Porpoises, that’s what the waves look like as they leap toward the rocks and shore. The spray arches back over each breaking wave like a mother hovering over her child on the first day of school. Clinging for that last touch and then fading back and settling into the rolling sea.
How many times can you look at the same scene yet see something completely different? How many times can you photograph the same beach, the same island, the same forest and still feel that you’ve never seen it just this way? That it has never before been this beautiful. What kind of place is it that can connect with your soul, reaching and touching your innermost self with a familiarity that says, yes, this is home, this is my place of most belonging?
As I look from the front window of the rustic cabin where my family stays in La Push, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, I see the same scene I have seen many times before: the beach, James Island – Akalat in the local Quileute language– as well as the other cabins clustered in this quaint little resort. It is after 9:00 a.m. but sunlight has yet to fully break through the dawn into morning as if it regrets having to wake us. These mornings of gentle low light, though familiar to people of the northern regions are unfamiliar to me as I come from Utah, a western mountain desert region where the sun usually bursts into the day before we are ready to join it.
This is a quiet place, a place of stillness. Walking the trail to the beach, the only sound I hear above the muffled waves is my clumsy stumbling among the pebbles. The rhythmic beating of waves grows louder and more distinct as I draw nearer and, cresting the rise of accumulated driftwood, sand, rock and grass, the length of the beach crescent stretches before me. This morning the waves are as gentle as the dawn itself. Other visits to this same scene have been of crashing, foaming wildness that awes as it reminds me of my smallness. For this moment I am alone on the beach, not even a gull or sea bird accompanies me. Looking down the beach toward the jutting headland I see the waves breaking against the rocks sending showers into the air. Now they stand defiant and challenging against the water’s strength but how long, I wonder, will it take the small cluster of sea stacks, those spire-like remnants of the receding headland, to finally dissolve under the never-ending waves?
At the headland a forest trail wanders out to another isolated beach. The heaviness of the moist air muffles sound. One must stop and listen carefully to hear the sounds of life in this forest as even the birds seem to respect the silence. Moisture accumulates on the needles and leaves from the humidity, mist or gentle rain and, ever bowing to gravity, droplets make their downward journey from one level of the forest to another, eventually soaking into the soft, sweet-smelling earth. This soil, as other rainforest soils, has a thick, rich layer of woody material and leaves to catch and hold the moisture while it breaks down into the nutrients upon which the vegetation greedily feeds. Root systems are shallow here, however, as the richness doesn’t extend past about a hand’s depth. Trees, therefore, fall frequently and, in their falling, sacrifice themselves to nurse new seedlings of hemlock, spruce, Douglas-fir and cedar. What a marvelous system of never ending life.
Walking this trail and other coastal trails in the Olympic National Park is emotional, spiritual and physical therapy for me. I receive a renewal of spirit– a regeneration of sorts– for my soul here in the mist of the forest and the spray of the sea. The sifting of the sand and pebbles mirrors life experiences that sort and change me from one day to the next, never to be the same as before.
But enough of my self-reflection. Come to this glorious place– feel the forest and the sea. Fill your senses with the beauty of the natural systems at work and decide for yourself if the wave spray looks like porpoises, sea sprites or clinging mothers. Sit on the beach logs and watch the ocean. Share a walk with family, friend or self. If you plan on walking on the beaches, be sure to check the tides as high tide may narrow and shorten your beach walks. Low tide, however, extends an invitation to miles-long lengths of sand or pebble beach broken by small streams running from the forest to the sea and interrupted by rocky formations, remnants of headlands and stacks that lost their battle to the beating waves. Explore the rocks. Hidden in sand-worn pockets and pools are living treasures. Bright-colored starfish cling to the undersides of the rocks. Mollusks come alive as a wave washes over and the creature spreads its fanlike appendage to net passing nutrients. Hermit crabs do their scoot-stop dance through the pools, eyes ever watching and claws ready to snap!
There is something in this wonderland of life for nearly everyone. Simply driving along highway 101 to get to the western Olympic coast is a treat. The road carves a deep gap in the magnificent northwest forest as it climbs over hills and drops into valleys. The walls of trees break occasionally and you catch a glimpse of either ocean framed by cliffs and punctuated by stacks or mountains, often with either frosting-like snow caps or clouds like softly whipped cream snuggling gently ‘round. Whichever view one catches is breathtaking indeed.
From Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of the peninsula and south to Long Beach, the options available for an overnight stay range from resort lodge to bed and breakfast or even simple cabins. Towns with intriguing names such as Humptulips, Forks, or Hoquiam offer a variety of eating alternatives. Local seafood delights are on the menu if you prefer leisurely restaurant dining, burgers and fries are available at the local fast food establishments, or you can select and prepare your own beach picnic at a grocery store. Enjoy the variety of activities available: hike to mountain vistas at Hurricane Ridge and Storm King, follow forest trails to hidden waterfall wonders at Sol Duc and Marymere, reflect in mirror-like lakes such as Crescent, Quinalt, and Ozette, explore beaches from Shi Shi to South Beach, soak in hot springs at Sol Duc, wander rainforest trails along the Hoh, Elwha and Quinalt rivers, visit tribal centers and museums to see exhibits and hear lore and history on the Makah, Quileute, Hoh and Quinalt Indian Reservations.
One trip may not be enough. Perhaps you will decide that you must return again to this mix of ancient and present to wander the ageless forests and endless beaches. Whether or not you return, the images, sounds and smells will have forever seeped into the memories from which you can draw whenever you have need of solitude, reflection and peace.
…the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes.