Tokeland, Willapa Bay Southern Washington Coast ---
For the last sunny week or so I've been running barefoot on the big beaches to the north of here. Running's new - it's been a long time since I've been well enough to run - and running barefoot along the wet shiny salt-spray-and-wind edge of the continent is wholly new. The sand is packed hard from the breakers, almost as hard as pavement, and the shorebirds dash wildly into and out of the waves, just as I veer inland when a big wave comes in. Otherwise I like to run where the waves spread out into a fine mirror for the sky, my feet splashing in the shallow sheet of water.
Everything is reduced down to just a few "things", almost not things at all - sand ocean line of dunes shorebirds terns sun sky. There's a sense of edge, but not a hard edge - a constantly shifting, literally fluid edge. Running the edge of the world.
James Swan, in his record from 1851 of the earliest white settlement of this part of the coast, writes about traveling along this very beach from Grays Harbor to "Shoalwater Bay" (now Willapa Bay). Inland were huge dark cedar and spruce forests, deep bogs, steep hills - but a person could drive a coach and four horses down the hard-packed open sand. Washington beaches are still classified as "public highways" - a legacy of the time, not so long ago, when they were the only way up and down the wet and wild Pacific coast.
I say "this very beach" but the beach I've been running on is called Washaway Beach. It's the fastest eroding shoreline in North America. What is beach now was once land, just a few years ago. Hundreds of feet of coastline a year disappear into the ocean, houses that were once well inland now stand tipped nearly over the edge of the sandy bank, the entire town of North Cove (church, coast guard station, cemetery) occupied a sandy peninsula now entirely underwater, where Pacific waves break at low tide, the graves moved inland, bones and headstones and all. Where I run this year will be ocean next year, the edge moving inexorably inland.
So what beach do I run on? Do I run on James Swan's beach? Where is the edge?
This time of year the shorebirds are just beginning to return from their far northern nesting grounds, some to stay here for the winter, others to go south south south, unimaginably far south. They're tired. Today I saw a whole group resting beside the waves, little white balls of feathers, heads tucked in, a gull presiding over them. I run a long way around the shorebirds. The last thing they need is to have to fly unnecessarily, after what they've been through. I cringe when I see a dog on the beach, joyously chasing them.
Right now it's all semipalmated plovers and sanderlings, the plovers gazing meditatively off into the middle distance, the sandlerings running like wind-up toys back and forth from one good feeding area to another, flying up together like a school of silvery fish flickering in the air. It took me about a half an hour to move slowly slowly up to a group of sanderlings today, to get close enough to see what they were with my small binoculars, but slow enough not to spook them.
This is why I don't want to spook them - the plovers have just arrived from their nesting grounds in the Arctic and subarctic, and they're headed south for the winter. Some of them are headed to....hang on to your hat here....Patagonia. More of the sanderlings stay around for the winter, but they nest even farther north, only in the High Arctic above the Arctic Circle, and some of them migrate 5,000 miles or more to South America. This is serious flying for birds smaller than a robin. I don't even travel that far, wanderer that I am.
So the shorebirds and I share the beach, all of us travelers, here for a little while before we head south, and the beautiful Caspian terns fly overhead staring into the water and croaking "like a crow being strangled" (as a friend of mine described them). When it's windy the dry sand moves in a fine sheet across the hard-packed wet sand, and the effect is mesmerizing, like running in a shallow desert river.