La Push to Goodman Creek, Olympic coast, WA 25–27 May 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, May 29, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    My recent trips to visit nesting colonies of tufted puffins have only whetted my appetite for more. Alcid colonies exist only on the threshold of wilderness. If you’re encountering nesting alcids, it means you are in a remote place that has only lightly felt the hand of man. Such are some of my favorite places to visit.

    The most numerous alcid in Washington State is also the hardest to find: the Cassin’s auklet. This little seabird is so highly pelagic it is almost never seen from shore. Even kayakers are not likely to encounter this bird most of the time, because its primary habitat is the open ocean at the edge of the continental shelf. Here in Washington, the continental shelf lies between 8 and 40 miles off the coast (13–65 km), with an average distance of around 30 miles (48 km). So if you’re not at least eight miles out to sea, whatever bird you’re looking at probably isn’t a Cassin’s auklet!

    Like all birds, however, the Cassin’s auklet must come ashore to nest. Washington’s entire population of 90,000 birds nests on just six islands, all off the Olympic coast. Of these, Alexander Island commands the lion’s share of the population, with over 55,000 Cassin’s auklets nesting on this one 8-acre (3-hectare) island.

    Over Memorial Day weekend, I set out to visit Alexander Island in hopes of finding and photographing a Cassin’s auklet. Late May is peak fledging season for this species, so I reckoned now would be the perfect time to find them coming and going from their nests.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Route map. The Olympic coast of Washington is protected as a national park. Logging doesn't start till farther inland.

    My folding kayaks aren’t really seaworthy for open-ocean kayaking. Because of their giant cockpits, porous spraydecks, and lack of bulkheads, folding kayaks can be unsafe in exposed conditions, and waters don’t get more exposed than the Olympic coast. On Saturday, even a moderately adverse weather forecast forced me to stay ashore the first day.

    Olympic National Park receives three million visitors a year, and I am pretty sure every one of them showed up the same day I did. The line at the Quinault ranger station to get a backcountry camping permit was over an hour long. All the drive-in campsites had been booked months prior. Even in the backcountry, the areas of the park subject to camping quotas were likewise fully booked.

    I had anticipated this problem and selected a beach near Goodman Creek that is not subject to camping quotas, but I couldn’t reach Goodman Creek until the following day, when winds would calm enough to enable me to paddle on the open ocean.

    My first thought was to find a decommissioned logging road outside the park and car-camp the first night, but while I was driving around La Push and Mora to scout launching locations for the following morning, I spotted some uninhabited islands in the middle of the Quileute River. These were well sheltered from wind and tides, so I put in at the Mora boat ramp and paddled across the river to set up camp—a much nicer experience than car-camping in a clearcut.

    01 Sunset Quileute River.JPG
    01 Sunset on Quileute River. Next morning, the dawn chorus of thrushes here was one of the loudest I’ve heard.

    02 Paddling down Quileute River.JPG
    02 Paddling down Quileute River. Launching on the Quileute River was easier than attempting a beach launch at La Push.

    03 James and Little James Is.JPG
    03 James and Little James Islands. The jetties at La Push, just a mile downstream of the boat launch, provided a gentle transition between the peaceful river and the heaving ocean.

    04 Quileute Needles.JPG
    04 Quileute Needles. The offshore islands are all part of a national wildlife refuge and cannot be landed upon.

    05 Arriving at Quileute Needles.JPG
    05 Arriving at Quileute Needles. Jagged rock forms and pounding swell inform the visitor that he has come to the edge of the world here.

    Cassin’s auklets aren’t the only good bird out here. The offshore islands are home to thirteen nesting species of seabird, including my all-time favorite, the tufted puffin. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our state has lost 90 to 95% of our puffins just in the last 40 years, and likely 99% of the puffins that existed at the time of European contact. Still, even today, there are enough puffins nesting on the offshore islands to delight a fan like me. I must have seen 200 of them at three nesting islands: Cakesota, Rounded Island, and Alexander Island.

    06 Tufted puffin Quileute Needles.JPG
    06 Tufted puffin at Quileute Needles. There were dozens of puffins at each nesting island, but the ocean is so big, and puffins so small, that I only spotted puffins within a quarter mile of each nesting island.

    07 Pigeon guillemots Quileute Needles.JPG
    07 Pigeon guillemots at Quileute Needles. Their bright red feet are so funny they always make me laugh.

    08 Common murre Quileute Needles.JPG
    08 Common murre at Quileute Needles. Puffins and auklets nest in burrows, but common murres nest right out in the open on the cliffs at Cakesota—the only island where I encountered them on this trip.

    09 Cormorants Quileute Needles.JPG
    09 Pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants at Quileute Needles. Other than gulls, pelagic cormorants were the most numerous seabird of the trip.

    Last edited: May 29, 2019
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  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The nautical charts for this stretch of coast make it look like a minefield. There are so many half-submerged rocks along this coast whole areas are simply circled and marked “rocky” or “foul.” At first, I thought I’d have to remain well out to sea to keep safe. I soon learned, however, that nautical charts are designed with power boaters in mind, not kayakers. To a power boater, the rocky coast no doubt looks utterly terrifying, but my little kayak had no difficulty slipping between the endless sea stacks, outcroppings, and boulders. At my sedate pace of three miles per hour (5 km), I had plenty of time to observe waves breaking over hidden rocks and avoid them.

    Giants’ Graveyard was a particular highlight of this route. The enormous monoliths jutted from the sea like the ruins of an ancient, sunken civilization. A light shroud of sea fog screened from view the hikers on the beach, leaving me with the eerie impression that I was the last man on Earth.

    10 Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    10 Giants’ Graveyard. The rockiest and most beautiful part of our wild coast.

    11 Into the Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    11 Into the Giants' Graveyard. How exhilarating to paddle a small, vulnerable boat in such a stark, alien environment.

    12 Harbor seals in Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    12 Harbor seals sleeping in Giants' Graveyard. The coast is lined with all manner of arches and sea caves.

    12 Seals in Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    13 Harbor seals in Giants' Graveyard. The harbor seals here on the coast seemed less wary of humans than those on the inland waters.

    Despite the rolling swells and my frequent breaks to look at puffins, I made good time down to Alexander Island. I timed my journey to coincide with the ebb tide, thinking the current might help me along, but there actually didn’t seem to be much in the way of current one way or the other. Perhaps if I’d visited during a spring tide instead of a neap tide, it might have made a difference, but I doubt it. The main factor to be wary of here is not tides but winds. Luckily, those remained calm for the rest of the weekend after the windy first day.

    My high hopes to photograph a Cassin’s auklet came to naught. I paddled all the way around Alexander Island, and although I encountered more puffins and guillemots than ever, I didn’t see a single Cassin’s—this at an island home to 55,000 of them. I was in the right place at the right time of year, but somehow I still struck out. The only thing I can think is that Cassin’s must avoid the nest site during the day, as storm-petrels do. Perhaps if I’d paddled out at night, I’d have had better luck.

    13 Tufted puffin at Rounded Island.JPG
    14 Tufted puffin at Rounded Island. Puffins are inquisitive. They often fly out of their way to investigate kayaks.

    14 Approaching Alexander Island.JPG
    15 Approaching Alexander Island. Puffins, auklets, and guillemots all favor islands with steep, rocky cliffs to keep out predators and soft, sandy tops in which to excavate burrows.

    15 Sea otter at Alexander Island.JPG
    16 Sea otter near Alexander Island. By 1910, sea otters were extirpated completely from our state. Since then, their population has rebounded mightily thanks to a reintroduction program. We now have over 1,700 of them, of which I encountered seven on this trip, including a mother with a pup.

    16 Alexander Island.JPG
    17 Alexander Island. This wild island looks like it belongs in Alaska more than Washington.

    17 Puffin at Alexander Island.JPG
    18 Puffin at Alexander Island. Sea grass will make a cozy nest for its chicks.

    18 Pigeon guillemot at Alexander Island.JPG
    19 Pigeon guillemot at Alexander Island. This and the rhinoceros auklet (which I did not encounter on this trip) are the two most human-tolerant species of seabird.

    I would have liked to see a Cassin’s auklet, but no one can ever be disappointed on a trip where there are puffins. After half an hour enjoying their company at Alexander Island, it was time to head to Goodman Creek to camp. There was enough time in the day I could have headed back to the Quileute River, but it had already been a 13-mile day by this point; I wasn’t keen to do 13 more.

    Kayak guidebook author Ken Campbell speaks very highly of Goodman Creek on his blog, and he was right, as usual. The mouth of the creek is so well protected by rocky sentinels it’s all but invisible from the ocean. Swells crash furiously against the entrance to the maze but do not invade the creek. The moment I entered the creek, the open skies and booming drumbeat of swells disappeared, replaced by the still, quiet air and closed green canopy of the old-growth forest.

    19 Goodman Creek.JPG
    20 Paddling up Goodman Creek. The creek is like an artery, pouring water from the heart of the forest.

    20 Falls Creek.JPG
    21 Falls Creek waterfall. At low tide, I could only paddle as far as the confluence with Falls Creek. At high tide, I probably could have gone another quarter mile upstream.

    21 Paddling down Goodman Creek.JPG
    22 Exiting Goodman Creek. During a neap tide, it would be possible to camp on the sandbars of Goodman Creek, but I was keen to camp on the beach just around the corner, where I could listen to the waves.

    22 Alexander Island from Beach.JPG
    23 Alexander Island from the beach outside Goodman Creek. Long, sandy beaches are one of the Olympic coast’s chief attractions.

    23 Alex on Goodman Creek beach.JPG
    24 Alex on the beach east of Goodman Creek. The coast hiking trail, which generally runs along the beaches, goes up and over a headland just east of here, so the only people I encountered were a dozen day hikers, all of whom departed before high tide.

    24 Arch at Goodman Creek beach.JPG
    25 Arch at Goodman Creek beach. On the far side of this arch were hordes of people camping at Mosquito Creek. On my side, I was the only camper.

    Last edited: May 29, 2019
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  3. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    One of the reasons I picked a neap tide weekend was because I suspect the beach at Goodman Creek floods during spring tides. This weekend, however, the water never came within forty feet of my tent. Once the day hikers cleared out to avoid being stranded by the rising tide, the beach was sublimely peaceful. There weren’t even any of the motorboats and jet aircraft that so disrupt the wilderness experience in the inland waters. It was just me, the waves, and both species of otter splashing in the bay. I would have slept out under the stars, but a few mosquitos came out once the wind died. I put up my tent but left off the rain fly so I could still watch the waves before I fell asleep.

    25 Loading boat at Goodman Creek.JPG
    26 Loading kayak on last morning. I selected this beach because it has no camping quota; it is isolated by headlands from the hiking route; and it is sheltered from swells by its orientation and the offshore rocks.

    26 Departing Goodman Creek.JPG
    27 Launching at Goodman Creek. Passage among these rocks is only possible at middle tides and above.

    27 Caves at Goodman Creek.JPG
    28 Sea caves at Goodman Creek head. Inside the caves, the deep booming of the swells was amplified and reflected from all directions, as if the Earth itself were about to collapse.

    28 Arch at Toleak Point.JPG
    29 Sea arch at Toleak Point. On a typical summer day, the coast is shrouded in fog in the morning, which gradually burns off in the course of the day.

    29 Rocks off Toleak Point.JPG
    30 Sea stacks at Toleak Point. These rocks have a ruined, ghostly affect, especially in the fog.

    29 Toleak Point.JPG
    31 Rock garden at Toleak Point. Here, I drew near enough to land to watch the poor hikers stumbling up the beach beneath their heavy packs, while I cruised in comfort and luxury.

    As a capstone to the trip, there were whales spouting off First Beach, just outside the Quileute River jetty. I tried to identify what species they were, but the ocean swells were too high for me to see their bodies. Just when I was resigning myself to letting them pass unidentified, one of them popped up a hundred feet from my boat and let out a quick puff before slipping back under. In that brief instant, I was able to see the pale, mottled skin of a gray whale.

    By the time I got back up the Quileute River, the tide had fallen. Unfamiliar as I was with the area, I went up a side channel instead of the main stem and ended up having to get out and haul my boat over a shallow stretch. Soon I was back at the Mora boat ramp, where I ran into a couple who’d paddled up the Dickey River—the only other kayakers I encountered the whole weekend.

    30 Entering Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    32 Entering Giants' Graveyard. On the way back, I stayed closer to shore than I had on the way down, which brought me closer to these wonderful sculptures.

    31 Through Giants' Graveyard.JPG
    33 Through Giants’ Graveyard. The white chalky stains on some of the islands are from enormous quantities of guano deposited by generations of seabirds.

    32 Teahwhit Head.JPG
    34 Teahwhit Head. Hikers have to climb up rope ladders to get around these headlands.

    33 Arch at Teahwhit Head.JPG
    35 Arch at Teahwhit Head. With no noise from motorboats, cars, or airplanes, and no other people around, visiting these islands felt like traveling back to prehistoric times.

    34 Back up Quileute River.JPG
    36 Back up Quileute River. Only here, in the immediate vicinity of La Push, did I encounter boats, and even here, there were fewer than ten.

    Memorial Day weekend can be a difficult time to find solitude in the outdoors, especially in Olympic National Park, one of the ten most-visited parks in the United States. But, by using a boat instead of a backpack, I was able to get a beach all to myself on one of the busiest camping weekends of the year. Out on the water, of course, my solitude was even more complete. It’s too bad I missed my Cassin’s auklets, but between the puffins, the otters, the whales—not to mention the outlandish physical scenery—it was a great trip.

    Last edited: May 29, 2019
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  4. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Yow! What a spectacular, rare trip. I bet very few kayakers camp there. That section of the WA coast is so scenic. Thanks for putting this up, Alex.
  5. designer

    designer Paddler

    Sep 17, 2012
    Bend OR USA
    I often wondered about paddling on that stretch of Washington Coast. When I drove down it last summer, it seemed a person had to be out quite bit to stay out of the surf zone. And have the campsites and tides dialed in because you could see little of the shore detail from that far out and it would be a long carry at low tide.

    Thank you for the great report/photos/graphics. I shared the report URL with a birder/paddler friend.
  6. The GCW

    The GCW Paddler

    Oct 4, 2009

    Thanks again. I backpacked that area of the Olympic Peninsula National Park for My HONEYMOON. Before I started sea kayaking. Special place.
  7. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    Another amazing trip report. WOW. Not sure why I torture myself reading these when it just seems impossible for me to ever manage to move there, but I can't stop myself LOL.