Long Island, Willapa Bay, WA 6–7 Mar 2021


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

Dave Kruger of Astoria, Oregon was a pillar of the kayaking community in the Pacific Northwest. Dave died in August 2020 at the age of seventy-five. He is much missed by all of us here on WCP.

One of Dave’s favorite kayak-camping grounds was Long Island in Willapa Bay. In memoriam, I paddled out to camp for a weekend.

00 Route map1.jpg

00 Route map. Free overnight parking at the boat ramp, free, no-reservation camping on Long Island.

Willapa Bay is best thought of as a mudflat masquerading part-time as a navigable waterbody. As Dave himself often reminded his readers, the trick on Willapa Bay is to time all departures and arrivals for high tide. Once the tide drops below plus-four feet, the mud and sand emerge. A kayaker can end up stranded far from shore.

To catch the morning high tide, I drove out from Seattle the night before and car-camped at Cape Disappointment State Park. When I arrived at the park, shortly before midnight, Pacific tree frogs were singing from the wetlands in every direction. They were so numerous their chorus sounded like it was coming from a loudspeaker.

01 Round Island Willapa Bay.JPG

01 Round Island, Willapa Bay. Most of the south end of the bay dries at the lowest tide.

02 Kayaking shore of Long Island Willapa Bay.JPG

02 Kayaking along shore of Long Island. Willapa Bay is protected from ocean swells, but the swells were audible from here, booming against the outer beach three miles to the west.

03 Pinnacle Rock Willapa Bay.JPG

03 Pinnacle Rock, Willapa Bay. Ebb currents flowed at about one knot here in the main channel.

04 Red-breasted merganser.JPG

04 Red-breasted merganser. Most of the sea ducks had already paired off for the season, but this handsome fellow had not found a mate.

05 Herring gull.JPG

05 Herring gull. Uncommon in my usual stomping grounds in Puget Sound and the San Juans, herring gulls are locally common here along the south coast.

06 Spotted sandpiper Long Island.JPG

06 Spotted sandpiper, Long Island. March is too early in the year for the immense, spring shorebird migration for which Willapa Bay is renowned. This individual was most likely an overwintering bird.

Unusually for a national wildlife refuge, camping is allowed on Long Island. Five small, primitive, boat-in campgrounds are distributed around the shoreline. Dave Kruger called the Smokey Hollow campground the island’s “primo” location.

Dave was known for his skill at rigging tarps. In honor of “tarp man,” I hung a giant one over my picnic table, where it protected me from intermittent rainshowers the following morning.

07 Kayak on beach at Smokey Hollow.JPG

07 Kayak on beach at Smokey Hollow. The upper portions of the beach are easy landing. At low tide, it’s either sand (walkable) or mud (not walkable).

08 Smokey Hollow campsite.JPG

08 Smokey Hollow campsite. From the swamp behind the campsite, red-winged blackbirds sang all morning and Pacific tree frogs sang all night.

One of the attractions of the Smokey Hollow site is its proximity to Long Island’s ancient cedar grove. Other than a few patches in Olympic National Park, almost all of the lowland old-growth forests along the coast were logged more than a century ago. However, one little grove of western redcedar was overlooked on Long Island. After the establishment of the wildlife refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service built an interpretive trail.

The individual cedars in the grove are over a thousand years old. The grove itself, according to silviculturists, has been undisturbed for over four thousand years, meaning multiple generations of thousand-year old trees.

It might seem unlikely that thousand-year-old trees could survive along the Washington coast. The coast is subject to massive tsunamis every two and a half centuries. (In fact, we are overdue for one now.) To this day, there are stumps in the estuary of the nearby Copalis River, evidence of a slate-wiping tsunami that occurred in 1700. The cedars of Long Island must have seen several such waves over the course of their lives.

The cedar grove of Long Island stands 50–100 feet above sea level. That, apparently, is high enough that the trees have withstood the waves that felled their brethren in Copalis and elsewhere along the coast.

The eldest cedars in the grove have bark as thick as armor. Their trunks are twisted and gnarled by the struggle of centuries. To stand in the presence of such ancient creatures inspires awe.

The majesty of a true old-growth forest extends beyond just the giant trees themselves. After multiple generations of trees have sprouted, grown old, and died, the forest as a whole begins to exhibit certain special characteristics. Instead of a uniform age class of trees throughout the forest, multiple age classes appear in the gaps where individual giants have fallen. As the process repeats over the centuries, a complete spectrum of age classes emerges across the forest, from tiniest seedlings through spindly youths up to towering, girthy elders. The trees in their diverse ages spread multiple layers of canopy overhead.

Shade-tolerant species such as western hemlock gradually replace less tolerant species such as Douglas-fir. Ground-covering shrubs such as salal and evergreen huckleberry spring up in the gaps. Moss encrusts the various surfaces. No so-called “forest health” management is necessary here. The forest manages itself millennium after millennium—and it looks good doing it.

09 Old-growth forest.JPG

09 Old-growth cedar grove, Long Island. The very air feels older in a place like this.

10 Old western redcedar.JPG

10 Old western redcedar. At one time, the whole coast looked like this, and at some time in the distant future, it may again.

In the middle of the cedar grove, creeping across a wet, slippery boardwalk, was a salamander. I hadn’t encountered a salamander in Washington in years. It did not resist when I picked it up. It simply kept crawling forward, as if my fingers were twigs on the forest floor that it had to climb over.

Outside the cedar grove, elsewhere in the forest, on a decommissioned logging road between Smokey Hollow and Sandspit, I found another salamander. A second salamander! This was almost more exciting than the first. I hadn’t encountered two salamanders in the course of a single day since I was a small child.

Then I found another and another and another, until eventually I counted no fewer than ten salamanders, just along the four miles between Smokey Hollow and Sandspit. Back at camp, I looked them up on my phone, not having ever thought to pack an amphibian guidebook. I learned these salamanders were, in fact, rough-skinned newts.

The rough-skinned newt exudes a powerful neurotoxin from its skin. The toxin kills most predators, except that in some parts of North America, some populations of garter snake have developed partial immunity to the toxin. Interestingly, individual newts in areas where there are toxin-resistant snakes often exude higher concentrations of toxin than do newts in snake-free areas or in areas where snakes have not developed immunity. The newts and the snakes are engaged in an arms race!

I did not know any of this at the time I was merrily plucking newts off the ground and letting them crawl about in my hands.

11 Rough-skinned newt.JPG

11 Rough-skinned newt. Deadly toxic amphibians can afford to adopt a relaxed attitude toward life.

12 Newt climbing on hand.JPG

12 Newt climbing my fingers. The newts were so unafraid of falling, I had to be careful not to drop them.

On Sunday morning, winds picked up to fifteen knots, with gusts to the twenties. Fighting an ebb tide, I had to struggle to round High Point on the southwest side of Long Island. Once around the corner, conditions calmed and I cruised easily back to the boat ramp.

13 Returning to mainland.JPG

13 Returning to mainland. There were no other people or boats all weekend.

Unlike cedars, people don’t live to be a thousand years old. I’m sad Dave Kruger is gone. But I feel better for having spent a weekend exploring one of his favorite places.


[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
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Nov 15, 2020
Okanagan Valley, Canada
I was inspired by your trip report and tribute to Dave Kruger Alex. Looks like a wonderful place to paddle, especially early season.

The fact that there is still one tiny remnant of ancient forest in Willapa Bay is both uplifting and at the same time very sad. So few people in modern western society know about or really care about ancient places. What they think they know about wild places, and what the reality is are often separate realities. That is certainly the case in my own Province.

Cheers, Rick