Here is another contribution from the EPIC Group Travel Writers, who meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. To learn more, visit www.epicgroupwriters.org
Thought I was the first to coin the phrase “on the edge of the continent.” When I stood at the end of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1968, it truly felt like a North American drop off, especially after growing up on a farm — in the middle of the continent, enclosed by endless cornfields.
Fifty years later, my husband and I recently found ourselves on the edge of the continent again — at Olympic National Park. The sheer drop off; the fact that if you started rowing, you’d end up at Japan or China years later — that’s a mighty edge. Maybe we all feel it: that sudden jolt of finality — the thought of no more land for over 4,000 miles.
We decide to take a three-day break from sitting in our Edmonds home, looking out at our rainy, early spring, and go west — feel the power of this edge. A delightful rental cabin on the Northwest coast provides our home at Sekiu overlooking the lovely Strait of Juan de Fuca. That name alone is melodic and exotic. It is an hour west of Port Angeles, but it feels like a long way from Puget Sound for a day’s trip.Now with a new home base, it makes the daily car drives to the western coast effortless. It is an open-ended adventure — regardless of the weather. What else is our choice? Sit by the fire, sip beers, play cards and watch for whales? We do that too.
Each day, we find a new destination that became a “happy place” — that kind of soulful, travel experience that sticks to the memory wall. What is it about the Northwest Coast that is so alluring? It is so remote. The roads encased by tall firs and hemlocks seem to go forever. Yet it feels like we are searching for a temple.
It is a melancholic beauty that slows us down. It is making room for wondering — what kind of pioneers could hack out a space among the thick groves to carve out a farm in the 1850s? Travel was by trail or canoe. The bounty of the continent’s edge — the salmon, whales and seals that drew so many Native American tribes to thrive here — was enough to help the Makah and Salish tribes commit to the year-round wetness.
So we read about coastal tribes, their pot latches, the intricate basket weavings and water-resistant clothing that women made from cedar bark. Survival skills eating berries and roots, bear, smoked salmon and elk are remarkable and healthy. We shake our heads to fathom such thoughts, as our Subaru comfortably pulls into our first happy place.
The destination is Cape Flattery, named by Captain James Cook in 1778. This gorgeous headland is truly the westernmost point in the lower 48. It is a wonderful hike for families too, as it is so accessible: only a 1.5-mile round trip. Imagine walking through a quiet forest, heading downhill to a boardwalk, and then surprise: stepping up to viewing platforms that open up the world. The decks face the magnificent ocean, the old lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, and surging waves that splash high off the steep cliffs. The feeling on a platform is so immense that we remind ourselves to breathe. Golden eagles are flying over our heads. Sea lions and seagulls join the parade. Alas, we miss viewing the whales by a month, websites confirm.
We continue to nearby Neah Bay, a fishing village on the coast. Our first stop is the amazing Makah Cultural Research Center. What a top-notch museum of interactive displays that activate the past. Cedar long houses, whaling canoes… how resourceful these First Nation peoples were with limited tools. South of town is Hobuck Beach Resort, where we have previously camped. Beachfront views from cabins make it hopping in the summer months. The Shi Shi trail to the ocean is nearby and bicycling the quiet roads is pleasant. The smoked salmon at Take-Home Fish Company gets great reviews, but we pack in most meals for this trip.
On the next cloudy day we arrive at Lake Ozette, large and remote. Canoeing and fishing are popular at the lake, but we are hikers. The remains of a Makah tribe who lived there in the 1700s became an archeological site to study. A mudslide and small pox obliterated the locals so long ago. But in 1970, thousands of wooden artifacts were exposed when a high tide eroded the area. The Makah Museum benefited from these finds. As we start our hike, I wonder how many children, bears, coyotes and hunters have walked this same path.
Crossing a lovely, arched bridge near the lake, we try the Sand Point trail. We totter across cedar planks for three miles through red cedar, licorice ferns and salal. Bright yellow skunk cabbage dot our path. Upon the last turns, the deep sound track of huge waves break against the shore and it startles us! We stare at the sea stacks, the empty beach, the jumbled pile of large, bleached driftwood. It is not easy to cross these wide, long logs, all tumbled in convoluted positions. We try to throw our trusty Frisbee on the beach, before the wind arrives from thousands of miles away. Similar to the Northern California coastline, this remote edge of the Northwest is so manipulated by wild weather; it feels dangerously alluring.
Our last day finds us driving right up to the ocean beach at small-town La Push. It is home to shorebirds, seals, otters, fishermen, and a few crazy kayakers. Beachcombers and children frolic on the motley array of giant logs against the backdrop of sea stacks. With wind lashing at our faces, we try to out-stare the continent’s powerful edge — but instead, feel our older bodies being pushed back. We are afraid to scamper across the tossed logs like in our youth. Let’s reroute for protection in the forest for an easy hike: Third Beach.
It turns out to be the best trek of our trip. Perhaps, well, it makes us feel both insignificant and magnificent. Protected from the ocean’s furor, second growth hemlocks and cedars did a sway ‘n swoon, a dense-quiet dance. Each step we take is on a few thousand years of soft needles, while a roar of waves whistles over us and pulls us along.
When we glimpse the ocean after two miles of hiking an easy trail, we rush the final yards, climbing over mounds of drift logs like our life depended on it. Powerful winds have pushed these towering giants into the ocean during storms. Destruction and beauty live hand in hand. This expansive bay provokes wonder. We walk for a long time on soft sand, admiring the lacy artwork of gigantic tree roots exposed on the beach — so striking that we stand in reverence.
And without encouraging words, the two of us look down. The softest of sand seems to beckon us to take off our shoes — and we walk straight into the ocean waves, feeling the cold edge of the continent.
— By Rita Ireland
Rita and David have lived in Edmonds since 1977. She has retired as an educator and librarian, and now finds pleasure in grandkids, gardens, bicycles, travels and words.