La Push to Cedar Creek, Olympic coast, WA 2–4 Aug 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Aug 6, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    For years, I was too intimated by large swells to paddle the Olympic coast. In my barge-like, open-cockpit folding boats, a capsize in rough waters would be bad news. But with careful attention to weather forecasts, I've discovered it's possible to visit when condition are benign. I've been having so much fun lately, finally exploring the Olympic coast, I'm now constantly on the lookout for another opportunity to head out there.

    Last weekend, I drove out Friday after work so I could get an early start on Saturday. I arrived on the coast after midnight, which was bad news in terms of sleep deprivation but good news in terms of finding a car campsite. Most of the car campsites on the coast are reservable, and all of the reservable ones had been booked months ago. However, by arriving late at night, it's often possible to find a campsite that someone reserved but never used. I tucked into one of these unused reservations at Kalaloch, and luckily, no one arrived to boot me out.

    The launch site at La Push can be a little rough during swells—in fact, it's a popular surfing beach. A much easier and more scenic launch site is a mile or two up the Quileute River at Mora. Using the Mora site let me start the trip with a gentle river float before hitting the swells. Likewise on the return trip, there was a gentle transition between sea and land.

    00 Route map.jpg
    00 Route map.

    01 Launch at Dickey River.JPG
    01 Launch at Mora. The Dickey River is the last tributary on the Quileute.

    02 Western sandpipers Quinault River.JPG
    02 Western sandpipers on Quileute River. These birds are on their way south from the Alaskan tundra.

    This time of year, the Pacific Northwest coast is often shrouded in sea fog. The phenomenon is so regular and so pronounced, some folks in BC refer to August as "Fogust," and we get the same thing down here. Sure enough, fog was thick over the water on Saturday, and it didn't dissipate until late in the afternoon. Before I'd even crossed the river mouth, I pulled on my dry suit, not out of concern over capsizing but because I was getting cold!

    03 James Island.JPG
    03 James Island in the fog. James Island sits at the mouth of the Quileute River. Swells become noticeable as you approach.

    04 Rialto Beach.JPG
    04 Rialto Beach in heavy fog. Rialto is one of the main jumping-off points for hikers on the coast trail.

    05 Rock garden south of Cape Johnson.JPG
    05 Rock garden south of Cape Johnson. In areas with substantial offshore rocks, the swells are muted. Paddling is relaxed, and beach landings are easy.

    Sea fog is a sign of summer, but there were also many signs of the approaching fall. Some of the seabirds were starting to transition to their winter plumages, and there were many small flocks of western and least sandpipers, all migrating down from Alaska to South America. However, a few seabirds were still nesting, including several puffins at Little James, which surprised me—I thought the chicks would all have fledged by now.

    South of Cape Johnson, I rounded a corner in a rock garden and, to my surprise, came face to face with a raft of some seventy sea otters. I hadn't seen a one until now, but here they were by the dozen.

    Sea otters don't like people, so the entire raft began jinking left and right to figure out how to avoid me in the narrow channel. Rather than disturb them further, I exited the rock garden and paddled past in the open waters, where I encountered dozens more sea otters, including two whom I interrupted in the midst of mating.

    06 Common murres.JPG
    06 Common murres. The one on the left is just beginning his transition to winter plumage. The one in the middle is mostly complete.

    07 Sea otters south of Cape Johnson.JPG
    07 Sea otters south of Cape Johnson. This is one of the largest rafts I've encountered anywhere, even in southeast Alaska.

    08 Sea otters mating.JPG
    08 Sea otters mating. The male grips the female's nose in his teeth and holds her head underwater.

    09 Sea otters splash.JPG
    09 Sea otters splash. They both seem glad to have gotten that over with.

    Last edited: Aug 6, 2019
    chodups likes this.
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    My original plan was to paddle up to Cedar Creek and camp. However, the farther north I went, the fewer offshore rocks there were to break up swells, and the larger the waves were breaking on the beach. I wasn't interested in capsizing during landing, still less during launch the next morning, when conditions might possibly be worse. I turned around and headed back south, where I'd noticed a little headland protruding into the water that broke up swells. I tucked in behind the headland and encountered landing conditions so benign, it was like paddling in a bathtub.

    10 Landing beach.JPG
    10 Landing beach. The headland also served as a break against the steady north winds.

    11 Walking up the beach.JPG
    11 Walking up the beach. The Olympic coast beaches are justly famous as a hiking destination.

    12 Headland on beach.JPG
    12 Headland on beach. Unlike kayakers, hikers are forced to climb up and over these headlands every couple of miles—an exhausting ordeal.

    13 Looking north toward Cedar Creek.JPG
    13 Looking north toward Cedar Creek. There were no other campers along my little stretch of beach, but on this north side, there were several dozen.

    14 Sea stack silhouette.JPG
    14 Sea stack silhouette. The sea fog cleared just as the sun was setting.

    15 Alex wading across Cedar Creek.JPG
    15 Log bridge over Cedar Creek. Hikers were filling up their drinking water here.

    I like to sleep out under the stars whenever possible, and this night was especially good. With the sea fog lifted, the crescent moon set, and no city lights for many miles, the stars were unbelievably dense. The Milky Way alone was bright enough to walk around by.

    As I lay on the beach, watching ever more stars emerge as the sky grew darker, meteors began to appear. Unbeknownst to me, the Perseid meteor shower was underway—and I had the perfect vantage. The meteors came once every few minutes, except sometimes there would be several in the space of only a few seconds. The largest ones left glowing trains in the sky for a few seconds after they'd burned up. It was a spectacular show.

    16 Sunset behind Carol Island.JPG
    16 Sunset behind Carol Island. The atmospheric haze only adds to the beauty of the coastal sunset.

    17 Meteor and Milky Way.jpg
    17 Milky Way and meteor streak. I saw several dozen before I finally fell asleep.

    The next morning dawned clear, hot, and still. I loaded up my boat and made my way back to the Quileutae River, with no drysuit this time. At the river mouth, I was greeted by a small flock of brown pelicans, one of my favorite seabirds. They were plunging into the brackish waters of the river delta, scooping up fish in their great pouches. Several swooped right past my head, like ancient pterodactyls.

    18 Departing at low tide.JPG
    18 Departing at low tide. It was a long carry down the waterline. Luckily, the beach here was mostly sand, not boulders.

    19 Invertebrates.JPG
    19 Coastal invertebrates. The sea stars seem to be making a recovery from their terrible die-off a few years ago.

    20 Paddling south toward Cape Johnson.JPG
    20 Paddling south toward Cape Johnson. The seas were as calm as a pond.

    21 Harlequin ducks Caspian tern CA gull.JPG
    21 Harlequin ducks, Caspian tern, California and glaucous-winged gulls in Quileute River. The ducks seemed to be in molt, unable to fly.

    22 Brown pelican.JPG
    22 Brown pelican. Pelicans always look like they're having so much fun, whatever they're doing.

    Unlike my previous trips to the Olympic coast, I had no particular theme in mind prior to setting out, yet I still had wonderful adventures. Nesting seabirds, huge rafts of otters, plunging pelicans, and a shower of meteors—it doesn't get any better than this.

    Last edited: Aug 7, 2019
    chodups and stagger like this.
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Great report, Alex!
  4. benson

    benson Paddler

    Aug 28, 2011
    Sequim, Wa
    Great photos! What a difference a day makes.
  5. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    Great report
  6. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    Beautiful pix as always! Just astounding landscape!