West Point
At Washington's Cape Alava, Life Is, Literally, on the Edge

By Sarah Clayton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 5, 2000

Emerging from the wilderness, beholding the mighty Pacific, I felt like Balboa. Great gray waves heaved onto the shore, sending tendrils of water and seaweed slithering over the algae-slick rocks. Offshore, steep-sided islands stood like small temples, their evergreen minarets stark against a low, roiling sky. Sea stacks, crowned with roosting eagles and cormorants, rose from the water like rock totem poles.

It was--as is generally the case on Cape Alava, the westernmost point of land in the contiguous United States--raining.

I had arrived here on foot, hiking three miles through a lowland rain forest that was spongy and mossy and green, with creeks tannin-stained like tea. In the final yards to the beach, five-foot-tall ferns replaced the enormous red cedars and hemlocks of this primeval landscape. And before me was the ocean in its most undisturbed setting in the Lower 48.

The 63 miles of coastline here is part of Olympic National Park, a Delaware-size wilderness preserve about two hours northwest of Seattle--although the coast, a separate strip on the far edge of the state, is about four hours away.

Besides this extraordinary piece of primitive coastline, the park contains one of the largest virgin temperate rain forests in the Western hemisphere, and is notable for its sizable stand of conifers (some are 600 years old and 300 feet high) and unmanaged herd of wild Roosevelt elk. It's also one of the most pristine ecosystems in the United States.

During the last ice age, the Olympic Peninsula was cut off from the mainland by glaciers, which allowed eight kinds of plants and 15 types of animals to develop here--and nowhere else on Earth. Because of the diversity of its habitats and species, the park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

In the center of the park, and throughout much of the drive to Cape Alava, the snow-capped, glacier-draped Olympic Mountains dominate, with Mount Olympus rearing grandly above it all at almost 8,000 feet.

I had admired all of this several years ago during my first visit to Cape Alava with my sister, Louisa. The cape's wild beauty so overwhelmed me that I vowed to return fully equipped to stay overnight. Now Louisa, my two teenage sons and I were walking out to the cape following the old Makah Indian pathway--now the Cape Alava Trail, part of the 600-mile network within the park. The trail led close to one of the five Makah villages that once dotted this section of the coast--which looks much as it did when this village was first settled here some 2,000 years ago and, indeed, has looked since time began.

The village, a half-mile north of where the Cape Alava Trail connects with the coast, was buried in a mudslide about the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. Some of the artifacts recovered from the village--cedar bark hats and robes, wooden long houses, baskets, a life-size wooden effigy of the dorsal fin and back of a killer whale studded with some 700 sea otter teeth--are on display in the Makah Archaeological Museum at Neah Bay, 16 miles north of Cape Alava as the crow flies.

The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, which included the Makah, were second in prosperity only to the Aztecs on the North American continent, though they never "advanced" beyond being hunter-gatherers. There was no need. This misty, damp Garden of Eden provided enough food for all, and plenty for trade.

Farming arrived in the late 1800s, when Scandinavians homesteaded the area. In fact, it was one of these homesteaders, Lars Ahlstrom, who improved the trail early in the 20th century by laying cedar puncheons over the old Indian trail we had walked in on. About halfway to Cape Alava, the path goes through his farm, an area the Native Americans originally turned into prairie land to harvest roots and tender plant shoots, which attracted deer and bear. Ahlstrom arrived here in 1902, just 13 years after the state of Washington was carved out of the Oregon Territory. About the same time, much of the Olympic Peninsula received protection as the Olympic Forest Reserve.

It wasn't until 1938 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave it national park status, though the coastal strip wasn't added until 1953. Ahlstrom was allowed to live there until ill health forced him to leave in 1958; he died two years later.

Nothing disturbed the whisperings from these past times that rose like ghosts from graves as I stood on the edge of the Pacific, amid the giant ferns and soaring trees. The scene was as it always was and ever shall be: a completely wild piece of land and beach and sea.

The path dropped down to parallel the beach and wound through the waist-high grass past primitive campsites--firs spread like organic tents over bare patches of ground with crude circles of beach stones for fireplaces. Camping is allowed anywhere above the high-water line, but people seem to confine themselves to these few well-used spots.

We found a site on the flat area just before the three-foot drop-off to the beach. Driftwood logs formed benches around the fireplace, and the great bows of an evergreen helped shield us from the rain. While we were setting up our tent, a deer and her fawn unconcernedly walked by, pausing occasionally to nibble the grasses and glance at us. A raccoon lowered himself slowly down a nearby tree, his eyes transfixed on our activities as if checking out the supper menu.

We saw no bears, though I had a few pots and pans ready as noisemakers, as the ranger station had advised. We also had packed in a plastic bear- and raccoon-proof container in which to hang spare food. Ravens are another hazard. I set a small bag of lemon drops on a log, only to return moments later to watch three huge ravens fly up from the now-ravaged candy bag.

My sister, a hard-core camper, knows everything about minimalist, freeze-dried camp cooking. I'm a hedonist, so I'd offered to plan our meals and packed thick, garlic-studded steaks; baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil that only needed warming up on the coals; a chopped tomato, green pepper and onion salad that had been marinating all day in olive oil and lemon juice; and a bottle of dry (the only thing dry in our camp, I assure you) red wine. Her eyes widened.

The beach, though littered with driftwood, yields little firewood, as the driftwood here is entire trees, some with two- or three-foot diameters, ripped out of inland valleys by floodwaters and tossed and rolled in the ocean until only the nubs of branches are left on the smooth, bleached trunks. But we found enough for a fire and soon had one snapping away. And the wine breathing.

The rain--some 100 inches of it falls here each year--ceased, and we ate supper watching a gray-smeared sunset fleck the sky above the waves and the islands and the sea stacks with pink and blue.

The next morning, we set off to explore a short, steep island offshore, but a sign at its base asked us not to trespass, as the island was sacred to the Makah, who still use it for ceremonial purposes. So we headed south down the beach toward the Wedding Rocks, a series of 53 petroglyphs estimated to be from prehistoric and historic times. En route, as the tide was out--tide tables and weather forecasts are posted at trail heads and in the ranger station and should be strictly heeded as one can easily get trapped by rising water--we lingered over tidal pools, one of the great pastimes out here.

The water was clear and shallow and filled with limpets, anemones, crabs, urchins, snails and chiton--everything you'd hope to find in a tidal pool, except perhaps a gold doubloon. Glass fish floats from Japanese nets occasionally wash up--a year's journey from their native waters--but not that day.

Three miles along the beach is Sand Point, where another three-mile path leads back to the ranger station, forming a nine-mile triangle of trails with the Cape Alava Trail.

The beach itself is a collage of rock, sand, tree trunks and seaweed, the latter ranging in color from kidney-bean brown and deep purple to kelly green and hot pink. A beachcomber's paradise--but not a swimmer's. Survival time in the 57-degree summer water without a wet suit is approximately 15 minutes.

About a mile down the beach, we came to the first rocky headland, the Wedding Rocks area, and were astounded by the large (some were three feet across) petroglyphs--crude but with recognizable etchings of orca whales, fish, human faces and tall-masted sailing ships--incised into the rocks.

The Makah--"the people who live on the cape by the rocks and sea gulls"--called the Europeans the "house-on-the-water people." Although the Makah--or Cape People, as they are more commonly called--saw Spanish ships sailing along the coast in the 16th century, and Capt. James Cook came by in 1778, it wasn't until 1788 that another British captain, John Meares, made contact with the Makah, much to their detriment. Within 50 years, 90 percent of the native population in the Pacific Northwest were wiped out by the smallpox virus brought by the whites.

Today, 1,200 of the total 2,230 remaining Makah live on the one reservation, mostly in the village of Neah Bay, the last of the five Makah villages once on the cape. Ten miles from Neah Bay--which, until a road was built in 1931, was accessible only by foot or boat--is Cape Flattery, named by Capt. Cook, as it "flattered" him into erroneously thinking he had found the entrance to a harbor. The cedar-planked Cape Trail leads out to the headland, a promontory above the sea, which is the very northwest tip of the contiguous United States.

In 1994, the waters along this coast were designated the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, offering protection to the octopus, sea otters, seals, sea lions, gray whales and a quarter-million sea birds.

On our walk that morning, we saw many birds scurrying along the sand, plunging into the waves or sunning on rocks, but were most thrilled by the bald eagles. Their shrill cry, like the dying notes of an aria, gave form to the edgeless, gray world around us, a cry most surely noted by the thousands of generations of people who've known this piece of coast, this scene that has hardly changed.

We packed up our camp and walked back into the fecund forest, the sound of the ocean following us until it became a faint whisper.

Sarah Clayton last wrote for Travel about Mount Rainier.

DETAILS: Cape Alava

GETTING THERE: Cape Alava is about five hours from Seattle by car and ferry. Take I-5 north to Edmonds, Wash., where you can catch a ferry to the Olympic Peninsula (Washington State Ferries, 206-464-6400, www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries). Once on the peninsula, head for Route 101 through Port Angeles, then follow detailed signs to the park and Ozette Ranger Station.

WHEN TO GO: Olympic National Park, with its moderate marine climate, is open year-round. July through September are the driest months; winters are mild and wet, with lower-elevation temperatures in the thirties and forties. Rain gear and layered clothing are a must.

CAMPING: The park allows only 85 people to camp on Cape Alava at one time, so reservations are recommended for the popular months of July, August and September. Permits are required for camping and can be purchased at the Ozette Ranger Station up to 30 days in advance. Fees: $5 permit plus $2 per person per night.

Campers are required to pack in plastic bear- and raccoon-proof containers in which to hang food. They can be rented from the store outside the park entrance for $5 and are also useful for hauling refuse out, as there is no litter collection on the cape or at the ranger station. There is, however, a pit toilet at the beach.

MAKAH INDIANS: The Makah Archaeological Museum (1880 Bayview Ave., Neah Bay, 360-645-2711; www.makah.com/museum.htm) is open Wednesdays through Sundays until Memorial Day, and daily from Memorial Day to Sept. 15. Admission: $4.


* For trip planning and camping reservations: Olympic National Park, Wilderness Information Center, 360-452-0300, www.nps.gov/olym.

* For detailed information on the Cape Alava area: Northwest Interpretive Association, 360-452-4501 Ext. 239.

--Sarah Clayton

© 2000 The Washington Post Company