Island in the Mist
Long Island in Willapa Bay is six miles long and nearly half as wide. Two and a half miles from the southern end is a natural treasure, the Don Bonker Cedar Grove Trail, nearly three hundred acres that contains some of the oldest cedar trees in the world. The grove is at least five thousand years old. As the ancient giants go, these Western cedar are estimated to be 1100 years of age or maybe older, which lands us somewhere back near the Crusades and in the center of man’s eternal quarreling. A marvel at least, spiritual at best, this Northwest landscape overwhelms me with awe.
The Friends of Willapa National Wildlife Reserve barged about 100 people to the island on Saturday afternoon. If there were hints of disappointment, I certainly didn’t see or hear of any. Instead, smiling faces and glorious exaltations danced out of the lips of all those lucky enough to enroll in the adventure: “My, oh my. I never… “ and dozens of other happy words chirping through the wet, veridian forest, mingling with forest songs while staring up at a hundred and sixty foot evergreen. I have walked here many times and am never disappointed. Simply put, I am in love with the great trees and the environment that supports the cornucopia of all things wet and green; an environment that supports so many creatures, both big and small. All said, the Grove is a world-class wonder.
That being said, let’s explore the many other enchanting aspects of this island. The western shoreline is long, rich and diverse. From the sandy beaches (Agate Beach being my favorite) to the tall imposing cliffs that have been shaped by storm tides and tsunami, a long scamper across shoreline reveals miles of enchantment and photo opportunities. Unless, of course, one becomes stranded by rising tides, the threat of coal-black storm clouds, or in a small boat overloaded with clams. The limit is twenty. Go cautiously. The Bay is full of surprises.
The Native Chinook (Tsinuk) as well as a century of immigrant clam gatherers and present day oystermen shaped a thriving industry. The bay and the island that highlights 260 square miles of tidal waters, surges on, high tide, low tide, all as certain as moon glow. The island hosts a half-dozen official campsites, that many walking trails, sloughs, streams and innumerable waterways that drain sixty or seventy inches of annual rainfall out of the bay and into the Pacific Ocean. Animals reign gloriously. Saturday last, we ran across deer, elk, racoon, porcupines, eagles, hawks and owls. Skinned newts. Six inch banana slugs. Squirrels and weasels. The songbirds were varied and raucous, and their music gladdened the cloudy skies around us, the air sweet smelling and nearly edible with the sensation of dozens of perfumed bouquets from cedar boughs to odoriferous plants and flowers.
Sometimes the island is a treasure hunt. The giant trees are laced throughout. Heron nestled into their tall rookeries are livid with protests, and beaver and otter swim up the artery-like network of waterways seemingly frolicking in a mammal’s joie de vivre.
Please, watch the tides. More than once my skiff has been marooned for several hours waiting for the tide to lift. More than once I have spent an unexpected night on the island as the winds howled and huffed. No complaints here: a wet night under a sturdy tent and next to a blazing campfire offers its own redeeming qualities and later, stories that often grow into tall tales, an area of my expertise.
The east side of the island—Sawlog Slough and the constant unfurling of small waterways is a constant delight, a revelation for the seeker. Kayaking is always an adventure, always the best way to witness the gift basket of wildlife and waterfowl, frequently at arm’s length. Maybe the largest treasure of all is this: Being able to explore a mélange of natural light and color that quiets the mind and slows the senses into a peaceful meditation that is uncommon in our world of instant communication. This then—this island—is a reality check on the modern world.
Was this midden a Tsinuk camp? That foundation of an old cabin—see it there tangled in the underbrush—nineteenth century? How did they live, these ancestors of ours? Why did early pioneers depart this paradise, this garden of the moss and hunter’s-green, of clams, oysters, salmon and the great white sturgeon? Tell me about smallpox and how one Native clan protected their own by quarantining (and defending) the island from all comers. Can you imagine the waterfront thick with Native canoes? Can you picture the bevy of longhouses that once punctuated this shoreline? And how about the “Butterfly” fleet of sailboats that plied the bay for the famous bivalves?
In 1854, James Gilcrest Swan paddled a Tsinuk canoe down the length of the Willapa and revealed another time and place through his thoughtful journal, The Northwest Coast or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory. The Island then, is time and testament of who we were and who we have become.
Always, I wish to thank Congressman Don Bonker for saving Long Island, for his many thoughtful insights and accomplishments. The preservation of our species is dependent on these sanctuaries. If you haven’t visited, you must. This is beauty incarnate.
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Poet, author, chef and free-lance writer, Daily Astorian and Chinook Observer. Environmentalist.