never tire of the view. Shadows curve and reddish light polishes everything in sight. 

The day before my mom had slipped in a particularly nasty boulder field and cracked open her head. Today her face and eyes are swollen black and blue. It is a sight! Everyone has fallen more than once on the gooey seaweed that plasters many rocks. The best you can do is put your chin down and push ahead. That is why views of pristine, boulder-free beaches beyond Ozette River’s mouth, are so tantalizing.

Since arriving before noon, we spend what feels like an entire day relaxing and playing. The kids discover a beach full of so many shells that it becomes “Shell Beach.” 

Near sunset my eyes paint colors where I expect them to be in mere moments. Like a movie, I watch nature’s sky-wide screen dance with pictures. Water ruffles from Ozette River into the pounding surf, where gulls gather their wings and fly all at once, before returning to the beach. This dance appears to be for no reason at all, other than to rise up and stretch their wings. As light and color melt over land and ocean, it shoots between the clouds. I can’t resist the urge to capture these sights with my camera. Somewhat like a note in a bottle tossed to sea in some faraway place tells a story to another who’s never been to that land – of love, death, and dreams yet unfulfilled.

A picture can do that as well. 

What a picture can also do is embody a moment in two-dimensional forms. It can be a reminder of your life, not someone else’s. As day seven begins, we rush over and around headlands to the most prominent of all that we’d visit, Point of Arches. Waist deep in water, a rising tide beats cliff walls as we rush kids around the headland. Once completely by, sights of Shi Shi Beach are thanked for even as our wet boots squeak on top of sun-crusted sands. That can’t diminish our happiness; beaches stretch on for miles. 

As afternoon stretches into dusk, sunrays knife through ocean-worn keyholes in the rock, before night fully encompasses us. The sound of waves rolling up the beach lulls everyone to sleep. It is easy to forget this is our last night.

On the last morning, looking southward, I see the past eight days being compressed into my face like air in an accordion. Looking northward, the end is mere miles away, only a few hours now, but I cling to the past. Gazing at the kids faces, they appear oblivious of endings. To them the beach goes on forever. I smile when I realize there’s a lesson in that – out here – crashing waves, swirling pools of white foam, rattling rocks, croaking birds and peach-colored sand go on and on. Even as my heart melts over memories recalled, sea air fills my lungs and never-ending views disappear from sight, I don’t realize the truth that’s within reach. It is only as I turn away from the wide open beach and hike up the narrow forest path that realization comes. 

Jason is a local Pacific Northwesterner known for taking on epic ski ascents in the Northwest and documenting them with some of the most incredible photography. Read more tales from his amazing adventures on Cascade Crusades and ooh and aahh over is incredible photography on Alpine State of Mind. Reposted with permission from Jason.