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PREAMBLE: After officially starting my SCA/AmeriCorps Internship as a Marine Ambassador at Olympic National Park I decided it was time for a trek back to one of my favorite beaches on the Peninsula: Shi Shi, to get my thoughts together. To get my head in the ocean, so to speak.
Oceans are in us all, even if we've never seen or touched one. Nearly everything can be linked back to the ocean in one way or another, which is why it’s a perfect place to teach any and all environmental education subjects under the sun. I plan to use this blog as a way to organize and process ideas for the curriculum of a 4.5 month long class that gets high school science students outside and interacting with their world-class backyard, specifically the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park.
I've visited many beaches and touched many oceans and seas in my younger years on this Earth, but none have impacted me so and pulled me back as strongly as has this most northwestern point in the lower-48. Let me explain.
A few breaths after being born, I was whisked across the Mediterranean Sea from Paris, France to Douala, Cameroon. My lessons in life as a human on this planet commenced along the Gulf of Guinea. From there we moved to Dallas and I learned a little about the Gulf of Mexico; then the Mid-Atlantic boardwalks and dunes, lighthouses and salt marshes from Maryland up to Nova Scotia; then across the Atlantic back to the equator in Lagos, Nigeria. From there I got to learn the warm Indian Ocean in Mombasa, Kenya; different nooks and crannies of the Mediterranean; the South Atlantic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and eventually back to the "home" waters of the Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, Mexico and the cold Pacific. As a grown-up I've explored different areas of the East and West coasts on my own. Maybe it was one of those initial experiences as a fledgling that the Northwest Coast made a lasting impression on me.
I have never felt so knocked-over by a beach. Ever since first visiting in 2000, it's been a dream of mine to one day live and be a working part of this landscape.
I love to be immersed in landscapes that make me feel small and in my place in this endless universe. The Northwest Coast does just that. Up here, it's peaceful as any other ocean on a calm night, deadly as any other in a storm. It's rocky and razor sharp, conniving, treacherous and cold: several early explorers got lost, ran aground or unknowingly sailed right past this coast due to our frequently shrouded and hazardous coastal climate and topography.
It's also a luscious foggy temperate jungle, teeming with life all the way up to the glacier-capped peaks that watch over us all. Perhaps most important: it's wild and it actually feels wild here, unlike many other shorelines this far South. There are 73 miles of undeveloped beaches protected by Olympic National Park, most of which were designated as true Wilderness by Congress in 1988.
THE DRIVE: It's one of the reasons I don't go out to the Northwest Coast too often, even though I wish I was there most days, rain or shine. On a good day as a passenger on this twisty ride, I'll arrive mildly nauseous. As a driver, the hairpin curves and distracting Strait views at the end of highway 112 require extreme caution and focus, but it's a great drive no matter what time of year. Not counting photo-ops along the way and the required stop in Neah Bay for a Makah Tribal Recreation Pass, it usually takes me the full 2.5 hours to get there from Port Angeles. Double that for the return trip, and you're looking at a good 5 hours of driving if you don't plan on camping which is highly recommended.
THE HIKE: For one reason or another, I always get to Shi-Shi when it's almost too dark to even think about starting a hike, and have always ended up going anyways. (There's so much to see and do on the way!) It's also usually in the Winter, when I do most of my hiking these days as therapy from busy summers. As it happens, Winter is usually when the Shi Shi trail is in Peak Mud Form, and this hike was no different than any other except that the holes of quick-mud seemed a bit deeper. I almost lost my balance and fell face first in the mud after my boot got cemented with suction up to my knees, for the fifth time. (Were the holes really that deep last time? Am I really getting that much more careless and lug-soled as I get older? Or is it just that I finally remembered to actually wear mud boots and they're heavier and have more to get stuck in the event you do step in a hole?)
Before you even get to the mudpits though, you get to walk on a section of winter-slick boardwalk, almost as windy as the end of the road to get there. The cantilever boardwalk bridge is a destination in and of itself. From a bench nearby you can sit and ponder the wiles of modern trail engineering with the thundering quiet of the coastal forest and distant ocean in the background.
This seems to be a trail, for me, taken in best by evening and stillness; where the approaching roars of the waves combined with the first glimpses way down to seastack statues surfing in the brightening moonlight make it seem otherworldly.
The day was interesting, weather-wise, night-hiking with short sleeves in a mild January temperature inversion that felt nice compared to recent arctic blasts. I got to the first intersection of debris and switchbacks as it was getting dark and spent way too long snapping photos, as usual.
I went a few turns down past the ropes, decided it was going to be pretty dark by the time I had to come back up that part, and that I should probably save my energy for the mud pits on the way back. Freshly snapped hiking stick in hand this time, I negotiated the Shi Shi trail by darkness and headlamp once again, careful not to step in all the same holes on the way back.
I need to visit this coast regularly, no matter how long and windy the road. It's so cliche, but the ocean is cleansing, even if you don't get to jump in to wash the sweat off a hot summer day. Maybe it's the waves that drown out all other sounds to get you back to one of the oldest sounds around; maybe it's the astringent salt or exfoliating effect of the sand and cobble rubbing off onto your thoughts; or the infinite horizontal view. Whatever it is: it's an essential experience every human being should be afforded at some point in their life. For those of us who live/have lived so close to this eternal fountain of energy, it is far too often taken for granted. If anything, I hope to instill in our students a sense of pride in being from such a magnificent place on Earth.