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Shi Shi Beach, Olympic coast, WA 28–29 Jan 2023


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

A weather window opened to allow that rarest of opportunities: kayaking the Olympic coast of Washington in wintertime without getting eaten alive by storms. From Hobuck Beach on the Makah Indian Reservation, I paddled down to Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park. I camped next to the stone spires at Point of the Arches.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. New in 2023, the Makah have closed off most parts of their reservation to outsiders, but the main tourist attractions remain available, including Hobuck Beach.

A five-foot swell ran throughout the weekend. Three-foot surf was breaking on the beaches at Hobuck and Shi Shi—high enough to be challenging, not so high as to be terrifying. I punched out at Hobuck without any problems, but at Shi Shi, I capsized in waist-deep water at the end of a tumultuous side-surf. My paddle struck bottom when I tried to roll, so I stood up and waded ashore.

Departing Shi Shi the next day, a wave broke over my head and knocked off my hat and carried it almost all the way back to the beach. I had to ride back in through the breakers, clap the soaking hat onto my head, and then punch back out. It was all quite a bit more surf practice than I had intended in a loaded boat on a freezing winter’s day.

01 Launch at Hobuck Beach.JPG

01 Launch at Hobuck Beach. The northern end of the beach is usually easier than the central or southern parts.

02 Paddling south toward Portage Head.JPG

02 Paddling south toward Portage Head. A rip current carried me farther offshore than I intended, but the added distance helped me avoid breakers and reefs in Makah Bay, north of Portage Head.

04 Western grebes Makah Bay.JPG

03 Western grebes ride the swells in Makah Bay. The most abundant seabird species this trip were western grebe, Brandt’s cormorant, common loon, common merganser, surf and white-winged scoters, marbled and ancient murrelets, and western and short-billed gulls.

03 Rocks off Cape Flattery.JPG

04 Rocks offshore of Cape Flattery. When the fog lifted, I could see all the way to Cape Beale on Vancouver Island.

05 Sea otter Makah Bay.JPG

05 Sea otter, Makah Bay. I encountered six of these delightful creatures over the course of two days.

06 Spindrift at Shi Shi Beach.JPG

06 Spindrift, Shi Shi Beach. The most sheltered landing sites are at the southern end of Shi Shi, as close as possible to Point of the Arches, or on pocket beaches at the northern end, beneath the cliffs of Portage Head.

Shi Shi is one of the great beachcombing beaches of Washington State. It is a long, continuous arc of sand, bounded by two headlands: Portage Head in the north and Point of the Arches in the south. Portage Head is impassable on foot, neither down on the beach at low tide nor upland through the forest. Point of the Arches is passable on foot down on the beach at low to middling tides.

Of course, every headland is passable to a sea kayaker. I had hoped to paddle through the caves and arches for which Point of the Arches is named, but shooting the arches requires a high tide. This weekend, the high tides all occurred before dawn or after dusk. Instead, I explored the tidepools and sea caves on foot, joined by the many hikers who had come out to Shi Shi to enjoy one of the first good weekends of the year.

07 Shi Shi Beach.JPG

07 Shi Shi Beach, low tide. Arctic outflow winds seldom dropped below ten knots, making for a chilly weekend.

08 Sea stacks of Shi Shi Beach.JPG

08 Sea stacks, Shi Shi. During the lowest tides, intrepid hikers can clamber far out onto the rocks.

09 Beacombing Shi Shi Beach.JPG

09 Beachcombing, Shi Shi. As usual, two days wasn’t nearly enough time to explore everything I wanted to see.

10 Sea cave Shi Shi Beach.JPG

10 Sea cave, Shi Shi. The grandest caves are accessible only to kayakers, and only during high tides, but even the lesser, land-accessible caves are full of mystery.

Early winter sunset means early to bed. I woke up six hours later, already fully rested, yet it was still the middle of the night. I went down on the beach to stargaze, and then I remembered reading a few days ago about the apparition of a rare, green comet. Might the comet not be visible here at Shi Shi, so far from the light pollution of the cities? But how to pick out a dim comet amid the vast canopy of stars?

Shi Shi is close enough to the Makah Reservation that cellular phone signal reaches the beach. I learned from the internet that the green comet was supposed to be “near the North Star.” I scanned with binoculars and spotted it easily: a small, dim, smoky cloud, clearly green in color. Once I knew exactly where to look I could even make it out with the naked eye.

The green comet last appeared near our planet some 50,000 years ago. Neanderthals and other human species still roamed the Earth. Humans in Europe had only recently learned to use bone for tools, as opposed to stones. We had neither domestic animals nor crops. We were tens of thousands of years from inventing the wheel.

Our present astronomy is not sophisticated enough to determine whether the comet would have been visible to the early humans. I like to think it was. I like to think they enjoyed the sight of it as much as I did. We’ve come a long way since the comet last shed its light upon us. I’m glad it came back to check on us.

In the early afternoon, I headed back north six and a half miles (10 km) to Hobuck Beach, birding as I went. In the middle of Makah Bay, I encountered several flocks of ancient murrelets, wintering on our waters from their breeding grounds in Haida Gwaii and Alaska.

I was glad I hadn’t set myself any longer paddling distances, as I became quite cold due to the arctic outflow wind and the soaking I got during my launch through the surf. By the time I arrived at the surfline off Hobuck, my hands were so stiff I could hardly open and close my day hatch to stow my camera.

11 Sunset Shi Shi Beach.JPG

11 Sunset, Shi Shi Beach. Shi Shi and Hobuck are great places for spotting the green flash.

12 Breakers at sunset Shi Shi Beach.JPG

12 Breakers at sunset, Shi Shi Beach. The small beaches immediately south of Point of the Arches are not suitable for landing during swell, as the bays are choked with rocks.

13 Kayaking Portage Head.JPG

13 Kayaking off Portage Head. Fringing reefs and reflecting swells make this headland a challenging place to paddle.

14 White-winged scoter Shi Shi Beach.JPG

14 White-winged scoter, Makah Bay. This is one of our most handsome species of sea duck.

15 Ancient murrelets Makah Bay.JPG

15 Ancient murrelets, Makah Bay. This species is rumored to breed in Washington, but no confirmation has ever been published.

There’s nothing like the Olympic coast in winter. The eye is challenged by a different wild sight in every direction: sea stacks looming on the horizon, seabirds bobbing beside the boat, waves breaking on the beach up ahead, and an ancient, green comet sailing silently overhead.


[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
Very nicely done. Excellent adventuring.

Do you ever use pogies? They can make a HUGE difference in hand comfort in chilly conditions.
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Absolutely breathtaking scenery! I think murrelets have to be some of the cutest birds on the coast.
Once again another brilliantly written story.

Cold hands are something I struggled with for a long time until I got some pogies. There are some that are even too warm for me in all but the coldest weather we get around here.
Alex, I always enjoy your articles and envy the waterfowl photos. On our largish inland lake, we get the western grebes flocking in each spring - maybe late April, early May. They are, for a week or two, unavoidable. When encountered, they do not fly away, merely dive. The buffleheads are much more shy and fly off well before approached. Coots are interesting - when approached they fly/run away, but quickly settle. However, if you approach with sufficient momentum and can glide and stop paddling, they are not disturbed. Although I try to avoid disturbing the waterfowl, enough come through to be mostly unavoidable.
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Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

I tried neoprene pogies once, during a paddle in temperatures ranging from the mid-teens to the low twenties (-9°C to -5°C). The pogies made my hands sweat so much I started to get blisters from clutching the paddle blade. Then the moisture inside the pogies froze solid overnight, turning them into unusable blocks of solid ice. I swore off pogies after that, but maybe there are thinner ones that aren't so hot?

The conditions you described in that trip report that you linked to are fairly extreme. But yes, pogies tend to trap moisture inside, and so it makes sense to periodically slip your hands out of them, push the pogies to the center of the paddle, and allow your hands to experience a less warm/humid environment. I prefer neoprene pogies because the face fabric on neoprene tends not to hold very much moisture. You can buy thin neoprene pogies in the 1.5 to 2.5 mm range that act as protection from evaporative cooling, but do not have a high R-value like thicker neoprene which would cause your hands to cook. I’ve also use fleece-lined pogies, but those just seem to make your hands feel like they’re constantly dipping into a puddle on the bottom of the pogie where water pools, which I find annoying. You also probably don’t want ones with long wrist gauntlets as they are awkward to get your hands into.

It usually takes a while to find a setup that works for you. The material and its thickness, whether you put drain holes in the fabric (melted with a hot nail), sewing on webbing tabs that you can grip with your teeth to help you slide your hands through the wrist aperture, the length of the gauntlet and how narrow the wrist opening is… are all considerations that affect how the pogies perform for you. I wouldn’t consider that one experience that you had with pogies to be the final word.

Edit: I will just add that the loss of dexterity and sensation due to cold hands can be dangerous. I can remember one time when I found it nearly impossible to put my spray skirt on the coaming because my cold hands simply stopped working. Not good.

But I apologize for the thread drift. The real point being, excellent Trip Report…
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